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He hated Coldfront. Not that the remote base was popular with any of them, save maybe Heavy, who felt more at home in frozen mountains than the sun-parched main headquarters in the badlands. The outpost was tucked at the tail end of the Rockies, not all that far from the Colorado border. Frankly it made no sense to move the teams here, but the Administrator always did from time to time. It was all a bunch of overcomplicated politics that amounted to him standing at his wet bar staring into an undefined space on the wall and trying not to think about how cold it was despite a roaring fire. 

"...You okay, Spook?"

The familiar voice with its drawling Australian accent shook Rene from his thoughts. Sitting with his too-long legs crossed in a manner that looked awkward but was apparently comfortable for him, was the team's Sniper. He'd been staring at him in silence for several minutes now, and Rene had admittedly forgotten he was even there.

He sighed, and a few faint clouds that remained of the smoke he'd forgotten to exhale puffed out. "Oui, I am fine."

Of course his teammate would know it was a lie. Mick was much more than his colleague after all. Still, if he brushed him off, the marksman would get the point that he didn't wish to discuss it. 

That did not mean he'd drop it.

"Right. Go on then. When ya wanna tell me, I'll be in my camper," he huffed, standing up and dropping his worn leather hat back on his head.

"You're not really going back out to that thing, are you?" he said, stubbing his expired cigarette into an ashtray. Nevermind that he had a perfectly good room here in the base, or that he slept in Rene's room half of the time; it was freezing up here in the mountains.

Mick just shrugged in response. "Better than watchin' you sulk all bloody night. You do this every December, Spook. You have since I've known ya."

And you still call me by that ridiculous nickname. "Fine. Go freeze in that tiny van of yours."

The bushman appeared to have more to say, yet he shrugged it off. "I'll see you tomorrow." With a wave of his hand, he wandered out of the smoking room. 

"Merde," was all Rene could utter as the door shut behind his lover.

He tried to ignore the tightness in his chest. More wine. Another Sobranie White, or three, and then bed. Whatever it took to numb his senses and dull the memories. Mick's arms would have helped with that, but only if he were not so insistent for answers Rene didn't want to give. 

The Sniper had known from the beginning that Rene was a private man. There were never any guarantees that he would divulge anything about himself at all. It was an inherently unprofessional decision for a Spy, but Mick had seen him more vulnerable than anyone else had in years. Decades, perhaps. He’d seen his face without the mask. 

So why keep anything from him? That was undoubtedly the logic that made the lanky Australian impatient with him now. Perhaps letting him get so close had been a mistake. He expected too much. Then again, maybe Rene was just being childish for letting a thirty-something year old memory haunt him. It had to be karma for continuing to leave the Scout in the dark, as this annual melancholy had only seemed to worsen when he'd taken the job for Mann Co. It seemed no matter how hard one tried, in the end there was no escaping becoming your parents.

Rene stared at the bottom of the wine glass he couldn't remember emptying. Only a few dregs of the 1933 Chateau d'Yquem remained, pooled there in a sad burgundy oasis too small to appease. A tragic waste to have let himself drink such a fine vintage away without even tasting it. He should have just gone for the scotch, even if it didn't warm him quite the same way. Tempting as another glass was, he was not about to resort to the Demoman's unfortunate habit and drown himself in spirits.  

With a heavy sigh, Rene sat his glass on the table beside himself and pulled out his disguise kit. Tucked in one side were his true vice, imported Sobranie White Russians. His counterpart preferred the Blacks, a peculiarity Rene never could quite make sense of if they were supposedly clones. He tried not to think too much about it; the whole thing was unsettling.

Flicking open his lighter, he watched the blurred glow of the flame as it licked at the end of the cigarette. The familiar relief those first few inhales gave him never ceased to amaze him. Those little clouds of tobacco had a way of sinking into every nerve in him in the brief moments before he let them back out in a slow exhale. They were of course toxic, if he listened to Medic carry on, but the comfort they gave him was an almost medicinal illusion. Not that he would ever use those words around the German unless he wanted a headache-inducing lecture.

He sat there, drawing the soothing poison into his lungs and back out again. Head tilted back and eyes closed, he tried to relax; tried to forget. It took two cigarettes but he began to feel the tension lift from him. With luck, he could get some sleep, provided some unwelcome dreams didn't disturb him.

 


 

Morning came, as always, with the obnoxious sounds of Soldier's blasted horn. That it was a weekend must have slipped the imbecile's small mind yet again. One by one, eight mercenaries in varying degrees of irritation and exhaustion filtered into the commons for breakfast. At least Engineer was cooking, which promised something edible and potentially even healthy.

"Why do ya gotta do that every frickin' morning, dumbass?" Scout was shouting as Rene entered the dining area.

"You're getting soft, recruit!" To demonstrate his point, Soldier grabbed the younger man's arm and held it up. "Look at this! You're a scrawny disgrace, not a muscle on you!"

"Hey hey! Fuck you pal! I'm plenty strong. It's called 'lean muscle', ya know!"

"He's here to be fast, Soldier, not flaunt muscles. He is the runner, after all," Rene interjected, not even sure why he was bothering. Guilty conscience, maybe.

"Stay out of this, Crouton!"

Rene rolled his eyes as the bickering went on, resulting in Soldier overreacting to something and pinning Scout up against a wall with one hand around his neck. Pyro came to his rescue and the situation was further diffused by Engineer who appeared from the kitchen with a spatula in his gloved mechanical hand. That the Texan could manage to glare them all down, as tiny as he was and in an apron no less, was rather impressive. Whatever worked.

With another deliberate sigh he moved on, sucking on his third cigarette of the morning and giving a brief nod to the Heavy as he strolled over to the coffee machine. The large Russian was half-listening to Medic ramble on about something. The doctor was wide-eyed and overenthusiastic in the way he got whenever the topic of questionable medical practices arose. Of course Heavy didn't care all that much for the subject matter, but it didn't take a spy to recognize the adoring light in his gray eyes when Medic lit up like that. Despite his mood, Rene smiled a bit to himself. Such an odd but perfect pair, those two. The same could be said of many such pairings on both teams here, though.

"Mornin', Spook."

Speak of the devil. Rene's heart fluttered at Mick's voice, and not just because he'd surprised him, which was irritating enough. Some spy he'd turned out to be. "Bonjour," he grumbled.

"Still mad at me?" The question was delivered in a monotone and unconcerned way; Mick knew they were fine.

"You're one who left in a huff." He watched the sharpshooter pour himself a cup of coffee into his overused #1 Sniper mug and cringed when he lifted it to his lips. How could he drink that awful stuff black?

Mick quirked an eyebrow. "Wasn't a huff, mate."

"Hey, where's Demo?" Scout's loud voice carried above the din. "I bet he's passed out over the toilet again."

Rene pinched the bridge of his nose and tuned him back out, though not before wishing the likelihood of Scout's comment weren't so high. Mick barely glanced in the Bostonian's direction before his piercing blue-green eyes drifted back over to him. Without his aviators on, it was like he could see right through him. Rene hated it and loved it. 

"Well, non, I am not mad." That at least was true. Tired, perhaps even wary and morose, but not angry.

"Good."

They said brevity was the soul of wit, but that saying applied more to men like Heavy than Mick. For all he loved his bushman, his awkwardness had molded him into something of a simple man when it came to social graces. Most of the time, he was a much better listener than a talker. Unless you got him going about something he was familiar with, or got him riled up about something. Sniping, his parents, and the supernatural. That last one could be rather amusing, in particular, when Demoman got started with one of his stories. It was his usual quiet brevity that got Rene saying things he never meant to though, time and time again.

"...You really wish to know that badly?" he heard himself say while his attention was focused on dumping a third cup of cream into his coffee.

There was a slight delay. Just a few heartbeats' pause while Mick processed what he meant. "Yeah."

Merde. No turning back now. "...Very well. Tonight."

Mick's response came in the form of a nod as he eyed the fourth sugar Rene stirred into his coffee.

 


 

Gathered around a roaring fire from which the Pyro was kept at a safe distance, all of RED team’s mercenaries had assembled to decorate for the holiday. Heavy had cut down a sizable pine from the wooded areas all around Coldfront after waiting around for almost an hour while Engineer let Soldier help him choose one. 

Demoman always had some weird story to freak Scout out with, but the best ones were the ones they all were around to hear. The youngest team member's reactions were usually as entertaining as the tale itself. Maybe that was the real reason Rene was hanging around for the decorating of the commons. That, and Miss Pauling had stopped by, something all of them enjoyed. Telling the ghost story was actually her idea. She loved the Scotsman's stories. So far it was just a bastardization of ‘A Christmas Carol’, but Rene wasn’t about to critique. Not when Mick was almost as enthralled as Scout. He rolled his eyes, but only to disguise the small smirk he couldn’t keep off his face.

“…An' sure enough, beneath a thin layer a' snow, was th' name ‘Blutarch Mann’."

“Okay, now that’s fucked up!” Scout protested, loud enough to try to diffuse his obvious unrest. It was evident to Rene, as well as others in the room he was sure, that the boy was trembling a bit. “Don’t ya think, Miss Pauling?"

As usual, the young woman was doing her best to tolerate Scout, but they all knew he was never going to have a chance with her. “Quiet, Scout! Stop interrupting.”

“Ghosts and time travel, huh? Good ol’ Dickens. Never did get that one myself,” Engineer said as he continued to rig the star-shaped light on the top of the tree. 

Mick did not seem as complacent. “Cause it don’t make any sense. Ghosts can’t bring people into the bloody future! Everyone knows that."

Soldier peered at Mick from underneath his clunky, ill-fitting helmet with a scowl set into his square jaw. “Maybe not where you’re from, Aussie, but here in America, our ghosts can do whatever they like!”

“Oh I don’t know, it makes for an interesting theory, don’t you think, Engie?” So even Medic, who had been helping the Engineer with a long trail of electrical cords, was getting pulled into this. 

“How’d’ya mean, Doc?"

“Well, if we’re going to accept the notion of ghosts as spirits who have not ‘crossed over’, then perhaps their existence is in another overlapping plane of existence and become ethereal beings, there is no reason why the laws of time such as they apply to the living would confine them, ja?"

“You got yourself a solid point there, Doc.” The inventor tapped his chin, considering this.

If left to their own devices, the two scientists were bound to derail the entire evening with some speculative discussion about the potential plausibility of a supernatural holiday story. Besides, he was quite sure both of them were well aware that in the end it was revealed that the protagonist had in all likelihood dreamt the entire thing. They just wanted to jump on some pointless theoretical discussion that was irrelevant to everyone else in the room. Typical.

Soon, Heavy would be asleep — oh, nevermind, he already was. Pyro would be finding something to — too late there, as well. No matter; they didn’t need all the ornaments anyway. Let him burn a couple if it kept him happy. Scout was trying to inch closer to poor Miss Pauling, and Soldier seemed to think encouraging that was good advice.

Rene sighed. Someone had to shut the nerds up. “Gentlemen, if you would kindly—" 

But he was cut off. Demoman’s expression had been on a gradual progression into a full-fledged frown. He slammed the bottle of Southern Comfort he’d been cradling on to a crate full of decorations Miss Pauling had brought them. “Are ye louts gonnae let me finish mah story or nae?"

“Huh— oh, sorry Demo. Got carried away.” Engineer chuckled and offered him a sheepish smile before passing a few broken bulbs to Medic in exchange for new ones.

“Hmph.” The Scotsman leaned back in his chair and grabbed his liquor again for a long swig.

“Please, keep going, Demo.” Pauling was enjoying herself, bright green eyes alive with a youth this miserable job had somehow failed to take from her. Rene almost envied her at times. Her dedication was so absolute that it seemed nothing would sway her, no matter how poor Helen’s treatment of her was.

“Y-yeah, c’mon! I wanna hear the end!” Scout pressed, forgetting that he was the one who started this whole sidetrack in the first place. 

Demoman peered at them with his one brown eye, noting Pyro’s attention had returned to him from the now-charred nutcracker sitting on the floor beside him.

“Aye. As I was sayin', old Blutarch turned tae th' ghost wi' terror in his eyes. ‘Nae! It cannae be real! Please, anythin' but this!’ he begged, but th' dark form just kept on pointin' ahead. Aside from a glint off two beady black orbs under th' shadow o' his hood, th' ghost showed nae change.”

Scout was all but clinging to Miss Pauling now, and she was attempting to shove him away. “Oh man, this is freaky—“ A sudden, wary glance in the young lady’s direction made him jump back to his side of the sofa. "Er, I ain’t scared or nothin' of course. Not me!"

“Scout, you are literally shaking like a leaf,” Miss Pauling said. If the Bostonian had hoped to fool anyone it was her, and she wasn’t buying it.

“W-was not!"

“Come off it, ya wanker. Might as well have pissed yourself,” Mick grumbled. He appeared resigned to the idea that the story was never going to be finished, because he tilted his head back against the frame of the sofa and pulled his hat over his eyes. 

This time the Scotsman just sank back into his chair, dejected, and nursed his booze in misery. Rene almost felt bad for the demolitions expert. In fact, take out the ‘almost'. Sometimes he could be just as obnoxious as the rest of them, but he did love the few times he could get his teammates to gather around for a story. It seemed to give him a sense that he had something valuable to share beyond the simple ability to blow things up. Alas, this crew was a headache to get any semblance of cooperation out of. With seven mercenaries and a somewhat disappointed young lady all trying to get their word — or mumble, or snore — in edgewise, Rene’s tolerance was worn thin.

 Luckily for him, slipping away unnoticed was something he excelled at. 

 


 

It was a great source of entertainment for ten-year-old Rene when he watched the adults play their games, trying to trick children into believing some strange man flew around to every child in the world in a magical sleigh. Many children in his own class still wrote letters addressed to a vague address in the North Pole, sure their parents wouldn’t lie to them. Well, he was too clever for that. He was going to be a detective one day, after all. It would not be very good if he were fooled by a silly kid’s story. He’d known since his seventh Christmas that the tale of Santa Claus was nothing more than an elaborate hoax put on by the parents of the world to garner good behavior and a bit of fun during the holidays.

Of course he let his parents think he was still convinced, amused that they thought they had him, when it was the other way around. His father made it too tempting not to correct them, though. He was insistent on playing Santa every year. The whole works, right down to dressing up and putting an extra gift under the tree while Rene 'slept'. Sometimes his mother would argue with him when they thought he couldn’t hear, saying money was too tight for him to keep it up.

“It’s Christmas, ma petite! Don’t worry about such things now,” he would say. Then she would become more upset until he kissed her and whispered sweet nothings in her ear. Then she would relent.

Rene sometimes wondered if he should just confess the truth. His father did always say women were prone to overreacting and dramatic flair. But what if his mother was right, and Rene was being greedy by keeping his little secret going just to get an extra present? 

After seeing his mother crying following a barely-hushed exchange in the kitchen three nights before Christmas, Rene resolved to tell them the truth that year. He would be eleven soon, old enough to stop being so selfish. Taking solace in his very adult decision, he awaited his last Christmas as a child.

Nothing went as planned.

He’d missed something, somehow. He should have said something earlier. His mother didn’t know about the extra present. She thought they were going to tell Rene the truth that day. The shouting escalated right in front of him. Maybe they’d forgotten he was even there. 

“You promised, Henri! I can’t go on like this!”

Those words changed his father’s face from pleading to defeated, though Rene didn’t understand why just yet. All he knew at the moment was that there were more tears from his mother as his father hung his head and went upstairs. Rene sat on the floor, staring at the Junior Investigator kit that his father had wrapped and tagged ‘From Santa’. 

Was this his fault?

When his father appeared back downstairs with a suitcase, Rene would have traded every gift he’d ever gotten from a pretend fat man in a red suit to stop what he realized was happening. The pained look in his grey-blue eyes when he looked at his son sent a message that any age could make some sense of. 

He jumped to his feet and clung to his father, begging him to return the gifts, to make it okay again.

The tired man gripped his arms with gentle but firm hands and pushed him back. “Be good, mon fils.”

Rene never saw his father again.

 


 

The firelight blurred in Rene’s vision as he stared at it, a sting in his eyes forcing him to look away and rub them lest a bothersome tear try forming. “Merde, why do I still care?”

In the years that had followed that miserable Christmas, that boy had become a man, and he had learned his father had been accruing more debt than a few extra packages could ever account for. He’d had a spending problem that, if Rene was being honest with himself, must have been hereditary. Their family should have done all right. His mother made a modest living as a seamstress, and his father was a salesman. As he later learned, his father’s second job seemed to be draining his mother of every franc she earned. Still, old shames stuck under his skin, and every December, Rene felt a bit like that little boy who watched his father walk away, thinking it was all his fault for getting an extra present.

He didn’t bother to look up when the door to his smoking room opened and closed. There was only one person who would walk in without knocking first. 

“You’re early."

“Yeah, well, Demo passed out and Pyro almost burned the bloody tree down. Figured I could do without it gettin’ any worse.” Mick’s worn boots thudded against the wood floorboards as he paced into the room.

“Indeed.” Rene knew there was a catch to his voice that he couldn’t cover up. Mick would know it was there, no matter how few words he spoke. “Probably an apt decision."

“Spook—"

“Oui. I promised.” Rene reached up and tucked his hand underneath the loosened collar of his shirt to grab hold of his mask. He wanted Mick to see his face tonight.

The marksman always tried not to gawk when he first pulled the balaclava off. Early on he’d blushed, so coy about his attraction it was almost pitiful. As time went on, the admiration turned to fondness, and then to familiarity. Once or twice he’d chuckled about the mess Rene’s dark, graying hair would flip out in every direction and it had earned him a fierce elbow to the ribs. Regardless, the act of removing it still made Rene uncomfortable, and his awkward lover knew it.

Rene's slender legs carried him over to his bar in just a few strides, and he poured himself a glass of scotch. Tonight called for something stronger than the sauvignon. “Something to drink, mon cheri?” he offered, trying to stay casual while waiting for his unease to fade.

“Ya know I don’t drink that fancy stuff,” Mick said, chancing a glance in his direction.

Their eyes met and Rene felt a warmth in his cheeks. It was ridiculous really. How many times had the two of them been together like this? “How is it I fell for a man who cannot appreciate the finer things in life?"

The bushman shrugged, but there was a slight twitch at the corners of his broad mouth. “I appreciate you just fine. Maybe you're the bloke who's got the bad taste."

Rene tilted his eyes up to the ceiling and sighed. Both men knew that Mick did not hold a high opinion of himself, but he was not one to mope about it the way Demoman was prone to doing. “There are a few beers in the bottom cabinet.”

"Thanks, mate." 

Taking a sip of his scotch, Rene relished the pleasant calming effect it had on him. About three more and he wouldn't care so much about the memory he had to retell. That wouldn't do him any good though; he needed to keep a clear head for this.

To distract himself he watched the Australian stride over to the bar and help himself. The man was all legs and a long drawn face that gave him an almost perpetual pout. His posture left him with a chronic backache, the price he paid for spending large blocks of his days hunched over the sight of his rifle, waiting. Faint bags under his eyes and rough, sun-worn skin added a weathered look to him, and his dark brown hair was always flattened back against his head from never taking off his stupid cowboy hat. All in all, he wasn't the sort of man Rene ever would have expected to find handsome.

But when he smiled? He was the only damn thing in the world Rene could see.

Mick pulled out a pocket knife to pop off the cap of his beer, despite a bottle opener lying not two feet away. "You're givin' me that stare again. What'd I do now?" he grumbled.

A chuckle escaped from deep within Rene's throat and he smiled. "Nothing, mon cheri. Just enjoying the view." 

His lover snorted, drawing the bottle from his lips in time to keep from choking. "Now you're gettin' as crazy as the doc." He ventured a step closer then, reaching out to trace a finger over the back of Rene's hand only to frown about the gloves. "Take 'em off?" he asked. His tone was softer, more tender than he was used to hearing.

Rene gave a nod. "Of course, amore." 

The empty scotch glass clinked against the bar surface as he set it down and began to tug off his gloves by each finger. Once they were set aside on the counter he took Mick's rugged hand in his. “Better?"

"Yeah." His gruff manners mellowed the longer they stood there.  

The way time passed between the two of them defied almost as many laws of reality as Respawn and Medic's varied arsenal combined. It would stand still, locking them in these peculiar moments that became comfortable in their stillness, and then rush forward, thrusting them into reality with no sympathy at all. Should Mick step back, this perfect peace they were frozen in would fall away, plunging them back to the truth.

“Merde, this should not be so difficult," he said, noting a minor grating weakness in his voice that he despised.

The other man’s angular face remained stoic, but the long breath he let past his lips betrayed his mood. “If ya didn’t wanna talk I shouldn’t push ya. Forget it.” Mick released his hand and took a long swallow of his beer.

“Don’t start this." 

“Start what?” Light bluish green eyes peered at him with guarded caution. “M’not starting a bloody thing."

“Oh, this is isn’t some little guilt trip of yours to make me talk?" 

“Oh for Christ’s sake, Spook. Get off it, ya wanker. If you don’t trust me, I can’t change that. I just wish ya hadn’t brought thi—"

“Mon Dieu! How can you stand there and say that to me?” Rene was unsure if it was hurt or offense that took precedence here. A bit of both, then. "You've seen more of me than I dare to show anyone! You know more than any partner I've had in my whole life. My real name, for one. Which you still never use."

Mick was hanging his head just the slightest bit. "...I know. Sorry." 

Rene huffed. The bushman was simple, a straightforward sort who did not like emotional confrontation. Pushing a man like Mick back could lead to him giving up under the assumption that perhaps his lover no longer wanted to be so close; nothing could be further from the truth.

"Mick, please believe me. You are the only person I have trusted since... Well since the incident that troubles me now." The volume of his words fell into a soft hum at the end.

The Australian lifted his gaze to Rene's face, and a curious arch shaped his thick eyebrows. "Yeah?"

"I was ten." He said it in such a barren manner. To dare recount any of this with emotion meant the risk of tears, and for all he trusted his bushman that was not a display he was eager for him to witness.

"That's a long time to go without someone to count on," the marksman responded.

"There's reason I make a lousy father." He let that statement linger between them for a while to sink in. Mick knew about Scout, and how much Rene's adherence to the Administrator's rules was due to what she held over his head. 

"Because yours...?"

"Left." Once again, the flat, empty way he spoke of it was the best way he knew how to keep from falling apart. As it was when Mick reached for his shoulder he had to turn away or he'd end up crumbling into his arms.

"...Do ya miss him?" he asked at length, hesitant and quiet enough that the crackling of the fire almost drowned him out.

It was a harmless enough question. Rene just didn't know the answer. No. He didn't want to know the answer. "Oui. I worshipped him, you know?" He let out a light scoff, realizing how absurd that was. "He was the dad every kid dreams of; all fun and endless gifts and breaking the rules with a 'don't tell Mom' and a smile."

"I... I'm sorry." Poor Mick. He could sense how uncomfortable this was for him without even seeing the way he stood there, head no doubt hung just a little and shoulders hunched.

"Non. Don't be." His eyes stung a bit, and his vision blurred. "It was my fault it- It was a stupid thing. I didn't understand, and I pushed at a strained relationship with him and my mother. My father had a spending problem which I-" He drew out the syllable, searching for the right word. If only Mick could be bothered to learn more French than the crude, albeit fun, phrases they used in his bed. "-exacerbated. Perhaps encouraged, without comprehending the consequences."

"Bloody hell, you were ten! Ya can't go around blaming yourself for an adult's screw ups!" 

Before he could argue, Mick's hand had grabbed his arm and pulled him around. Then he faltered in whatever determination he'd had for a speech when he met Rene's eyes. The tears were kept at bay, but there had to be a wet glint to them.

Rene turned his head away. "It was Christmas day. The last thing he said to me was 'be good', and then all I had of him was an extra present I didn't fucking need!" 

He hated the emotion in his voice, the resentment that still clung to him. For the life of him he couldn't say whom it was mostly for. His mother, for letting - no, for making - his father leave? Himself, for his childish stupidity and greed? Or the man who had abandoned him without any warning at all? It didn't matter. He wasn't a big fan of any of them.

"So that's why I hate this stupid holiday," he said when Mick had remained silent for too long.

"Pikers," the other man mumbled.

"...I beg your pardon?"

"Anyone who'd walk out on his kid, or any parents who'd put their kid in the middle of their scuffles, don't have any right callin' themselves parents!" There was hurt there in his eyes, and in the slight, almost unrecognizeable ache in his voice.

Merde. How could he be so stupid? Thirty-five years later and he was still too wrapped up in himself to realize he wasn't the only one with lousy memories. And the sharpshooter's were far more recent. "Mick, I- I'm an idiot. Forgive me?"

"What? There's nothing to forgive. Just cause I can relate don't mean ya don't have a right to be upset too." He sighed. Finding the right words for any emotional conversation was not Mick's strong suit, but then neither of them were great at it. They were mercenaries, after all. But they'd been getting better. "It don't matter anyway. I've put it behind me. Only folks I need are the ones who raised me."

Rene managed a small smile. "That is true, mon amore." 

Mick cleared his throat and glanced at the floor. "This ain't supposed to be about me, Spook." 

"I've said all I wanted. You asked about my holiday moods, and I told you."

Long arms slid around his waist and he didn't resist as he was pulled in. "Yeah. Thanks. For tellin' me." 

The kiss to the forehead was comforting, and he let out a small sigh. "De rien."

Of course they both knew it definitely was not nothing.

 


 

He didn't know why he still did it. Despite everything he'd told Mick, and every other indication that he had become his father, Rene held to just one single holiday tradition. Before coming to Teufort, he'd managed to make it back to Boston every Christmas Eve, no matter how much trouble he was in - and he was often in a great deal - to deliver a single package. Even before he was Scout, the loud runner was Alex, the son Rene couldn't bring himself to be a real father to. His mother understood. She was not all she seemed to be either. 

Maybe Scout still secretly believed in Santa, or maybe he'd figured it out and was in denial. He wasn't clever enough for the latter, was he? Either way, it was always the same. Sneak in, leave the gift, and go on his way. Child's play for a spy. Only Miss Pauling knew he did it. And probably Heavy; the big Russian didn't miss a thing. He just didn't care enough to gossip.

One more person knew this year though.

"Ya been doin' that for twenty-three years now?" Mick asked, leaning against the wall with one of his cheap cigarettes between his lips.

Rene shrugged. "Foolish habits die hard."

The sharpshooter was quiet while Rene poured himself some wine and lit his own, far more enjoyable cigarette. Mick waited until Rene had a few drags before stubbing out his own smoke on his pant leg - how classy - and breaking the quiet with a much less simple question. "Do ya ever wish he knew?" 

For a moment, he felt every muscle in his body had tensed. His lungs forgot to breathe, his heart elected not to pump. When he relaxed, an ache and emptiness surrounded him in a thick fog. "Non."

Mick was frowning, but he didn't press the issue further. "Well we've been naughty, no use waitin' up for Santa." There was that spark in his eye.

"But we'll still be up, I think. And quite naughty."