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Tidings of Comfort and Joy

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Tate moved with predatory grace, pausing several feet from his target. At the end of the next aisle, Bo, her face screwed up in concentration, was walking slowly along the shelf, running her finger across the spines of the books as she hunted for something specific. Tate hefted his weapon, stealthily acquired from the children's section nearby, and waited for his moment. As he watched, Bo stopped and pulled out one of the books in front of her, flipping it open. With a grin, Tate made his move, circling behind his daughter and then swooping the red-and-green elf down to rest on her shoulder with a high-pitched cackle.

"And what are you up to, my pretty?"

Bo's wide-eyed jump was very satisfying.

"Tate!"

"What?" he asked innocently.

"First of all, you scared me. And second--" Bo pulled the stuffed elf from his hand and waggled it in front of his face accusingly. "--that's an elf, not a witch."

"I never said it was a witch."

"No, but you cackled. Elves don't cackle."

"This elf does," Tate said. "It also reports back to Santa Claus if you do anything naughty. Like talking back to your father."

Bo rolled her eyes. "There's no such thing as Santa Claus." The elf was set on a shelf.

"You're never going to get any presents with that attitude," Tate said, ignoring the shred of wistful disappointment at her words. He hadn't really expected Bo to still believe; he certainly hadn't at her age. But it would have been nice to have been able to do for his daughter some of the things his mother had done for him. "So what are you looking at?" He tugged the book out of Bo's hand. "The Sea and Civilisation: A Maritime History of the World. Pretty heavy reading for a ten-year-old."

"It's for Milton," Bo said. "He likes history."

"Well, that definitely sounds historical," Tate said.

Bo shook her head. "It's not the right one," she said, reclaiming the book and replacing it on the shelf. "It has to be perfect."

"Perfection's a pretty high standard to set for yourself, kid," Tate said.

Bo shrugged and resumed her search. "How did you celebrate Christmas when you were a kid?" she asked over her shoulder.

"Oh, the usual," Tate said. "Lights. Presents. Turkey. At least until my mom died."

And then there had been nothing, and soon enough he'd been running the streets and too busy to care.

"Your dad was too upset to celebrate after that," Bo said with eerie certainty.

"Maybe," he said uncomfortably. Reconciliation or not, he wasn't too eager to revisit either his childhood or his relationship with his father. It was one of the reasons he'd decided against inviting his father to spend Christmas with them. Bo, surprisingly, hadn't pushed him on it. Tate was hoping that was because she was distracted by the idea of getting to see Winter and Channing again, and not because she'd issued a secret invitation without telling him. He decided it was time to change topics. "So what did you get for me?"

Bo grinned at him. "You'll have to wait and see."

"Unless I find your hiding place."

"You won't." Bo started to skip to the next aisle, then stopped mid-hop, gaze swinging around like a lighthouse lamp, honing in on a lost-looking man in a dark suit who was perusing a stack of boardgames in the children's section. With a smile, she headed toward him. Tate sighed, and followed, hanging back a bit so as not to cramp her style.

"Your son doesn't like boardgames," Bo said.

The man didn't quite jump, but it was close. "What?"

"Your son is Adam right?" Bo said patiently. "He doesn't like boardgames.

"Do you know him?"

"Kind of. Adam likes baseball. You could buy him a book about that. Or buy some tickets and take him to a game."

"Okay," the man said, clearly puzzled. "Thanks."

"It's going to be okay," Bo said, touching his hand. "You'll find your way back to him."

"That's your good deed done for the day," Tate said as they headed back toward the history section. "What do you say we find Winter's gift and get out of here?"

"Sounds good," Bo said.

***

The internet, Tate decided as he clicked on the Butterball site, really was a wonderful resource. Especially when your daughter was demanding a traditional Christmas dinner, and all you remembered about cooking a turkey was the importance of defrosting it well in advance. He checked the cooking time against the weight, and nodded. If he got it in now, they could eat at a reasonable hour.

With the turkey in, he headed back to the living room of the small house where he and Bo were staying. Bo was chatting with Winter and Channing, apparently updating them on her experience of being enrolled in a regular school.

"It sounds like you're enjoying it," Winter said.

Bo nodded. "It's nice just being normal."

"I'm sure it is," Winter said, standing up. "Excuse me for a second, sweetheart." He left Bo to Channing, and came over to Tate. "May I speak to you for a moment, Mr. Tate?"

"Sure," Tate said, leading him back into the kitchen. "What's up?"

"Bo seems to be doing very well," Winter said. "You should be proud."

"I am."

"I'm just...I'm a little worried about her insistence on wanting to be normal," Winter said.

"Of course she wants to be normal," Tate said. "What's wrong with that?"

"What's wrong is that she isn't normal," Winter said. "Bo is extraordinary. And I'm worried that if she spends her life trying to fight who and what she is, she's going to end up miserable. The sooner she comes to terms with her gifts, the better off she'll be. You need to help her with that."

"I help her all the time," Tate protested. "I never stop her when she does one of her freaky things. Bo knows I have her back on this stuff."

"Yes," Winter said, "but it might still be helpful if you didn't refer to her abilities as 'freaky things.' Let her know that her gifts are a blessing, not a curse."

Tate wasn't convinced of the blessing part, but he reluctantly conceded that Winter might have a point. Bo couldn't stop being who she was, couldn't stop helping people wherever she went. As much as Tate wanted her to be normal--for her sake, not for his--normalcy wasn't really in the cards for them. It might be time to let Bo know that.

"All right. I'll see what I can do."

"Thank you," Winter said. He wandered over to the oven, peering through it at the turkey. "And how is everything else? The house looks very cozy, and I know Bo is enjoying school. How is your job going?"

"It's a job," Tate said with a shrug. "Best part about it is that no one asks any questions."

"Good, good," Winter said. "It must be nice being able to stay in one place for a while."

"Sure," Tate said.

"Milton, Tate." Bo popped her head in the doorway. "You promised we could open presents as soon as the turkey was in. Come on!"

"Guess we'd better go," Tate said as Bo disappeared again. "Wouldn't want to keep her waiting."

Winter smiled as they headed back toward the living room. "No. We certainly wouldn't."

Tate eyed the stack of presents piled beside Bo doubtfully. "It's a good thing we're staying in one place for a while," he muttered. "We'd never fit all that stuff in the car." He hung back a bit, feigning a nonchalance he didn't feel as Bo opened first Channing's gift--clothing, and Tate silently thanked Channing for sparing him from having to handle that himself--and then Winter's gift--a very grown-up-looking paint set--and finally, Tate's own gift to her. He held his breath as she eyed the long box with a curious expression, then meticulously began peeling up the taped-down edges, careful not to tear the paper. Tate resisted the urge and step in and start tearing, forcing himself to wait.

"A telescope!" Bo exclaimed delightedly when she finally peeled the paper off. She got up and flung her arms around him. "Thank you, Tate!"

"Yeah, well, I saw you looking at them in the store," Tate said, returning the hug. He felt a flush of relief that he'd guessed right, and couldn't resist casting a triumphant glance at Channing and Winter. See, he thought, I can do this parenting thing.

Winter gave him a silent nod of approval. Yes, his gaze seemed to say, you can.

***

They had just finished dinner when Tate's cellphone buzzed. He glanced down at it absently, and then froze at the sight of the number.

"Excuse me," he said, pushing back his chair and standing up. He waited until he was in the kitchen before he answered. "Hi, Pop."

"Billy."

He leaned back against the counter, trying to calm the churning in his stomach. It seemed like Bo's magic could only do so much in undoing years of neglect and hardship. "How'd you get this number?"

"Bo called me last week."

"Of course she did." He should have known Bo couldn't leave well enough alone. "What's up?"

There was an awkward pause. "I...uh, just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas."

"Really."

"Is that so hard to believe?"

"A little," Tate said, memories of Christmases past streaming through his mind. All the empty years without his mother, made doubly empty by a father who'd barely been there.

"Yeah, well, I knew this was a mistake," his father grumbled. "Look, I have to--"

He was too upset to celebrate after your mom died. "Pop, wait. Look...it's, it's good to hear from you. Are you, uh, doing anything for the holiday?"

"Not much. Just the usual. You?"

The usual. Tate could picture that vividly. A bottle of whiskey and an empty house. Somehow it seemed doubly sad in the face of what Tate himself had this year.

"Turkey, tree, presents," he said. "The whole shebang. Bo insisted."

"I was going to get her something," his father said, "but I didn't know where to send it. Hell, until last week, I didn't even know how to reach you."

"I'll text you our address," Tate said. "You can mail her something, if you want to."

"Maybe I'll do that. I'd better let you go. Get back to it."

"All right. Merry Christmas, Pop."

"Merry Christmas, Billy."

Tate stared at the phone in his hand for a moment, then put it away and grabbed his coat. He could hear Bo in the other room, trying to convince Winter and Channing to help her set up her telescope. She'd be fine for a few minutes, he decided, and he needed to clear his head. Damn that kid anyway, stirring things up just when he thought they'd been settled. She even had him feeling sorry for the old man now. He pulled on his hat and headed outside, breath condensing in front of his face.

He was near the end of the block when he first noticed the dark van following closely behind him. Half wondering if he was being paranoid, Tate picked up his pace. The van sped up too. Tate cursed under his breath, and began speed-walking back toward the house. He was nearly there when the van sped ahead of him and stopped abruptly, its doors opening to spew forth three black-clad figures.

Tate didn't wait for them to attack. He struck first, landing a blow in the first guy's stomach and then swinging around to tackle the second guy. He knocked him to the ground and followed it up with a vicious kick, then turned to the third guy, only to have the first opponent grab him from behind. Tate kicked back and missed, giving the man behind him room to jerk him back further. The first guy came up in front of him, raising his arm. Tate braced for the blow, but it didn't come. Instead. another figure appeared, knocking down the man in front with graceful ease. Tate used the distraction to wriggle free, turning and knocking down the man behind him. The other figure--Channing, he realized--moved so that she stood back-to-back with him, ready to fight another round, but the attackers were already fleeing, van pulling away from the curb.

Tate leaned over and rested his hands on his knees, breathing hard. "Thanks," he said to Channing, who looked far more composed than he felt.

"No problem," she said easily.

She looked over toward the house, and Tate followed her gaze. In the doorway, he could see his daughter looking toward them, Winter standing behind her with his hands on her shoulders.

"We're going to have to move again," Tate said, thinking of Bo's reaction to that news.

"Probably," Channing agreed. "But we can worry about that later. Let's get you inside."

The rest of the evening was subdued, a pale shadow of the earlier festivity, with Channing and Winter both stepping out occasionally to place calls.

"We think it was someone from Orchestra," Winter told Tate privately. "We've been tracking where those employees ended up and one or two of them have found even less savoury places of employment. We suspect at least one of them shared their knowledge of Bo with their new employer. We're following up on that."

It was a possibility Tate hadn't even considered. He'd been so sure they'd be safe without Skouras after Bo. "So why come after me rather than Bo?"

"You and I both know how hard it is for people to take Bo against her will," Winter said. "And that will continue to be true--the older she gets, the stronger she'll become. I suspect they thought that once they had you, they'd be able to control Bo more easily. Or they may have thought they could use you to lure her out."

"So I'm basically a big liability for her," Tate said.

Winter shook his head. "No, Mr. Tate. You're her biggest source of strength."

Which was oddly comforting in its way, even if Tate only half-believed it.

"We're going to need to move."

"I know," Winter said. "We'll need to find out how they learned where you are before we settled you somewhere else long-term, so you're probably going to be moving around again for the next little while. But we can worry about that in the morning. I don't think they'll be back tonight."

That night's tuck-in wasn't quite what he'd hoped for given the day.

Bo looked up at him, face pale in the darkness. "I'm sorry, Tate."

"For what?" he asked, pulling up her blanket.

"It's my fault they came after you. If I were normal, this wouldn't have happened."

Tate sat down on her bed. "Hey, if you were normal, you wouldn't be you. You wouldn't be the Bo that I love."

That won him a small smile. But only a small one. "You're always going to be in danger because of me."

He remembered his conversation with Winter--naming himself a liability--and wanted to laugh. They were both right, of course, but Winter was right too. They were stronger together. "I'd be dead without you," Tate said firmly. "I was in prison, remember? And the only reason Winter broke me out was because of you. Bo, none of this is your fault. You can't help being who you are, and you aren't responsible for other people's choices."

"I know, but--"

"This is not your fault," Tate repeated.

"We're going to have to move again," Bo said.

"I know," Tate said. "That's okay. I didn't really like the winters here anyway. Too much snow. Maybe we can get them to send us south next time."

She smiled again, this time a little more widely.

"Ixtapa?" she asked in a half-whisper.

"You never know," Tate said. He ruffled her hair. "Go to sleep, okay? We'll worry about it in the morning." He got up and headed toward her door, then paused in the doorway and turned back. "And Bo--you're extraordinary. That's a good thing. Okay?"

She nodded and pulled Stanley closer. "Okay. 'Night, Tate."

"'Night."

He closed the door gently behind him and went downstairs to start packing.