A/N the First: Happy Birthday, BDaddyDL! This isn't actually your birthday, but since your awesome, wonderful, and lovely wife (and I can say that and mean it, I met her!) set up the 40-day celebration of your birthday, I thought I'd contribute this for my day (er, my second day. Forgetful Frea is forgetful). And since I hate shopping for gifts with a passion, I wrote about it instead. I hope your birthday is fantastic. Your friendship has come to mean a lot to me, and one of my highlights of 2012 was getting to meet you, so I hope you enjoy your gift!
Gifts I'm preparin'
For some Christmas sharin'
But I pause because
Hangin' my stockin'
I can hear a knockin'
'Zat you, Santa Claus
— Louis Armstrong, 'Zat You, Santa Claus
That Which is Greater: Holiday Shopping
"You're going to the mall?" Ellie asked, staring in disbelief as she lowered her coffee mug. "You do realize that it's two Saturdays before Christmas, right?"
Chuck kept his gaze focused on Violet's winter coat. It had been a birthday gift from her maternal grandparents, which meant that there were tiny buttons all the way up and down the bright red coat. Why couldn't they just make these things with zippers? Easy-on, easy-off. But Violet adored the little red coat, and she had insisted. If she was going to sit on Santa's lap, she was absolutely going to wear her red coat because then she and Santa would match, see? Wasn't that hilarious, Daddy? "Don't have much of a choice, sis," he said.
"Can we go yet?" Violet asked. "Santa's not going to wait forever, you know."
"Why not? He's the big guy. He's got all the time in the world." Chuck glanced over at Ellie. "We need to get Sarah a gift, and the mall seems as good a place as any."
Awesome wandered in and went straight for the coffee pot. He was still in post-workout shirtlessness. "You haven't gotten her gift yet, bro?" he asked. "Cutting it in a little close, aren't you?"
"Still got two weeks. There." Chuck finally buttoned up the last, tiny, annoying snap on Violet's coat. "All done. Got your, um, bag?"
"Purse, Daddy, it's a purse." Violet held up the small, plasticky-looking bag and carefully put it over one shoulder, like she'd seen Sarah and Ellie carry their purses. Thankfully, unlike Sarah's purse, this one did not contain any firearms, poisoned hair products, knock-out spray, tampons, or miniature flamethrowers. Violet had merely stuffed a bunch of tissues, a toy cell phone, and a tiny Polly Pocket doll inside. Chuck had the real entertainment for when the lines grew long tucked in the pocket of his army surplus coat.
"Sorry," he said. "Your purse, right. Of course. Ready to march, soldier?"
"We'll be back in a few hours," he told Ellie, giving his sister a kiss on the cheek as he passed. "Need anything?"
"Maybe pick up some milk on the way back? We're almost out."
"Sure thing." Chuck bundled the shrieking Violet under one arm and headed out to the car. He knew the mall was going to be awful, crowded, and pretty much the worst place to take a five-year-old right before Christmas, but it couldn't be helped. He couldn't think of a single thing to buy Sarah for Christmas. He'd have turned to online forum boards for help, but he doubted many of them knew exactly what to pick up for a woman playing your girlfriend but who was really only your bodyguard, at the end of the day. Some sort of cover present for a cover relationship, he figured. The problem lay in the fact that he wanted to get Sarah something with meaning. She'd saved his life, had put up with hours of inquisitions from Violet, had put up a good front for his family. Surely that deserved a proper Christmas present.
When he saw the parking lot at the mall, though, he nearly stomped on the brakes. Maybe a card might be a better option. They made "Thank you for saving my life and pretending to be an awesome girlfriend" cards, right?
"What's the matter, Daddy?" Violet asked, picking up on his emotions in that uncanny way she sometimes had. She'd spent the car ride happily singing along with the radio in a very off-key fashion (his daughter was probably not going to grow up to be a pop star, which was more of a relief than he wanted to admit), kicking her legs against her car seat.
"Ah, nothing, Megabyte. Just…there are a lot of people here."
Violet's eyes went wide. "Are they all here to see Santa?" she asked. "Daddy, that's going to take forever."
"I think more of them will be shopping, Megs. We should be okay." He found a parking spot that was only a ten mile hike from the entrance, and pulled in, stepping out of the car to let Violet out of her booster seat.
"Who're we shopping for, anyway?" Violet asked, grabbing his hand so they could walk toward the mall. "Can't Santa just bring them presents like he does for me?"
"Well, Santa's probably bringing Sarah presents, yes," Chuck said, and he nearly winced, thinking about how Sarah was going to feel, getting presents from a fictional character in the name of tricking a five year old into believing a myth. Just another long line of silly things he forced a CIA agent to do because this was his life, he guessed. "But you like getting lots of presents, right?"
"Lots and lots!"
"And Sarah probably likes getting lots of presents, too, then. So I want to get her a present."
"'Cause you're her boyfriend," Violet said, nodding sagely. Tiny furrows appeared between her eyes as she considered this on their walk to the mall entrance. "What are you going to get her?"
"I have no idea, Megabyte."
"That's okay, Daddy." Violet patted his hand with her free hand, like she was the adult and he was the kid. It took everything to hold back his smile. "I'll help you and we can get Sarah all the presents."
"I think we should just settle for one, maybe two for now."
"Okay," Violet said, but she didn't quite sound happy about it. Her voice held a distinct note of "It's your funeral" in it. "But she's not going to think you're a very good boyfriend if you don't get her lots, you know."
"Someday, Megabyte, we will have a discussion about quality over quantity," Chuck said, and they headed into the mall together.
Inside, it was chaos, and not in a good way. Though he'd spent a lot of time at the mall—there had been a really good arcade where he and Morgan had spent most of their allowances—and he was mostly familiar with the layout, the oncoming holiday had turned things into a crazed mass of people. Violet's eyes went wide the minute they entered. She crept closer and closer to him until she was practically forcing him to walk in a zig-zag pattern around her. "Why are there so many people?" she asked, looking up at him in confusion. "Doesn't Santa just buy everybody gifts?"
"Yeah, but you remember how Aunt Ellie gives me presents and I give her presents, right?" Since he couldn't see any way of making it to the stores with Violet constantly tripping him up, he obligingly squatted down for the piggy-back ride. Violet clambered on.
"Right." Violet clambered on.
"So Santa's not the only gift-giver in town."
"I wanna get Aunt Ellie something!" Violet's arms came around Chuck's neck in a stranglehold, but thanks to the fact that he had been a father for five years now, he was used to that. They made their way through the crowds, Chuck careful not to make eye-contact with the perfume, cell phone case, and calendar salesmen that dodged in and out of the crowds, trying to meet their quota. The air smelled like recycled air conditioning and humanity, and it sounded vaguely like a Call of Duty campaign.
He really should have just gone online to buy Sarah something.
"Daddy? Did you hear me?" Violet bounced her heels against Chuck's hips, impatiently. "I said I wanna get Aunt Ellie something, too. Like Santa."
"You made her that ornament in Mrs. Kester's class, didn't you?"
"But Santa gets Aunt Ellie really neat gifts. I want to do that, too."
"Hey." Chuck bounced her a couple of times. "I happen to think that ornament wasreally neat."
"Super neat, even." Since it was the closest, they headed to Waldbaum's, which had quite a few departments on one floor. It was also going to be the busiest part of the mall besides Santa, Chuck realized, but again, there wasn't much he could do about it. He headed toward the women's clothing section with a grim determination. Sarah liked clothes, right? She was always wearing new outfits.
Granted, he had no idea what size she was or what was even an appropriate gift, and money was a little tight, even if he was making a government paycheck.
"What about for Sarah?" Violet asked. "I didn't make her an ornament. Mrs. Kester said we were making ornaments for our mommies and daddies, but I asked her if it was okay if I made one for Aunt Ellie instead cos Mom said she was gonna miss Christmas."
Chuck felt his heart twist a little at that. Sophie's announcement that the cameo she'd taken over Thanksgiving had turned into a full role, and that she would be up in Vancouver shooting over the holidays, had been like a punch to the gut. At least, he thought, Violet would have Sarah and Casey there to make up some of the deficit, even if Sarah wasn't really his girlfriend and Casey wasn't really her brother.
And with Sophie gone for the holiday and things being so weird, he really needed to find Violet a good Christmas present this year.
"Tell you what," he said, shifting so that Violet was more secure on his back. "You and me, we'll get stuff to make our own ornaments, and we can give them to Sarah."
"And Major Casey Sir?"
"Sure. We'll get a lot of stuff and maybe Mo can come over and make some ornaments with us."
Violet's cheer drew the notice of a few of the women in the section. The ones with small children either gave him a smile or a jealous look. It was a feeling Chuck understood well: at least Violet was being on her best behavior at the moment, but he knew the winds could change at any moment, and there was no way Mary Poppins was coming to his rescue.
Violet's eyes went wide. "Can we get glitter?"
"And pipe cleaners," Chuck said.
"You've got perfectly good crayons at home," Chuck said.
"But I could always use more, Daddy."
"I'm sure, but you've got enough at home. Oh, hm, this rack looks promising. Ready to march, soldier?"
"Aye-aye." Violet's salute went wide and clocked him in the temple. Even as Chuck blinked the stars away, she slithered down his back and onto her feet. She edged close to the rack, which seemed to be full of stocking stuffer type gifts, knickknacks and somewhat useful items that were ultimately destined to end up in a drawer somewhere. Chuck figured this sort of present might be safe, but with Ellie pushing for Sarah and Casey to spend Christmas with them, she'd be opening her gift in front of everybody. He needed to do better.
"What's this do?" Violet asked, picking up a rolled up piece of sturdy cloth.
Chuck took it when she held it out; between the two of them, however, somehow the packaging fell off, and the cloth unrolled into a long strip. Violet's mouth formed a perfect O as the two of them stared at the "unwrapped" gift. "Oops," she said.
"Quick! Hide the evidence!" Chuck stuffed the strip back into the bin from which it came and plucked up his daughter, hurrying off as she giggled. "Think we got away with it?"
They moved through the racks, Violet prowling like she was on a quest to find Dr. Livingston, Chuck following in bewilderment because he had absolutely no idea what Sarah might like. There was a nice leather coat that he thought might work, but it was way out of his price range and kind of a big gift for a woman he'd only been "dating" for a few months. His head began to pound, but he followed after Violet, who was still excited enough to see the trip as a grand adventure. Every few racks, she stopped and turned to him inquisitively. "What about this? What about that?"
When she pointed at a masterfully ugly green sweater that somehow combined polka dots and horizontal lines, it took everything Chuck had not to crack up. He let a grin slip through, though. "What 'choo smiling for, Daddy?" Violet asked.
"You really think Sarah would like that?"
"Uh-huh! It's green like Kermit and she looks like Tink, and Tink wears a dress like Kermit's."
"Kermit doesn't wear a dress, Megabyte."
Violet tilted her head, considering this. "You mean he's green all over?" she asked. Truly, Chuck thought, the men that had discovered the existence of other planets could not have sounded so wondrous as his five-year-old did at that moment.
"Well, yeah, Megs, he's a frog. Wait, you thought he was wearing a dress?"
"Uh-huh. Ooh, look at that." Violet scrambled off to look up at a display of very brightly colored shirts, all displayed like a rainbow.
"You like those, huh?" Chuck asked.
"They're pretty. Like iPods!"
Time to head this argument off at the pass, Chuck thought, before it could get started. The dancing iPod commercials on TV had convinced his normally-angelic (he snorted) daughter that her life would not be complete without an iPod. Chuck remembered having a walkman and then a Discman and more importantly, how he'd used those music players to drown out his parents. Sophie would probably buy her the iPod if she mentioned it while she was on the phone, but Chuck would rather wait for a couple more years. After all, soon Violet would have her own laptop—she was already scarily good at using his—and he'd have to worry about what sort of content she was seeing online and...he was going to get an ulcer if this line of thought kept up.
So he scooped up his daughter. "What about gloves?" he asked.
"Gloves?" Violet twisted around to look up at him as he carried her under her arms, her legs swinging a foot or two above the carpeted floor. "Like for winter? It's not cold."
"Yeah, but we go to Tahoe every year, don't we?"
Violet gaped. "Daddy, is Sarah going to Tahoe with us?"
"Probably not. Don't get your hopes up, munchkin. But Sarah might want to go somewhere cold."
"Is she going to take you with her?"
"I don't know."
"If she does, can I come?"
"I don't even know if she's going anywhere, Megabyte."
"Then why are you buying her gloves?"
"Why are you asking so many questions?"
"'Cause I'm five and Uncle Morgan says that's my job."
She had him there, Chuck thought. He set her down on the ground again, grabbing her hand before she could wander. The red bows in her hair, which matched her coat, bobbled with every step she took. "Gloves are pretty," Chuck said, "and they're classy. Don't you think that fits Sarah?"
"You're her boyfriend. You're supposed to say 'beautiful.'"
"You sure have a lot of opinions on how girlfriends and boyfriends act," Chuck said, squinting at her.
Violet just beamed.
They reached the accessories section and wandered through until Chuck spotted the proper rack. They had to sidle around a group of teenagers to get to it. "Look," he said, "here we are. Lots to choose from, even. Going to help me pick?"
"You should get her an iPod."
"She already has an iPod."
"Then you should get her a better one and she can give the old one to me."
"Nice try, but even if that were to happen, what she does with her things is up to Sarah, not you." Violet opened her mouth to protest. Chuck gave her a look. "And you're not going to ask her for the iPod. If she wants you to have, she will offer it to you. Remember what we talked about?"
"Now," he said, "which gloves do you think will work?"
"You really think she'd like gloves?" Violet looked doubtful.
Chuck knew he was probably going to hell for lying to his daughter and even worse, for using her as a defense against the poor ability to purchase Christmas presents. If Sarah didn't like the gloves, telling her Violet had helped pick them out would only guilt-trip her into accepting them graciously. "Yes," he said, "especially if they're ones you help pick out."
"Hmm." A little line appeared between Violet's eyebrows as she considered the selection in front of them. After a moment where Chuck mentally brought up choices and dismissed them, she held her arms up, and Chuck obligingly picked her up. She leaned over and daintily picked up a bright pair of red gloves. "These ones."
"Really?" They seemed awfully bright for Sarah.
"Yes. And that scarf." Violet pointed at a rack over to their left. There could be no doubt as to which scarf she meant, as it was cardinal-red and obvious, pretty much everything a spy should avoid. "They match. And she likes red."
"Oh yeah? How do you know that?"
"Cos she said so. I asked her what her favorite color is and she said blue, but she also said she likes red a whole bunch."
Well, that was the best ringing endorsement he was going to hear, Chuck figured. Besides, the gloves were really pretty, and he did like the scarf. It seemed like something he might buy for a legitimate girlfriend that didn't share a single thing in common with him. With a shrug, he made her giggle by wrapping the scarf around her head so that she couldn't see.
When he set her on the ground, she held both hands out in front of her like a mummy, and he had to hurry before she crashed into other customers or any of the racks. She was reluctant to take the scarf off—with the red of her jacket combined with the red of the scarf, Chuck kept calling her Clifford—so the cashier, smiling at Chuck the whole time, used the hand-scanner to scan the UPC code into the system. The gloves were bagged, safe and purchased, but Chuck left the scarf on Violet. He'd learned to pick his battles.
"Can we go look at toys before we see Santa?" Violet asked.
Chuck paused. The toy section was a dicey business. It was the cereal aisle of department stores.
"Are you going to be on your best behavior, if we do?"
"Please, Daddy, please?"
"You know Christmas is coming, so no begging for new toys." Chuck raised his eyebrows.
"Not even a small one?"
"Well, you can have a small toy, or you can see Santa."
Violet's face went through every emotion, including the five stages of grief, while she considered this. "Not even a really small—"
"Oh, fine." She heaved a giant sigh. "I want to see Santa more. I won't ask for toys."
That promise would last maybe thirty seconds, but Chuck would take what he could get. He let Violet pull him in the direction of the toy section, letting her chatter about what she hoped Santa would get her ("A pony! No, two ponies! One pony for me and one for Mo, my best friend ever!") and how much Sarah was going to love her new scarf, which Violet was petting like it was some kind of mink stole. She skipped "the pink aisle" for "the boy aisle," breathing her awe over the various action figures—"Uncle Morgan would love that one, can we get that for him, please?"—and the Nerf guns before she scrambled back to look at the Barbies and other dolls. There, the begging and speculation about Santa started, but Chuck tuned this out.
"Ready to see Santa?" he asked once he'd given her enough time to salivate over the Betty Spaghettis or whatever it was she liked.
"Can we look at the board games first? Please? Pretty please?"
He debated. She was still on her best behavior, so it couldn't hurt, too much, to give in this time. "Just for a minute," he said. "And then it's off to talk to the big guy about everything you've seen here, right?"
"Right." Violet scrambled around his legs. As she did so, Chuck caught a flash of blonde out of the corner of his eye and turned. His eyes, he realized, weren't deceiving him: Sarah Walker and John Casey were in the toy section of Waldbaum's department store.
He gaped, and as he did so, Sarah's eyes went comically wide. Chuck then had the special privilege of seeing two of the government's top-trained spies diving out of the way to avoid being noticed by a five-year-old. It was only when he spotted the cart they'd abandoned that he figured out why: they were shopping for Violet. Unless Casey had developed some sort of fetish for pink and purple castle toys.
"Whoa, hey, Vi, wait up," he said, realizing that in his shock, Violet had disappeared from his sight. His cell phone buzzed with a new text as he rounded the end-cap, but he ignored it until he spotted Violet with her head tilted back, eyeing a rack of brightly-colored boxes. He opened his mouth to scold her for getting away from him, but realized this time the error was on him. "See anything you like?"
"That one!" She pointed to a Connect 4 game.
"We have that one at home."
"But that one's purple and white." Violet's tone spoke volumes about how superior purple and white were to black and red. "Can we get it?"
"'Fraid not, string-bean." Chuck checked his text messages while she pouted and subsequently forgot her desire for the game as something shinier caught her eye. It was a text from Sarah: what r u doing here?
Shopping, Chuck sent back. Is the castle for Casey?
U know who it's for. Distract her!
Yes, ma'am, Chuck texted back, and pocketed his phone. He gave it a moment of thought, strategizing how he might get Violet out of the store without passing the main registers, before he remembered that his daughter was still wearing Sarah's Christmas present. "Hey, Megabyte, can I put the scarf in the bag?"
"But I like it," Violet said, looking at him in confusion.
"Isn't it getting warm?"
Violet thought about it. "Kinda," she said.
"Then why not let me carry it, huh?"
One problem down, Chuck thought when she unhanded the scarf and he tucked it out of sight in the bag. Thankfully, Waldbaum's believed in opaque shopping bags, so if the inevitable happened, Sarah wouldn't get a good look at her gift.
"I think I want to see Santa now," Violet said, turning away from the games. "I can tell him about Connect 4."
"Good plan." Hopefully she forgot by the time Christmas morning rolled around, Chuck thought. He grabbed her hand again so that they could head out of the store together by the indirect route. He was touched that Casey and Sarah cared enough to pick up Violet's Christmas presents themselves. He had just assumed they would rely on the NSA or CIA for that, for some reason. It made him hope the scarf and gloves for Sarah were good enough.
As luck would have it, they rounded the corner toward the exit and there was the object of his thoughts in the flesh. Chuck pulled up short, inwardly cursing that they hadn't been successful even as giddiness that Sarah always inspired flooded through him. She looked good—which was like saying she was breathing, really, he felt—in her leather jacket, jeans, and winter boots, the epitome of the casual shopper. By now, though, they'd been on enough missions together for him to know that she was just a tiny bit frazzled, which was evident in the way her smile pulled slightly to the left.
Violet let out an actual gasp. "Sarah!" she said, and proceeded to bullet straight for her favorite person, who obligingly crouched to give her a hug. "You're here! Are you shopping, too? Because we're shopping, we came to get a present for..." She evidently remembered it was supposed to be a secret, for she trailed off with another gasp in the middle of her sentence and clapped a hand over her mouth. She backed up and gave Chuck a stricken look.
"It's okay," Chuck said, petting her hair. "We're just doing some shopping, isn't that right? Some Christmas shopping, nothing special. Hey, Sarah. What a surprise to run into you here. Today. Of all days."
She gave him a bland smile. "The surprise is all mine, trust me."
Because Violet was giving him an expectant look, Chuck shuffled awkwardly forward to give her a kiss on the cheek. She lifted an eyebrow at him. He whispered back, "Somebody has very set ideas how boyfriends and girlfriends should act. I've been hearing about it all morning."
"Ah." Sarah gave him a peck on the lips instead—which was all too short and still somehow managed to short-circuit his brain a little bit—before she turned to Violet. "That's a pretty coat."
"Thank you." Violet forgot all of her shame and preened. She spun in place so that they could all see the way the coat tails flared out. "I'm going to see Santa, and Aunt Ellie said I should wear my best coat."
"Santa, huh? Mind if I tag along?"
"You want to sit in Santa's lap, too?"
"Not unless he buys me a drink first," Sarah said, and Chuck had to cough to cover up his laugh.
Violet, on the other hand, considered this seriously. "He probably has milk. I mean, all," and she drew out the word until it was several syllables long, "of the kids he visits on Christmas Eve, they leave him milk, so he's probably got lots."
"Tell you what, we'll talk about it. Santa's this way, right?" Sarah jerked her head toward the exit.
Violet, in her eagerness, scrambled off. She knew well enough to keep in sight, which let the adults follow at a more sedate pace. "She didn't see it, right?" Sarah asked in an undertone as they left Waldbaum's and headed into the main part of the mall.
Chuck shook his head. "She was already gone by then."
Sarah noticeably deflated with relief. "Thank God. I spent all morning reading reviews on toys and that was the only one that seemed both up to standards and that she would like. Amazon reviews are frightening to behold and—why are you grinning like that?"
"No reason," Chuck said, trying to bite his lip so that his smile wouldn't light up the entire mall. Sarah had done research on the perfect gift for Violet? He knew she cared, as she'd shown it time and again, but it was always sort of awe-inspiring to see it in person and to understand just how much Sarah liked them both.
An oily, insidious voice in the back of his head pointed out that Sarah really only kept proving she liked Violet. She'd gone to Violet's birthday party, had gone to the pumpkin patch, and to pick Violet up from San Diego. Most of their non-mission-related experiences involved Violet.
"So if you're here, where's Casey?" he asked, eager to shut that voice up and focus on the present.
"Hilariously, buying toys in very pink boxes." Sarah grinned. "I gave him my credit card."
"You realize you're going to come back and find out he bought like forty subscriptions to Sniper Monthly, right?"
"And beef jerky," Sarah said. "But it'll be worth it when I confiscate the security footage and have blackmail material of him buying a Barbie doll."
Chuck's laughter at that was loud enough to draw a quizzical look from Violet. "I love the Spy vs. Spy aspect of your entire relationship," he said.
"He started it." Sarah glanced down. "Am I allowed to ask what's in the bag?"
"Nope. Oh, look, there's the line for Santa. Last chance to duck out, Walker."
"I once took down a cartel with nothing but a knife and a pair of pliers," Sarah said, giving him an unimpressed look.
"The knife, I understand, but what were the pliers fo—you know, this is probably one of those 'I'm better off not knowing' stories, huh?"
"It's not for the faint of heart, no."
With Violet tugging them both along, they finally reached the line. Violet, sensing that she had a captive audience, began to detail the adventures of their entire day (Froot Loops in the morning, and they had played video games and she'd beaten Daddy at the secret level of Bitsy-Betsy Malltime Adventures, and Aunt Ellie had done her hair special) to Sarah, who gamely nodded and asked questions where appropriate. Chuck used the opportunity to scan the crowds and make sure there weren't any perverts out there taking pictures of kids that didn't belong to them, something he'd read about in an article online the night before. Nobody seemed overly interested, so he allowed himself to relax. Plus, if somebody was secretly trying to tape them, Sarah would totally notice and pull out something from her toolbox of causing pain.
Sometimes, it was handy cover-dating a ninja.
"So how come Santa has time to hang out in malls and stuff before Christmas?" Violet asked them both. "Shouldn't he be at the North Pole?"
Sarah shot Chuck a panicked look that he needed absolutely no help interpreting: please don't make me be the one to tell your child Santa Claus is a myth.
"Well," Chuck said, hunkering so he was crouched by Violet's level, "you know how we watched that show the other day where they had all the spies that looked alike?"
Violet's brow wrinkled as she tried to puzzle this together. Finally, she wheeled to look at the Santa at the front of the line, who sat on his candy cane throne surrounded by fake snow and fake reindeer. "That Santa's a spy?" she asked, aghast. "Daddy, we should tell the cops!"
"But that Santa works for the real Santa," Chuck said. "He's got his elves there, you see? They're like spy minions, they gather all the things kids want in their heads and they report to Santa, who reports to the real Santa in the North Pole."
"So even though that Santa's not the real Santa, he's going to tell the real Santa what I want?"
"Yep," Chuck said, and wondered if he should feel worse telling blatant lies to his kid. "But you can't tell the other kids, all right? The more people that know Santa is a spy, the more trouble he'll be in."
"Right." Eyes still wide, Violet nodded slowly. She made the "Shh" gesture at first him and then Sarah, then mimed, badly, zipping up her lips and tossing the key over her shoulder.
Chuck turned to Sarah with an exaggerated grin. "Guess that means she's going to be quiet for the rest of the day," he said.
Sarah gamely played along. "How is she going to talk to Santa Claus, then?"
"I dunno. It looks like she threw away the key."
"Daddy, it's not real!" Violet giggled. "I can talk, see?"
"Well, that's a relief. Drinking that hot chocolate we're getting after we see Santa was going to be real hard through your nose."
"You can't drink through your nose!"
"Oh." Chuck pretended to give the matter some thought. "Through your ears, then."
"Yuck." Sarah made a face. "All that earwax. Gross."
"No, it's okay, I can open my mouth real wide, like a lion and everything." Violet opened her mouth as wide as she could. She did an impression of a roar that had quite a few people in the line looking over at them in confusion. A couple of the young parents grinned at her or Chuck and turned back to their own kids, who were either bored or dancing around, waiting to see Santa. Violet passed the wait by either hanging off of Chuck's arm or off of Sarah's, chattering at them about anything and everything that came to mind. By the time they reached the head of the line, Chuck could see the exhaustion beginning to get to her—there would definitely be naptime today—but she still bounced forward when the "elf" showed up to take her to see the big guy himself.
The minute she was out of earshot, Sarah pulled out her camera and said, "Santa is a spy?"
"It's as good an explanation as any," Chuck said. Violet leaned close to Santa to whisper what she wanted, cupping her hand around her mouth like she was telling the greatest secrets in the world. It made him feel a momentary pang of guilt that he still had yet to find the gift for Violet and maybe he should be trying to listen in. But he liked that his daughter had moments that were her own. When she looked at Sarah and obviously pointed her out, Chuck grinned. "Uh-oh, looks like she's reporting how naughty you've been to Santa, Sarah. Better hope he doesn't check his list twice."
"I highly doubt that. Your daughter thinks I'm an angel."
That's because you are, Chuck nearly said, but he thankfully bit his tongue at the last minute. "Keep telling yourself that," he said, smirking.
She cuffed him gently on the shoulder. After a moment, Violet was lifted off of Santa's lap and came running at them full-tilt, holding the mini candy cane in one hand. "Did you get my picture, Daddy? Did you? Did you?"
"Right here," Chuck said, patting the camera as they moved out of the way for the next set of people to take pictures of their children and Santa Claus. "What did you tell Santa, huh?"
"I didn't tell him I know he's a spy," Violet said. "I just told him what I wanted for Christmas and stuff. And I told him what Sarah said."
Sarah blinked. "What I said?"
"About if you were going to sit on Santa's lap, he should buy you a drink first and all. And he gave me this to give to you." Violet dug in the pocket of her coat for a moment, unearthing a crumpled piece of torn paper that she unceremoniously thrust at Sarah. "What's it say?"
"I..." Sarah stared at the piece of paper in her hand for a moment. He could see her visibly falter at whatever the page held, but she regained her composure with a small smile. "Oh, it's just about you. He says you've been a good girl this year."
"Really? Can I see?"
"Sorry, top secret," Sarah said, and the paper vanished almost magically. She turned a too-bright smile at both of them. "Did I hear somebody say something about hot chocolate?"
The diversion worked; Violet immediately whirled to face Chuck, her face alight with hope. "With marshmallows? And whipped cream?" she asked. "And gummy bears?"
"Ew, gummy bears in hot chocolate?" Sarah asked, crouching so that Violet could climb onto her back for a piggy back ride. Another distraction tactic, Chuck noticed, but he said nothing as they left the mall and headed into the parking lot, discussing hot chocolate flavors the whole way.
Later on, after Violet had fallen asleep on the ride home with a hot chocolate mustache on her upper lip and a half-eaten candy cane sticking to her hand, Chuck turned to Sarah and gave her a look. "So," he said.
Sarah eyed him. "So?"
"I'm just wondering..."
"Gonna take Santa up on that date?"
"Oh, God." Sarah groaned, putting her face in her hands. "No, no, no. I don't even want to think about how creepy that is on so many levels."
Chuck swallowed his laughter, but only just. "No, really, tell us how it feels to be picked up by Santa Claus."
"It feels like I need to take a shower or five."
"You know, you may be reacting a bit hastily toward the big fellow. I mean, think about it. His belly jiggles like a bowl full of jelly. Think of how cuddly that makes him. And where else are you going to find that sort of physique?"
"Every biker bar between here and Encino?"
"But none of those bikers are going to be a right jolly old elf, Sarah. Think about that."
"I don't like beards," Sarah said, and Chuck immediately rubbed his face to make sure he'd shaved that morning (he had). "That's one more holiday tradition down, though, I guess."
Chuck gave her a confused look. "Getting hit on by Santa?"
"I meant her." Sarah jerked her chin toward the backseat. "Birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, seeing Santa. So far, so good."
"Yes, amazingly, the closest thing to a casualty was when we let Morgan light the cake and he brought the blowtorch," Chuck said, and they both grinned at the memory. "She had a blast today, too. Thanks for randomly showing up."
Sarah shrugged, obviously uncomfortable with the sincerity. "It was fun," she said. "What's next on your holiday checklist?"
"Gotta get a tree," Chuck said. "We were thinking about going tomorrow. Any tips?"
"I don't know. I've never shopped for a Christmas tree before."
Both of them jumped when there was a gasp from the backseat. At some point, Violet had woken out of her post-excitement stupor, and on her face was a look of complete and total shock. She stared at Sarah. "You've never gone Christmas tree shopping?" she asked. "You've never had a Christmas tree before, Sarah? How can you not have a Christmas tree? It's Christmas."
"Ca—my brother and I, we don't normally celebrate much," Sarah said.
"But where do you put your presents?"
"Megabyte," Chuck said, sensing that Sarah was about to start squirming. "Remember how we talked about how not everybody celebrates the same holidays we do? Or even the same way?"
"Yeah, but it's a Christmas tree! It's like the most important thing ever!"
"I thought presents were the most important thing ever," Chuck said.
Violet thought about it. "Presents are nice," she said, "but the Christmas tree is the best because it has all of the ornaments—" And Chuck suddenly understood her distress, as he had promised to pick up ornament supplies for their craft day. If Sarah had no Christmas tree, then how would she hang her ornament? "—and it smells real nice and it's real pretty to look at. You can just sit on the couch with everybody and look at the tree together."
Sarah met Chuck's eyes for a brief second. "Well," she said, drawing the word out slowly, "why don't I just come with you guys to help you pick one out instead?"
"Can she, Daddy?"
An excuse to hang out with Sarah was pretty much Christmas come early, any time, in Chuck's opinion. He managed to keep his voice at least partially neutral as he said, "The more, the merrier. Tomorrow work for you, Sarah?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Sarah said, and Violet let out an ear-splitting cheer from her booster seat.
All in all, Chuck decided as he pulled into their subdivision, gift shopping really hadn't been that bad at all.
A/N the Second: Thanks to my pre-readers who caught mistakes and stuff. I wrote this quickly and didn't send it to my beta (I think it would've been the definition of beta cruelty to do so, actually, given what I sent to him a few days ago), so I'm sorry for any mistakes.
Also, since I don't normally answer reviews (but am grateful for every single one), I'll save you time: no, I'm not going to write a sequel to Fates though I'm flattered you want one, of course. If you want to know about Curtain Call, please direct those questions straight to mxpw. As for other projects, provided they're not a birthday surprise like this one, I'll happily either offer snippets on my various social media platforms (Twitter, Tumblr, my blog, LJ), or I will talk about them beforehand, meaning besides my beta, pre-readers, and myself, you will be the first to know, so there is no need to ask me for those, either. Thank you for your courtesy—it means a lot to me!
Happy Holidays, whatever you celebrate!