Walter Skinner stifled a yawn, looking around the wreckage of the Herndon Family Christmas. Shreds of gaily-colored wrapping paper still littered the floor, in spite of Nancy's best efforts to capture the mess as it was created. The girls were playing quietly, dressing their dolls in the holiday clothes Georgia had sewn for them. Jamie, the Herndon's youngest, was sound asleep on his father's chest, and Glen looked like he was about to drop off to sleep himself. Nancy sat on the floor near the tree, arranging each of her children's gifts into neat piles, as Alex sat nearby, leafing through the cookbook Nancy had given Walter earlier in the day.
When the quiet was threatened by a dispute over which doll would get to wear a fur-trimmed velvet jacket, Nancy declared it to be nap time. The girls put up a token protest, whining "But Mom...", before standing up and, carrying their dolls with them, slowly walked up the stairway to their bedrooms.
Nancy gently nudged her dozing husband, saying "You too, Honey."
Startled, Glen snapped his head up. "Huh? Do you need help with something, Nance?"
Laughing softly, Nancy replied, "I sent the girls up to bed, and now it's your turn. Why don't you put Jamie in his crib and then lie down for a while yourself? You were up late last night, helping with the last minute wrapping and getting everything under the tree."
Nancy turned to Walter. "I don't know about you, but I always need a nap after the kids open their presents. I don't know what it is, the kids' excitement or what, but it wears me out. I hope you don't think me rude, but I'm going to go have a bit of a lie down before it's time to put on the potatoes and start cooking Christmas supper. If you want, feel free to stretch out here on the couch or in the guest room."
Walter yawned widely, covering his mouth with his hand as he did. "I think you've got the right idea." He yawned again before clambering off the couch. "You coming, Alex?"
"In a minute or two," Alex replied. Rather than wear him out, as it had the other adults, the children's expressions of excitement and joy had left him feeling wired. He wanted a few quiet moments to himself to commit the day's events to memory and to immerse himself in the ambiance generated by the tree and homey Christmas decorations Nancy had placed around the room. "This," Alex thought to himself, "is Christmas the way it's supposed to be."
Walter nodded and made his way to the guest room. He was sound asleep on top of he covers when Alex joined him twenty minutes later. Alex took off his shoes and then made himself comfortable, using one of Walter's broad shoulders as his pillow and throwing one of his own long legs over Walter's. Within moments he fell into a deep, restorative sleep.
Walter was gently snoring into his ear when Alex woke some forty-five minutes later. He snuggled into the warmth of his lover and allowed himself to drowse for a few more minutes. Soon, however, he grew restless. Rather than risk disturbing Walter, who needed the sleep, Alex rolled out of bed and made his way back down to the living room.
He was once again leafing through the cookbook when Anna and Mia appeared before him.
"Uncle Alex," Anna asked, "will you read to us?"
"Sure, I can do that. Do you want me to read one of your new books?"
Anna looked at Mia and, having exchanged some silent message with her younger sister, both girls nodded.
Alex picked up the stack of children's books, allowing Mia to choose which book she wanted Alex to read. Without any hesitation, Mia pulled "The Giant Turnip" from the pile.
"Have you learned to how to read yet, Anna?"
"I'm starting to," Anna said proudly. "Want me to show you?"
"I'd like that, but I don't think you'll be able to read this book."
"Why not?" Anna demanded. "I know *lots* of words."
"Sit down here beside me, and I'll show you."
Anna dropped into place on Alex's right side, while Mia moved to sit on Alex's lap. He cuddled her for a moment, then, watching Anna's face, opened the book to the first page.
Anna's mouth fell open. "Oh great," Anna complained. "I learn how to read and then somebody makes up a new kind of writing."
With difficulty, Alex stifled his laughter. When he was sure he could control his voice, he gently asked, "You know that there are languages other than English, right?"
"Uh huh," Anna agreed. "Dora speaks Spanish. Hola!"
Alex chuckled, "Hola a usted también, Ana. Now this," he said, pointing to the words on the page, "is written in Cyrillic. That's the name of the alphabet Russians use."
"Okay," Anna said, sounding a little unsure.
"See this?," Alex asked, tapping a specific letter. "That's an 'A,' or as we say it in Russian, 'ah'. And this," he said, tapping another symbol, is 'beh.'"
"Ah, beh," said Anna.
"Ah, beh," mimicked Mia.
"Very good. How about this one," Alex asked, pointing to "B."
Alex grinned. "Nope. In Russian that's 'veh.'"
"Veh!" both girls cried out in unison.
Alex grinned wider. "Very good! Now, do you want me to read you the story or teach you the Russian alphabet?"
Anna brought her hand up to her chin, giving the impression of giving the matter serious thought. A few moments later, she made her decision clear, throwing her hands into the air and shouting "Read!"
"Read!" Mia echoed, "Read!"
Alex hugged Mia and spread open the book, so both girls could easily see the pictures accompanying the words.
Meanwhile, in the guest bedroom, the girls' excited cries disrupted Walter's sleep. Feeling chilly, he reached out, expecting to pull the warm body of his sleeping lover closer. When his arm bumped into a cold pillow case rather than Alex, Walter opened his eyes and realized he was once again alone. He debated getting under the covers, but hearing the girls' voices interspersed with Alex's aroused his curiosity. Silently, he clambered out of bed and went to investigate.
Speaking Russian, Alex read, "An old man planted a turnip. The turnip grew and grew and grew. It grew to an enormous size. He pulled and pulled, but the old man couldn't pull it out. So he called the old woman over."
Alex interrupted his reading, to explain to the girls that the turnip was so big the old man couldn't pull it out of the ground and that he needed to call the old woman over to help. Resuming his reading, but using the quivery voice of an old woman, Alex continued, "'All right,' said the grandmother, 'I'm coming.'"
"The old woman took hold of the old man, the old man took hold of the turnip, they pulled and pulled, but couldn't pull it out. So the old woman called the granddaughter over."
Alex changed his voice again, making it higher and less tremulous. "'All right,' said the granddaughter, 'I'm coming.'"
In the hall, Walter could hear Alex's voice, but he was unable to make out the words. Moving stealthily, so as not to draw the attention of Alex or the girls, Walter approached the living room. As he drew closer, he realized the reason for his incomprehension. Alex was speaking Russian.
In his normal speaking voice, Alex continued, "The granddaughter took hold of the old woman, the old woman took hold of the old man, the old man took hold of the turnip, they pulled and pulled, but couldn't pull it out. So the granddaughter called the dog over."
Alex interrupted his reading again, pointing out the dog in the picture. "That's "Zhuckha, he's a dog."
Making a deep growly voice, somewhat reminiscent of Walter when he had a chest cold and was grumbling about wayward agents, Alex read "'All right,' said Zhuckha, 'I'm coming.'"
Walter stopped a few inches from the open doorway, remaining out of sight. Now able to hear every word Alex said clearly, he let the beloved voice flow over and around him.
"Zhuckha took hold of the granddaughter, the granddaughter took hold of the old woman, the old woman took hold of the old man, the old man took hold of the turnip, they pulled and pulled, but couldn't pull it out. So Zhuckha called the cat over."
Alex let his voice take on the purr Walter so loved before speaking the cat's lines. "'All right,' said the cat, 'I'm coming.'"
Unable to resist looking another second longer, Walter carefully moved forward, until just his head peeked out from the behind the doorway. The sight of Alex curled up with two small children,lovingly reading from a picture book made him smile. He wondered what Alex's enemies would make of the scene, suddenly realizing that should a threat to Alex's family arise, the heartless killer within Alex would reawaken. He shook his head, the juxtaposition of loving uncle and merciless assassin bringing into focus just who his lover was. As he continued to listen to Alex read, and saw the joy on the children's faces, Walter vowed that should danger threaten, he would stand beside Alex as, together, they protected their family.
Unaware his audience had grown in size, Alex continued reading. "The cat took hold of the dog, the dog took hold of the granddaughter, the granddaughter took hold of the old woman, the old woman took hold of the old man, the old man took hold of the turnip, they pulled and pulled, but couldn't pull it out. So the cat called the mouse over."
Alex squeaked "'All right,' said the mouse, 'I'm coming.'"
Once again reverting to his own voice, he continued, "The mouse took hold of the cat, the cat took hold of Zhuckha, Zhuckha took hold of the granddaughter, the granddaughter took hold of the old woman, the old woman took hold of the old man, the old man took hold of the turnip, they pulled and pulled -- and finally out popped the turnip!"
Having finished reading the final line, Alex closed the cover of the book. And started when Walter began clapping. Alex looked up, a faint blush coloring his face when he saw Walter in the doorway. "Uh--," he said.
"You did good," Walter said. "I should have you read to me sometime."
"Yes, you should, Uncle Walter," agreed Anna. "Uncle Alex is good at reading stories."
"Uncle Alex is good at lots of things," Walter confirmed, the expression in his eyes revealing to Alex that Walter knew exactly who and what Alex was -- and that he approved wholeheartedly.