Title: The Tradition of Sprigs

Author: Kuria Dalmatia

CHAPTER 9

~~~~ 2:23 PM Washington, DC. December 24, 2029 ~~~~

"What's the deal with your dads and mistletoe?"

Jack Hotchner blinks at the question. His girlfriend looks at him expectantly as she gestures to the shadow-box on the wall that holds six dead sprigs of something that he's never noticed before. Jack stutters, "It's always been there."

Elena hitches an eyebrow. "And you've never noticed it."

"It's not like I live here anymore," he says defensively.

She sighs. "And I'm guessing you didn't notice the silver mistletoe stocking hooks on the mantle or the mistletoe garland on the hearth or the fourteen or so mistletoe ornaments on the tree. Oh, and your dad is wearing a tie with mistletoe designs, designs which also match his sweater, his tie bar, his watch band... You're telling me you missed his socks? Jack, they're purple!"

Jack pinches his nose. Jesus. He's embarrassed because, well, he never pays much attention how his parents decorate for Christmas. It's not like, all of a sudden, his parents massively changed up the displays. Everything is, for the most part, the way he remembers. As for what his dad wears … he always wears some weird holiday sweater on Christmas Day, as does Papi.

"You seriously never noticed?" she asks in disbelief. "Swear to God, the living room looks like they hijacked an entire mistletoe gift shop and then some."

He scowls. It's a sore point with him, because the profiling gene completely skipped over him. He's been raised by two incredibly gifted agents whose job is to notice things. If Elena picked up on all the patterns so quickly, why couldn't he? How many times has he heard his dads say, You need to be more observant.

Elena gives him a look before taking a step back. "I'm going for my masters in horticulture, Jackie."

"And?"

She arches an eyebrow. "Plants are my thing, okay?"

"Okay," he agrees as he huffs out a sigh. "Can we just drop it?"

"So you're not going to ask them?"

"No," he says lamely, because there's always a whole lot more going on with his dads than he can ever wrap his head around. Of all the things he picked up on – what the hell is up with them celebrating freaking Columbus Day like they do?—he knows that there's always going to be something about his parents he'll never quite understand. To have his girlfriend just get it right away annoys the shit out of him. It prompts him to say, "If you need to know so badly, why don't you ask them about it?"

In the six months he's been dating Elena Marscapinez, he's never seen her back away from a dare. This time is no different. She walks into the living room, hands on her hips, and asks, "Mister Hotchner? What's the deal with you and the mister celebrating the Arceuthobium?"

His father looks at Elena as if he has absolutely no clue what she is talking about. He glances around the room, as if noticing the decorations for the first time.

Predictably, Papi comes in for the save. "You mean Phoradendron Leucarpum."

Her eyes narrow before she gives the room another once-over. "Okay, the Phoradendron. But there are five species from the Arceuthobium family in that shadowbox in the hallway."

"Correct," Papi nods his head, just like he always does when someone gives the right answer.

"All you need is a cash register here and you can open up a Phoradendron gift shop."

His parents don't react, not even a hitch of their eyebrows.

Jack can tell that Elena wants to press further. She always taps her left thigh with her index finger when she's deciding something. He spares a glance to his dad, who's sitting in the wingback chair and favoring Elena with that bland look that says, Keep going. But it's not a real friendly look. It's the look that always scares the crap out his friends. Papi's expression is similar, except his head is cocked slightly to the side. Jack knows they've ceded control of the conversation to Elena and are waiting for her to go on.

The silence is uncomfortable. Jack hates when his parents do this, because they always swear that they're not trying to be intimidating. So Jack steps forward, because he should have known his dads would react this way, and says, "Elena's working on her masters in herbicide physiology."

"Virginia Tech has the Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science department, correct?" Papi inquires.

"Yeah," Elena answers but her tone is wary.

"Have you chosen a specific area of focus?" his dad asks, friendly and inviting as if the earlier verbal standoff hadn't happened.

She looks over her shoulder and all Jack can do is shrug. He wonders if she's going to be pissed at him later, because he dared her to confront his dads and didn't give her a warning about what they can be like when they don't want to discuss something. Elena just rolls her eyes as she turns back toward his parents and answers the question.

The rest of the day goes by smoothly (thank God). Elena's excited to have someone understand her work and spends a bulk of the time discussing her proposed thesis with Papi. Jack ends up helping his dad in the kitchen with dinner. They don't talk much—they never have—and Jack is relieved his father doesn't seem peeved about the whole mistletoe interrogation.

Best of all, his dads don't give him any shit about Elena sleeping with him in his room. At one in the morning, Jack realizes why: it's a massive pain in the ass to share a twin bed with another person, no matter how much they love each other. So he wanders down to the kitchen—he supposes he inherits his middle-of-the-night snack raid tendencies from his papi—and is surprised to find both his parents at the breakfast bar. They're munching on the cookies, carrots and apples that they still leave out for Santa even though Jack stopped believing when he was ten.

Elena's the first person who doesn't tease him about the tradition. She even whips up a small batch of biscochos and hot chocolate so that Santa knows there's a Latina in the house. It makes him love her a bit more.

His parents eat in silence, taking turns dipping the biscochos in the single mug of hot chocolate. It's then that Jack recognizes the pattern on his dad's sleepwear, sleepwear which he has worn every Christmas for the past ten years. "Seriously?" Jack blurts out. "Mistletoe PJs?"

His dad raises is eyebrows in surprise and, just like this afternoon, he looks at his clothing as if it's the first time he's seen them. "Hmmm," he says and reaches for another cookie. He offers it to Jack. "Would you like one?"

He sighs dramatically but then shuffles over to the empty stool next to his dad and accepts the cookie. "So how long have you had this whole Cult of Mistletoe going on?"

"Cult?" Papi echoes. "A cult implies that …"

"You know what I mean, Papi," Jack interrupts. He peers into the earthenware pitcher that Elena had made the hot chocolate in and is disappointed that it's all gone. Figures. Both his parents are cocoa fiends.

His dads exchange glances and their eyebrows do that little dance when they do that whole "unspoken conversation" thing. It's annoying.

"I kissed Spencer for the first time under a sprig of oak mistletoe," his dad finally says.

"Two years later, your dad proposed," Papi chimes in.

"I know that," he tells them but shakes his head. He realizes that his parents aren't going to give up any more information. He doesn't get The Look, but he recognizes what the short statements mean. If he wants the full explanation, he'll have to interrogate them and the last thing he wants to do at one in the morning is interrogate his parents. It doesn't stop him from grousing, "So you decided to go overboard with the mistletoe every year in honor of it? Elena gave me the rundown of the rest of the stuff she saw. Cocktail forks? For real?"

His dad grins. "I like her."

"Very observant," Papi adds.

"Well spoken."

"Determined."

"I'm surprised she didn't pursue her line of questioning earlier."

Jack rolls his eyes. "Because you both gave her The Look, the one you swear you're not trying to intimidate my friends with."

Again, his parents exchange glances. It's Papi who apologizes, "We didn't mean to, Jack."

"I don't think we scared her off," Dad tacks on, because they've done that to more than one of Jack's girlfriends. Elena is the first to take his parents' behavior in stride, the first one not to stare slack-jawed at Papi's encyclopedic knowledge of almost everything and the first one not to gush over his dad's impressive FBI career.

"She made biscochos." Papi snags another cookie off the plate.

"These are really good, especially with the cocoa."

"Which you bogarted most of," Papi chides and his dad gives that wide teasing grin as he waggles his eyebrows.

The banter is a bit more frustrating than usual, so Jack leans back in his seat, crosses his arms over his chest, and demands, "Will you just tell me about the mistletoe?"

"We already did," his parents say in unison.

Jack smacks himself on the forehead. "I really hate when you both do this."

Several moments of silence go by before his dad lets out a sigh and murmurs, "Sorry, Jack. It's just … difficult to explain."

"Why don't you close your eyes and try?" he sasses back, because it's the tactic his dad always uses when Jack is at a loss for words. That comment earns The Look from both of them. He throws up his hands in frustration, slides off the stool and takes a step towards the door.

"Jack…" His dad reaches out and places a hand on his shoulder. Jack stills and glances back. His dad meets his gaze. "It's complicated. It's …."

"What are you giving Elena for Christmas?" Papi interrupts.

This time, Jack gives him The Look, because of all times for Papi to come in for the save … Jack turns and his father's hand drops from his shoulder. He crosses his arms over his chest again and raises an eyebrow. "A monogrammed, leather folio for her tablet. The one she has is falling apart."

Papi smiles as he nods enthusiastically. "So let's say that's the first gift you've given her."

"Way to change the subject, Papi."

"I'm not changing the subject. We are talking about gifts," Papi tells him. "Anyway, that's your first gift to her. Let's say it becomes symbolic of your first holiday together. The next year, you give her a monogrammed leather cover for her cell phone. It matches the folio."

"Did you put too much Kahlua in the cocoa again, Papi? Because you're not making sense."

Dad chuckles. "You're missing the point, buddy."

"I always miss the point, Dad," he fires back sourly.

"You don't give yourself enough credit, Jack," Papi sighs with that little shake of his head. "As I was saying, the second gift you give Elena is the matching cell phone cover. In return, she gives you a pen with your initials engraved on the barrel. From that moment forward, exchanging monogrammed gifts becomes your tradition with Elena."

"You don't think about it," Dad smiles as he reaches out and takes Papi's hand. "It's just something you do. You find yourself scouring through online catalogues …"

"… tracking down independent artisans and craftsmen because you want something unique …"

"Some gifts are silly. Some are serious."

"There may be a year that you don't want to exchange gifts."

"There may be a year that you're convinced you'll never be able to again. But you do. Every year. For better or for worse."

"Because that monogrammed gift has become something between you and Elena. Something that words are inadequate to describe." Papi smiles shyly at his dad. "It becomes magic."

"Someone will ask you what the deal is with all the monogrammed stuff in your house, because you're going to end up with a toilet seat cover with your initials on it eventually …" They both snicker before Dad continues, "The only answer you can give that adequately explains it is that the first Christmas gift you gave Elena was monogrammed."

"The reason you chose that particular gift becomes unimportant. The fact that you gave it to her? Well, that becomes the symbolic foundation of your relationship."

"Does that make sense?" his dad asks him.

It takes a minute or two for Jack to process all they're saying, to analyze it and search for the hidden meanings that always seem to be there when his parents talk like this. He gets the point—at least he thinks he does—and his anger and frustration at their earlier obstinacy melts away.

His parents aren't really goofy when it comes to expressing themselves. They're not all that showy either. In public, it's hard to tell that they're married. Hell, in private, sometimes it's just as difficult.

The whole mistletoe thing, as weird as it is, broadcasts their love for each other brighter than any Vegas sign.

"Wow," Jack breathes out in awe.

"Yeah," his dad agrees as lifts Papi's hand to place a kiss on his knuckles. "Wow."

**** Finis ****