Most of the characters in this story are the property of ABC TV and other entities, and I do not have any permission to borrow them. Not that I think ABC will notice; it certainly isn't taking very good care of them. However, no infringement is intended, and this story is not for profit. All other characters are my property, and if you want to mess with them, you have to ask me first. Feedback is most welcome.

*****

The first shimmering tone broke his concentration. He raised his head, ears suddenly alert, eyes narrowing as his attention shifted. Another peal came, slightly muffled through the glass of the window, and his fingers automatically moved to save his work on the sleek laptop before he pushed it away. He sat back in his chair, folded his arms, and listened to the carillon that rang out over the holiday-shopping city.

He'd always enjoyed the sound of melodic metal. Wherever he went, if he could, he hung windchimes so he could listen to the breeze snaking past. Such pleasures were not necessarily encouraged, but they were ignored as long as they did not interfere with the performance of duty. He made sure that his taste for pure sounds did not.

He wasn't musical. There were those among his people who were, and it was a permitted hobby; some even made use of their talents when they carried out assignments in the human world. But as a chameleon, he did not allow himself such a distraction. His responsibilities, his duties were too all-consuming to leave room for spare-time activities. He had other, more disciplined ways of relieving stress.

There were moments, however, when he took a little time to savor a sweet sound. Where his mentor preferred classical, he chose music that included handbells, vibraphones, even steeldrums. And it was this time of year that offered serendipitous moments like this. Christmas was coming, and the city's bells were playing.

*****

It was quite dark when he left his office. It wasn't cold, of course; Los Angeles never got really cold, and he knew that some would consider his assignment there a privilege. Few among his species really enjoyed cold weather. But for him it was irrelevant. A chameleon was prepared to go anywhere, become anyone, to accomplish a task.

Traffic, even at this hour, meant he had to drive slowly, and he left his windows down in hopes that some distant chimes might reach his ears. But all he heard was the off-key jangle of a Salvation Army handbell. It made him wince.

He studied the steadily ringing supplicant as traffic carried him gradually past. This time of year was always a puzzle to him. Oh, he knew the story behind the season, the myth and the tradition and the core of history that the rest was built upon; "know your enemy" was no idle phrase among his people. It seemed that most of the Western world participated in this festival to some degree, despite the fact that few professed belief in the reason behind it; and fewer still proved their belief in action. It made no sense. A civilization that proclaimed its compassion, yet saved charity's indulgence for one month per year--and seemed to ignore the disparity.

There were so many of them. Sometimes he would watch the myriads of people streaming by and dare to doubt; not his species' goal, never that, but the possibility of carrying it out. They were so few against this massive, potentially hostile force. Hundreds of thousands of faces, of feelings, of lives; so very many, and each one a possible threat.

The discordant bell faded behind him as he steered his car out of the snarl of traffic. Once into the suburbs, travel was faster. His vehicle slid quietly through the evening; he automatically noted the new strings of colored lights on some of the houses, the plastic lawn ornaments that had not been there that morning. He considered, briefly, the idea of putting up such a display himself, then discarded it. Such camouflage was not required in his present persona. He always greeted his neighbors politely but did not encourage conversation, and he played the role of the workaholic bachelor to perfection. Perhaps, though, he should place a tree in the window later. Or maybe "leave town" for a few days. That would save him from well-meaning invitations, at least. His carefully cultivated distance was not proof against some of the older women on his street, who, he judged, suffered from empty-nest syndrome.

He pulled his car up behind the sedan parked at the curb. So, his mentor had decided to drop by. Unusual. Normally orders were relayed by computer or phone when he was this deep in a role.

The candelabra in the fireplace flickered with golden light as he shut the front door behind him. It was another indulgence, but certain details were needed to make the house look "normal" to human eyes. Besides--when it came to his own species--the better one performed, the less attention was paid to such idiosyncrasies. And he was very good at what he did.

A figure appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, silhouetted by the light behind so it was only a shadow. But he knew who stood there. A handsome, silver-haired man, not past middle height or middle age, who carried himself with complete confidence in his own power.

"You're late," came the pleasant voice.

"I had a few things to finish up," he returned. "What brings you by?"

"Oh, come now, Tom," the man chided. "Do I need an excuse?"

Tom shrugged and set down his briefcase. "I will if Mrs. Gustafson up the street saw you. She's already half-convinced I walk on the other side of the fence."

A rich chuckle. "Will that get you in trouble with the homeowner's association?"

"Nothing I can't handle." Tom slid out of his coat and draped it over the arm of the couch. "Why are you here, Lewis?"

The silhouette turned and headed back into the kitchen, and Tom followed. The table was set for two, and Tom was not surprised. Lewis always liked to be in control of his environment. It was he who had lit the candles.

"Partly to bring you an update on your current assignment." Lewis opened the microwave and took out a casserole dish. "What is this? It was at the front of your freezer."

Tom sniffed the steam wafting from the dish. "It's salmon." He went to the sink to wash his hands. "And what else?"

Lewis set the dish on the table and took a seat. "Partly to tell you that I'll be out of touch for a couple of weeks. Lisa has returned from her most recent test and we'll be going away for the next stage of training."

Tom nodded and dried his hands. Lewis served out portions of the casserole as Tom sat down. "So, what's the update?"

He wondered if Lewis ever tired of his game of humor, of drawing out conversations as a human would. It would be much simpler if he merely passed on the information. But Lewis was always testing, even now, so Tom considered it easier to play along.

Lewis swallowed a mouthful. "As per your requirement, the operative is now in place and has begun his assignment. However, the subject is proving initially resistant."

Tom took a bite, unconcerned. "That doesn't surprise me. As it happens, it doesn't matter whether the subject gives in eventually or not. The operative is just for appearances' sake."

"So I deduced," Lewis said. "You've won approval in finding out about this child. He's dangerously perceptive."

Tom said nothing. The human boy was brilliant, if young, but he had discovered some of their activities. Though he knew nothing of their significance as yet, he had to be eliminated before he found out too much.

Lewis did not stay long beyond supper. Even the meal was partly a decoy; observers were unlikely but not impossible. He gave Tom a handful of computer disks--more information for his assignment, other general data--and left. Standing on the porch as Lewis drove away, Tom saw a curtain flutter in a window two doors up the street, and sighed. Mrs. Gustafson had spotted them.

The air had been still all day, but now a wind was rising. The flames of the fireplace candles were flickering wildly in the draught coming down the chimney, and he blew them out before they could spatter wax on the floor. Then he settled on the couch and closed his eyes, listening to the tangling notes of his windchimes.

*****

He woke from a memory-dream, the sound of rain on a tin roof--but as always, it slid away from him before he could focus on it. This grasping after removed memories was natural, instinctive, he'd been told--but he'd also been warned not to indulge in it. Chameleons had no need for what had been taken from them, and struggling to recapture it could distract them from their missions.

He sighed and stretched, the luminescent surface of his bed solid beneath his back. Today his role of FBI agent called for canvassing various parts of the city, ostensibly seeking information about several missing children. In truth, he knew very well what had happened to them. This sort of persona-maintenance was necessary, but he found it rather dull.

Dressing was automatic, and he only used the mirror to be sure his tie was straight. The image looking back at him with smoke-colored eyes was every inch the straitlaced Bureau agent--conservative suit, hair cut harshly close to his skull, the deliberate grace of one who was never unarmed. Only the intensity of the gaze hinted that he was other than he seemed.

It wasn't until he was deep in the city that the significance of the date came to him. It was December 24--Christmas Eve. That explained the suppressed panic of some of the shoppers rushing about from store to store, as well as the general level of pleasurable anticipation. As he paced along sidewalks, he sensed pockets of exhaustion, joy, tension, depression, quiet reverence--all seemingly related to the celebrations already beginning. He tuned them out as much as he could.

It was a long day. People were busy, and often had scant time for a government agent asking after children they did not know. He walked most places, since traffic was worse than usual--dodging children, sliding past parcel-laden shoppers, ignoring the muttered requests for spare change. He evaded two pickpockets and one man with something more unsavory on his mind. If pushed, he could perform an arrest, but that would put pressures on his role that he would rather avoid.

Darkness was leaning down from the cloudy sky when he paused to eat. He'd garnered no useful information--not even if his investigation had been real--but there were now any number of people who could testify to his activities. His feet hurt with walking and his nostrils stung from pollution, but such discomforts were automatically relegated to the back of his mind as he went on with his task. Still, when chilly rain began to spatter the pavement, he decided to seek shelter for a little while. The rain would not last long, and cabs would be easier to catch later.

The nearest shelter turned out to be a church--not a large one, and a bit worn around the edges--but its doors were not locked. He let himself in and walked silently through the dim foyer. The sounds coming from the sanctuary were muted, but he could feel the wave of rich emotion beyond the inner doors. Apparently a service was in progress.

It was warmer in the sanctuary. He slid into an empty back pew. This was as good a place as any to wait out the rain, and he would probably not be disturbed. Shedding his coat, he folded it onto the bench, placed his scarf on top, and looked around.

Shabby the exterior might be, but the inside of the church was a blaze of gold and color. Night muted the brilliance of the many stained glass windows encircling the sanctuary, but candles and lights by the hundreds illuminated other ornamentation--paintings, carvings, statues. The air smelled of people, of incense and wax, of wood and stone, and faintly of rain. Most of the pews were occupied by at least a few figures, and some were nearly full. Voices murmured faintly over the low hum of an organ.

He was wrong about the service, he realized. It was about to begin. For a second, he considered leaving again, then decided to stay for a while. No one would notice when he left, not here in the back.

The organ exhaled a rushing chord, and the people rose and began to sing. Intrigued--he had never had the opportunity to observe this particular human behavior before--he absorbed the proceedings. The lighting of still more candles, the readings from the Bible, the chanting of liturgy, all interwoven and interspersed with hymns. He noted that many people did not need to consult the hymnals for the verses to these songs.

Perhaps it was his weariness, or the distant sound of rain on the pavement outside, but the service and the lights and the warmth eased him into a gentle trance. He ceased to analyze the humans' behavior and simply watched, caught up in the pattern of the service. The ancient story was retold in Bible verse and song--the angel's prediction, the parents' trials, the sacred birth in a stable. The shepherds sent by angelic orders. The mystics who followed a strange star to a king. Pulses of familiarity, of nostalgia, of...adoration?...washed around him.

He watched the congregation file up for communion and frowned faintly. This part of the ritual made no sense to him at all. Was it a memorial to the man whose words the priest echoed? A bonding ceremony in the sharing of token morsels?

The service wound on to its conclusion. The congregation again rose to sing the final hymn, their voices bolstered by the choir. The song was fast, triumphant, and the people all but shouted the words. Suddenly, he was caught in the cresting rush of love, of faith, of fierce joy that swept from them and wove into the hymn. The music soared, and for an instant, so did he. For the merest moment, his iron self-control, his well of cool power, seemed as brittle as ice, about to shatter under the pressure of the singers' emotions, about to splinter from some great swelling within him.

Then he had it back. All that he was snapped back into place, firm and rock solid. The sanctuary seemed suddenly alien, the congregation creatures of whom he had no understanding. The gold was gaudy, the air stifling.

He snatched up his coat and scarf, noticing belatedly that he was on his feet. His mouth tightened, and he berated himself for his loss of control. This was unacceptable. He shrugged quickly into his coat and all but ran out of the church.

The rain had stopped, but the sky was still thick with clouds. He set off at a fast pace, unwilling to take the time to hail a cab just yet. He wanted to concentrate on getting his inner turmoil under control.

How could that have happened? He had not been susceptible to human emotion since adolescence. He thrust the memory of that joy deep into his mind, willing it away from his consciousness. He was only barely aware of the emptiness that seemed to yawn in its place. Emotion had no place in his species. It was a vestige of their human ancestry--something to be discarded. He would have to spend more time on his disciplines. And--he thought grimly--this was not something he would mention to his mentor.

He walked on into the damp and chilly night, a shadow among shadows, deliberately forgetting what he had felt.

And overhead, the bells rang out.