Shadow of the Templar: Prodigal Son
On timeline: December, one year and four months after the close of High Fidelity
Five years (more or less to the day) since I wrote the first SotT holiday story, Happy/Merryfive years in which I wrote the books themselvesand I decided that it was once again time to get all meaningful or something.
"and then he bolts straight off down the middle of the street and leaves me holding the bloody bag!"
The ensuing burst of raucous male laughter reached clearly to Jeremy's ears, even with the door to his rooms mostly closed, and it made him smile at his reflection as he knotted his bow tie just so. Ethan was never happier than when he was at the private pre-party that he held just before the official Christmas party, when he and his five or six oldest friends spent a couple of hours reliving their glory dayswhat had started as a polite attempt to make sure that none of Ethan's ordinary guests had to be the dreaded 'first to arrive' had turned into a little tradition all its own.
And the ordinary guests did arrive early, some of them, which was why Jeremy was just now sliding into his tuxedo jacket even though it wasn't even yet six-thirty. The party officially started at seven, with dinner at eight-thirty, but Jeremy could always count on one or two guests showing up fifteen minutes early and refusing even to be abashed about it. Shockingly poor manners, in his opinion, but what could you expect from a passel of criminals? One didn't become a felon because one had a deep-seated desire to follow all of society's little laws and rules. Jeremy brushed discerning fingers over his lapels, studied himself in the mirror, and acknowledged the irony of his train of thought with a slight and sarcastic smile.
Ah, well. Jeremy tucked his muted mobile into the proper pocket (now there was an example of poor manners, to be sure, and an incidence of disrespect for a very good Italian tailor) and let himself out of his suite. He'd go down to the ballroom and take one last look 'round while he waited for the inevitable early arrivals. For all that Ethan always diffidently extended an invitation for Jeremy to join him and his cronies in the drawing room, Jeremy would have felt awkward doing socertainly they'd make an effort to make him welcome, but Jeremy had an instinctive horror of actually forcing them to the effort. So: the ballroom, and one last moment of relative peace before the party. Moments of peace were nothing to be sniffed at.
The upstairs hallway, like the rest of the house, was decked out in enough greenery to ensure that the entire place would smell of pine for days yet to come. The freshly-cut branches were bound into wreaths, swags, and garlands with white and silver ribbons, as always; tiny white lights winked at Jeremy from deep within the branches, like stars. The house at Christmas had looked largely the same for as many years as Jeremy had been here, and would doubtless look largely the same for years to come.
The heavy garland on the banister rustled under Jeremy's hand as he trotted down the main staircase and made for the ballroom. It was almost a different house like this, all lit up and decked out, with music playing ever so softly from somewhere. Down here the rumble of laughter from the back of the house was undercut by the clatter from the kitchens, as someone else did the cooking for once. The peace that Jeremy had come looking for, he found; closing his eyes, he took a deep pine-scented breath and felt some faint knot under his breastbone finally come loose. It was as close to a home as he had, this beautiful, timeless place
someone had a go at the front door with the massive knocker, knocking Jeremy from his reverie. He checked his watch: barely six-thirty. Good Lord, but the early birds got earlier every year. Still, Christmas was a time when everyone ought to have a family's welcome, as Ethan always said, so Jeremy dug up a smile and headed for the door.
The unseasonably cool weather blew in with a damp skirl as Jeremy opened the door and paused, his greeting dying unspoken on his lips. After a second or two, he remember to shut his mouth again. "I'm not stayin'," Bran said sullenly, his chin buried in the collar of his ratty parka, his hands stuffed into its pockets. His nose and cheeks were red from the cold, his hair whipped into damp spikes by the wind, his eyes squinted nearly shut; despite the weather he hung back as if he were nailed to the stoop, just about glaring at Jeremy. "I just came t' see Ethan and then I'll be off, like."
You knew I'd be here, Jeremy silently marvelled, looking at this tatty apparition. You knew I'd be the one to answer the door, and you came anyway... "Of course, please, come in," he said instead, taking half a step back and gesturing at the hallway beyond.
Bran snorted and pushed past him, by design, malice, or happenstance managing to shoulder Jeremy bodily aside. The battered furry lining of his parka's hood shed a few hairs onto Jeremy's pristine lapel; Jeremy elected not to mention it. "Happy Christmas, Bran," he said, unable to keep a hint of cynicism from leaking into the words. "May I take your coat?"
"No, because I'm not stayin'," Bran said sharply, hunching his shoulders. "I'll just go" Another burst of distant laughter cut him off and for a moment they both looked thoughtfully towards the back of the house. "You go an' tell Ethan I'm in the sittin' room," Bran said, jerking his head towards the hallway. "I'll be, uh, in the sittin' room."
"Of course," Jeremy said, flicking the grey hairs off his lapel as he watched Bran trudge away. His boots were leaving damp marks on the clean floor, but they'd dryJeremy shook his head and took a shortcut through the ballroom, heading for the drawing room.
Ethan's old cronies barely glanced at him as he slipped into the room, too intent on their own boisterous conversation and the drinks in their hands to pay much attention to someone who was, after all, very good at not having attention paid to him. Jeremy eased himself along the wall to where Ethan stood and put a hand on his shoulder, murmuring into his ear; a moment later Ethan went very still indeed. "If you'll excuse me for a moment, gentlemen," Ethan said, putting his glass down on the mantel. His quiet exit barely made a dent in the clamour; Jeremy watched Ethan go, then slipped back out of the drawing room, now just barely smiling.
The temptation to eavesdrop was strong, Jeremy had to admit, and furthermore he was certain that they both expected him to do exactly that. Therefore, purely out of contrariness, Jeremy didn't. He drifted back to the ballroom and made a show of inspecting the dinner tables, already set, only the unlit candles anything like unready. One of the evening's waitstaff poked his head out of the back hallway, spotted Jeremy, and ducked back in again. By closing his eyes Jeremy could make out the ongoing merry hubbub in the drawing room, and the ever-more-frenetic distant din from the kitchens, and maybe, if he were entirely dishonest with himself, one small, slight conversation besides...
Once again the clatter from the door-knocker smacked Jeremy bodily from his woolgathering. He checked his watch: six-forty. Ah, well, that was slightly less impolite. This time the door opened not to a sullen figure in dirty cargo pants but an explosion of happy fair-traders and their wives, and suddenly the hallway was full of noise, cries of greeting, embraces, and one semi-professional stealthy pat-down of Jeremy's various pockets, as some people just did not know how to take a vacation"Hello! Happy Christmas, it's good to see you all, please, come in, come in!"
"Fuck off," Simon's father said, one big-knuckled hand clenched hard around the edge of the door, like he thought Simon might decide to kick it in.
Simon huffed out a vague laughit made a small cloud in the cold airand glanced away, looking down the row of slowly-degenerating houses, most with their hopeful strings of Christmas lights. Not this one, though. No lights hung on this one. Barely any lights lit inside, either, just the one in the breakfast room, yellowish as ever. "Merry Christmas to you too," Simon said.
His father didn't respond to that, just truculently searched Simon's face. His eyes had shrunk with age, apparently, now just two dark, wet points nearly buried in bruised-looking pouched skinnot just bags under his eyes but entire sets of luggage. Simon sighed. "Look, either you can talk to me, or I can stand out here and yell at you through the closed door until someone calls the cops."
"I am the cops, you little turd," his father said. "What do you want, anyway? What's so fucking important that you'd come back now?"
"Guess I just wanted to see you," Simon said. He wasn't sure why. He could have been back in DC right now, cozy and half-drunk in Sandra's apartment with the rest of the team, not staying in some ramshackle interstate motel in semi-rural Indiana in order to follow up on some completely harebrained idea. "And hey, for the record, I've got at least two inches and twenty pounds on you now, so enough with the 'little turd' shit, okay?"
His father snorted, either in agreement or disagreement, and didn't move to open the door. He didn't move to shut it, either, which was something. "So you've seen me," he said. "Hope you're happy."
"Thrilled," Simon agreed. Prompted by some vague and wayward urge he spread his hands wide. "Merry Christmas."
"Yeah, Season's fucking Greetings," said his father. For a moment he wavered there, a bulldog of a man shrinking with age and starting to run to fat, his shoulders ever more sloped and bowed with ten more years of disappointmentsthen he snorted again, shook his head, and gently closed the door in Simon's face. His heavy, scuffing footsteps trailed away.
Simon stood there for a minute longer, gazing at the door without really seeing it, still sort of half-smiling. Again, he wasn't sure why. It should have hurt, or something, probably, but it hadn't. The man hadn't changed much since the last time Simon saw him, and yet he felt like a stranger more than anythingSimon didn't really have it in him to be hurt by the disapproval of strangers. How would he arrest them, otherwise?
The card was a cheap, sentimental, drugstore-type thing, which Simon had picked up on a whim at the airport last night. He'd signed his name under the platitude inside and written his cell-phone number underneath that; now he flipped up the cover over the mail slot and flicked the card inside, to land on the foyer floor. He heard it hit and skitter. His father would probably ignore it, probably even tear it up, but that was his choice, and at the end of the day Simon had made an honest effort to re-establish contact.
Always take the moral high road, Jeremy had told him once, during a particularly unguarded moment. I always strive to be the bigger man in any situation. It's easier on my conscience, and, truth be told, there's nothing like turning the other cheek to really piss a fellow off. It hadn't meant much to Simon at the timehe'd said something about how a thief advocating the moral high road was like a fish advocating amphibianismbut it had stuck in his head anyway, and in the end it had told him more about Jeremy than he was entirely comfortable knowing and had, eventually, put this ridiculous scheme into his head.
The hell of it was that Jeremy was right, as little as Simon had ever liked to admit that kind of thing: Simon felt better for having done it. He'd put the ball in his father's court, which meant that he didn't have to carry it around any more. Take that, he thought, with something approaching childish glee; then he stuck his hands in his jacket pockets and ambled back to his rental car.
Five minutes later he was in what passed for the center of the town he'd grown up in. It was barely seven but most of the buildings were dark, closed for Christmas. More of those hopeful little strings of lights were everywhere, of course, but the place didn't look merry. It looked deserted. Almost post-apocalyptic. Simon shivered a bit and pointed the car east, heading back out of town.
Despite the fact that bored small-town kids often had nothing better to do than vandalize things, the cemetery didn't have a fence around it. They'd been talking about adding one for years, since even before Simon had left home for goodevery Halloween saw a few gravestones kicked over, at leastbut in true small-town fashion they'd never quite gotten around to doing it, because it was always someone else's problem. Still, it was someone else's problem that was working in Simon's favor tonight. He parked the car and went looking.
He'd only seen his mother's grave once, going on ten years ago now, and it took him about fifteen minutes of patient searching to find it again. It was reasonably well-tended (well, the grass was mown, anyway) but it had the bare look of a grave that wasn't visited. Simon put his hands back in his pockets and considered the headstone, his breath steaming in the air. If this were a bad movie he'd stand here and tell his mother all about what was going on in his life, talking to the headstone like it could hear him, and then he'd put a single flower of some kind on the grave and leave. Fortunately or unfortunately, though, Simon wasn't that kind of idiot.
He looked at the stone and let his mind wander. After a few minutes Simon concluded that things were more or less all right in his world, which was probably all his mother would have really cared about. He laughed under his breath. Cliche' or not, the scene required something more from him: "Merry Christmas, Mom," he muttered, already feeling like a dumbass. He didn't have anything to leave on the grave (unless he wanted to leave a nickel and three pennies, which seemed inappropriate) so he awkwardly patted the headstone instead, then headed back to the car.
By the time he got the car pointed towards the motel again, he was in a pretty good mood. He wasn't entirely sure why, but for once in his life, Simon was determined not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
"I don't know," he found himself telling Jeremy an hour later, safely ensconced in his motel room, washing down his fast-food Christmas dinner with one of the beers he'd bought yesterday. The television was on, but muted, washing the darkened room with shifting blue-gray light. "I guess I feel like I should have had some kind of epiphany or something."
"Who knows?" said Jeremy, sleepy and purring in the darkness, an ocean and several hours away. "Perhaps you did. ... happy Christmas, Simon."
"That's Merry Christmas to you, Archer."
For the record: a thief advocating the moral high road is like a fish advocating amphibianism: enthusing over something which may once have been within their grasp, but which they consciously failed to evolve. You're welcome.
Would Simon have tried to make peace with his father if he hadn't had that grand awakening at the end of High Fidelity? You know what, I don't think he would.