Summary: Prequel to Forever Knight Before Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, LaCroix is visited by spirits who show him what was, what is, and what could be.

 

As LaCroix unlocked the door to the deserted radio station, he had the uneasy feeling that he was being watched. Glancing about at the darkened streets, he saw no one, nor could he detect the vibrations of another vampire or hear the thumping of a human heartbeat. After a moment, he shrugged off the sensation and entered into the building. As he passed through the lobby, he paused and sneered at the decorated tree which had been erected by the small, daytime staff. He'd be happy when all this Christmas nonsense was over and the world would return to its normal non-twinkling, none-jingling, non-jolly self. If one more person wished him a "Merry Christmas," he was liable to disembowel them on the spot.

He moved on into the sound booth and took his seat behind the console to prepare for the start of his radio program. The disc jockey before him had -- as usual -- left a long, tape of music playing. Since LaCroix put a good deal of his own money into the radio station, it wasn't as dependent on advertisers as most stations were. Ads were saved for daytime use. The night belonged to him.

He knew that he was alone in the building, so it took him off guard when the door to the booth silently opened.



"Who's there?" he called out.

"An old friend," came the reply from a male figure hidden in the shadows of the doorway.

LaCroix squinted his eyes. He knew that he should be able to see the man despite the dim lighting, but he was still unable to make out any details.

"Old friend, you say?" he inquired of the shadow. "Care to jog my memory?"

"We last shared a good laugh over the death of a woman archeologist in Egypt and the fact that your young one, Nicholas was so naive as to think he was on the verge of finding a cure for vampirism."

LaCroix was instantly able to put a name to the voice. "Thomas?"

The figure finally took a step forward into the light. LaCroix was taken aback by the other vampire's appearance. His leathery skin was ash gray, accented with hollow eyes and blackened lips. The styling of his dark suit appeared contemporary but was marred by a broken off stake protruding from the left side of his chest.

"It's been a long time, my friend," he spoke with subdued anguish.

"Indeed. I hate to state the obvious, but you don't look well, Thomas."

"I suppose not. I've had a bit of bad luck. You've been staked before, haven't you?"

LaCroix nodded and frowned. "Stings a bit."

"It does at that. And when you've no one around to pull it out for you...."

"Most unpleasant, yes. Would you like for me to..." LaCroix gestured towards the stake.

"That's kind of you to offer but, no. There's really no point. Besides, it doesn't hurt anymore."

"I see," said LaCroix, not actually understanding what was going on with his old friend. He didn't give off the vibrations that identified him as a vampire and he showed no discomfort at having a stake rammed through his heart. It was most disconcerting, yet LaCroix managed to retain his composure. "So, Thomas, tell me what brings you here tonight."

"I've come to warn you, LaCroix."

"Warn me? Of what?"

"Of your future. There is an unpleasant life ahead of you if you remain on the course you have chosen."

"On the course I have chosen? I'm afraid I don't quite understand."

"Evil. Your young one, Nicholas has the right idea, trying to atone for his sins."

"Nicholas is a fool!" LaCroix hissed.

"I thought so once myself. Until I met with a vampire hunter and was swiftly dispatched to meet my maker. The original one, that is. Never considered the possibility that anyone would be keeping tally on my achievements or lack thereof."

"Are you implying that you are a ghost, and that you've come back to warn me to change my evil ways or I shall end up as you are?"

"Worse. Your sins are far greater than mine. You have far more for which to atone. You can begin by making peace with young Nicholas. There will come a time when you will need his protection."

LaCroix spit out a laugh. "Don't be ridiculous. I need no one's protection, least of all that of Nicholas."

"If you will not listen to me, then perhaps you'll heed the words of the others."

"Others? What others?"

"You will be visited by three others tonight. Heed their words, LaCroix," Thomas' voice echoed through the booth as his image began to fade into nothingness. "Heed their words."

LaCroix stared curiously at the empty spot where his old friend had been standing. "Must have drank the blood of some LSD-dropping hippie," he spoke aloud, trying to convince himself that what he had just witnessed was not real. "No more of the domestic stuff. Imported only from now on."

He decided to put the strange occurrence behind him and go on with preparing for his radio program. After adjusting the microphone to a comfortable position, LaCroix reached for the button that would send his voice over the airwaves. Before he could make contact however, a large, meaty hand appeared out of no where and grasped him tightly. Startled, LaCroix looked up and his eyes grew wide at the translucent vision of a rotund man with a white beard, dressed in the elegant garb of 15th century European royalty.

"There's no time for that now," the stranger bellowed in a loud but cheerful voice. "We've places to go, people to see."

"Who the blazes are you?" LaCroix demanded to know. "How'd you get in?"

"Ah! Do forgive my manners. I am the ghost of Christmas past. I assumed you had been warned of my coming. There will be two others, but I will be first. And if you don't mind, I'm on a bit of a tight schedule. You will be so kind as to come with me now."

"Come with you where?" asked LaCroix even though he already had a pretty good idea of what to expect. It appeared that he was in the midst of experiencing first hand a version of Charles Dickens' novel, "A Christmas Carol." Apparently, he had been cast in the role of Scrooge. It was all too preposterous to be reality, so the other answer was that he was dreaming.

"Into the past," said the spirit. "Let us hurry," he added as he tugged forcefully and pulled LaCroix with him through solid wall and up into the night sky. "You're already able to fly," said the ghost over his shoulder. "That makes it so much easier!"

"Where are we going?" LaCroix asked again, noticing that the lights of the city had quickly faded from view as rows upon rows of trees took their place.

"There!" the spirit pointed to a small chateau nestled at the edge of a forest. "You recognize it?"

He recognized it instantly. It was Le Chateau de Brabant, the home of Nicholas' mortal family. The memories of his first time there came bitterly to mind. LaCroix had been introduced to Fleur, Nicholas' beautiful, younger sister. Never had the old vampire felt such an instantaneously and powerful attraction before. It had been love at first sight for them both. He had wanted to give her the gift of immortality so that they might spend all of eternity together, but Nicholas had stood in their way. He hadn't approved of his little sister losing her innocence and being condemned to live an infinity in darkness.

Only because LaCroix had not felt worthy of possessing such a rare treasure did he allow Nicholas to talk him into walking away from Fleur. Still, he had not forgiven his child for the hurt he had caused by first introducing him to Fleur, and secondly, by forcing him to turn his back on her offer of love. He could have given her immortality, keeping her beauty intact for all time. Instead she died of sickness only a few years later, leaving behind an orphaned son who never reached adulthood.

LaCroix and the spirit soon reached the chateau where lit candles could be seen in the windows and a large holly wreath adorned the front door. Before the vampire could voice his objections about entering the home, he was pulled through the closed door and found himself standing in the middle of the parlor. The room was richly decorated with boughs of mistletoe and holly accented with bright red, yarn tied into bows. Seated in a chair in front of a blazing fireplace, was Fleur. She was even more beautiful than LaCroix had remembered, and he was tempted to run to her side but held himself back. It was only a dream, he kept telling himself. It was the closest he'd come to believing in heaven and he knew that the escaped angel in front of him could not possibly be real.

The surreal and peaceful moment was shattered by the cries of a child. LaCroix turned to see a dark-haired, young man entering the room carrying a sobbing infant. "I believe our son wants his mother," the man announced over the loud wailing.

"It appears our son has his father's hearty appetite," said Fleur as she took the child from her husband and prepared to breast feed.

"Or perhaps, like his father, he merely takes great pleasure in being near you, my love." He knelt beside his wife and kissed her cheek, then as Fleur began to suckle their child, her husband looked on with adoring love and pride.

"I still can't believe how lucky I am to have found you, love. And this wonderful gift you've given me leaves me all but speechless. I owe you my happiness."

"No, my dear Stefan, it is I who owe you a great debt. I never thought I would find anyone who could fill me with such joy. And this precious little one you've given me... I never imagined motherhood would give me such a feeling of completeness, of purpose. Thank you, Stefan. A thousand times, thank you for giving me reason to live."

"Enough!" LaCroix bellowed and turned away from the lovebirds. "Why is it necessary to torture me in this way, Spirit? This--this so-called happiness will not last. They're all doomed. In little more than a decade, they'll all be dead and gone, so what purpose does this serve for me to stand here and watch this pathetic melodrama?"

"You do not care that the only woman you've ever loved experienced such happiness no matter how briefly it may have lasted?"

"I could have given her happiness a thousand times over!"

"Could you have given her a child? You could offer the gift of immortality, but could you offer the gift of motherhood? Looking at her face now, which one do you think she would have chosen if she had known what each one would entail?"

Begrudgingly, LaCroix stole a glance back at Fleur and her storybook family. "What do you want from me?" he asked the spirit in a softer tone. "I gave her up so that she could have this. Do you want me to admit that I made the right decision? Well, I won't. I'll never think that. I did what I did to pacify Nicholas. It would have been impossible to deal with him if I had gone against his wishes."

"And Nicholas means a great deal to you?"

"What Nicholas means to me is none of your concern. I shall discuss the matter no further."

"Just as well," said the spirit. "Our time is up anyway."

The Spirit of Christmas Past raised his robe out to the sides, spun around in a circle, then vanished in a blinding light. LaCroix shielded his eyes from the light with his hand. After a moment, he blinked and looked about, finding himself sitting once again in the sound booth at the radio station. He looked at his watch and saw that only ten minutes had passed since he'd first arrived in the building. He rose to his feet and began pacing about the room.

Of course it had to have been a dream or a hallucination caused by some tainted blood he must have ingested. Another alternative was that he was going insane. Insanity among vampires was not all that rare. Sometimes the endless succession of years had a way of catching up with a person. LaCroix felt that Nicholas would be more apt to snap because of how he allowed himself to become so emotionally involved with mortals. When he constantly outlives those he befriends or kills them himself, it would only be a matter of time before his mind could no longer handle all the guilt and suffering. At such a point, he might become depressed enough to consider suicide or he might go completely mad.

But that was Nicholas, LaCroix thought to himself as he ceased his pacing. That had absolutely no baring on what was happening to him at the moment. If he weren't losing his grasp on reality, then the only other explanation was that what he had just experienced was real. Could it have been that Dickens' classic tale held more truth than fiction to it? If so, that meant he could expect visits from two more spirits. A pure waste of time, he decided.

"If I am going mad," he spoke out loud, "then so be it. However, if this is some sort of life lesson I am being taught by way of a classic Christmas fable, then we can forego the rest of this story. I know how it ends. Let's just say that I will buy Bob Cratchet that fat goose in the window, I will donate money to the orphanages and see to it that Tiny Tim gets that operation. Now can we simply call it a night?"

"I'm afraid it doesn't work that way, love."

For the third time that night LaCroix was taken off guard by the sudden appearance of yet another spirit. He spun around to find an attractive, young woman leaning against the control console. Her curvaceous body seemed to have been poured into the red leather jacket, pants and boots she was wearing. Though she looked nothing like Old Saint Nick, the white fur trimming around her collar and cuffs, and matching hat she wore over her long, auburn hair gave her a Santa-like appearance.

LaCroix composed himself quickly and greeted her with a smile. "And I take it that you are the Spirit of Christmas Present?"

"I see you've been expecting me, Lucien. You know, you're my very first vampire. We really don't get many of you guys."

"And what is it about me that makes me so fortunate as to be on your visitation list tonight?"

"You've been naughty. Well, actually, you've been quite a deal more than just naughty. You've been downright evil. But apparently, someone seems to think that your soul is worth saving, that perhaps there's some redeeming value, a scrap of humanity just waiting to be released."

"And who would be so gullible as to think that?" asked LaCroix.

"That's for me to know and you to find out. But on your own time. We're on a tight schedule, so let's go."

"Go whe--"

Before he could get the words out, he was grabbed by the wrist and whisked away. Through the walls and up into the night sky, they flew a short distance to a suburban neighborhood where houses were brightly decorated with colorful lights and ornamentation. The spirit zeroed in on one house in particular and flew through a closed window which lead into a spacious family room filled with two dozen cheerful guests hard at play. Natalie was the center of attention as she stood before the crowd drawing images on a large sketch pad propped on an easel. As she drew questionable stick figures, others yelled out their guesses of what it could possibly represent.

"Reindeer!"

"Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer!"

Natalie shook her head and continued to draw an additional stick figure that appeared to be lying down. When she added what looked like tire tracks across the body, someone popped up with the song title solution of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." A cheer arose from the winning team while the losing team groaned and complained about having been given all the hard ones to do.

Natalie took the temporary break in the game to seek out the party's host. The spirit prompted LaCroix to follow Nat as she headed into the kitchen where Schanke was concocting something in a punchbowl.

"Hi, Nat. You guys having fun out there?"

"Yeah. I just hope we're not keeping your daughter awake with all this noise."

"Jenny's like me. She can sleep through a tornado. I'll check on her in a few minutes though. But right now, you're just in time to try my world famous eggnog. It's my own recipe." Schanke poured her a cupful and silently urged her to taste it.

"Mmm. That's pretty good, Schanke. It's got a little bit of a kick too. It's not going to get me drunk, is it?"

"Not if you don't drink more than three cups. I only made enough to go around once, so unless you get greedy on me.... You mind helping me fill some cups?"

"Not at all."

As they scooped up servings from the bowl and poured them into a tray of small, plastic cups, Schanke brought up the subject of his missing partner. "So, you couldn't talk Nick into coming either?"

"No, afraid not. He said he had other plans."

"What other plans?"

"I don't know, Schanke. He didn't elaborate. He just insisted that I come and have fun and not worry about him."

"Yeah, that sounds like Nick all right. I thought for a moment that he might've had himself a hot date with that Janette chick, but when I suggested that he bring her along, he told me that she was out of town. Said that she hated the Christmas season and couldn't tolerate the commercialization of it all, so she left the country for some little out of the way retreat in Asia somewhere. You know, sometimes I think the guy is my friend and other times he's like a total stranger. Like, just the other night, he bought Jenny a Christmas present, but when we swing by the house to drop it off, I can't get him to get out of the car and come inside. I mean it was like the thought of entering my house offended him in some way."

"Well, you did kind of go overboard with the decorations. Especially that nativity scene. It almost looks like the real thing."

"Oh yeah, I think it looks pretty good too. But getting back to Nick--"

"Schanke, Nick..." Natalie searched for the right words to try to explain Nick's aloof behavior. "Because of his sun allergy and his sensitivity to most of the foods you and I take for granted, Nick tends to feel a little out of place around others. If he had come here tonight, you and I both know you would have been bugging him to try some of Myra's fantastic dishes and your world famous eggnog. And Nick would have felt uncomfortable because he would have been constantly turning down all offers to stuff his face. Now that I think about it, I believe I've eaten more tonight than I have all week. Everything tasted great by the way."

"Thanks. Myra really outdid herself. I suppose you might be right about one thing. I'm sure me and Myra both would have been trying to shove food into Nick's mouth all evening if he had shown up."

"And keep in mind, this is just Christmas Eve. After I pay a visit to my niece and goddaughter tomorrow, I'll stop by the loft and let Nick know what a great time he missed."

"Yeah well, maybe I'll give him a call later after everything's quiet. Get him to come over and help me put together that giant playhouse Santa brought for Jenny." Schanke picked up the tray of prepared drinks and nodded towards the door. "Come on. I think they can use some refreshments out there."

"I imagine there's some point to my witnessing this boring, little scene?" said LaCroix to the spirit.

"Yes, there is, but since you didn't get it, we shall move on."

She grabbed him by the hand and they were abruptly off again. This time, LaCroix had no problems recognizing their new destination. It was Nick's loft. The fireplace had been lit along with several candles placed here and there to provide subtle lighting to the oversized room. Nick sat at the piano, playing softly. He began singing, keeping his voice low as though he was afraid of disturbing his nonexistent neighbors.

"Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light-

-"

He stopped suddenly, the lyrics to the song reminding him of his loneliness. He reached for the opened bottle of blood on top of the piano and took a long swig. Taking the bottle with him, he walked over to the stereo and switched on the radio. He listened to the music playing for a moment, then noted the digital time display on the nearby VCR.

"You're running late, old man," he spoke to the radio. "Taking Christmas Eve off, are you? No depressing monologues tonight for all those lonely, lost souls who dread the holidays? No diatribe on why anyone should even bother to live through another blue Christmas while the rest of the world is making merry? Oh, I know. You're out somewhere filling your belly with the blood of some poor street corner Santa Claus, aren't you? Is that your way of showing your Christmas spirit?"

Nick switched off the radio, then picked out a cassette tape from a collection of others and stuffed it into the player. He flipped the play switch, and his master's voice came over the speakers. LaCroix recognized his own words from the previous night's broadcast where he had given a history of Christmas based on a scientific viewpoint. He pointed out that according to many in the scientific field, there was no hard evidence that the birth of Christ had actually occurred, and that the whole virgin birth thing was quite possibly no more than a contrived fairy tale. All of which meant that Christmas itself was merely a gigantic farce perpetrated by those who only sought to force their religion upon others.

Nick listened impassively to the words, not seeming to despise them nor disagree with them. Finally, he moved away from the stereo and went to sit down on the couch. Picking up a remote and aiming it at the TV, he scanned the stations until he happened upon a black and white production of "A Christmas Carol." He decided to watch the movie but with the volume turned down, choosing instead to listen to the tape of his master's voice. Before taking another long swallow, he raised his bottle of blood in a toasting gesture and said, "Merry Christmas, LaCroix."

LaCroix stepped up behind him, tempted to reach out and touch his blonde curls, but suddenly caught himself. Even if he were able to touch Nicholas in his present nonexistent state, he did not wish to do so in front of an audience.

"One would think that he actually likes me, or something."

"Or something. Even though you constantly taunt him and berate his lifestyle, and you occasionally inflict physical abuse upon him, he still manages to find some infinitesimal shred of--" The spirit paused in her statement, then shook her head. "Actually, I have no earthly idea what possible good he sees in you."

"I've seen enough here," said LaCroix to the spirit.

"And so you have," she responded softly. She opened the palm of her hand in front of his face, then blew a cloud of glitter from it into his eyes.

By the time LaCroix rubbed and wiped the irritant away, he found himself back in the sound booth where he had started. Checking his watch, he saw that another ten minutes had elapsed. At least at the rate things were progressing, he thought, by the time it was all over he'd still have a full evening ahead of him.

"Two down and one to go." LaCroix tried to prepare himself for the specter of death he was expecting to make an appearance. When a shadow fell over him from behind, he managed not to jump. "I suppose you're here to show me my future?"

"That is my purpose, yes."

LaCroix was surprised at hearing the spirit speak. He assumed it would be like the hooded, speechless apparition he'd seen in countless movies. He turned to find a tall, well-dressed, dark-

haired gentleman looking as if he were ready for a night at the opera.

"My appearance surprises you?"

"Yes. I was expecting something more--"

"Grim Reaper? Well, times change. Shall we get on with it?"

"Regarding my future," said LaCroix as he stood and faced the spirit. "I have experienced death before, and I find that I've apparently reached the age where it's not exactly permanent, so I don't feel that your contribution is all that necessary. Your friends have shown me enough already to make me embrace Christmas with much more enthusiasm, and I assure you that I am a better person for it."

The spirit stared blankly at LaCroix, obviously not giving his words any consideration. After a long moment, he leaned slightly forward as if to whisper. "You know," he spoke in a normal tone, "I've met a number of vampires in my travel, all of whom were under the impression that they would live forever. But guess what? They didn't. When it's your time, my friend, make no mistake, you _will_ die. Permanently."

LaCroix said nothing in reply. He simply placed his hand in the one reaching out for him and followed dutifully. The destination this time was Paris, easily recognizable as they passed the Eiffel Tower. They entered through the window of a luxurious hotel suite. Cuddled up on the sofa, sipping wine-laced blood and gazing at the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree, were Nicholas and Janette.

"You remember the last time we celebrated Christmas together?" Nick asked.

"I think the year was 1924. Almost a full century ago. It was right before you and LaCroix had that tiff over the pretty little ballerina. Right before you decided to give up killing mortals for good. It's probably that stubborn streak of humanity left in you that saved you from the same fate as our master."

"I wonder. Even after all these years, I still can't shake the feeling that he'll return. After all, he's done it before."

"But he didn't have to go searching for his head before."

"My head?" LaCroix blurted out. "What is she talking about?" he asked the spirit. "I've been beheaded?"

"Face it, Nichola," Janette continued. "It's been twenty years now. He's gone for good. And after the way he treated you, I would think you'd be happy."

"Oh, I am," Nick assured her with a quick kiss and a smile. "Believe me, I'm ecstatic. He finally got what he deserved. I just wish I had been the one to give it to him."

"He hates me," LaCroix murmured ruefully.

"I actually had the opportunity to save him," said Nicholas in thinking back. "Then I thought, why should I? The whole past century we hadn't gotten along well at all, and he was forever tormenting me. Then after what he did to Natalie on Valentine's Day, I certainly had no love left for him. As far as he was concerned, her death was merely a way of teaching me another lesson, but it almost destroyed me. And when that evil little thing came looking for him, wanting to wipe him out and everyone that meant anything to him, I wasn't even interested in fighting back at first."

"What's he talking about?" asked LaCroix. "What evil thing?" He received no response from the spirit or clarification from Nicholas.

"I nearly gave in. I was ready to die. It wasn't until I realized that you would be next on the list that I felt I should do something to stop all the killing. I got to his place in time to prevent him from losing his head, but I waited instead. And I watched the horror in his eyes when he caught sight of me in the doorway and realized that I had no intentions of intervening. He tried to scream out my name, but there was no time."

"Enough!" LaCroix howled. "Enough of this, Spirit! I will see no more of this."

"There is no more," said the spirit as he vanished from sight.

The room they had been standing in faded to black, then slowly a dim light brought him to the realization that he was once again back at the radio station. He sat numbly in front of the console, sorting out in his mind all that he had heard and seen. He came to the conclusion that his journey had not been about his lack of Christmas spirit. It had been about his relationship with Nicholas and the tenuous thread between them that was threatening to break completely.

He was reminded of when he had first come to Toronto and he and Nicholas had battled to the death, his own death. Being such an old vampire, he was able to regenerate. When he approached Nicholas again, LaCroix could sense the relief his child felt over his return, though Nicholas would loathe to admit it. He had never sensed pure hatred from Nicholas over any of their previous altercations. There was anger and resentment but never any indication that LaCroix would not be welcomed back into his son's life at some point.

If he remained on his current path, however, if he continued to harass and emotionally torture his offspring, there would come a time when Nicholas would no longer find forgiveness in his heart. And when the evil little thing -- whatever it was -- came along, Nicholas would not lift a finger to save him from it.

"Spirits," LaCroix spoke to the empty room, "you have indeed shown me the light. I cannot say that I will change entirely overnight, but I understand now that time is ticking away. I will endeavor to be more tolerant of Nicholas, and perhaps of mortals in general, but definitely to my Nicholas."

LaCroix glanced at his watch and saw that his entire ordeal with the spirits had only taken a half hour. He thought about doing his show, but decided against it. Instead, he lined up another music tape to take his place, then stood and walked out of the sound booth. As he passed through the lobby of the radio station, he paused to look at the Christmas tree, and thought of Nicholas home alone sulking the night away. An idea formed but he shook his head to lose it, thinking how utterly silly it was. Another image blossomed, and he smiled as he pictured himself as the Grinch after his heart had grown three sizes larger.

"He'll think I've gone mad," LaCroix spoke aloud to himself. Then with a giggle, he added, "I suppose I have."

-------

As Nick sat alone in his home staring glumly into space, he became startled by a loud bumping noise coming from the roof. When he flew up to the skylight to investigate, he was shocked to find LaCroix doing an impersonation of Santa Claus. He was dressed in his usual black except for the red and white Santa hat on his head. He stood on the roof holding an eight foot Christmas tree in one hand and a large plastic bag in the other.

"Merry Christmas, Nicholas," the old vampire beamed cheerfully. "Care to help me get this all inside?"

"LaCroix? What on earth -- what's gotten into you?"

"The Christmas Spirit, my dear Nicholas," said LaCroix with a wild grin. "The Christmas Spirit has gotten into me. Now, assistance?"

Nick helped LaCroix get the tree and the bag -- which was filled with lights and ornaments -- through the skylight. He questioned LaCroix about his unusual good mood and was told with very little detail that his master had been visited by spirits, much in the same way Ebeneezer Scrooge had been. Nick asked if he was sure it hadn't just been a vivid dream.

"Quite possibly a dream, Nicholas," LaCroix admitted. "Or perhaps the results of some bad, figgy pudding. Doesn't matter. What does matter is that I've been made aware of certain aspects of my life. I've made some errors in judgment in the past regarding our relationship, and though I won't claim that things from now on will be peaches and cream between us, I shall attempt to be more understanding of your needs in the future."

Nick's mouth fell open in disbelief of the words he'd just heard. It was as close to an apology as he would get from his master. With his left, index finger, LaCroix reached up and gently pushed his son's chin upwards to close his mouth.

"Now, since you seem to be otherwise unoccupied and there's a naked evergreen in our midst, I suggest you help me decorate it."

For a moment, Nick couldn't move. He could only stand and stare as his master went about finding a suitable position to place the tree. After setting it up in front of one of the windows, LaCroix pulled out a couple of ornaments and placed them on random branches.

"Lights," Nick spoke up suddenly.

"I beg your pardon?"

"We should put the lights on first, then the ornaments."

"Oh. Of course. I'm afraid the last time I decorated a tree, electric lights had yet to be invented. Perhaps you should do the honors."

Nick accepted the task, but also had to accept lighthearted criticism when too many of the same color bulbs appeared next to each other. He was able to retaliate when LaCroix placed identical ornaments together on the same branches. The playful bickering went back and forth until the tree was fully decorated. Afterwards, the two sat on the couch to admire their work and soon began to reminisce about the good old days. The hours flew by, and they were both surprised by the chiming of church bells off in the distance signaling midnight and the beginning of Christmas. They went to look out one of the windows, watching silently as snow began to fall as if on cue.

Nick placed a hand on LaCroix's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Merry Christmas, LaCroix," he whispered softly.

LaCroix patted the hand on his shoulder and replied, "Indeed. A Merry Christmas after all."