A Christmas Gift - part 1
by Damita Syn
Librarian Note: Don't forget after to read part 2 from Kathryn Charles
The evening of December 23 was clear and moonlit. Snow had fallen that afternoon, adding a fresh clean inch to the blanket of white already covering the ground. The occasional stray snowflake continued to fall, landing on noses and shoulders of the small troop of pedestrians making its way down the narrow tree-lined small-town street.
Emma Peel's footsteps crunched in the snow as she strolled at a leisurely pace, arm-in-arm with her younger sister Anne. The duo was followed by their cousin Mary and Aunt Helen. Anne's handsome young husband Thomas brought up the rear.
"The choir is said to be better than ever this year," Anne remarked, sweeping back a stray lock of thick brown hair. "I understand they've been preparing this Christmas concert for at least two months."
"I can hardly imagine them outdoing last year's performance," Aunt Helen said. "Absolutely beautiful. I'm so sorry you had to miss it, Emma," the older woman said, reaching forward and lightly touching Emma's shoulder.
Emma briefly turned and smiled somewhat wistfully at her gray-haired aunt. She hoped her expression looked genuine. In truth, she was feeling quite melancholy, her mood the result not of a missed Christmas concert last year, but of a yearning for the event that had kept her away.
"Yes, Aunt Helen. I did so hate missing the concert last year," Emma lied, trying her best to look sincere. "A lovely holiday tradition."
"Yes," Anne said drolly, "I'm sure you did hate it horribly, big sister. Having to spend Christmas with John Steed. How terrible!" Anne smiled impishly at her own sarcasm.
Emma flashed a warning glance at her sister, making it clear that she preferred not pursuing the subject. Anne acquiesced, although reluctantly, wishing she could rile her sister enough to get her to talk about Steed and what had happened between them. She knew Emma would never discuss the apparent break-up in front of the rest of the family, and silently promised herself she would later, following the concert and dinner, openly confront her sister.
Anne attempted sending Emma a silent "we'll discuss this later" message, arching an eyebrow as she continued to look at her older sister. Emma ignored her.
Mary rescued Emma by steering the conversation to the choir's soprano section. Emma breathed a quiet "thank you" to her cousin.
The conversation continued, but Emma's mind drifted far away, back to the home of Brandon Story, one year ago.
It had been a nerve-wracking and dangerous Christmas. Emma worried almost constantly about her friend, partner, and lover John Steed, who was being afflicted with a steady stream of Christmas-themed nightmares. Perhaps as a result of the nightmares, his behavior had become increasingly odd. In her worry during that time last Christmas, and in the subsequent relief that followed when all turned out well, Emma had first begun to recognize, honestly and openly to herself, the depths of her feelings for Steed. And something she could not name told her that Steed had begun to come to grips with the intensity of his feelings toward her.
Steed was normally taciturn about emotional issues. Expressions of endearment, other than the usual flattery delivered with characteristic charming skill, came only reluctantly. Something did change, though, last Christmas. Of that, Emma was certain.
Previously in their rather curious relationship, Emma and Steed had both continued seeing others of the opposite sex, albeit less often as time passed. Gradually, they grew closer, and had reached the point almost of a shared telepathy. In their work together on secret and demanding government cases, often a simple glance or raised eyebrow or "look" was sufficient to indicate the next move or a change of strategy. Often a simple and quick facial expression, unseen by others, was enough to convey relief that the other partner had survived another near miss.
In their private personal relationship, neither had broached the subject of love. Emma, however, swore he could send thoughts to her with his intense gray eyes. It was more than a physical passion, though that aspect of their relationship still sent shock waves through her system. There were moments when Steed would catch her eye and peer deeply into her soul, it seemed, almost mesmerizing her. In those moments, she knew -- without being able to explain it even to herself - she simply knew he was sending his feelings her way. And these were no casual, mildly affectionate feelings. Sometimes she could feel her skin prickle with the force of his emotions for her.
That last Christmas had seen the last time Steed had openly courted another. He provided his phone number to a beautiful young lady during the Christmas Eve festivities. When the telephone rang at his apartment a few days into the new year, Emma had been the one to answer it. Handing the phone to Steed wordlessly, she then went into the kitchen.
She clattered pots and pans in the sink, telling herself not to eavesdrop on Steed's side of the conversation. Unable to help herself, Emma quieted and heard him ladle out excuses and apologies to the young lady in that familiarly charming Steed manner, ending with a simple, "I'm sorry to have mislead you."
Since that time, though neither had approached the topic, Emma and Steed had simply stopped "seeing" others. In typical fashion for them, an unspoken agreement had been reached.
For the sake of safety, for her protection really, Steed continued to call her "Mrs. Peel" except in their most private moments. Outwardly, they maintained the veneer of being "just good friends."
Those closest to both of them knew differently. Emma wondered just how many others they could possibly be fooling. They did, after all, spend most of their time together, whether working a case or off-duty.
For the past couple of months, however, all had not seemed well, at least to Emma. Steed had appeared preoccupied. Those intense, meaningful looks that sent chills down her spine had become less frequent. Instead, his eyes conveyed a sense of sadness, or confusion, or both. Steed's touch continued to feel warm and urgent. Their passion seemed undiminished. He displayed no obvious desire to distance himself from her. Emma felt a sense of foreboding, but could not decipher the hidden source. It was a feeling, more than anything.
Steed had finally opened up to her just over a month ago, following a moment when Emma allowed her frustrations to spill out. As a result of her persistent prodding, or, more accurately, pestering, he told her what was wrong.
While Emma sat sipping a cup of tea at Steed's kitchen table, he paced like a dissatisfied zoo lion.
"I've realized how selfish I have been," Steed said. "You're young and beautiful and intelligent. You can have a husband and children, if that's what you want, or a real career, if you prefer. Anything is possible. Whatever you want."
Emma felt her knees weaken, but tried her best to withhold the depth of her dread.
"At least you could sit, Steed," she said. "You're making me nervous."
"Sorry." He sat down across from her.
"I can't assure you of anything, my dear," Steed continued in a quietly sad voice. "Not even next week. No promises. No commitments. I have no idea what my own future holds. For now, and for several more years, I'll be doing what I'm doing now. I'm a spy, pure and simple. It's been my life since I was a very young man. I don't know anything else."
He paused, locked eyes with Emma, and once again sent a wave of feeling rushing into her, through her.
"What if I have what I want in life right now?" Emma asked, willing her eyes to hold back the building moisture.
"You deserve more, my dear," Steed said softly. "Things may change," he stammered, "in a few years, maybe, but right now, well, I just don't know."
Emma thought she detected a moistness in his eyes too. She said nothing.
Steed rested his forehead in one hand, closing his eyes. He looked back up at her a moment later and said, "It's just that well, I can't explain it. I'm so so confused. I never expected " and then he fell silent.
Propping his elbows on the table, Steed rubbed his forehead with both hands, as if massaging away a headache.
"You want me to go?" she asked, now unable to stop the tears trickling down her cheeks. At least she had managed, so far, to avoid those humiliating sounds of real distress. No real wailing, just little droplets of moisture. That afforded her some small measure of dignity.
"No," he said, in almost a groan. "I want what's best for you."
Slowly Steed raised his head until he was looking directly at Emma. It felt to her like those amazing gray eyes of his were literally piercing her heart.
"I'm not what's best for you, not in the long-term," he said painfully. "At least I don't think so. You see, I don't even understand it myself, Emma."
"I think you need a chance to move on, to meet others, to determine what it is that you really want out of life," Steed said. "Time is precious. I hate the idea that someday you may wish you had spent yours more more productively.
"As long as you stay with me, work with me, spend the majority of your time with me, I'm afraid you're locking yourself into some sort of life you didn't bargain for. Not really. Someday, possibly years from now, you may regret the corner you didn't turn because of me. The life you gave up because of me."
Emma had been almost holding her breath during Steed's discourse, afraid to move, to look at him. She feared that any movement on her part, any glance at Steed's face, would open the floodgates. She wanted, more than almost anything, to remain stoic. More than anything, that is, except for this moment not to be happening. She hoped, prayed, that she would wake up from this awful nightmare any moment.
For several minutes, silence hung oppressively in the room. Steed again stood and began slowly pacing. Emma remained immobile in her kitchen chair, deep in thought.
Finally, Emma's brain seemed to regain its function.
"And you, Steed," she said, "do you think there are some things you need to figure out too? You said yourself that you're feeling confused."
He stopped pacing and nodded, "Yes, yes. I do need to figure a few things out. Maybe even make some decisions, possibly of the adult variety," Steed said, smiling weakly.
Just before leaving Steed's apartment that night, Emma had turned to face this man who she had come to know almost as another half of herself. Her friend, her lover, her partner. She felt numb. It could not be happening but it was.
"I think you're the one having difficulties here, Steed, not me. Yes, eventually the two of us would reach a stage where decisions would need to be made.
"I guess I decided to risk it with you, with you and your pent-up emotions. I had made my decision - for the time being, anyway. I don't need you to make my decisions for me. I'm a fully grown woman," she said.
"So I noticed," he said fondly.
"No, Steed. The quips won't work right now."
Emma's face became suddenly stern. She looked at Steed with a sense of resolve, of determination.
"You, not me, have got to get in touch with yourself, your emotions", Emma said. "Figure yourself out before you go nobly making suggestions about my life. Recognize that neither of us knows now what the future will bring. We're both of us taking a risk, a gamble on what will happen next week, or on what will happen, or not happen, with the passage of time."
Steed wore a sheepish expression on his face and shifted his weight uncomfortably from foot to foot.
"You're frightened, I think," Emma said after a short pause. "You're frightened of me of us."
Steed opened his mouth, apparently in an almost automatic protest, then stopped, and said nothing. Instead, he stood looking levelly at Emma.
She turned to leave, and heard him whisper, "You're right" to her back.
That had been that. Emma had somehow survived a few weeks of her own grief and foul mood, then opted for a change of scenery. She found herself inhabiting the guest cottage behind her younger sister's house, spending untold hours with relatives of all shape and variety.
They helped her to pass the time, to take her mind off Steed, to endure the frivolity of the Christmas season barely.
Yesterday, Emma had reached a decision. After the New Year, she intended restoring her position at Knight Industries, her father's massive company. She knew she needed a direction, a purpose, and something to occupy her time.
The little group of pedestrians eventually reached the town park and joined others as the local choir began it's annual Christmas concert. Accompanied by a small string section, the musicians managed a hauntingly inspiring sound, even in the chill night air.
With the first few notes of "O Come Emmanuel," one of Emma's favorites, Emma felt a hot tear course involuntarily down her cheek. The music was beautiful, slow and measured, the voices gradually gaining in volume. As the choir gained in intensity, so, apparently, did Emma's emotions.
She did not say a word to her relatives. She simply walked away toward a small grove of trees at the edge of the park. She needed privacy desperately. As she neared the trees, a vision stepped from behind a large old oak. The vision wore a dark blue overcoat, a gray bowler hat, and was holding a gray brolly. Emma thought she was seeing things, but stopped and gasped at the apparition.
And then the vision spoke, so quietly Emma had to strain to hear.
"Emma," Steed said.
They stood looking at each other, separated by about ten feet. For a moment, they both seemed paralyzed. Then Emma moved toward him.
As she neared him, Emma could see the wetness in his gray eyes. Her own eyes filled with tears of overwhelming emotion.
"Emma," he said again.
"Emma, I'm sorry," Steed said very quietly. "Can you forgive me?"
"Forgive you?" she asked.
"Yes, love," Steed said. "I was so stupid. I hadn't a clue what to do. I'd never been involved in in well, a relationship like ours. Nothing like it. Had never intended to. I didn't know what to do.
"And, you were right, of course," he said. "as you usually are."
"What?" she asked.
"I was frightened," he replied. "Fact is, I was scared to death."
"Eventually I realized that " he paused. "That "
At that moment, Emma closed the small gap between them, draped her arms around his neck, and put her face close to his. She thought she felt Steed trembling slightly, though whether from the cold, or fear, or simple emotion, she could not determine.
"What?" she asked. "You what?"
"I, I need you. I can't I just can't," he stuttered, reaching for the right words. "I have to have you with me, Emma. It seems involuntary. I don't well, I just can't manage without you."
Emma tightened her grip on him, and he fell into her, his face buried in her hair and neck. After a moment, he pulled back a bit.
"I'm so sorry," Steed said. "I don't know how to handle this. I don't know what comes next."
"You don't have to," she whispered in his ear, gently rubbing her gloved hand across the back of his neck, and drawing it across his cheek. "You don't have to."
Steed and Emma encircled each other, and kissed, a long delicious kiss full of meaning. It warmed them both.
Then they put their foreheads together and simply looked into each other's eyes, listening in silence to the rest of the Christmas concert.
Don't miss "The Christmas Gift" part 2...
© Damita Syn 1999
No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the expressed prior written consent of the author. These stories may not be altered in any way or sold; all copyright information must appear with this work at all times. Please read disclaimers and warnings on top of each story. Feel free to send constructive comments to the author.. :o)
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