Author's Note: I really appreciate all the reviews, favorites and follows my stories have garnered this year. This short tale is the best way I know to thank you all. Set a few years in the past, it examines another Christmas. No chapters on this one; it is a one shot. As always, looking forward to your reviews. I'll see you virtually, sometime in 2015.

Callen vowed from now on everyone got gift certificates for Christmas as he struggled to get a firm grip on the oversized, gaily wrapped present he was attempting to carry into Sam's house. As the awkward, slippery gift started slithering towards the ground once more, the agent let loose with a few uncomplimentary phrases in Russian. Readjusting his hold on the huge box, he slowly inched forward towards the Hanna's, decorated front porch. As he approached the stoop, the wreath adorned door opened revealing Sam dressed in black jeans and a form-fitting, bright red henley; Sam's idea of a Christmas outfit.

The big guy had a twinkle in his eye and a big grin on his face as he watched his over-burdened partner struggle up the two steps under the weight of the package. "Wow, what a big box you have there Santa Claus. I wonder what it could be?"

Callen dropped the box on the porch as he scowled at Sam. "You know exactly what it is you conniving SOB. You suckered me into buying it for your daughter. What you failed to mention was it was the size of a small elephant.

Sam's face assumed a facade of pure innocence. "Are you saying super-agent G. Callen was deceived by lowly me? That I put one over on you? Wait; let me grab my phone and video this historic moment."

Once again Callen uttered a few phrases in Russian best left untranslated before switching back to English. "How about a hand here, partner."

Tempted to stand there and clap, Sam decided that might be pushing things too far so instead he reached out and easily wrapped his long arms around the ungainly present. Callen happily stepped aside and relinquished the gift.

Turning, Sam headed into the house with Callen trailing behind. "This isn't heavy, G."

"Didn't say it was heavy," he replied as he closed the door behind them. "Awkward would more be the word. Well, unless you have the arms of an orangutan.

Sam carried it into the living room where he placed the gift on the floor near the festively decorated Christmas tree. Callen added a few more presents to the pile from a bag he had slung over his back, before laying a bouquet of flowers on the coffee table.

"You need to work out more, G. You're getting soft and flabby."

Making a rueful face, Callen gave the bicep on his right arm an unconscious rub. "In your dreams, pal. No, I take that back. I better not be in your dreams. That would be downright creepy. Like the fact you use baby powder."

Sam ignored the jibe. "Strength training and endurance. You and me. 1 January."

Callen shook his head as he moved closer to inspect a few ornaments on the real Christmas tree which was taking up a good piece of real-estate in the Hanna hacienda. "Ah, no. I am in perfect shape thank you." Callen reached out with tentative fingers and gently turned around one of the glass ornaments. "This looks old. German," he observed. The bauble in question was a faded, glass, rather ugly, pink bulldog.

"It is. Passed down thru the family. My grandfather got it when he was stationed in Europe during the War. My mother gave it to me the Christmas after I joined the Navy. Would have been more appropriate, I suppose, if I had stayed with the family tradition of joining the Marines. Every year it gets a place of honor, on our tree. One day it will go to Aiden."

Callen let the ornament gently fall back into place as his eyes scanned the rest of the tree, coming to rest on the star at the top. "Traditions are highly over-rated," he said a little cynically.

Sam tucked his hands in the back pocket of his jeans. "Guessing you didn't have any holiday traditions growing up," Sam surmised, though not unkindly.

"Holidays weren't all that different than any other days. Hope you got fed and avoid getting beaten," Callen replied in a casual, off-the-cuff manner.

Sam hated when his partner tossed off events from his childhood as if they were the norm. However, before he could say anything, Michelle strolled into the room. "Merry Christmas G," she greeted him warmly.

Callen walked over to her, accepted her hug and gave her a quick kiss on the side of the cheek. She was dressed in black jeggings and a holiday shirt. "You look lovely, as always Madame," he complimented her then added another compliment in French, which he knew she was fluent in. He went over to the table, picked up the bouquet of flowers he had placed there earlier, and presented them, with a little flourish, to his hostess.

Michelle broadly smiled at him, and took the flowers. "Flatter. I don't understand why you are still single."

"I can give you a list," Sam interjected. "Do you want it in alphabetical or ranked by level of annoyance?"

Callen threw an annoyed glance in Sam's direction. "Nice. Way to have my back there, buddy. You don't want to get into a comparison of annoying habits, Mr. Clean."

"What? What is wrong with liking a neat and orderly environment?" Sam questioned his partner.

"Ah-huh. That's one way to think about it." However, the look on Callen's face clearly indicated that was not the way he saw it.

At that point, Aiden walked into the living room carrying a basketball. "Sir!" he said pleasantly strolling over to shake Callen's hand. Aiden, like his father was tall and had a firm, no nonsense handshake for a young man his age.

"Good to see you Aiden. How long you home for?"

Tossing the ball from hand to hand he responded, "Two weeks. Anyone interested in a game?" Showing off a bit, he spun the basketball on top of his finger aka Harlem Globetrotter style.

Sam reached over and grabbed the spinning basketball. "The cadet has been playing some b-ball at the academy. Think's he hot stuff. But his old man already beat him. Big time." With a swift thrust, he sent the ball back to his son with a two hand pass which Aiden easily caught.

"Oh no you don't," Michelle scolded her men. "You take that outside. I won't have my tree destroyed by your high-jinxes."

Walking between his partner and his son, Sam draped an arm over each one of their shoulders. "Why don't you challenge Uncle Callen to a game of one-on-one, Aiden. That is unless you," he looked pointedly at his partner, "want to concede now."

Sam knew Callen wouldn't back down from a challenge though he also knew his friend would try to come up with an excuse not to play; he wasn't disappointed.

Callen maneuvered himself out from under Sam's arm and took a step to the side. "What about dinner? Wouldn't want to mess up Michelle's timetable." Hoping for reinforcement, he expectantly looked at Michelle.

"Honey, don't worry. I just put that bird in the oven. It will be at least three hours until that tom is done."

Callen quickly glanced over and saw his partner grinning from ear to ear. "That so. Huh. Sam specifically told me to be here at 1:00 sharp."

Sam removed his arm from Aiden's shoulders and retook the orange basketball from him. "Wanted you to have some quality time with the Hanna family before dinner."

Callen sucked on his lower lip as he slowly nodded his head. "Quality time," he echoed. "I see. I'm kind of tired."

"You can't be tired. You don't sleep and if you don't sleep you can't be tired."

"Think your logic is backwards there, Sam."

Sam looked from Michelle to Aiden and finally at Callen. "What is logical is you are afraid my baby-boy here is going to wipe the court with you." Sam reached out and tousled the boy's short hair. He and his son were almost the same height.

"My car is in the driveway. Blocking the hoop," Callen offered up next.

Sam smiled sweetly. "Move it. To the street. In fact, give me the keys. I'll do it."

"What if it gets hit being parked on the street and not in your nice safe driveway? Hetty will kill me. You know she is capable."

"No worries G. I'll explain it to her."

Callen was running out of excuses. He really didn't want to play and he was surprised Sam was so insistent, considering what had happened a few weeks ago.

With a sigh, Sam turned to his son again. "Sorry Aiden. I know you really want to play, but apparently your Uncle Callen isn't up to it."

Callen winced, hating the thought he might actually be disappointing Aiden by not playing. What the hell, he thought. I've done stupider things in my life. Without warning, he closed the distance between him and Sam and yanked the ball from Sam's grasp. Without preamble, he spun the ball up on his index finger, then walked it across his other fingers and finally over to his other hand.

"Show off," Sam groused.

"Oh yeah? You haven't seen anything yet." However, before he could do anything else with the ball, Michelle grabbed it out of his hands.

"Outside. Now!" she commanded. Sheepishly, the men did as they were told. With a glare, she handed the ball to Callen as he passed by.

"So wanna play, Uncle Callen?" Aiden inquired once they were outside.

"Well, I'm not exactly dressed for it." Sam rolled his eyes and mouthed the word 'excuses'. "But give me a minute to change and sure, you're on." Callen headed out to his car, popped the trunk and grabbed his gym bag. On the way back he threw the keys at Sam. "Safe place, please."

Sam moved the car into the street. A few minutes later Callen was changed and back outside.

Aiden cockily figured he had this in the bag. He had the reach and the height over Callen, not to mention the age. He knew his father's partner was fit, but he was still confident he would easily win this match. Graciously, he offered the ball to Callen first, who accepted it.

"Ready?" the shorter man asked as he lazily dribbled the ball, switching it from right hand to left as he warmed up.

"Bring it on!" Aiden crowed and before he had even finished his sentiment, Callen was around him, up to the basket and sinking his first shot. Aiden spun around just in time to see the ball drop out the bottom of the net.

With a smug grin, Callen rounded up the ball and passed it to Aiden. The two men moved back into position again, this time with Callen guarding. Aiden started dribbling, and then faked a move to the right, but Callen wasn't fooled. His life often depended on his ability to read the minutest body language of the person pointing a gun at him and since he was still living, it spoke to his expertise. Callen saw Aiden telegraph his intentions and took advantage of it to gain control of the ball and score another point.

After Callen scored four more points, Aiden realized this wasn't going to be a cake walk after-all and he started to reconsider his playing style to take advantage of his height and his reach. The boy was successful in scoring the next three points by using his height to his advantage, blocking balls and knocking them away.

Callen called a time out and they both greedily guzzled the water Kamran had brought from the house. Sam called Aiden over and out of ear shot of Callen started to give his son some advice on how to win. Sam had played against Callen many times in the gym, so he knew a lot of his partner's favorite tricks.

"No fair coaching him, Sam," Callen called out seeing the two conspiring. "No one is helping me."

Kamran piped up. "I'll help you, Uncle Callen."

Aiden had to turn his head away so his baby sister wouldn't see him laughing at the idea of her 'coaching' someone on a game she didn't even know how to play. Even Sam had trouble keeping a straight face.

Callen, however, wasn't going to burst this little girl's bubble, so he dropped onto one knee next to her. "What's your advice, Coach Kam?"

The little girl got a very serious look on her face as she chewed on the end of her thumb. Finally, she came up with her advice for him. "Win or lose it's how you play the game."

Callen sat back on his heels and digested her advice. The kid was right; it was about how you played the game. An idea percolated in his brain as a smug little smile crossed his face. Kamran's recommendation was spot on and he was going to use it, though perhaps not in the spirit the little girl had intended. The agent was sure when Kam was taught that phrase, the moral of the story was to display good sportsmanship at all times. That was a noble goal and Callen agreed that was how sports should be played. However, this was not a sport; it was a one on one, pick-up game where he was clearly at a disadvantage, though he would never admit that, especially to Sam or Aiden. He glanced over at the Hanna men and they were laughing as they gave sly glances in his direction. That made up his mind. He was going to do his best to win this match.

Having decided on his strategy, he stood up, walked over to where the father and son were standing and swatted the ball out of Sam's hand. "Let's go cadet. I need to finish mopping the floor with you so we can go eat."

Aiden's bright white teeth flashed in the sunlight. With a little salute he replied, "You're on, Sir."

Wanting to lull his opponent into a false sense of security, Callen let the boy score the next few points. Then, as Aiden was setting up for a layout shot, Callen checked him hard, stole the ball and sunk it thru the hoop.

"Hey!" Sam called out a little disturbed. "That was a bit rough."

Callen ignored his partner and taunted Aiden. "Was that too rough Marine?"

"Sir, no, sir!" he snapped back.

Callen gave a little evil smile over his shoulder to his frowning partner on the sidelines. Then he focused back on his opponent. The next four points went to him, as he used every dirty trick in the book. Growing up the way he did and always being on the shorter side, he knew a lot of tricks. He also kept up a running banter to keep Aiden off balance with a series of mocking comments, insults and the like; psyching out his opponent.

Sam kept groaning from the sidelines and finally called for a timeout.

"You don't get to call a time out, Sam," Callen complained though he was secretly glad to have a few minutes to recoup. His bicep, which had been grazed by a bullet a few weeks earlier, was really throbbing. He gave it inconspicuous massage, in an attempt to make it feel better.

Aiden walked over to his father. "You're letting him win, Aiden. Don't be afraid to assert yourself. Push him back."

Aiden glanced over at Callen, and then turned back to his father. "So what you are saying is if I want to win, I need to play his game."

Sam clapped his son on the shoulder. "Exactly. And here are a few things that you might find useful. Callen is right-handed but to throw people off, he tends to break to the left. Anticipate.

Aiden nodded thoughtfully staring at Callen while listening to his Dad.

"Get physical. Keep him moving. And most important, he is running a mind game on you. Return the pleasure."

"You done jawing over there? I'm hungry!" Callen, who had the ball, dribbled it impatiently.

A gleam came to his son's eye and Sam was sure this was now going to be a very interesting game.

"All rested or do you need more time?" Aiden challenged Callen as he walked back onto the court.

Callen's blue eyes bore down on Aiden's intense brown ones. He said nothing but gave the ball to Aiden via a hard pass.

The next ten minutes of play were brutal to watch as both men played a very rough, no-hold-barred game. The sweat was pouring off the two and their shirts were soaked. Taunts and jibes filled the air and Sam sent Kamran back into the house as things got a little too rough.

As Sam watched from the sidelines, he realized that perhaps his advice had been absorbed a little too much by his son. Aiden was playing all out and Callen, never one to back down from a challenge, was answering in kind. Sam did notice his partner was a bit off his game and he wandered why.

As Aiden's confidence grew, and his moves grew bolder, Callen was starting to really get pummeled. The worse one was on a jump shot where Aiden blocked Callen with a sound body slam. Though it wasn't his intention, Aiden caught Callen perfectly and sent the smaller, lighter man flying sideways onto the cement driveway.

Callen had the wits about him to tuck and roll, having a lot of experience in being hurdled thru the air since it always seemed he got stuck with the taller, heavier, more muscular bad guy. Still, when he slowly climbed back on his feet, he knee and elbow bore minor scrapes. It was at that point, of course, that Michelle stepped out of the house and saw what was going on; it was clear by the expression on her face she did not approve.

"What are you doing?" she demanded. "Kamran said her Daddy told her it wasn't appropriate for her to be outside. Would someone like to explain?"

The three men stood there, staring everywhere but at Michelle who was standing on the porch with her hands on her slim hips. "I'm waiting for an answer."

"She's your wife, Sam," Callen hissed at his partner. "You have to answer her."

Aiden nodded his head in concurrence, siding with Callen. "Yea, Dad."

Sam glanced over at his wife who clearly was not amused. Callen rolled his eyes and nudged Aiden in the arm. "Whipped."

Sam scowled at Callen before smiling at his wife. "Dinner smells great honey. All the way out here, I can smell that heavenly aroma."

Closing his eyes for a moment and shaking his head Callen whispered to Aiden, "Wrong move," and he was right.

"Samuel Adams Hanna. Don't you try to sweet talk your way out of answering my question."

Callen gave Aiden a 'see I told you so' look.

"Michelle, we're just playing some basketball. Good clean fun and exercise. Building up an appetite." Sam gave his wife another congenial smile.

"Again with the food," Callen hissed at Sam. "Lay off the food references. I'm not eating at McDonalds today because you piss off your wife."

Michelle didn't have time to be standing out here dealing with this; she had a dinner to attend to so she laid down the law. "Aiden. What's the score, baby?"

"Tied Mom. 20-20."

Callen gave a sideways glance at Aiden, cocking his head. "Are you sure? I think I'm up by two."

"Callen!" Michelle warned.

"Maybe not," came the swift reply from the man who knew better than to argue Sam's wife about anything.

"Ok, here's how it is going to go. Next point declares the winner. Then you both hit the showers. I'm not going to have your smelly, sweaty bodies at my Christmas dinner," and with that she marched back into the house.

Sam went and retrieved the ball which had rolled to a halt in the lush green grass that flanked the driveway. He passed it to Callen. "You heard the lady. Last point. Winner takes all." He moved back to the edge of the drive and folded his arms over his chest.

The three point line on a regulation basketball court is 23 ft., 9 inches from the hoop. Callen dribbled the ball up to that imaginary line on Sam's driveway. Turning, Callen kept dribbling the ball, as Aiden took up a guarding position between him and the hoop. The boy fully expected Callen to try to break left around him and he was prepared to intercept, bouncing lightly on his toes. What happened next astounded him. Callen pulled the hail-Mary stunt of all time. He suddenly stopped dribbling, and with what had to be a Herculean effort on his part, attempted to make the basket from where he was standing.

As the ball arced across the bright blue sky, everyone held their breath until the orange orb bounced against the clear backboard. However, it hit low enough that it did not ricochet off, but instead started circling the rim. It went around twice and you could have cut the tension with a knife as all eyes were glued to the circling ball. Finally, it dropped down into the net and out the bottom.

Callen gave a mighty holler as Sam and Aiden stared at each other in disbelief.

"That was crazy!" Aiden sputtered. "The chance of making that shot was astronomical. It didn't make sense to do that."

"You want a good piece of advice, Aiden?" Callen asked though his eyes were locked on Sam. "In the end, unpredictability is what keeps you alive." With that, he strolled to the house calling out, "dibs on the shower," over his shoulder.

Aiden looked at his father. "It wasn't a logical move, Dad."

"No, it wasn't. But sometimes illogical is your best move." Sam draped his arm around his son's shoulder and gave him a quick hug before quickly releasing him. "Your Mom's right. You do stink."

"She always is," Aiden agreed as the two men walked towards the house. "If Uncle Callen is so unpredictable, how do you work as a team?" Working as a team, was something the academy stressed.

Sam considered the question, which was a good one. "I guess I can read him better than most. I can almost sense when he is going to take a sudden turn, therefore I can keep up. And in the end, I know he will never let me down, always have my back and that makes his unpredictability, predictable."

"Not sure I am following you, Dad." The two men mounted the porch and headed into the house.

"Callen is Callen son. Leave it at that." It was the best Sam could do. No one could really explain Callen.

()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()

Fresh from the shower and dressed in grey slacks and a teal blue dress-shirt, cuffed to the forearms of course, Callen strolled back into the living room where Michelle and Kamran were sitting on the couch. In her hand, Michelle was cradling a glass of red wine and she motioned to Callen to pour himself a glass from the wine bottle on the table. Callen picked up the bottle with his left hand and examined the label as he walked over to where Michelle sat on the couch. "Refill?" he offered which she graciously accepted. Then he moved back to the table where the wine goblets were, filled a glass, placed the wine bottle back on the table, picked up the glass with his left hand, strolled over to an overstuffed chair, gave the wine a little swirl before taking a sip and nodding in appreciation. He set the glass on the table to the right of the chair before sitting down.

Michelle was no slouch when it came to observation and she had a theory which she put to a small test. "Like it? The gentleman at the store recommended it. Said it had a hint of two holiday spices. Can you detect them?" Callen's wine glass was setting on the occasional table to his right. She was very curious to see which hand he would use to pick it up; logic dictated the right hand since it was closer; to use the left would be an awkward, cross body maneuver. Callen was right-handed so there was absolutely no reason for him to use his other hand, yet he did. Michelle watched as he reached across, picked up the goblet and took a sip.

His face was a mask of concentration as he tried to find the tastes Michelle had hinted at. "Guess my palette is not that sophisticated. It's good, very good," he took another sip, "but holiday flavors, no clue."

"Ok, G." Callen went instantly alerted based on the tone of her voice. She was about to throw him to the mat, big time, and he had no idea why. "Here's a question I think you can answer. Is there something wrong with your right arm?" She paused a beat and as he opened his mouth to reply, she added, "and that 'no' that is forming on your lips," she shook her head, "isn't the right answer."

Callen quickly shut his mouth which was about to say no and debated his now limited options. There was the whole truth, or he could dance around the topic for a while and hope somehow Michelle got distracted or he could do his favorite, the modified truth. After internally weighing all the options, he went for door number three. "I'm sure Sam told you," he started in a voice that spoke of long-term suffering, "that my right arm was grazed by a bullet a few weeks ago."

A small smile crept across Michelle's face at Callen's dismissive description of the event. She now recalled that Sam had mentioned that Callen had been hurt a few weeks ago. However, from Sam's telling of the incident, the bullet pierced, not grazed Callen's arm and had damaged the muscle enough that Callen had been instructed to quell his usage of it while it healed. As usual, she noted, Callen was not following medical advice.

"Grazed huh?"

With sincerity, and solemn gaze Callen nodded yes.

Since Karman was sitting next to her on the couch, she traded an impolite comment with Callen in French. The man at least had the decency to duck his head in embarrassment. Just who did he think he was trying to con? She wasn't as good as Sam, at reading him, but as a Mom, she had a built-in BS detector; it was ringing loud and clear. "So maybe playing basketball with my son wasn't such a good idea."

"Sam didn't stop me," Callen threw up as a defense.

"Huh, like either of you have the good sense to come in out of the rain."

Callen was saved from a further lecture by Kamran, who was bored, and tugged on her Mommy's sleeve. "When are we going to open presents, Mommy?"

"Presents?" Sam echoed walking into the living room and swopping his darling daughter up in his strong arms. He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. "What is this talk of opening presents? You know we do that after dinner, sweetie."

A pout appeared on the pretty little girl's face. "But that is an eternity from now." In his mind, Callen echoed the sentiment that dinner was too far away. He was starving and had expected they would eat at 1:00, or shortly thereafter, since that is when Sam had told him to arrive. It was now nearly 4:00, he hadn't eaten breakfast and his stomach was beginning to think his throat was cut.

Sam set his daughter on the ground before walking over to stand by his lovely wife who was still perched on the couch. "I don't know Mommy. Do you think we can break traditions and let the Princess here open one present before dinner?"

Michelle smiled indulgently at the little girl who was practically vibrating in anticipation of hearing her mother's decree. "I don't know. After all it is tradition..."

Karman bounced on her toes. "Please, please, please!" she pleaded.

The two parents smiled at each other before Sam mischievously turned to Callen. "What say you, Uncle Callen?"

All eyes in the room now focused on Callen, to include Aiden's, who had just entered the area. Callen was not really sure what answer was expected of him. If he said no, then Kamran would be very disappointed. If he said yes, he was afraid Sam would get on his case at a later date; probably during a long and boring stakeout. Sam would feel obliged to explain, no lecture, him on the error of his ways and how it was wrong to forego tradition.

As his blue eyes slid back to Karman's face, he suddenly knew the right answer. He knew what it was like to be disappointed on Christmas; hell growing up he couldn't think of a single time he wasn't disappointed on the holiday. He would not do that to Karman. "I think it is a great idea Kam, to open a present."

The child crowed in delight and threw herself at her adopted Uncle, giving him a huge hug and covering his stubbly cheek with kisses.

"Since Uncle Callen agreed with you, I think you should open his gift," Sam slyly suggested. A quick glance at Sam told Callen he was missing something, but he had no idea what.

"The box? The big box? The box almost as big as me?" Karman's brown eyes tracked to the present she was describing.

"That's the one. From Uncle Callen," Sam agreed pointing to the large present Callen had wrestled into the house.

Absentmindedly, while he was trying to puzzle out what was going on in his partner's mind, Callen picked up his wine glass, in his left hand and took a long gulp.

"You spill that on my carpet, G, and you're going to learn the real meaning of chestnuts roasting on an open fire," she threatened.

Callen had no problem interpreting this situation. He knew she was referring back to their earlier conversation on his injured arm. "I'm using my left hand," he pointed out.

"Uh-huh. But you are right handed."

"I can shoot with either hand," Callen replied as if somehow that was germane to this conversation.

"That isn't a gun and my carpet will not look good with a red stain on it if you slip."

With a mischievous smile, Callen drained his glass then carefully set it on the table. "Problem solved." Michelle gave him an indulgent smile, though her eyes warned him to behave.

While the adults were sparring, Kamran had dragged the present into the middle of the room and was attacking it with vigor; bits of paper were flying thru the air like Christmas confetti. When she finally got enough paper off to identify what was in the box, her squealing increased in pitch and intensity.

"Yes! Yes! Yes! It's the house. Barbie's Dream House! It is exactly what I wanted. How did you know Uncle Callen? I was a little disappointed when Santa didn't bring it, not," she quickly added, "that I don't love what he brought. But I really, really, really wanted this house!"

Callen was a little surprised to hear the little girl mention she had asked Santa for the toy; Sam had practically ordered Callen to purchase it, not that he really minded. Callen didn't know what to buy a little girl and had been happy to have a suggestion, even if it was more like an order.

He glanced up at his partner and saw a saccharine smile on Sam's face. Apparently, he was still one step behind in Sam's scheme. "That was very nice of Uncle Callen. I'm sure he would be delighted to help you assemble it while dinner is cooking."

And there it was; the catch and he had swallowed it hook, line and sinker. "Assemble it?" Callen repeated numbly. "The box is huge. It's not already put together?" He stared in amazement at the carton, not believing it wasn't fully assembled.

Sam dug out his pocket knife, slit the top of the box and he and Kamran started pulling out the pieces; to Callen it seemed like hundreds of them. "Here's the instructions baby-doll. Give them to Uncle Callen." Sam raised his head and gave an evil grin to his still stunned partner. "He's gonna need them."

Numbly, Callen accepted the instruction book from Karman though it was more like the Encyclopedia Britannica. Thumbing thru it he found instructions in every language but English. However, given his language skills, that wasn't too disturbing. What was troubling was the length and breadth of what was required to fully assemble this dream house. He was pretty sure the instruction manual for assembling a F35-C Joint Strike Fighter wasn't as complicated.

Rising from his chair, he scooped up his wine glass, walked across to the bottle, refilled his goblet and then half-drained it. He was going to need it. "How long to dinner?" he asked Michelle, praying she said now.

Rising from the couch, she sweetly answered, "Probably another 2 hours." As she passed by him, she whispered in his ear, "I guess Sam failed to mention another Hanna family tradition, he who buys the toy has to put it together. Santa Sam didn't want to be up all night on Christmas Eve putting that thing together." Both of their eyes gravitated to the parts being strewn across the living room floor. "Drink up," she suggested as she left the room. "You're gonna need it."

Taking her sage advice, Callen drained his glass, set it on the table and walked back towards where Sam and Kamran were sitting on the floor. Sam rose to his feet as Callen drew near. "Whoa there big guy. Where are you going?" he questioned as Sam made ready to leave the room.

"Going to see if Michelle needs help in the kitchen."

"What about your partner needing help here?" he gestured towards the mounds of plastic pieces that somehow assembled into a three story pink nightmare that Barbie called home.

"You got this covered, G. You take things apart all the time and put them back together. This should be simple for you."

Sam wanted to laugh at the panic on Callen's face. "Not doll houses! I have never assembled a doll house."

The little girl looked up at him with her big brown eyes. "Dream house," she corrected. "Are you ready?"

Callen made one last plea to Sam. "Isn't this a Daddy daughter thing?"

Laughing, Sam shook his head emphatically no. "This is an all Uncle Callen thing who maybe, in the future, will remember not to be such a pain in the asset to his partner. Come on Aiden, let's go check on your Mom," With that, the two Hanna males left the room, one of them laughing all the way.

Karman was still staring at him with those huge brown eyes. "You are going to help me, aren't you Uncle Callen? I don't think I can do it by myself. I'm only six you know."

Callen was a bit older than six, but he wasn't sure he could put it together either. But his not disappointing a child at Christmas sentiment kicked in and he dropped to his knees on the floor. "Let's have at it."

()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()

An hour and a half later, Karman walked into the kitchen. "Mommy, I'm hungry. Can I have a sugar cookie, please? I promise it won't spoil my dinner. I know I will still be hungry."

"Sure, sweetie. The tin is on the table. But only one. And pick one out for Uncle Callen too." Michelle decided to go check on Callen and she left her daughter pouring over the cutout-shapes trying to determine which one she wanted and which one to bring to her favorite Uncle.

When Michelle entered the living room, she noted two things that gave her a pretty good idea of how things were progressing. The wine bottle that had been on the table was completely dry and Callen who was prone on the floor, his arms inserted in the dream house up to his elbows, was muttering, no she corrected, swearing in Russian. "How goes it, G?"

Stopping what he was doing, he pulled his hands out of the dreaded house and sat up. "Do you know I can hot-wire anything with wheels? Can fly a plane and a helicopter. Pick any lock, disarm a bomb and open a safe."

Michelle nodded along with the list but she failed to see where this conversation was headed.

"I once disarmed a Russian nuclear silo. By myself! But this house," he cursed in Russian, "it simply doesn't fit together. Pieces are missing. The wires for the damn light in the kitchen are too short. And the pink sticky wallpaper that goes everywhere..."

Karman wandered back into the room and held out a Christmas tree shaped sugar cookie for Callen. It was festively decorated with tons of green and red sugar. "I picked this one out especially for you. It has lots of sugar on it," which, Callen guessed, as he graciously accepted the cookie, meant it was the best one in a six-year-old's mind. He took the cookie and wolfed it down because he was starving and all that wine on an empty stomach had not been one of his better moves. He wondered if his inability to get the pieces of this stupid house to fit together had a direct correlation to the amount of wine he had consumed. Now, he was adding a sugar rush to top it off; brilliant move on his part. But he decided he didn't care. "Kam. How about grabbing me another cookie or two?"

The girl looked up at her mother and in a stage whisper mouthed, "Will it spoil his dinner, Mommy?"

With a little smile, Michelle shook her head no. "His tummy is bigger than yours. He'll be alright."

With a little clap of glee, she scampered back into the kitchen to commandeer two more cookies for her favorite Uncle. After making careful selections once again, she delivered them to her Uncle who, for a few minutes, was content to sit on the floor, next to the hell house and munch on the sweets.

Sam wandered into the room and saw Callen make the last cookie disappear. "What's going on here?"

"Coffee break," Callen mumbled around a mouthful of crumbs.

"I don't remember anyone offering to bring me a cookie," Sam teased his baby-girl.

"That's because you're not working like me," Callen sniped earning him an eye roll from Sam that went unnoticed by his daughter.

"I will be happy to get you a cookie, Daddy. Or even three like Uncle Callen had but don't worry, his tummy is big enough to hold them and still eat dinner," she informed her father.

"That it is," Sam smirked and suddenly Callen decided he had urgent business to attend to inside the doll house.

"Dinner is going to be a little later than anticipated," Michelle announced to the gang in the room. "The oven wasn't working right so things are taking a bit longer to cook."

Callen withdrew from the dream house. "Ah, how much longer?" his voice was filled with dread.

Michelle smiled, turned and started to leave the room. "Trust me, G. You will have plenty of time to finish your little project," she tossed back over her shoulder.

"Kam! Kam!" he yelled after the girl as she and her Dad also left the room. "Bring me another cookie. Make it two. I swear it won't spoil my dinner." Then with a frustrated sigh, he went back to assembling the Amityville horror house.

()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()

Finally, Callen got the last piece snapped into place and he sat back on his heels to admire his handiwork. It was a bright pink, three story, nightmare of plastic, but Karmen was thrilled and therefore he was happy. He crawled into the nearby overstuffed chair and closed his eyes. Exhaustion settled over him like a warm blanket and he happily gave into it. A long winter's nap was exactly what he needed before dinner.

He had no sooner closed his eyes when Sam walked into the room. "Hey Beauty and the Beast. Dinner is ready. Mommy said to wash up."

Karman eagerly jumped to her feet and skipped from the room, happy dinner was going to be served because after dinner came more presents!

Callen cracked open an eyelid. "You for real this time? Or is this like telling me to show up at 1:00 so I can entertain your kids by playing basketball with one and building a dollhouse with the other."

"Dream house, G," he corrected as he walked over and swatted Callen on the shoulder. "Get it right. Someone spent a lot of time and money coming up with that name."

"They should have used it to write a better instruction manual," he grumbled as he rose from the chair and followed Sam to the dining room.

Callen was about to sit down at the table when Karman walked into the dining room. "You can have the bathroom now to wash your hands, Uncle Callen."

He stopped his decent towards the chair, not an easy feat considering his exhaustion. Callen looked guiltily at the little girl, while part of his brain desperately tried to figure out how to get out of the task.

"Yes, Uncle Callen," the ever helpful Sam chimed in. "Go wash up or I'm going to tell my lovely wife."

"Tell me what?" she asked as she walked into the room carrying a bowl of mashed potatoes.

"Nothing," Callen swiftly said, taking the bowl from her and setting it on the table. "I'm on my way," he directed to his partner with a scowl.

A few minutes later, everyone was seated around the dining room table which was fully laden with a scrumptious feast. Callen felt a little hand worm its way into his left hand, and he remembered another Hanna family tradition. With care, not to aggravate his throbbing right arm any more than it already was from first playing basketball and then working on the dream house, Callen reached over and clasped Sam's hand who was seated on his right. When all at the table had joined hands, Sam gave a non-denominational blessing. "For friends and family. For peace and prosperity. For tolerance and kindness. For literature and music. For love and joy, we give thanks."

Sam gave Callen's hand a squeeze and his wife's a kiss before letting go. "This is a fantastic feast, Michelle," and everyone chimed in with their concurrence.

As the meal progressed, Sam noted that Callen was not lifting anything using his right arm. His partner was trying not to be obvious about it, but it was noticeable, especially when he had to do a rather awkward motion to try to pass something. About halfway thru the meal, Callen took the last of the mashed potatoes, and then offered to fill the bowl from the kitchen. Callen knew there was more because earlier he saw Michelle putting them into a crockpot to keep warm. Rising and grabbing the empty bowl with his left hand, he carried it into the kitchen.

Sam also rose from his chair and followed saying, "I'll help."

Once in the kitchen, Callen scanned the counter tops looking for the stainless crockpot. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Sam entering the kitchen. "I know we are partners, but I can do something's on my own, like putting mashed potatoes in a bowl."

"I'm here to supervise. Make sure you don't lick off the spoon or something."

"Ah-huh," Callen replied as he took the lid off the crockpot and peered inside. Placing the empty serving container next to the pot, he started spooning the warm, fluffy, potatoes into the bowl.

Sam walked over leaned against the counter near Callen and folded his arms over his chest. Callen immediately recognized Sam's stance and knew a lecture was coming; he wasn't disappointed.

"Notice you have been avoiding using your right arm, G."

"Have I? Didn't notice." He continued placing the potatoes in the serving bowl, which was covered in a holly pattern, until it was nearly full. After replacing the lid on the crockpot, he deliberately licked off the spoon he had used to transfer the potatoes. When he was done, he walked around Sam to put the dirty utensil in the sink. Heading back to grab the bowl and transport it to the dining room, he found Sam blocking his path.

"What's wrong with your arm and don't tell me nothing. I don't have time for your BS. My dinner's getting cold."

Callen deliberately stepped to the left, moving around Sam and back over to where the bowl of potatoes sat on the counter.

"Pick it up with your right hand. Prove me wrong," Sam demanded, turning to face Callen again.

Callen purposely held Sam with his gaze. "I can't. I injured it again. Playing basketball with your son. A game you pushed me into."

Suddenly Sam felt ashamed. He had forgotten about Callen's injury when he was goading him into playing ball with his son. "I am sorry, G. I forgot about your arm."

Callen dropped his eyes and gave a shrug. "No big deal. Besides, I really didn't want to disappoint Aiden."

Sam seemed lost in his thoughts for a moment. "I get that I pushed you into the game. I get why you felt you had to play even though you were hurt. What I don't get is why you played so hard. You were really pushing Aiden out there."

Callen leaned back against the counter, supporting his right arm with his left across his chest. "At that military academy you send him to, they teach him to play fair. By the rules. Take the high road. I get that. Mostly, it's a good thing. But in the real world, there is another side too where sometimes you have to step outside the box."

Sam shook his head. "That's not what they are taught in the academy. It is about discipline. Respect. Following orders. Teamwork. Honor."

"I know what they teach and why. But someday Aiden will be in a real-life situation, where his life is on the line. The ones that walk away from those conflicts are the ones that realize sometimes you have to bend the rules."

Sam looked thoughtfully at Callen. "Are you telling me that basketball game was about teaching Aiden to break the rules?"

Callen gave a little shrug and gazed out the window. "Kind of. There are times in life when you have to break the rules and live with whatever comes of it, good or bad." Callen paused, scrubbing a hand over his weary face and Sam had the distinct feeling he wasn't talking about Aiden anymore.

"He's a Hanna. From a long line of military men. He'll handle it."

With a half-smile, Callen pushed off the counter and picked up the bowl of mashed potatoes. "I'm sure he will. His old man isn't too much of a slouch." With that, he left the kitchen and returned to the table.

They ate until they were stuffed to the gills. Sam kept pressing food on Callen who happily obliged his partner for once by doing what he was told. By the time they were finished, Callen swore he had eaten more at this one meal than he had eaten in a whole month in some of his foster homes.

As a team, they all pitched in to help clean up the dishes and put the food away. Then they moved into the living room and the hectic event of present opening commenced. Callen was pleased to see the other gifts he had chosen went over as well as Karman's dream house. Michelle loved the necklace he had picked out, though technically the hot blond in the jewelry shop had played a large part in its selection. Callen got a great piece of jewelry for Michelle and when he had taken it out of the bag, he discovered there was a bonus; the saleswoman's phone number was on the receipt, followed by a smiley face and a suggestion to call her.

For Sam, he had picked up the latest sports-gadget-watch which monitored everything. Callen was pretty sure it would even tell Sam when he needed to pee. He knew his partner loved techno-gadgets and he was right; Sam was thrilled with his present.

Aiden had been a bit harder and Callen really had to put on his thinking cap. One thing he knew about going boys is they were always hungry. Also, Aiden was a coffee addict and based on those two facts, Callen formulated a plan. He googled the area around where Aiden went to school and found all the coffee shops and restaurant chains that delivered; then he purchased Aiden a handful of gift certificates. That way when he was back at the academy and hungry, he could use the gift cards.

After the presents were all opened, Michelle announced it was time for dessert. Callen thought it was time for a nap, but he gamely trooped into the dining room with the rest of the Hannas. Sam insisted he try a dessert wine that he had bought when he was undercover as a sommelier. Michelle noted her husband was doing a good job of keeping Callen's wine glass full.

After dessert was consumed, Michelle sent Kamran upstairs to get ready for bed, as it was well after 10:00 pm. Aiden declared he was going to go text some of his friends and see how their day went and he too disappeared up the stairs. Callen rose from his chair and grabbed a few of the empty plates and started to carry them towards the kitchen.

Michelle headed him off at the pass and removed them from his hands. "Why don't you and Sam go sit and enjoy the tree. I got this. I'll join you in a few." Callen started to protest but Michelle quickly shut him down and he acquiesced.

The two men walked into the living room where the tree glowed in the semi-darkness. Crashing from his sugar high, Callen was happy to plop on the couch. Normally, sitting and staring at a Christmas tree was not his thing but at the moment, he was so tired that he was willing to sit and watch paint dry, as long as he didn't have to move.

"I got this great brandy. You have to try it," Sam rhapsodized as he held up a dark amber bottle. "From Hetty. You know it has to be fantastic. I'll go get some clean glasses." With the bottle in hand, Sam strolled into the kitchen for glasses. "Michelle, do you know where the brandy snifters are?"

"They're in the china cabinet. In the way back. We hardly ever use them." She finished wrapping up the leftover crème brûlée and inserted it into the fridge. "Why?" she asked as he turned to face Sam. "Oh, that's why," she answered herself seeing the bottle of brandy in his hands. She gave her husband a puzzled look. "You're opening that now?"

"Yeah. Want G to try it."

"What are you up to, Sam? You have been running that man ragged all day. First you make him play basketball, then put that dream house together, and you have been stuffing him with food and plying him with drinks."

"It's all part of my plan. My gift, if you will."

"What plan?" she called after her departing husband who went to hunt down the brandy glasses. "If he drives home now he's gonna get one more gift for Christmas. A DWI!"

Sam returned triumphantly bearing three glasses which he took to the sink to rinse out the dust. "He won't be driving home tonight. Trust me."

Michelle cocked an eyebrow at her husband. "This is Callen we are talking about here. He is not known for doing what is expected."

Sam moved to her side and gave her a quick kiss on her cheek. "I got this covered. Shall I pour you a glass?"

"No thanks. I'm going to go and check on Kam. Get her tucked in."

Gathering up two of the glasses along with the bottle, Sam headed back to the living room. "Tell her I will be up shortly to kiss her goodnight."

Callen, who had let his eyes drift shut after Sam left the room, forced them open upon his partner's return. Sam poured two generous amounts of Hetty's brandy into the snifters before handing one to Callen and settling himself into a chair with the other. "Merry Christmas, G" he announced holding the glass high in a toast.

After giving the brandy a swirl and admiring its bouquet, Callen raised the glass to his lips and sipped. As he expected, knowing it came from Hetty, it was very smooth. He kept sipping, enjoying and trying to detect the subtle undertones and soon he had finished the glass. Sam immediately got up and refilled it for him.

Vowing to watch it this time, he sipped much slower, as he and Sam discussed everything and anything inconsequential. Suddenly, Sam put his not even, half-finished glass on the end table and rose out of the chair. "Be back in a few. Forgot I promised my baby-girl I'd tuck her in."

Callen also started to rise. "Yea, I'd better head out too."

"Oh no. Not yet. You have to say goodbye to Michelle. And don't you dare slink off. I will never hear the end of it from my wife."

"Ok," Callen replied agreeably sinking back down on the couch. "Don't want to get on Michelle's bad side."

"Michelle and I will be back down in about 15 minutes. Help yourself to more brandy." Sam left and headed upstairs.

Draining the last dreg from his glass, Callen carefully set it down on the end-table. Physical exhaustion swept over him. He decided that he could admire the tree just as well if he lay on the couch and waited for Michelle and Sam to come back. He could thank them for a wonderful meal, then head home. Kicking off his shoes, he positioned his body on the couch, facing the tree, on his left side with his right arm protectively cradled against his chest. In a matter of minutes, he was sound asleep.

True to his word, Sam did come back fifteen minutes later with Michelle in tow. Callen was so deeply asleep he didn't even stir when Sam quietly tip-toed into the room, draped a blanket over his prone form, and turned off the Christmas tree lights before leaving.

Michelle stood in the doorway astounded Callen didn't stir at all. The line from the poem she and Sam had read to Kamran last night came to mind. "Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."

The two adult Hanna's went upstairs to their bedroom, quietly closing the door. "So that was your plan? To get your partner so drunk he passes out on our couch?"

Sam, who was sitting on the side of the bed taking off his shoes, gave a little snort. "He's not passed out because he is drunk, though I suppose it is a contributing cause. I physically exhausted him, stuffed him with food and nature took it from there."

Michelle frowned, not able to put the pieces together. "So why did you want him sleeping on our couch tonight?" She moved over and sat next to her husband.

"I didn't care where he slept tonight. Only that he slept, hopefully without any nightmares. Do you remember four Christmases ago, when G and I got stuck in Germany?"

"Yes, your flights got snowed in and even the mighty Hetty couldn't get you home." Michelle recalled the weather event that was worthy of Rudolph's red nose. It had left a lot of folks stranded away from home for the holiday.

"G and I holed up in a hotel for the night. I'll never forget. About 1:00 a.m., he started thrashing in his bed. I had seen him have nightmares before, but nothing like that one. He was screaming and tears were pouring down his face. Even when he finally broke loose from it and woke, he was a mess. Closed off, moody, restless. The only thing that kept him in the room was that storm, and even then I wasn't 100 percent sure he wasn't going to take off. I know he never slept a wink after that for the next 72 hours, as we made our way home. The man was totally unapproachable. It was scary, Michelle."

Sam sat still for a few moments, obviously still shook up by the events that occurred four years in the past. Reaching over, she gently took one of his large hands and held it, comforting her husband.

Absentmindedly, Sam stroked her palm with his thumb as picked up his tale. "It took weeks for him to go back to what passes as normal for Callen. Of course when I asked him what was going on he said nothing and to leave it alone. The following year we had to go into the office on the 26th. Callen dragged himself in, and he looked like he had gone to hell and back. I jokingly asked him if he had a rough night and he said 'something like that.' The next year we went to your mother's. Got home real late."

"I remember. She wanted us to spend the night but the kids were coming down with something and we decided to head home."

"And your Mom insisted on packing a separate cooler of leftovers, especially for Callen," Sam recalled.

"Mom was taken with Callen the few times she has met him."

Sam gave a little grunt. "He can be a charmer. When he wants to be."

"I recall," she said thinking back, "that you avowed we had to drop those leftovers to Callen on the way home, even though it was well after midnight by the time we got to his house."

"This is G. He never sleeps. Well, not like normal people. I figured he would be up and knowing what he keeps in the house, hungry. However, he was asleep that night. I let myself into his house, intending to give him the food, then leave and I found him asleep on his couch, in the throes of another horrible nightmare. I didn't know what to do and hoping to save him the embarrassment of waking and finding me there, I put the stuff in the fridge and left."

"You did look upset when you returned to the car, though you didn't say anything."

"I didn't know what to say. He called me the next day, about the leftovers, to thank us but really to see if I had been there during his nightmare again."

Michelle gazed up at her husband. "Did you tell him you were there?"

"No, but he knew I was lying. One day, out of the blue, during a stakeout he says to me that he has a particularly nasty dream every Christmas. Of course I ask him what it is about but he didn't answer." Sam paused, thinking before slowing speaking again. "I know G suffers from nightmares and I know they can be intense at time. But this one. This is beyond intense. It is like someone is ripping the soul from his body."

"So this Christmas?" she prompted.

"I thought maybe if I could exhaust him, or get him drunk enough, that he would sleep thru the night; break the cycle."

"That explains all the things you did to him today. Except maybe making him put that dream house together all by himself."

Sam gave her an evil grin. "That house was payback for the pain in the ass he is all year long."

Michelle leaned over and kissed him on the neck. "You love that pain-in-the-ass. Sometimes I wonder if I should be jealous of G," she teased.

"Never," and Sam proved his point with an amorous kiss.

"So your gift to Callen was a silent night," she cleverly surmised.

"Here's hoping," Sam replied. "And I am hoping for one more gift from you too."

Rearing back a little, she said, "Oh really? And what would that be?"

Gathering her up in his arms, he whispered seductively in her hear. "Come All Ye Faithful. And trust me, I have been very faithful."

Michelle laughed and set about trying to perform that tune for the love of her life.

()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()

When Michelle woke in the morning, Sam was still sacked out, snoring away. Wrapping herself in her robe, she checked on the kids and found they were still asleep too. Quietly, she slipped downstairs, peering into the living room as she passed by, checking to see if Callen was still on the couch. To her surprise, he was, though he looked like he might be on the verge of waking.

Hurrying to the kitchen, she put a pot of coffee to brew while she gathered some mugs and placed them on the counter near the coffee maker. When the pot was done, she poured two mugs then doctored them with cream and sugar which she had gotten out earlier.

Carefully picking them up, she walked back into the living room where Callen was sitting upright on the couch, scrubbing his face with his left hand. Silently, she went over and handed him a mug of coffee which he accepted with a gracious smile. Then she moved to the wing-back chair to the right of the couch.

Callen took a sip of the hot beverage and let it slide down his throat.

"Sleep well?" she inquired before sipping from her own mug.

Even a half-asleep Callen was able to put dots together quicker than the average person and he got the unspoken subtext. "He told you. About the Christmas nightmare."

Michelle quietly nodded. "When did you figure it out?"

With a rueful half-grin, he replied, "When I woke up this morning and realized there was sunlight streaming thru the window." He placed the mug on the table and scrubbed a hand down the back of his neck. "I haven't slept an entire Christmas night since..." His voice trailed off and Michelle watched as his eyes grew dark.

"I'm a good listener, G. And I have seen a lot in this world," she compassionately said trying to give him the option to unburden his soul to her, if that would help him push past this terrible event that still haunted him.

Picking up the mug again, Callen stared into it, as if the answer lay there. Unconsciously, he bit on his lower lip as he tried to bring himself to speak of that Christmas night, long ago. Finally, he started, in a low voice that grew huskier as he related his tale.

"I was 16. Had my provisional license. I was in between foster homes, residing in an orphanage again. Not a real surprise given my history and age. There was this kid there, Bradley, 13 years old. Only child. New to the system. His parents died in a car accident when he was 7. His grandmother had been raising him until she died of a heart attack. The state stepped in since there were no remaining relatives." Callen paused and took a sip of the coffee to wet his parched throat. "Bradley was a model kid. Good grades, positive attitude, well-liked; total opposite of me. I was kind of surprised such a great kid, hadn't been placed yet. Anyway, he latched on to me for some reason, no matter how much I tried to discourage him."

Michelle smiled a little. Callen often seemed to discount the fact he was a pretty charismatic person in his own right.

"He kind of grew on me. He really was a good kid. Always helping the other children out with everything from school projects to a shoulder to cry on. Strong, upbeat..." Callen shook his head. "Not someone that should have been hanging out with the likes of me yet he did and he became the closest thing to a friend I had. I told him stuff I never told anyone else. And what was strange was he cared, about me."

Michelle grew sad for the child that was Callen whom couldn't believe that anyone could possibly care about him. The remnants of his battered childhood still clung to his adult soul.

"As Christmas approached," Callen continued, "Bradley wanted one thing; to go visit his parent's grave on Christmas. He told me he had done it every year since their deaths. Visited and placed a wreath on the headstone. It wasn't much to ask and he spoke to the Director of the house who said it wouldn't be possible. He petitioned his case worker, the minister who came to visit, everyone but the only answer he ever got was it wasn't possible."

Callen's voice grew sharp with anger. "This kid did everything for everyone and he asked for one small thing. How hard would it have been for someone to take an hour out of their Christmas to drive him to the cemetery? How hard!" Callen clenched his fists and his face grew hard. "Christmas is about love for your fellow man. Peace on earth, goodwill to men but I guess not an orphan boy who only wanted to pay his respects to his dead parents."

Swallowing hard, it took a few minutes for Callen to get his emotions under control. "So I did it. I took him."

"How?" Michelle gently prodded to keep him going. She knew there was more to this terrible tale. Something that had shaken Callen to the very core of his adolescence soul.

Biting his lip and turning his head away from her, he grimly chuckled. "Let's say I acquired my skills to obtain things early in life. That night, after our special Christmas dinner, which meant whatever left over food the local pantry couldn't give away, I told Bradley I'd gotten permission to drive him to the cemetery. Said one of the counsellors was willing to lend me her car for a few hours. He knew I had a license because we had talked about it. But he had no idea that a 16 year old couldn't drive a car alone. We were about to head out to the parking lot when I remembered I had forgotten my jacket. He volunteered to go get it and I snuck into the office and stole the set of keys to an old green Chevy Impala."

Callen paused again, took another sip of the now cold coffee before placing the mug back on the table. Michelle could tell by his face and his voice the worse was about to be revealed.

"We stopped at a grocery store and picked up a wreath so he could bring it with him. I had already mapped out where the cemetery was and I had no trouble finding it. I made sure I drove well within the speed limits and extra cautious. Didn't want to attract attention. When we got there, I waited by the car, giving Brad his privacy. From the distance, I could see him kneeling on the ground and he appeared to be having a one way conversation; I dunno, maybe bringing them up to speed."

At least Bradley had known who his parents were, Michelle thought and she wondered if Callen had envied the boy for that knowledge.

"When he came back, though I could see he had been crying, he was upbeat. He had gotten what he needed from that small visit to continue on for another year. It was about 9:00 pm and I wasn't in a huge hurry to get back. We wouldn't be missed since this place had long ago given up on bed checks. I also knew the person who owned this car was gone for the holidays, and had left it in the lot for safekeeping. So we took the scenic route, driving thru neighborhoods and looking at the Christmas lights. Me, I could have cared less but it made Brad happy and the kid deserved it for all the nice stuff he did for everyone else without a reward or even thanks. I had appropriated a little cash so we stopped at a food place and sat at a table at the back where we wouldn't attract attention. After we were done, we headed back to the orphanage. I was being so careful."

Callen's voice broke and he bowed his head. Michelle steeled herself for what she knew must be a horrible ending.

"I came to a complete stop at the sign. I know I did. I even looked both ways. I don't know where he came from. But the drunken bastard sped thru the intersection and crashed into our car on Brad's side." Tears were slowly making their way down Callen's cheeks. "He never had a chance. His head..." Callen stopped and wasn't able to continue for a long moment. His breathing grew ragged and Michelle could see he was replaying the horror in his mind as his eyes grew unfocused. His voice turned flat, almost wooden. "It was there, on the seat, staring at me. I screamed and tried to get out but the car was too mangled and I was trapped. Trapped with his eyes staring at me. Forever."

Michelle rose from her chair, walked over and wrapped her arms around the grieving man. Callen was so lost in his horrible recollection that she wasn't even sure he knew she was holding him.

"It took hours for them to get us, me, out. And the whole time, on the seat..." He abruptly pulled away from her and buried his face in his hands. "I killed him."

Michelle shook her head. "That drunken man killed Bradley. Not you."

Callen raised his head and stared at her with his watery blue eyes which grew very hard. "It never would have happened, if I had left things alone. I was the one that put Brad in that place, at that time."

Michelle struggled for something to say. "It was an accident, G. You know that."

Callen looked into the distance and she could feel him drawing away from her. "Sure. An act of God. Fate. Something I get to relive every Christmas," he finished bitterly

"You have a choice you know," she told him as she moved a few steps away. "It was a horrible thing that happened, especially on Christmas. But you can let it go. Build new memories, happy ones, like yesterday. I think you enjoyed being here with us. We are your family now, G. We are here for you. This Christmas, Sam's gift to you was to try to break the cycle, replace a bad Christmas night, with a good one. Give you a silent night."

Callen grinned a little. "By physically abusing me? Stuffing me with food like a Christmas goose? Getting me drunk?"

"Ok, maybe Sam's methods were a bit unorthodox, but they worked. You didn't have the nightmare did you?" she pointed out.

Callen sat back on the couch. Michelle was right. Last night was the first Christmas since Bradley's death that he hadn't had a nightmare about being trapped in the car. "Sam is a smart man," Callen slowly stated. Maybe, just maybe he could put the ghost of Bradley to rest. "Of course, I will deny having ever said that," Callen added with a smirk.

"Of course," she replied giving him a little pat on the knee. "Now what say you and I go into the kitchen and whip up some breakfast for the rest of the sleeping beauties in this house.

Callen stood and stretch his good arm. "I think," he slowly said, "I'm going to head out."

Michelle didn't try to dissuade him. She understood he needed to go process, regroup, if you will and examine what happened here and decide how to deal with it. He could replace the bricks that had been knocked out of the fortress he had built around himself, or choose to allow the little chink in his walls to remain.

He grabbed his bag of gifts from the floor and headed for the door with Michelle following him. When he got there, he stopped, turned around and gave her smile. "Tell Sam, I really liked his gift."

Michelle knew Callen wasn't referring to the gift in the bag he was carrying out to his car, but rather the one he was carrying in his heart. "I will." Callen gave a quick nod and left. As he walked away, Michelle thought, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.