By the time Wendy got home, the flyer she'd picked up on campus – honestly, did Reitman University have some kind of magnet program for budding mad scientists? – was a crumpled mess. Partly because it had been in her pocket when she'd been swarmed by a nest of hyperintelligent lab mice, and partly because every time she looked at it her fist clenched unconsciously. She'd been rehearsing a few variations on the conversation she was about to have with Lacey, a conversation that included lines like, "Maybe you could try another phone call," and, "You know that all of us here love you," and in one moment of real anger, "I know people, you know. We could settle all this now." God, she could practically feel her boss glaring at her when she just thought that one. It's not like I'd actually offer. And it's not like she'd say yes.
Okay, so at this point neither of those was a sure thing. But still.
Lacey was folded up on the couch, or rather, her lower half was. She was writing frantically in a notebook resting on the floor, her left hand splayed out beside it to keep herself level, headphone cord dangling. Wendy knew better than to interrupt.
It was a good five minutes before Lacey finally looked up and slid off the couch. "Didn't hear you come in," she said as she pulled off the headphones.
Yeah, I'm like a ninja that way, Wendy intended to say. What came out was, "Lacey. Hey."
Lacey gave her a dubious look. "'Hey'?" she repeated.
Oh God, I'm even starting to sound like him. All the carefully crafted words left her, and she held out the flyer with a sigh. "Unexpected addition to the university's winter Lunchtime Lecture series. If you need to yell, I can handle a little abuse."
To her credit, Lacey only paused for a moment in reaching for the flyer. "They're not bringing that animal testing advocate back, are they?"
"Slightly bigger catch than that."
Lacey sank against the couch like a rag doll as she read the paper. "Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., PhD.," she said hollowly.
"Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., PhD.," Wendy repeated.
"Guest lecturing on the long-term effects of the sorority environment on the social development of professional women."
"Guest lecturing on the long-term effects of the sorority environment on the social development of professional women."
"Twenty minutes from here."
"Twenty minutes from here."
"By invitation only."
"By invitation only."
"On Christmas Eve."
"On Christmas Eve." Wendy knew she was repeating like a crazy person, but she couldn't tear herself away.
"Without telling me."
The tiny wobble in her voice snapped Wendy out of it; she settled to the floor and put her arm around her best friend. "Like I said: If you need to yell…"
"I wouldn't aim it at you if I did." Lacey offered a weak smile and leaned against Wendy's shoulder. "It's okay," she said in a voice that was anything but. "I'm used to it."
"She's used to it," Wendy fumed as she studied the dials on the central console. All of them were holding steady, as they had been for the last hour. "Her own mother acts like she doesn't exist, and she's used to it. Can you believe that?"
"It's appalling," Ida agreed. "How can people treat each other that way without stopping to think about the poor defenseless androids who'll have to hear you complain about it later?"
"Since when are you defenseless?"
"My programming prevents me from shutting you up as thoroughly as I'd like to."
"Ida," the Middleman scolded gently from somewhere behind the HEYDAR. "You know I can't complete the recalibration properly if you insist on getting agitated." A beat. "And don't antagonize her, Dubby."
"She does that by existing," Ida growled.
The Middleman responded with a light tug on the wires extending from her back. "I don't want a repeat of 2004's recalibration. There's only so much Russian film commentary one man can take." He gave Wendy an apologetic look as he rounded the HEYDAR to reach a panel on the side closer to her. "Please don't think I'm ignoring you. Obviously I'm both interested in and concerned about your problems—"
"Especially when Lacey's involved?" Wendy couldn't resist teasing.
"Can't exactly deny that one," he said sheepishly. "But this is a delicate operation that requires a great deal of concentration."
"I know. I'm not looking for a deeply engaged ear, I just need to vent a little." A sigh. "And normally I'd vent to Lacey, but I can't say anything because whatever kind of person Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., PhD. might be, she's still her mom."
"The only thing harder than knowing an unpleasant truth about someone you love is hearing someone else say it," he said with a nod of understanding.
It was spoken like someone who knew what he was talking about, but Wendy knew better than to ask. "Something like that, yeah. I just don't get how anyone could walk away from Lacey."
"Everyone has their reasons."
Would it kill him to be a little judgmental? "Yeah, and I guess being a freaking—"
"…workaholic is technically a reason."
"It's not as if I have much room to disapprove of someone who's devoted to their job," he pointed out. "The best thing you can do for Lacey is remind her that, family troubles or no, there are people who love her and want to keep her safe. Along with the rest of the world," he added pointedly.
Wendy mimed surrender. "Point taken, Boss. I am in business mode." She returned her attention to the assorted readouts of the HEYDAR's functions, occasionally stealing glances at the Middleman. If he hadn't been concentrating so hard, he probably would have been whistling while he worked, he looked so content to be elbows deep in wires and gears with a screwdriver in his teeth. A little smile crept across Wendy's lips. You were totally a car guy when you were a civilian, weren't you? How much of the Middlemobile did you build yourself?
His momentary possessiveness, not letting anyone else touch his machine, certainly spoke to a 'car guy' mentality. He'd assured Wendy that it was just because she didn't know the HEYDAR's tendencies yet – once it was calibrated properly he'd promised her a much more active role in its maintenance – but his relegating her to "monitoring the readouts" still made her feel like the token girl on the starship's bridge, existing only to repeat what the computer was telling her. "So what are the odds that something weird is actually going to happen while you're doing this?"
"Pretty slim, really. The couple weeks before Christmas are traditionally the closest a Middleman gets to downtime."
"Seriously?" Wendy snorted. "I thought you'd have all kinds of lunatics trying to steal Christmas."
"A common assumption, but an incorrect one. True holiday theft attempts are considerably rarer than commonly assumed, and they've fallen out of favor in the past few decades. There are theories as to the cause of both the prevalence of the myth and the decline of the real thing, but…"
"'Please don't ask why; no one quite knows the reason'?" Wendy guessed.
That got a chuckle out of him. "As good a way to phrase it as any. The villains lay low, supernatural episodes tend to be of a more personal than aggressive nature, and…well, there has been an upsurge in alien activity in and around London these past few Christmases, but for some reason that's the only job we leave up to someone else."
"Not something I can answer, I'm afraid. But the end result is that December is the safest time of the year to leave a human in charge of gathering information while the HEYDAR and Ida go dormant for a few days."
Wendy smirked at Ida. "Merry Christmas to me."
"I'll give you merry, you little—"
"You're only hurting yourself if you throw off your baseline readings," the Middleman reminded her. He turned his attention back to Wendy. "So I'll be here on sentry duty on Christmas, and you will be on call at home just in case this is the year something does happen."
Wendy raised an eyebrow. "You're going to be alone at work on Christmas?"
He gave her a shrug and a little smile. "Could you imagine me being anywhere else?"
The challenge was set. The field was prepared. The moment was now. Wendy exhaled slowly, found her calm center, and brought the knife down in a series of quick strokes. The silk-ribbon sound of a clean cut split the silence.
Lacey leaned over her shoulder. "Will the patient recover, Doctor?"
Wendy elbowed her gently in the ribs. "I don't make fun of your artistic experiments. Not to your face, anyway."
"Most of my experiments don't involve radical painting surgery." Lacey examined the strips that had been Wendy's most recent work. "What's the plan for this one?"
"Just a little puzzle for someone to figure out," Wendy said with a smile. "Promise I'll show it off once it starts working."
"You'd better. And speaking of showing off…"
"You need an invitation? Show off already!"
On cue, Tyler stumbled up the stairs, grey and gaunt and looking like something that should have been left for dead months prior. "Oh, my God," Wendy breathed.
"That's…pretty much perfect, Lace."
"It would be better if someone knew how to hold still."
Tyler rolled his eyes. "I get why I let Wendy get away with stuff like this. Why do I take it from you, again?"
"Because the Non-Denominational Holiday Zombie may be Dub-Dub's shambling undead baby, but effects makeup is my thing. And I don't do it without a trial run first."
"Right. And I agreed to the makeup because…?"
"Because everyone loves the Holiday Zombie," both girls chorused.
"Besides," Wendy said, "you're the one who wanted to be part of our Christmas traditions. It doesn't get more traditional around here than the Christmas Eve Art Crawl slash block party, and it's just not a Christmas Eve party without the holiday edition of Stump The Band, Lacey's modernized retelling of The Snow Queen, and the undead personification of the holiday spirit."
"Three guesses as to who started that one," Lacey added. "I'm surprised to see you spending so much time on something other than this year's Holiday Zombie painting."
"Oh, I finished that one last week. I was inspired." True, the mad scientist they'd had to fight off had had nothing to do with either zombies or the holiday spirit, but the grey-green of his skin had bypassed her conscious brain entirely and gone straight for the zombie lobe.
"You are inspired," Tyler said. He turned to Lacey. "Am I free for the moment? Can I wash this off? 'Cause I'd kinda like to kiss my girlfriend without leaving weird marks."
"Get used to them now," Lacey said with a smirk. "I've seen the mistletoe Valerie is building."
"'Building'?" Tyler repeated. "I know nothing should surprise me anymore, but…"
"What, you didn't see the framework at the end of the hall when you came in?"
"The scaffolding? That has to be at least seven feet across! I just figured someone was painting the ceiling."
Wendy grinned. "We like a lot of 'under' to our mistletoe."
"Say no more; I'll look forward to the practical demonstration."
"Go," Lacey teased. "Rejoin the land of the living. There's only so much of you two I can take."
Lacey sighed as he left the room. "Still just a little jealous over that boy," she confessed.
"He snores, he eats meat, and his tastes in literature are questionable at best."
"Sounds just like someone else I know, and I still love her."
"Touché," Wendy said, hugging her. "Look, I know this party is a big thing for all of us, but nobody's going to hold it against you if you'd rather be somewhere else on Christmas Eve."
"Absolutely not," Lacey insisted. "It may have crossed my mind to get the gang together for an impromptu protest on the steps of the lecture hall, but I'd rather spend my night here with the people who really care about me than in jail for the sake of someone who doesn't."
"Don't be silly," Wendy scolded. "You know we'd bail you out."
The week was, as predicted, uneventful. Well, 'uneventful' in the sense that nothing was happening that needed a Middleman's attention. Ordinary, everyday crime was running rampant according to every frequency the Middleman could pick up on his own and, as he did every December, he missed Ida.
In addition to being a constant… 'companion' felt like the wrong word but it was the closest he could get, Ida was an excellent partner in the war against information overload. She was designed to sift through everything and lay it out in order, identifying what was important and what might be important and discarding or re-filing everything else. Even with his prodigious memory and observational skills, the Middleman found following radio chatter on his own a challenge. To say nothing of the depressing nature of the task, following the endless lists of arson, threats, and armed robbery for several days and reminding himself that the perpetrators were only a small portion of the populace he'd sworn to protect. By the twenty-fourth, he'd have been happy to get word of an alien threat, just to feel like he was doing something.Ida would have mocked him for the thought, pointed out the irony that even another human couldn't deal with human failings the way she could. It was a victory he would gladly give her.
"Have I told you lately how much I hate hibernating?"
At times like this, when she'd been absent for a while, or when she managed to look and sound half-conscious as she stumbled into view, the Middleman almost forgot that Ida was anything other than human. "Good to have you back."
"It's a little sad how happy you always are to see me," she told him. "I'd tell you to get a life, but having to hear about your sidekick's is bad enough. Limited core systems are back online, and I do mean limited. The HEYDAR and I are operating at twelve percent capacity, with full functionality expected in approximately…fifty-four hours." The fact that she had to stop and think about it was indicator enough that all was not running smoothly. "God, it's like somebody stuffed my head with wool. This must be what the little stoner feels like all the time."
The Middleman ignored the remark. "Everything running smoothly so far?"
"Got maybe a third of my usual radio frequencies, and the search engine's currently only slightly more powerful than the original Google. Before NASA made them scale it back."
"Should at least be enough to get us through an emergency if anything crops up before you're back at full power."
"Better test it now if you're expecting an emergency."
"A Middleman who doesn't expect an emergency doesn't stay a Middleman for long."
Ida rolled her eyes. "Spare me the lecture and give me something to find."
"Get me a location on Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., PhD." The words were out of his mouth before he realized he'd thought them, but after a moment of reflection he decided he would have said them anyway. Something was brewing. Not a plan yet, but something like one. "And a list of anyone local who owes us a small favor."
"Your funeral," Ida growled. "And God help us all when that girl realizes just how tight she's got you wrapped around her little finger."
Even in the middle of the day, even on Christmas Eve on a college campus, and even by invitation only, a lecture with Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., PhD drew in a full crowd. She was politely unsurprised, shrugging off the praise from the university officials as they escorted her to her hired car. "Of course I'd be open to a follow-up engagement, schedule permitting. Just keep in touch with my home office and we'll see what we can do."
The driver gave her a nod in the rearview mirror as she buckled into the backseat. "'Schedule permitting.' A handy phrase."
She gave him a tight smile. "It's served me well."
"A wise woman. A wise woman who's going to the airport, yes?"
"And quickly. I don't have a lot of time."
"Got something special planned? Visiting the family for Christmas?"
Another lecture, actually. Or an awards ceremony. Or a summit. She couldn't even remember anymore. Francis would remind her when she got there. She slumped back in her seat. "Sure, let's go with that." Fortunately, the driver caught her warning tone and didn't comment further. Didn't say another word, in fact, until they reached the barricade almost twenty minutes later.
It consisted mostly of a few very large vans and a lot of uniformed men, but it was still effective. "What on Earth is going on?"
"I don't think it's Earth they're concerned with," the driver said. "Those are NASA uniforms."
"That's insane," Dr. Thornfield started to say, but insane or not it was obviously true. One of the uniforms had broken away from the knot of people and was waving them to the side of the road.
"Sorry, folks, but this entire area is being blocked off. We've got an extraplanetary device ready to make an unexpected landing, and we need all civilians off the streets."
The driver nodded. "Okay. What's the detour?"
"There's no time for a detour!" the uniform shouted at him. "The sky could come crashing down at any minute! Everyone within a five-mile radius needs to be indoors and out of the way now. If you're local I can escort you home, if not I'll be taking you to the high school gym until this clears up."
"I'm not local," Dr. Thornfield said coldly, drawing herself up to her full height in a seated position. "And I have a plane to catch." Did she not have enough to worry about already?
"Shame you're going to miss it. Look, I don't want to be the guy ruining everyone's holiday, but this is a serious situation. So if you don't have anywhere else to go, you're coming with me."
Bad enough that this was going to destroy her schedule, now she was going to have to spend the night crammed into a high school gym? Dr. Thornfield squared her shoulders to launch a protest at the man, but a sudden thought made her hesitate. Was this even the right city? It was hard enough remembering where she was some days, let alone finding anyone else. "I have a daughter," she said. "On Northwood, near the old coffee company." Was that right? It sounded like the description Lacey had given her the last time she'd tried to visit.
"I know that place," the driver said. "With all the arty kids, right?"
That sounded even more like the right description. "Yes," she said, relieved to know she'd remembered correctly.
The uniform didn't comment, just nodded and gestured towards one of the vans. "We'll follow you."
When the car was back on the road, Dr. Thornfield pulled out her PDA and sent a quick message to Francis explaining the change of plans. He'd figure out some way to reschedule, and doing so would keep him occupied for a while and distract him from calling her to pitch a fit about the situation. "Turns out you were right," she told the driver as she typed. "Apparently I am going to visit family for Christmas."
A fight had broken out over Stump The Band. Well, more of a very heated argument, but in a crowd of eggnog-fueled artists, a heated argument about music was a half step away from a fight and two steps away from a full-on brawl. "It's not a Christmas song!"
"Have you listened to the lyrics?"
"No direct references, no Christmas release, no December radio airtime."
The sound of pure Zen cut through the noise as the man himself spoke. "It's cool," Noser said. "I know it."
A riot of applause. That was the most important aspect of the debate settled.
Lacey shook her head. "Every single year."
"All great art is controversial." Bedecked in the finest tattered rags a zombie could ask for, Tyler raised his glass to the master of the craft. "Even if sometimes it's very odd controversy. And that's totally a Christmas song."
"Don't you start," Wendy warned. She was sporting a little of the undead chic look herself, although not intentionally. Tyler's concerns about the makeup rubbing off on her had been well-founded in that it happened, but unnecessary in that nobody seemed to notice or care. Hey, even a simple walk across the hall involved a lot of time spent under the wire-and-fabric mistletoe, and who was she to argue with tradition? "We've already had a Christmas Eve House War once, and the excitement is not worth the cleanup."
"You think she's kidding," Lacey added when he laughed. "The laundry room hasn't been the same since."
"Hey, I have seen entirely too much around this place to doubt you. Or to want to be on the opposite side if anything goes down." He gave Wendy a speculative look. "Although after seeing you breeze through every first-person shooter known to man it would be interesting to see you react in a non-cyberspace firefight."
Wendy nearly choked, torn between scoffing and panicking. She stifled both, covering her reaction with a quick swig of her drink. "Believe me when I say that you really don't want to see that."
Before Tyler could respond, there was a disturbance further down the hall. "Hey, what's going on?"
"Remain calm, folks. There's no need for concern."
Oh, great. An official-sounding voice. In Wendy's professional experience, those were never helpful. Even worse was the chatter that was building among the residents. "Hey, is that NASA?"
Oh, no. "Hang on; I'm gonna check this out." You wanted to see me in action, Tyler Ford? Stick around and you just might get that wish.
A small group of uniformed men was blocking off the front door, accompanied by a worried-looking blonde woman. One of the men was addressing the crowd. "All we need is for you folks to spend the rest of the night indoors until the probe makes a landing and we can collect it. I assure you that you are in no danger provided you remain here. This is a routine procedure; we have no reason to believe that the probe has evolved artificial intelligence and returned to Earth to judge its makers."
Wendy froze. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me." She hadn't said a word about the season being peaceful, or about her being unofficially off duty. She'd made a point not to even think it! What was the point of not tempting fate if fate was going to go ahead and drop in on her anyway? She pushed her way to the front of the crowd and, with the air of authority that was second nature to her by now, grabbed the man at the furthest end of the line, the one nobody would be looking at. He was young and scrawny and slightly familiar, and he fought to keep a professional calm as she snarled at him. "What."
He took a deep breath and launched into what was obviously a coached speech. "Ma'am, if you will remain calm—"
She cut him off with a gesture, holding her Middlewatch up to his face. "Right," she said in response to his look of recognition and relief "Gonna assume my boss sent you."
A nod. "He told us you'd be here somewhere. Didn't describe you very well, though." A leer. "Didn't say you were cute, for one thing."
The pieces fell into place and Wendy where she recognized him from. Incubus. It at least explained what kind of favors her boss had called in to get someone to impersonate NASA on Christmas Eve. "You do realize I could kill you with very little effort."
"Hey, you try going cold turkey," the barely-reformed incubus in the NASA uniform – My God, my job is weird – snapped. "All he said we had to do was lock down the building and deliver the passenger, and that you'd understand what was going on."
"Then he overestimated me! What passenger?"
The incubus pointed to the blonde woman. "Her."
Wendy waited for a spark of recognition to dawn, but there was nothing. "Honestly, I have no idea who—"
She barely recognized Lacey's voice. It was the tiny, scared sound of someone afraid to believe she was right. The woman brightened. "Lacey! There you are."
All of it, this entire setup…. Oh, Boss. You didn't. You wouldn't.
The man who had framed her for arson rose in Wendy's mind. You would.
Years of anger and frustration, all the tears and shouting that would have to come eventually, stepped aside for a moment and allowed Lacey to step forward and hug her mother. "I missed you."
"Me too, honey."
You totally did.
Grinning, Wendy touched the "leader" of the group on the shoulder. "I think I can take it from here," she said, turning to face her housemates. "Listen up! Anyone have any intention of leaving this building tonight?" The chorus of shouts that followed indicated that this was unlikely. "Anyone have any objections to inviting Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., PhD to the party?" The 'no's were even louder this time. "Then what are we all standing around for?"
As the rest of the house took their cues to return to the usual celebration, Wendy nodded to the line of incubi. "Your work here is done, gentlemen. Thank you, tell the man who sent you 'mission accomplished,' and have a merry Christmas. If you're allowed to celebrate Christmas; I don't know how it works for you guys."
Lacey looked all of six years old, clinging to her mother's arm and beaming like a lit Christmas tree. "Mom, this is—"
"You hardly have to tell me," Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., PhD said, extending her hand. "Quick, authoritative, and covered in paint? This can only be Wendy."
She was technically covered in secondhand zombie makeup, but the principle still applied, probably. "And of course Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., PhD needs no introduction," Wendy said, returning the handshake.
The woman gave her daughter an odd look "'Barb' is fine, thank you."
Further introductions were made, and the air of welcome was instantaneous. The same as they had with Tyler, Wendy's housemates immediately accepted Dr. Thornfield – in her head, that was as informal as Wendy could get – as part of the family. It was while she was trying her hand at Stump The Band that Lacey broke away from her to whisper in Wendy's ear. "What did you do?"
Wendy blinked. "When? Concerning what?"
"Don't play games with me, Dub-Dub. This can't be a coincidence."
Lacey just gave her a Look. "NASA and my mother, and this is the place where they happen to converge? That's textbook impossible weirdness of the kind that only you can supply."
Wendy couldn't help smiling. Thank God you're too smart to ask more questions about that. "I promise you, if there was any kind of plan or setup involved I had nothing to do with it." And the best part was that it was perfectly true.
Just a little bit weaselly, though, and Lacey was also smart enough to pick up on that. "Okay," she said in her best 'I'm humoring you' voice. "But if you happen to have some idea of who did, and you ever meet them…say thanks for me, okay?"
Wendy nodded. "I will bear that in mind, should I have the opportunity to talk to Santa Claus." She gave lacey a hug and looked up. "Oh, boy. Looks like your mom found this year's painting."
Dr. Thornfield was indeed standing in front of Wendy's canvas, wearing a very bemused expression. Especially as she caught sight of Tyler. She looked back and forth between the painting and the live version for a few moments before tilting her head at Wendy. "Is that…a zombie drinking eggnog out of a human skull?"
"Oh, excellent!" Wendy burst out. "I was worried that it wasn't immediately recognizable as eggnog."
"No, it's very well rendered," Dr. Thornfield assured her, in a 'that didn't really answer my question' voice. "Dare I ask why?"
The response was like a flutter of birdsong from practically everyone in earshot. "Because everyone loves the Holiday Zombie."
A slow nod. "Well, I did ask."
"There are three things you can't have Christmas without," Wendy said. She nudged Lacey. "Speaking of which, you should be in costume."
Dr. Thornfield brightened. "You mean I'm actually going to get to see you perform, Lacey?"
The sudden start, the little frozen moment, was the closest Wendy had ever seen Lacey come to stage fright. "Uh-huh," she finally managed. She drew herself up with a deep breath. "It's what I do."
Wend squeezed her friend's hand. "You're gonna do great. You always do. Now go get changed."
"I hate the thought that I make her nervous," Dr. Thornfield confessed as he daughter retreated to her apartment.
"You're just the biggest audience she's had in a long time." There was a mistrust that Wendy still couldn't shake – this was the woman who'd done a serious number on her best friend's heart, after all – but she was starting to warm up to Barbara Thornfield, the woman who wasn't being a doctor at the moment. She genuinely seemed to love Lacey; she just wasn't around to show it as often as she should be. "She really has missed you, you know."
"I know. And I'm glad that you've been here to take care of her."
Wendy shook her head. "Hey, she takes care of me just as much."
A smile. "That's my girl. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to meet someone so important to her. I was afraid you'd think I didn't approve of you."
"Of course not." I was starting to wonder if you approved of your daughter, though, Wendy added in her head.
"That's a relief." Dr. Thornfield laughed. "My God, how long have you two been dating, anyway?"
Naturally, the moment before Wendy could correct her was the moment the lights chose to dim. The hall was smothered in darkness, and in that darkness, silence. What little light remained focused on the only thing bright enough to reflect it: Lacey. She was dressed in what almost looked like a coat of white and silver fur, which floated through the crowd like mist as she made her way to the stage. "The story is different every time," she intoned as she stood onstage and faced the crowd. "But it's always a story of love, and of finding what's been lost. And it always starts the same way: In darkness." Slowly, slowly, the lights rose, turning her into a blaze of fire. "And it always ends in sunlight."
Headquarters was quiet on Christmas morning, so much that Wendy paused at the door and took a furtive look around, even knocking on the doorframe in the hopes of attracting someone's attention. Nobody answered, but nothing leapt out at her either. She realized after a minute that there was sound, although much softer than usual. There was none of Ida's usual running commentary or the Middleman's customary greeting, and the normal clicks and beeps and occasional static of the HEYDAR were reduced to an electronic buzz. Still offline, apparently.
Her boss was at his desk, wearing headphones and staring into the distance. Every so often his expression would focus in a look of concentration, but mostly it was just an absentminded look as whatever he was hearing washed over him. Wendy didn't interrupt, just sidestepped into the corner of his vision.
It was all that was necessary. He blinked, with a quick shake of his head, and pulled the headphones off. Wendy recognized the garbled, staticky sounds: radio chatter. "Good morning, Dubby. I didn't expect to see you today."
"I couldn't leave you all alone on Christmas, could I? I had to drop in, especially since the Paranoid Android isn't even up to keeping you company."
He shook his head. "Don't think I'm not happy to see you, but—"
"'But' nothing. I'm here, I brought hot chocolate, I'm staying."
He perked up a little at the mention of hot chocolate – there really were some bribes that were universal – but he held firm. "You don't need to be here. Today of all days, you should be with the people you love."
Wendy rolled her eyes as she perched on the edge of his desk. "And when are you going to get it through your head that that's a group that includes you? I've got the entire afternoon and evening blocked off for Lacey and Tyler, and Mom's not flying in until New Year's; there's no reason I shouldn't spend part of my morning keeping one of my people company."
Okay, however much the clean-cut, square-jawed, boy-scout look wasn't her thing, Wendy had to admit her boss was a special kind of cute when he was being flattered. He let out a breath that was almost a nervous laugh. "And I suppose I can't object to that."
"Or the hot chocolate?" Wendy suggested, sliding the thermos across the desk to him. "Thank Lacey's mother," she said as he pulled a pair of mugs out of a desk drawer – she wasn't even surprised that he had them handy; there was the boy scout thing again – and filled one for her. "It turns out that on top of everything else, Dr. Barbara Thornfield, M.D., PhD makes incredibly good hot chocolate."
"Lacey's mother? Really?"
"Yeah. You'll never believe it, but she just happened to be driving through the neighborhood when it was briefly and inexplicably locked down by NASA."
The Middleman tilted his head innocently. "What an unexpected coincidence."
"You're a terrible liar when you're pleased with yourself."
He broke the thin façade with a grin. "I'm just glad it worked. It was a last-minute plan."
"'A last-minute plan'? You put an entire neighborhood under house arrest just to make sure that one girl got to see her mother on Christmas Eve!"
"One street blocked off, a complicit driver, and a building full of people willing to listen to an authority figure telling them to stay in a place they had no intention of leaving anyway. I didn't do all that much."
"You made Lacey's year, is what you did. I can't remember the last time I saw her that happy."
"I wish I could have seen it."
"Come on," Wendy said teasingly, trying to brush away the note of sadness in his voice. "With all that surveillance technology you have everywhere? I refuse to believe you didn't spy on that meeting just a little."
"Just long enough to make sure I hadn't inadvertently set the stage for an unpleasant confrontation," he confessed. "I do try to give you and yours as much privacy as I can. Besides, it's not the same as being there."
"I know." Wendy patted his shoulder awkwardly. The cameras weren't the same as standing next to someone you love and watching their face light up, knowing it was you who put that smile there. "I think she kinda suspects you had something to do with it, though."
The Middleman narrowed his eyes, suddenly all business. "Define 'suspects.'"
She gave him a gently scolding look. "Lacey's not a threat and you know it. If she was, we'd have been in trouble long before this. And technically she suspects whatever weirdness magnet I've picked up lately, but since that's basically you…" She was relieved to see him relax. "Anyway. She told me if I ever happen to run into her 'mystery benefactor,' I should thank him." Trying not to tip off the desk entirely, she leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "So that's from both of us."
With a smile at the unexpected gesture, he rested his hand over hers and gave it a light squeeze. "You're both very welcome."
Wendy raised one finger, a gesture of I'm not done yet as she pulled a thick envelope out of her bag. "And this is from me."
He gave her a curious, surprised look as he opened the envelope, tipping the contents into his hand. A dozen or so bright strips of card paper, painted and sealed with the best archival-quality materials Wendy could get her hands on. "To make the researching go a little smoother," she said, the explanation feeling necessary and inadequate. Gift-giving, especially when art was involved, was one of the few things that still always made her nervous.
He wasn't helping, looking curiously at the little pieces as he thumbed through them with gentle hands. "Hand-painted bookmarks," he finally said in a tone of…well, Wendy might have said 'wonder' if it didn't seem so dramatic. "Something so simple and so practical, and you turned them into miniature works of art." Several miniature works of art and one big one, in fact, but Wendy was going to let him discover the big painting on the reverse sides on his own. "A one-of-a-kind Wendy Watson original. I never thought I'd be lucky enough to own one." He gave her a look of sincere gratitude and appreciation. "There's not often room in this job for art, but I've been fond of yours since I met you." The hand returned to hers. "Thank you."
Wendy smiled and gave him a little shrug. "You're worth painting for," she said simply.
Phrasing it that way seemed to leave him stunned for a moment before he laughed and shook his head, rising and walking to one of the file cabinets. He pulled out another envelope, about three times the size of the one she'd just given him, and handed it to her. "And I thought I was going to impress you this year."
The CD case inside was black and blank, with a label across the front reading "AUTHORIZED DISTRIBUTION ONLY." The letter and accompanying non-disclosure agreement it was packaged with looked equally forbidding, but Wendy recognized the logo on the letterhead. She got about as far as Congratulations on your selection for our preliminary testing panel before her brain froze. She raised her head slowly and gaped at her boss. "You got me into the Gut Wrencher 4 beta test"
He smiled at her. "A good choice?"
"You got me into the Gut Wrencher 4 beta test."
Now his brow furrowed. "Is something wrong?"
Words left her, and she could only shake her head. She threw her arms around him with a squeak. Best. Boss. Ever.
There was a surprised grunt as she forced the air out of his lungs. After a stunned moment the Middleman hugged her tightly. "Merry Christmas, Dubby."
"With you around? I don't think there's another kind."