Disclaimer: Eric, Kimberly, Alice, Wes, Jen and Taylor don't belong to me, they're borrowed from BVE. Ben is borrowed (as ever) with grateful thanks from Ekat. The concept of The Firm and Airwolf is borrowed from Belsarius productions. I make no money from that which is borrowed.

Notes: This story is set in December 2003 (some six months after Mother's Boy and some ten years before Far Future begins). It's related to a number of Identiverse stories (most importantly, it's actually the back story to one of the Far Future plot strands!), but it essentially stands alone. It is also my contribution to this year's holiday season -- though it's hardly a typical holiday story...

Many thanks to Gamine and Vanessa for patiently picking out the nits. Also many thanks to Cmar for the chats, tips and occasional correction.

Happy holidays!

Please offer feedback, it tells me how I'm doing.

~*~

Jingle All The Way

"Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg..."

"Alice, for the last time, shut up."

Eric smiled a little as he quietly closed the door. Neither Kimberly nor Alice had heard him arrive -- which was good. It meant he had more of an opportunity to surprise them. This was to be their second Christmas together and Eric had plans -- most of which involved spoiling Alice and Kimberly as much as possible, and which started with this: an early departure from work and three straight weeks off.

"Dad sings it," Alice wheedled, drawing Eric out of his thoughts.

"He would," Kimberly retorted in a tone of voice that almost had Eric turning around and walking straight out again. Face down monsters, sure. Rescue people from collapsing buildings, no problem. Face Kimberly when she was pissed at him? Not if he valued his life!

"Besides," Kimberly was continuing, "you've been singing the same thing for over an hour. Cut it out, young lady, or you're going to be having an early night."

"Aw but!" Alice whined.

So much for the spoiling -- at least for today. With a sigh, Eric entered the living room. "No 'aw but'," he said, earning a surprised 'eep' from Alice and a mixed glare and smile from Kimberly. Not completely in the dog house, then. "If mom's asked you to stop, you stop."

Alice heaved a gusty sigh and exited the living room.

"You're home early," Kimberly observed. "What's the crisis?"

Oh. That was why he wasn't completely in the dog house. "No crisis."

"And yet you're here and not at SGHQ." Now Kimberly was looking confused. "Are you feeling sick?"

Was it really this rare he took time off? "No, I'm not sick. Honey, it's December sixteenth. Christmas Day is nine days away." Kimberly just gave him a 'yeah so' look. "I have time off."

Kimberly blinked. "You have time off?"

Eric sighed. Apparently it was this rare. He crossed to the couch where Kimberly was sitting and crouched beside her. "I've taken three weeks off."

"You've taken three weeks off?" she echoed. "As in vacation time?"

This was getting ridiculous. He wasn't this much of a work-a-holic, surely! "Yes, as in vacation time. I don't have my pager, my cellphone is switched off and the only reason Gina has permission to ring this number is on the extremely slight chance of an impending apocalypse."

Kimberly stared for a second, then her expression broke and she started to giggle.

Eric stared at his wife. "Kim?"

"Your face!"

"My face what?"

For several moments, all Kimberly could do was giggle incoherently, until Eric began to wonder if he needed to do something to stop her having hysterics. She finally managed to gasp, "You actually thought..." But then she was off again.

This time, Eric did step in. "Kim -- please...I'm sure that can't be good for the baby -- or you, for that matter."

Managing, with difficulty, to finally get her laughter under control, Kimberly gave him the fond/exasperated expression she had recently been reserving for occasions when she considered he'd said something particularly male and/or clueless about pregnancy. "Laughter," she said archly, "is the best medicine."

Unsure exactly how to respond to that, Eric decided ignoring the comment -- and pretending he hadn't made his own -- might be the best way to go. "So what was so funny?"

"Honey, it was the expression on your face. You looked so proud that you were taking time off...then so completely mortified when I started to tease you about it."

"Kim..." Eric slowly shook his head.

"Consider it payback," she continued, "for teaching Alice that appalling song about Batman."

Eric opened his mouth to refute the charge when the doorbell rang.

"Go, answer it -- be useful in your time off," Kimberly ordered.

"Yes ma'am," Eric mumbled, climbing back to his feet, but even as he headed for the door, he heard Alice reach it and open it.

A moment later he heard, "Hello there, Alice," and felt his heart sink to knee level. A glance at Kimberly told him she'd also recognised the speaker.

"Daddy!" Alice called. "Uncle Frank's here!"

Eric sighed and exited the living room. Sure enough, there was Frank Peterson being framed in the early afternoon sunlight by the doorframe. "Well, let him in, Alice," he prompted, hoping wildly that this might actually be a social call.

"Eric -- good to see you again," Frank began as he came in.

"Frank." Play nice -- this might not be business. "C'mon in."

"Thank you." Peterson smiled, but there was a wry tinge to the expression.

Business, then. Eric grimaced and wondered which way Kimberly would shred Peterson.

"You know," Peterson continued, following Eric through into the living room, "you're a hard man to track down. Gina and Ben didn't seem to know where you were or when you'd be back."

Mentally, Eric added Peterson's name to the small list of acceptable reasons for Gina to call him at home when he was taking time off. A little warning might have been nice. On the other hand, the man was supposed to be family... "That would be because I'm on vacation." He glanced at his watch. "As of an hour ago."

"Oh dear."

"'Oh dear', what?" enquired Kimberly politely.

Eric winced. The last time he'd heard her be that polite to someone, he'd been the recipient and it had been shortly after the Biocon mess -- after she'd heard about his slightly abortive attempt to leave which she'd taken an understandably dim view of.

Peterson didn't appear to notice. "I need a favour," he said.

Heart somewhere around basement level now, Eric groaned quietly. "A favour?" he repeated. "Some how, I figure that's not going to involve peace on Earth and goodwill to all men."

"No -- it isn't," Peterson agreed, having the grace to look marginally sheepish.

"In that case," snapped Kimberly, giving up on politeness, "I'm sure you can find the door, because whatever it is, the answer is no."

Peterson looked startled. "Err?"

Eric shrugged. "She's right. It's Christmas. I've had more than my share of shit at this time of year, one way or another. It's a time for being with your family -- and I don't mean on some commando raid in some tin-pot dictatorship no-one's heard of."

Peterson stared, beyond startled and well into completely stunned. "Excuse me?"

"Frank, it's been nice seeing you, but the answer is no. If you really need someone, there are Guardians rostered on shift over the holidays. Speak to Ben. He..."

"It needs to be you."

"Why?" Eric asked.

"Well," Peterson admitted, "anyone -- within certain parameters -- who can pass as Asian."

"And you don't have anyone else stashed away somewhere who can do that?" said Kimberly sceptically.

"The answer is still no, Frank," Eric stated. "Get it through your head, I am not doing this."

Peterson sighed. "If that's the way it's got to be." Eric opened his mouth to say something when Peterson pulled out a cellphone. He pushed a button on it then said, "No go -- plan B."

"I think it's time you were leaving, Frank," said Kimberly icily.

At that moment, there was another knock on the door. Eric glanced in Peterson's direction, but the older man's expression was inscrutable. That was something Eric wasn't buying for a second. He had a nasty suspicion what the knock on the door was going to herald.

"Don't do this, Frank."

But it was too late. Alice had opened the front door. There was a slightly outraged yelp -- whoever it was had just barged passed the eight year old. That in itself was enough to bring Eric's blood to the boil, but the realisation of who it was at the door pushed the limits of his temper even further. Two, mean-looking Military Policemen.

"What the hell is going on?" Kimberly yelled, struggling to her feet. "Who the hell are you two and what do you want?"

"Mommy!" Alice sobbed, making a quick entry into the living room.

"Master Sergeant Myers," said one of the MPs, ignoring Kimberly completely.

"I didn't think even you could stoop this low, Frank," Eric snarled.

"Eric, what's going on?" Kimberly demanded.

"You're under arrest for being absent without leave," the MP continued.

"The son of a bitch has reactivated my commission," Eric snapped.

"Mommy?" Alice queried.

"He can't do that!" Kimberly exclaimed.

"I'm sorry, Kim," said Frank apologetically, "but I can -- and I have."

The two MPs grabbed Eric's arms and tried to drag him out of the room. "This is bogus and you two goons know it. Now le'go or I will start breaking things, starting with you," Eric snapped. The two MPs reacted as if Eric had said he had some sort of contagious disease. "As for you," Eric continued, rounding on Peterson, "I'm not gonna do what I'd most like to do right now -- because I know where that'll land me. But you listen, and you listen good, you sack of no-good shit. Pulling your shit with me is one thing; dragging my family into it -- that's a whole other ball game."

"I didn't want to..."

"No dice Frank. You didn't have to and you know it. Now get the fuck out of this house -- and take your two pet gorillas with you. If I've gotta do this -- and don't worry, I've caught that message loud and clear -- I would at least like to be able to say good bye to my wife and daughter in private."

The two MPs obviously objected to being termed gorillas -- something that probably boded no good for Eric's continued well being once he left the house, but he was beyond caring. Peterson, however, simply nodded and led both MPs out.

"Eric you don't have to do this!" said Kimberly softly. "You're not in the Marines any more...they don't...can't..."

Eric sighed, the anger bleeding into despair. "That's just it, Kim -- they can. I'm still young enough -- more than young enough -- for active duty and there's a clause somewhere about 'in times of need'. I knew that when I joined up...and I knew Frank was a big enough SOB to pull that card...I just never entirely believed he'd actually do it to me." He snorted. Of course Peterson would pull the card with him. It wasn't as if they'd ever exactly had a father/son relationship. Hell, it was Peterson's fault -- at least in some small measure -- that he wasn't a Marine any longer. Any man who could have a grudge like that against them -- and not tell their own son and former fiancée that, 'by the way there's this guy out there who's likely to want to make your lives living hell to get to me'...

"I don't want you to go, daddy," Alice whispered, drawing Eric out of his thoughts.

"I don't want to go either," Eric admitted. He crouched down in front of her, absently noting that she was soon going to be too tall for him to do this. "But, honey, sometimes, we have to do stuff we don't like."

Alice sighed. "I know." A new thought crossed her mind. "Will you be back for Christmas?"

"I'll try," Eric replied.

"Promise?" Eric wished he could. "Please?"

The pleading expression on Alice's face tore at Eric's heart. "I'm sorry, sweetheart."

There was a moment while Alice digested the words, then her eyes filled with tears. "I hate Uncle Frank!" she screamed. "I hate him!"

Before Eric could say anything, she'd fled the room. A moment later and he heard her bedroom door slam.

"At least she knows whose fault this is," Kimberly offered softly.

"Yeah. Funny how that doesn't make me feel any less of a heel." Eric got back to his feet. "Guess I'm gonna have to settle for punching his lights out -- as soon as it's not gonna land me with ninety days in solitary."

"It isn't your fault," Kimberly insisted. "And right now, it's just as well you told Frank to get out -- or he might have already got some of what's comin' to him." She moved across the room to pull Eric into an embrace. "Don't worry about Alice -- or me. We'll be fine. Just you concentrate on getting through this in one piece. You've gotta come back from this, you hear?"

"In as few bits as I can manage," Eric answered, bending to kiss her. "That's a promise I can make."

There was an impatient throat clearing from somewhere in the direction of the front door. Eric sighed -- that was one of the MPs. Period of grace over, then.

"You'd better go," Kimberly said quietly, as if picking up on his thoughts.

"Yeah." Eric sighed bitterly. "Guess I had."

~*~

It was a longish journey from the pleasant suburban house in Silverhills to Peterson's base of operations, and not a particularly interesting one. Eric watched the Californian landscape go by from the back seat of Peterson's limousine with a jaundiced air. MP number one was actually driving, with Peterson riding up front beside him, leaving Eric in the company of MP number two. As if I'm going to escape from a vehicle moving at seventy that has no internal door handles.

Eric killed the journey time by variously imagining exactly how he was going to deal with Peterson when he was finally in a position to and wondering exactly what this mission was that it absolutely had to be him. The last time Peterson had been so specific about the person required, it had been about Taylor -- and then, there had been a clear case of skills that weren't widespread and the right sort of temperament and psychological makeup. As far as Eric was aware, the skills he possessed were hardly rare and the one thing in his life that was unusual, the Quantum Morpher, was in secure lockup at SGHQ and Peterson hadn't so much as breathed a word to suggest Eric would need that.

Out of the window, as the sun began to set, Eric saw a chain-link fence coming up on the right. That was probably their destination.

"Eric -- how's your Cantonese?" Peterson asked suddenly.

Eric blinked. "Excuse me?"

"Your Cantonese. You took three courses in it while you were in the Marine Corps. How is it?"

For one insane second, Eric wondered how Peterson knew that. Then he remembered who was asking -- and the information he had at his fingertips. "Rusty."

"Well start dredging it up," Peterson advised. "You're going on an intensive refresher course."

"Oh lucky me," Eric muttered. That his language skills were relevant narrowed down the sort of mission this was likely to be. If it was going to be a 'go in and hit things' job, it wouldn't matter a shit whether I spoke Cantonese, Japanese or French. He grimaced. They don't have someone fluent in Cantonese who can do this?

The limousine pulled onto an entry road and rolled to a halt at the guard post. Peterson produced a security pass and they were waved through.

"Welcome to Knightsbridge," said Peterson.

"And you are welcome to it," Eric mumbled. The limousine was heading towards the main building on the site, which he could now see was a low-rise office block, making this look less like a military base and more like the corporate headquarters of a multinational corporation. He wasn't fooled. The carefully landscaped grounds undoubtedly hid assorted defence systems, from motion sensors to IR trip wires. This wasn't a place you broke into in a hurry. If at all.

The limousine pulled to a stop in front of the main entrance. Peterson climbed out and opened one of the rear doors. "This way."

Silently, Eric followed Peterson into the building. He wasn't entirely surprised to note that the two MPs weren't following on behind.

"Mission briefing first," Peterson explained. "Then you'll know what we're up against." Eric said nothing. "After that, there's an evening meal and the start of your training."

"So I get to eat, but don't get to sleep. Just so's I know."

Peterson suddenly stopped. "Cut me some Goddamn slack, Eric. You seem to think I'm getting some sort of enjoyment out of pissing you off." Eric just glared. "If this wasn't a major issue, and if you weren't the only person who could do this job, you wouldn't be here."

"You want me to cut you slack. Well how about you tell me just what it is that makes me the only person who can do this -- whatever the fuck 'this' is?" Eric retorted. "You've turned up, unannounced, coerced me into this, had your two goons scare Alice and you've pissed off my wife. I'm not seeing any reason to give you slack right now."

"I'm sorry about that -- I really didn't want to involve Kim and Alice. But seeing as you weren't at SGHQ, I didn't exactly have a lot of choice."

"Bullshit," said Eric flatly.

"You've worked every other Christmas since you started working -- how the hell was I supposed to know you weren't planning to work this one?"

Eric rounded on Peterson. "You don't get it, do you? You don't get what's different this year." The expression on Peterson's face -- complete bemusement -- underlined the point. "I worked at Christmas because I didn't have an alternative. I took the holiday shifts because I didn't have family to go home to -- so that someone else, who did have a wife, or a husband, or a kid, or parents," at that, Peterson winced, "could go home and visit. Now, I do have an alternative. Or at least I should have."

"Oh."

"Oh, would cover it."

"Eric, I really am sorry. I didn't think..."

"Very true."

"This isn't my schedule."

"Not improving this any," Eric retorted.

"No wonder you never got put forward as a candidate for officer training," Peterson muttered, starting to move along the hallway once more. "John warned me you were a smart mouth."

Eric snorted. "I haven't even warmed up yet."

"In here," Peterson ordered shortly, gesturing towards one of the doorways that lined the hallway.

For all his irritation with Peterson, Eric did as he was bidden, knowing that the sooner the briefing got under way the sooner this whole mess would be done. The room proved to be a plush office. Thick pile carpet covered the floor, a cherry-red leather couch ran the length of one wood-panelled wall while an opulent desk took up much of the opposite wall with a huge bookcase taking care of the third wall. It reminded Eric strongly of Zafar bel Abis' compound -- though it lacked the ostentatiously displayed Koran -- though he didn't think that was deliberate. More a matter of the same kind of ego, he decided, trying to suppress the shiver.

"Take a seat," Peterson directed, crossing to the desk. "We'll get this briefing under way." So saying, he pushed a button on the telephone keypad.

A moment later and the office door opened to admit a self-possessed young Asian woman carrying a sheaf of papers and folders.

"Eric, this is Hana Baker -- she will be your liaison for this mission; Hana, this is Eric Myers."

From the way Hana swept her eyes over him, Eric got the feeling that she had not only inspected him but found him wanting to judge from the slightly disdainful cant to her head. Yeah, well, I'm not wildly keen on being here either.

Either Peterson was oblivious of Hana's silent assessment, or he opted to ignore it -- and Eric wasn't entirely sure which he wanted to put money on. "Hana, if you would?"

She gave a nod and handed Eric one of the folders. He opened it to see a photograph of another Asian.

"That," said Hana, "is Kim Soong. He's a Korean 'businessman'. His business is supplying the organised crime world with assorted narcotics."

Eric flipped the page and found another photograph of Soong, together with a white man and woman.

"They are Doctor Gaston and Doctor Mendez. Both former employees of The Firm," Hana explained. "They disappeared eighteen months ago, en route between this facility and a research facility in Arizona. They were couriering the first stages of development of a new drug."

Eric lifted his eyebrows. "Eighteen months and you've only just found them?"

"Not exactly," said Peterson. "What you're seeing is the results of a two year operation."

Eric flipped to the next page and found himself faced with a set of tabulated results from some form of chemical analysis.

"The performance data from The Firm's analysis of the drug Soong is preparing to sell to the assorted crime syndicates," Hana stated. "The drug, as The Firm designed it, was supposed to be a will suppressant for use in interrogations..."

"Torture, you mean," Eric interrupted.

Hana turned an icy glare on him. "For use in interrogations," she said firmly. "It was supposed to be a quick and one hundred percent painless method of getting information."

"Now why do I struggle to entirely believe that?" Eric mumbled, looking at the data.

"As you wish, Mr Myers, but that was the intention. Perhaps needless to state," Hana continued, "Kim Soong's intentions are rather less kindly disposed." Eric bit back a sarcastic comment at that. "The drug, as has been developed, has five strains. Beta one through five, and is currently undergoing trials. It is designed to be both truth serum and will inhibitor. It's also designed to work as an effective...cattle prod, shall we say, should someone opt to resist the questioning."

"Meaning what?" Eric asked.

"Direct commands cannot be resisted; questions can -- but resisting, by either not answering or providing false data, leave the subject in wracking agony."

Eric glanced up at Peterson. "Funny how they seem to have got there from a 'harmless' truth serum." Peterson said nothing. Eric hadn't expected a reply.

Hana cleared her throat. "If you'll turn to the final page in your booklet," she said pointedly.

Eric did as he was told, and swore. "You son of a bitch."

"I didn't do this, Eric -- you have to believe me."

"I don't have to believe you in the slightest -- which is just as well, seeing as right about now if you told me it was raining and you'd walked in soaking wet, I'd want an independent view," Eric snapped. "Now, perhaps one of you two might like to explain to me just why it is, my photograph is in this dossier?"

Hana had lost none of her self-possession at Eric's outburst. She now responded, "The resemblance is uncanny..."

"Ms Baker," Eric retorted, "it's not 'uncanny'; I can tell you when that photograph was goddamn taken. It was at my mother's funeral, in July of this year." Eric turned a baleful glare on Peterson. "You, talk, now. Fast."

"It's not what it looks like."

Eric deliberately set the dossier down and stood up. "Frank, so far today, you have gone a very long way towards enforcing the idea that I was better off not knowing you. Don't insult my intelligence. I want an explanation, or you might as well lock me up on AWOL charges because threats and coercion or no, I am not doing a single, solitary goddamn thing for you. Do I make myself clear?"

Peterson gulped.

"Mr Myers," said Hana icily. "Sit down."

For a moment, Eric debated with himself, then shrugged. "You have five minutes to give me this explanation, Frank, or I am walking out of that door."

"Yes. All right. It is you," Peterson admitted.

"Why?"

Surprisingly, that answer came from a slightly chastened Hana. "Soong was putting out feelers into the crime world, seeing who would be interested in purchasing the drug, when it was ready. There was a considerable interest from assorted Japanese Yakuza and Chinese Triads. I made tentative contact with Soong in early September, posing as a representative of an interested Chinese Triad boss, under the alias of Chen Ming. As much of this was done non face to face, via middlemen and assorted forms of electronic contact, I was able to pose as both representative and as boss, but to prevent Soong from becoming suspicious, the boss needed to have an identity set up. So one was built."

"Around my photograph," Eric finished, glaring at Peterson. "And you didn't think I was going to be just a tiny bit pissed off by this?"

"If Soong had kept to form, it wouldn't have been an issue," said Hana. "Unfortunately, something has him spooked, and he's suddenly demanded a face to face meeting."

"And I say again," said Eric, "you didn't think I was going to be just a little bit upset?"

"Eric, if I could have my time over again, I would do a lot of things very differently," Peterson retorted. "I should have told you..."

"No," Eric snapped, "you should have asked me if I minded. Just tell me that whatever the fuck criminal record you've faked up for this Triad boss doesn't have my finger prints attached to it."

"You're in luck on that count," said Hana. "Chen Wu burned his finger prints off with acid when he was seventeen."

"You won't be required to do that," said Peterson before Eric could open his mouth. "We have ways of simulating that."

"Just as well," Eric muttered. "And Chen Wu? Let me guess. Older brother?"

"Husband," Hana answered. "It was decided there wasn't enough familial resemblance for the sibling relationship to be believable."

Eric favoured Peterson with another dirty look. "Let me see if I have this straight," he said. "You want me to pose as a Chinese gangster in order to investigate a Korean drug baron to do...what?"

"Get data on the compound so that we can put a commando raid in there and shut it down for good," said Peterson. "Despite what you might think, we have absolutely no desire for this drug -- tmazacol is the name Soong's given it -- to hit the streets."

At that, Eric could actually see a reason for involving someone with some form of combat or commando experience. It would make the scouting easier, but he wasn't quite willing to let Peterson have that point.

"And seeing as you were asking me about it, I'm going to take a flying guess that Chen Wu is supposed to be Cantonese."

"He speaks no English," said Hana.

"Oh fucking brilliant," Eric muttered. "And how long do I have to achieve fluency?"

"Two days plus this evening," said Peterson.

Eric looked down at his hands then up at Peterson, measuring the distance. Was it worth the grief he'd probably get? Considering the grief he was already getting...

Peterson's head snapped back as Eric's fist connected with his jaw.

"Consider that the down payment," Eric stated.


TO BE CONTINUED...