Wisps of white coated the mullioned windows of the Sanctuary. It was usually noisy inside but the slowly drifting snow and the sense of peace that descended over the manor made its inhabitants tranquil. Once-gloomy corridors were garnished with blinking twinkle lights, flashing blue and white at regular intervals. Boughs of holly draped around the rods of the winding staircase that descended into the entry hall, where an enormous tree stood surrounded by open cardboard boxes teeming with festive decorations. Henry was precariously perched atop a ladder that had seen better days, Will had become thoroughly entangled in a strand of lights, and Ashley was digging through the battered boxes in search of her favorite ornaments.
"I don't see why we're making all this fuss," Henry complained from the top of the ladder.
Ashley pulled out a snow globe and shook it, creating tiny tendrils of white that snowballed around the miniature town. Will pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with one finger and continued to untangle the light stands, now blinking at an abnormally fast rate and threatening to expire in a single brilliant flash. "For the same reasons we did it last year," Ashley replied, "and the year before that, and for all the years since you can remember. Stop whining and keep going."
"Why don't you get up here and put up these stupid ornaments?" Henry waved one hand in the general direction of the half-completed tree and the ladder wobbled dangerously. Ashley rolled her eyes and tossed him a glass ball. He caught it and reluctantly hung it on the nearest branch. Disappearing beneath the lower fringe of green, Will managed to plug in the last strand and the tree lit up. Several branches slapped him across the back of the head as he arose, but he dusted off his hands, proud of his handiwork.
"Be careful with that one," Ashley said as Henry pulled a beautiful crystal snowflake out of the box, "it's Mom's—"
It slipped through his fingers and shattered on the floor below.
"—favorite," she finished.
All of them looked woefully at the shards scattered across the polished floor.
"Damn," said Henry, "how much of a favorite?"
"Favorite as in the only ornament she ever really cared about." Ashley knelt to examine the broken pieces; it would be impossible to repair. "Someone gave it to her, a long time ago."
Her expression transformed as she heard the familiar click-click of her mother's Prada heels in the upper corridor. Ashley grabbed the nearest box and hid what remained of the snowflake, rising as her mother came down the stairs, looked up from her list of scheduled activities, and viewed the series of guilty faces with mild suspicion. Descending several more steps, she tilted her head and drifted her gaze from Henry, who looked rather green atop the leaning ladder, to Will, who was carefully cleaning something off his glasses, to her daughter, who had the expression on her face that often accompanied bad news.
Henry waffled and made an effort to put up another decoration, avoiding her gaze. Hands in his pockets, Will tried to look nonplussed and utterly failed. Stepping forward, Ashley lied, "Nothing. We were just arguing over the tree. Will thinks it would have been better across the room, and Henry is whining about having to help." She sent him a warning glance and his mouth, opened to protest, snapped shut.
One of Helen's eyebrows arched. It was apparent she did not believe them, but in the spirit of gentility, she peered into the nearest box. "Make sure you decorate all the way around this year," she said. "Last Christmas one of our guests complained."
"Well, if he hadn't climbed up the wall behind the tree like a miniature Spiderman, he wouldn't have noticed." Ashley picked up the nearest ornament and dutifully headed for the back corner beside the staircase as her mother continued down the hall to check on the progress in the kitchens. It was no small event to feed an army of abnormal but each Christmas she had them praising her delicacies and marveling over the thoughtfulness behind each chosen dish. Helen was nothing if not loved, and for more than her generous nature.
"So what exactly is a party for abnormals like?" Will glanced up at Henry wavering dangerously on the ladder. Chastened, Henry hung an assortment of glass balls on the sweetly-smelling boughs. Ashley reappeared from behind the tree, her blonde hair mussed from the branches. Picking over the ornaments and choosing the ugliest ones to hide against the wall, she said, "It's like every other social gathering you have ever been to. You have to keep some of the guests apart in case a fight breaks out; others shouldn't be allowed to sample the eggnog or they start breathing fire; there will be a few rude, tactless questions and a surge around the buffet table. Inevitably, half of them will get drunk and start singing obnoxious Christmas carols at the top of their lugs. But all of them are fairly mild-mannered, and adore Mom, so they come every year and pretend to get along for a few hours just to make her happy. She does it so she can check on the ones that refuse to come here, or haven't been discovered yet by humans and forced to seek refuge. Some of them are homeless, and this is the only kindness they will experience in months, because it's the only time of year Mom is 'allowed' to help them."
Sadness was in her voice, for she knew how lonely existence as an abnormal outside the Sanctuary could be. She saw it every day among their associates and friends, a mostly peaceful species of unique creatures that lived among side humans but never became close to any of them. Henry had fallen silent and she knew he was thinking about his own abnormal tendencies, and how without Helen's support he might not have had a family either. They were all misfits, from Bigfoot to Henry the Werewolf, to Will and his super-smart brain. Her mother had longevity, and she had… well, what did she have exactly, but a fierce, unquenchable anger that she vented through violence?
"I am NOT LIKE YOU!" That's what she had screamed at her father when he had confronted her about her temper. His knowing smile had made her even angrier. She was not like John Druitt, a sociopath, a serial killer. Ashley tightened her fingers and the ornament she was holding snapped in her hand. A few drops of blood mingled with glitter as she threw it into the nearest box. Will and Henry hadn't noticed and she turned her back to them, repressing her frustration. Sometimes, late at night, she stood in front of the mirror in her room and studied her reflection, attempting to discern if she was like him. If she looked like him, moved like him, acted like him. And as much as she hated to admit it, there was a resemblance.
The sudden loud thud behind her alerted her to the fact that Henry had toppled off the ladder, and they rushed over to him as he sat up, somewhat dazed. There was a perceptive cracking sound as he tilted his head and stretched his neck muscles, the benefit of having rapid-healing werewolf blood in his veins. "I'm fine," he said begrudgingly, knowing he would be back on the ladder in minutes. It was a suitable distraction and soon they were all laughing and teasing one another as they finished the tree, pausing to drink hot chocolate when Bigboot brought it up on a tray. There were a couple of rounds of badly-sung Christmas carols before everything was finished, and all parted to get dressed for the party. The last box was put away in the hall closet and the remnants of the crystal snowflake swept up and thrown away. Ashley hoped her mother would be too preoccupied to notice it wasn't in its usual place of honor. She would figure out how to explain its absence later.
Henry retreated to the lab and had his feet up on the desk when Helen rounded the corner, on her way upstairs after a visit with "Sally," the local mermaid. "Henry, our guests will start arriving in an hour," she said. "You can lower the energy field shortly before their arrival. We don't want another incident like last year."
Last Christmas, it had taken two boxes of expensive European wine and Helen speaking four different languages to avoid trouble when several of their guests had been unable to enter the premises due to the energy barrier. Henry was not about to make that mistake again and nodded. He might as well do it now, while he was thinking about it. He flipped the switch as she entered the elevator and rode it to the second floor. Two-Faced Guy was assisting Bigfoot and several other abnormals in setting up the table. "Tell him to behave himself tonight," Helen warned him, as his alternate face scowled at her. The young man saluted and winked. Her response was a stern glance that softened as she turned her back, for he knew she liked him – as she liked all the creatures in her domain, from the fiercest monsters to the most docile, human-like refugees.
The upper corridor was cold, a draft coming through the high windows as snow continued to fall in the stone courtyard. Once darkness fell, a pattern of footprints would trail through the gate, bringing guests to their doorstep. Some of them would even be human, her trusted associates and friends from former years. Once, Tesla and the other members of the Five would have been among them, or even her father, but he had warned her it would be too dangerous to return for Christmas. Her heart ached as she considered how near she had come to having him back again. But they were all better off if he stayed away, and so he did, with much reluctance. He had sent her a Christmas card. There was no message and no signature, but she had known it was an indication of his love.
Entering her room, where a fire glowed in the hearth, she opened the door to her wardrobe. Changing into a black dress, she was struggling with the fastening at the small of her back when a pair of hands descended to assist her. Helen knew without turning her head who it was, her eyes closing at the caress of his fingertips, for it brought back memories of the past, distant emotions that passed fleetingly through her mind and softened her voice as she spoke. "John…"