The Giving Tree

by Amanda

Disclaimer: The characters in this story are the property of Alliance Atlantis. They aren't mine, and I'm not making any money from this story, which is strictly for the entertainment of fans. I was very, very nice to the characters and put them back exactly as I found them. (Well, pretty much.)

Author's Notes: This ficlet, my first, is set just before the events of Good for the Soul. I'm a big sucker for those sweet old Christmas movies, It's A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, et al. and wanted Thatcher and Welsh to show a little Christmas spirit. Just call it "comfort fic."

Story Notes: Spoilers for "Perfect Strangers."

Meg Thatcher was glad to put on her coat after another hard day in service to Her Majesty the Queen. She called out to her second-in-command.

"I'm closing the office now. Good night, Constable Fraser!"

"Very well. Good night, sir," his traditional reply echoed from his combination office/living quarters. They had a ritual of saying the exact same words, with the exact same heft and intonation, each evening as she left the Consulate, and she had grown to find it comforting. Her hand wrapped itself around the coolness of the ornate doorknob of the Consulate's front door and tugged.

"You might want to bundle up, sir," Fraser added.

She froze, the door half open. It figured. It was just like Fraser to completely ruin the effect! "What?" she asked, turning back toward the Consulate's stuffy interior, more irritated than she had any right to be.

Fraser poked his head into the hallway. "There's a storm coming, sir. I think we're going to get a good bit of snow." The prospect of snow seemed to cheer him.

Thatcher sighed heavily. "Oh, great, that's just what we need." Without further comment, she turned away, pulling the Consulate door shut behind her and heading down the steps.

The wind was icy. Meg reached into her pocket for her gloves and pulled out an oddly shaped piece of cardboard that felt a bit like a bookmark. Puzzled, she got in her car and turned on the dome light to have a look at it.

Her heart sank when she realized what it was. A string had been threaded through a hole at the top of the card. "Thank You For Making A Child's Christmas Merry," Santa proclaimed in bold letters. Underneath, someone had checked off boxes indicating that six year-old Meg needed a dress, new pants, and a blouse, all in size eight, and size two shoes. The younger Meg also dearly wanted a Barbie for Christmas.

Oh, God! Her mind raced back to her last visit to the CPD two weeks ago. Lieutenant Welsh had put up a Christmas tree just after Thanksgiving, which was strange in itself, since he usually let Francesca handle the holiday decorations. A few days later, the tree had been festooned with little red-and-white Children's Christmas in Chicago tags just like hers. When asked why he had put such a tree outside his office, he just shrugged and said he was trying to get the 27th into the Christmas spirit. Each tag bore the name of a child and what he or she wanted for Christmas. Meg had stupidly allowed her name to wander over the tags, and she felt a peculiar jolt at seeing the name "Meg" scrawled across one of them. She had impulsively reached up and pulled the tag off, unable to resist the urge to help the little girl who shared her name.

Meg winced. Why? Why hadn't she let someone else help little Meg? It was probably already too late to get her something and take it to a collection point, and besides, she loathed shopping. Abhorred it, actually.

She hurriedly glanced at the fine print on the back of the card, then let out a sigh of relief. The gifts had to be turned in to a CCC collection center by noon tomorrow. Well, that was certainly manageable. She could stop by one of the department stores on her way home and grab something.

The first fat flakes were already falling as she pulled into the heavy evening traffic.

"And with this major storm moving in, we can expect a slow go on the roads and a wild night here in Chicagoland," a plastic TV weatherman reported, almost gleefully.

Lieutenant Welsh turned away from the TV set in the bullpen with a groan and an under-the-breath comment about the weatherman's parentage. Heavy snow was nothing to smile about. Road rage, DUI, B&E, arson...nasty weather made for nasty people. He needed to get out of here at a reasonable hour, today of all days! He'd been looking forward to this for weeks. And he was almost out of time. Again and again, he'd made plans, and some car thief or burglar always came between them.

But not today. Storm or no storm, he was going to do this. With a glance at the clock, Welsh hurried back into his office and grabbed his coat.

Kowalski intercepted him as he headed for the door. "Uh, sir..."

"Not now, Vecchio," he warned. "I've got to get out of here. I'm already behind schedule."

"For what?" Kowalski seemed genuinely puzzled.

Welsh said the first thing that popped into his head as he pushed past Kowalski toward freedom. "Don Giovanni. Front row center waits for no man."

Kowalski just stared open-mouthed at the lieutenant's back, and at the metal door that swung shut to face him as Welsh disappeared into the blustery night.

"The opera house is dark tonight," he muttered, still staring at the shiny metal door.

Welsh closed his eyes and inhaled to take in as much of the sweet scent as his lungs could hold. Giddy joy washed over him, the chaotic hustle and bustle around him receded into the distance, and his thoughts turned to youthful dreams and brilliant summer days without a cloud in the sky. He hung on to that magical place for a moment before releasing his breath and taking a critical look at the object in his hand.

It was sheer beauty. He caressed it lovingly. "A Wilson 650 11 inch slip-on baseball mitt," he murmured appreciatively, turning it over in his hands. "Tanned leather and X-web construction." He took another deep whiff from the glove's palm. God, nothing in the world could beat that smell! "A thing of beauty is a joy forever," he smiled, gently placing the glove into the basket hanging off his left wrist.

Done. He had done it! He had everything: the jersey, the pants, the cap, and an extra sweatshirt he couldn't help tossing in. He hadn't enjoyed a shopping trip this much in years.

He turned to get in line to pay for his purchases and frowned. All of the registers on the fifth floor had lines snaking halfway across the store. Of course, this close to Christmas, Toys and Sporting Equipment was a very popular place.

An employee interrupted the Christmas music playing over the PA system to announce, "Attention Kringle's shoppers...the store will be closing in thirty minutes. Please make your final selections and bring your items to the registers. Merry Christmas, and thank you for shopping at Kringle's." Then the strains of "My Grown Up Christmas List" cut back in.

With a sudden burst of inspiration, he ambled over to the store directory near the elevator and perused the department names. Perhaps he'd have better luck on Level Two, Linens and Household Goods. There couldn't be that many people buying sheets for Christmas.

He hummed along to the music as he boarded the elevator.

Meg held the small garment up to the light, frowning. The red dress was cut high up the legs, with an overlaid, riotous floral fabric designed to be pulled into a tie around the waist. Rhinestones dotted the top half of the garment, and the sleeves were made of a gauzy, see-through fabric. "This is what little girls are wearing nowadays?" she asked in dismay. She looked a bit longer at the dress, her expression growing sad. "I would never let my daughter wear anything like this," she added quietly. She quickly put the horrid thing back on the rack.

After several other absolute rejects, she finally found a blouse she liked. It was a button-down blouse in soft apricot with a tiny pattern of green-and-blue flowers on the collar and placket, along with the slightest hint of a ruffle at the bottom of the sleeves.

She dumped it in the basket hanging off her right wrist. "There. Mission accomplished. I've got to get home before the roads become a giant ice rink." She headed toward the nearest register, but a display of jeans caught her eye.

The jeans had a single 60's-style flower embroidered on a front pocket in the same shade of apricot as the shirt she had picked out.

"That's kind of cute," she admitted, stopping to take a closer look at the display. She unfolded the top pair--a size 8. She took the blouse back out of her basket and arranged it above the jeans, stepping back to consider the items together.

"That's adorable!" enthused a twentysomething woman browsing nearby. "My daughter would love that outfit. Where'd you find that blouse?"

Meg directed the woman to the right rack before putting the jeans and blouse in her basket, a smile stealing across her face.

This was kind of fun, actually. She looked at the Children's Christmas in Chicago card again. A dress. Yes, every little girl should have a new dress to wear at Christmas!

"Is that all you've got? I asked for periwinkle, and you brought me lavender! Can't you see these don't go with that outfit at all?" Meg barked.

"Sorry, ma'am," the harried salesman, a rumpled, pimply-faced student, apologized as he set down another three boxes of shoes in front of her. Meg set on them like pigeons on a hard roll, scrutinizing each pair and placing them on the floor below each outfit. Two dresses and another blouse-and-pants set were lined up next to the apricot blouse and the embroidered jeans, each outfit draped in its own chair. "I'll just go and get the 'Dahlias' and the 'Isabels' for you," the salesman offered weakly, slowly shuffling away. He seemed glad for an excuse to get away from her, at least momentarily.

Meg barely heard him. The third pair was a winner--it worked with both the royal blue and the fuchsia dresses. She beamed with pride.

An employee interrupted the Christmas music playing over the PA system to announce, "Attention Kringle's shoppers...the store will be closing in thirty minutes. Please make your final selections and bring your items to the registers. Merry Christmas, and thank you for shopping at Kringle's." Then the strains of "My Grown Up Christmas List" cut back in.

Thirty minutes! She had to get to the fifth floor. She still had a Barbie to pick out! And maybe some extra Barbie outfits to go with it. Hopefully they'd have something like "President Barbie" or "Nobel Prize Winner Barbie." She wouldn't stand for little Meg's mind being warped at her tender age. She hurriedly threw the outfits and the two pairs of shoes into her basket, which was getting rather heavy, and turned toward the up escalator, only to see it had been shut down and was being worked on.

She turned once more and saw the elevator beckoning to her with its shiny silver doors. Perfect. She strode over to it, each step purposeful and determined, and pressed the up button.

After fifteen seconds that seemed like an eternity, the elevator doors opened and spat out a worried-looking, thirtyish man clutching a handwritten list in one hand as Meg boarded, impatient to put the finishing touches on little Meg's Christmas.

She was visibly startled as she saw who the other occupant of the elevator was: Lieutenant Harding Welsh!

She quickly turned her right side away from him to hide her basket and noticed him doing the same thing. She caught a glimpse of something black-and-gray and shiny before Welsh's body blocked her view.

"Lieutenant Welsh," she offered, "isn't this a surprise."

Welsh cleared his throat, clearly taken off guard. "I could say the same, Inspector. What floor?"


Toys and Sporting Equipment. Welsh's eyebrow went up as he stabbed the 5 button for her.

"You got a little girl, Inspector, or are your feet just shrinking?"

The elevator doors thunked shut, and the car began to move.

"I don't know what you're talking about." She could feel her cheeks heating.

"Those tiny shoes in your--"

Without warning, the elevator went pitch black and ground to a halt. The music cut out, leaving them in silence.

"Oh, great," Meg groaned. "The elevator breaks down a half hour before closing. Just my luck!"

"It's not just the elevator," Welsh answered from the blackness. "Listen."

She could hear people complaining and stumbling around on the sales floor. The normal hum of lights and ventilation systems was absent.

"Power failure?"

"Yeah. The wind and snow probably brought a line down. They'll have it fixed soon. I'll just grab the phone in the console and let 'em know we're here..." Welsh's palm slapped around for a few moments before he found the control panel. She heard hinges protest as he opened something, then an angry expulsion of breath.

"This neighborhood ain't what it used to be," he growled. "The handset's been ripped out." He slammed the panel shut.

Meg fumbled blindly through her purse, trying to identify its contents between her hands. "I'm afraid I can't offer much help. I must have forgotten my cell phone back at the Consulate. I plugged it in to recharge it and forgot all about it."

She could almost hear Welsh's shrug. "Don't worry. Some sales girl'll be around any minute. Might as well settle in 'til she shows up." She could hear him put down his basket and sit down with a grunt.

Welsh was right. Why stand in a pitch-black elevator when you could sit? Meg followed suit. "This is the first chance I've had to get off my feet all day," she sighed, wiggling her toes gratefully, leaning against the back wall of the elevator car.

Silence ensued. It was too dark and too quiet, with nothing to distract her from the thoughts tumbling through her head. Meg grew more and more uncomfortable until her mouth started moving of its own accord.

"What was in your basket?" she asked.

"Nothing much...just working on some Christmas shopping," Welsh answered noncommittally.

"I didn't know you were into leather, Lieutenant." She smirked, knowing that would get a rise out of him.

"It was a baseball glove," Welsh protested. "A Wilson SOG 11 inch slip-on outfielder's mitt, to be exact."

As an ex-softball pitcher, she knew about mitts. "A child's size? Lieutenant, do you...?" She had never thought about Welsh's private life before. He was so much a cop that she had trouble even picturing him outside the police station. She mentally flipped back through their conversations, trying to remember if he'd ever said anything about a family.

A voice from above called, "Hello, anyone in there?" She sounded young and timid, as if she were a bit afraid of the dark.

"See, there's the sales girl," Welsh said to Meg before bellowing upwards, "Yes, there are two of us in here."

"Sir, I'm so sorry you're stuck in there! Are you all right?"

Meg rolled her eyes. "We're off-duty police officers, and yes, we're fine. Could you tell us what's going on?"

"Well, the power's out."

"No kidding," Meg called back sarcastically. "Can't you get us out of here?"

"The car's stuck between floors. We called the service company, and they're sending someone out, but they said it might be a while before he could get here." The girl sounded like she was afraid Meg might bite off her arm.

"Thanks," Welsh tried to sound more cheerful. "We'll manage until he comes."

"Um, OK then," the girl said uncertainly, "I'll come back and check on you in a little while, OK?"

"That sounds fine, Miss..."

"Tina. My name's Tina."

"Tina. This isn't your fault. Don't worry. See you later."

They could hear the sound of heeled shoes stepping away, and then all was quiet once more.

"Lieutenant, you didn't answer my question," Meg returned to interrogation mode.

"I asked you first," he replied, the hint of a smile in his voice. "Right when you got in, before the power went out, remember?"

"So you did. No, I don't have a little girl. I thought...that is to say, I had hoped that I could...well, perhaps I should back up a little."

She could hear Welsh shifting around, trying to get comfortable. "You might as well. We've probably got hours to kill. Go ahead, Inspector, tell your story."

Meg sighed bleakly. "This isn't about Inspector Thatcher. Call me Meg."

"All right...Meg." Welsh sounded surprised and vaguely discomfited, clearly wondering what he had gotten himself into. "You might as well call me Harding, then."

"Thank you...Harding." She took a breath and began. "The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has been very good to me. I was always glad that I'd escaped the trap all of my friends fell into."

"What trap?"

"The upper-middle-class trap: you go to a respected university and study something cultured and refined, like art history or French literature, and you write these convoluted essays in the hope that your professors will notice you, and then one day in your required Economics class, you lock eyes with some dull-as-dirt up-and-comer from a good family, have some really dull sex with him, marry him, and spend the rest of your days raising his children and driving the Volvo to the grocery store and collecting Hummel figurines in your spare time."

"It doesn't sound all that bad."

"Oh, please! I'd rather gouge my eyes out with an ice pick. I left university halfway through and ran off to join the Mounties." She smiled, remembering her family's horrified reaction when she had called from Regina to tell them she was starting the cadet training program. It had been one of the proudest days of her life.

"That's gutsy," Welsh admitted.

"I've given the RCMP seventeen years of my life, and I've gotten a lot in return as well, but..."


"Maybe...maybe I could be more than just Inspector Thatcher."

"You like bein' a cop, don't you? What else could you possibly want to be?"

"No, that's not what I mean. I was thinking...I've been thinking for a while now about...starting a family."

"With Constable Fraser." It wasn't a question.

"No! I mean, I would, maybe, but...I can't date a subordinate. It would be a blatant violation of RCMP policy." She was beginning to regret ever bringing this up. She was glad Welsh couldn't see her blush.

"Policy, schmolicy. If the feeling is mutual..."

"I'm not entirely sure it is. Exactly. Oh, I don't know. But I was actually thinking about adoption."

"So you're adopting a little girl? That's great, Meg, really. Congratulations!" Welsh sounded genuinely happy for her, which only made the lump in her throat that much harder to swallow. For a police lieutenant, he sure was drawing a lot of wrong conclusions!

"No, I...I sent in an application a few months ago to Morisot & Associates, the most reputable adoption agency in the city. They seemed happy with my records and references and called me in for an interview last month. I thought I aced it. I'm caring, responsible, financially able to support a child...I'd be a good mother." The last sounded defiant.

There was a brief pause before Welsh realized she was looking for confirmation. "Sure, sure," he soothed. "Of course you would." He wasn't entirely sure about that, but he didn't want to be bludgeoned to death with no witnesses, and Meg was obviously upset.

"Then they came to my apartment, a man and a woman. They sat on my sofa for three hours and drank a whole pot of my coffee. They asked me question after question and went all over my house looking in drawers and closets and touching everything." Her eyes burned, but the words just kept tumbling out of her mouth. "I laid my whole life bare for them...and for what?" Meg felt the first hot tear running down her cheek. "For what?" Another one followed it, and another, and she had to sniffle twice to keep her nose from running.

"Meg." She heard the snapping of fabric, and then a handkerchief was pressed gently into her hand.

"Thank you." Her voice quavered dangerously, and she wiped her face. "They called me last Friday and said that they were so sorry, but that they felt I was too attached to my career to be a mother, and that I was not likely to stay in one location for any length of time. They felt I couldn't give a child a stable enough environment." She finally burst into tears, unable to bottle the pain inside for another second. "They said I wasn't good enough," she sobbed. "I'm not good enough to be a mother. The official rejection letter came yesterday."

"I'm so sorry," Welsh offered quietly. He didn't move, letting her cry herself out without his silly reassurances and pats on the shoulder, which would only upset her more.

After a minute or so, Meg blew her nose and sniffled and wiped some more. Welsh was glad he couldn't see the handkerchief, which was undoubtedly smeared full of makeup. He certainly didn't want it back now! "I'm sorry," she said, trying to regain at least an iota of composure. "Going on and on about my little problems like that."

"It's all right." Welsh felt badly for her, and it was hardly a little problem.

She remembered the reason for her trip this evening and had to smile. "Actually, tonight's been the nicest time I've had in weeks...I'm buying little-girl clothes because I took a tag off your tree," she admitted.

Welsh chuckled. "I knew you'd take the Meg tag."

"You did not!" Meg protested.

"Am I wrong?"

He wasn't. Meg fumbled for a suitable comeback. "And I'm doing a damn fine job getting her gifts, too," she retorted proudly. "I just need a Barbie doll, and then I'll be done."

"Are they still making Police Officer Barbie?" Welsh grinned. "That'd be perfect."

Meg smiled at Welsh's joke, glad to have gotten her troubles off her chest, even if it was in this rather unorthodox manner, trapped in an elevator. Lt. Welsh was a surprisingly kind man for all his bluster. Of course, if it had been Fraser she'd been stuck in the dark with...she grinned lasciviously at the thought.

"But enough about me," Meg said. "What about you and your child's baseball glove? Do you have children?"

"Yeah, but they're grown and gone."

Meg was so shocked by the idea that Welsh had a family that she didn't know what to say.

"I was married for a few years after I got back from 'Nam. It ended...badly."

"I'm sorry," Meg offered quickly.

"Ahh...I'm not sure you should be. Sometimes cops and marriage are like oil and water. That's a whole other story that's way too long to tell, and I'd need large quantities of alcohol to get through that one anyway."

"I see. Who's the glove for, then?"

"I wish I could go back and give it to me. Four years in a row I asked for a glove like this, and I never got it." He removed the glove from the basket next to him and gave it another good sniff. "It's amazing how a smell can bring back so many memories."

"Why didn't you get one?"

Welsh sighed a weighty, world-weary sigh. "I grew up on the South Side in an apartment that makes Fraser's old place sound palatial. My dad was a drunk, never could hold down a job for long, and he'd beat up on Ma and my brother whenever the mood struck him. It wasn't exactly a Norman Rockwell kinda family."

Meg shivered. "Why didn't she leave?"

"She did, but not before he almost killed her and me both. I'll never forget the date. May 11, 1962. A Friday. My dad took my brother and me to the Cubs game. He gave the ushers a few extra bucks so they'd look after us and then he left us there."

"How awful."

"Yeah, the Cubbies got walloped. The Phillies cleaned their clocks, 12-2. So Wilson and I go out front after the game, waiting for our dad to pick us up like always, only he doesn't show up. I'm 14, he's 16, so we're trying to act all cool even though we're a little nervous. We finally get one of the ushers to give us back the money Dad gave him so we can take the El home, and we get there over an hour late. Ma's there, and she tears into us about being late for dinner, everything's cold, and we can forget about going to any more Cubs games for the next month. We sit down and start eating the cold meatloaf and potatoes, and those awful green beans from a can--God, I can't believe I remember all of this!--and then Dad comes storming in, yelling about how we took off after the game and he circled the park for an hour looking for us."

"That wasn't true, obviously."

"No, he was just completely hammered and furious 'cause his little cover story of 'taking the boys to Wrigley' wasn't going to work any more unless he could get us to go along with him. So I stood up from the table and said, 'You and I both know that's a big fat lie.'"

How brave of Harding to stand up to his father like that! "What did he do?"

"Dad couldn't even speak, he was so furious. His whole face was red. Wilson was in shock; he looked like a doll in the wax museum. My dad just walked over to me very deliberately and swung out with his right arm, and the end of his fist connected with my chin. I heard something crack and fell backwards and slid down the wall. Then he said he was going to knock some sense into me for disrespecting him like that, and I could see his huge boot coming up to smash in my ribs. I swear I could see every speck of dirt on the heel as it came toward me, and then all of a sudden my mother, this petite, dainty hundred-pound woman, jumped between us and started screaming like a banshee. She just snapped."

Even in the dark, Meg turned her face away in horror at the grim scene. And she had had the nerve to wail and moan about her problems?

"Well, to make a long story short, after a very ugly battle involving practically every piece of furniture and cutlery in the house, Mom grabbed us both by the wrists and hustled us to Mrs. Connelly's house next door. Mrs. Connelly shoved us into her car and drove us to the hospital, and Dad actually got out his shotgun and shot at the car as we drove away down the street, screaming incoherently about how she was going to come crawling back, and he was going to kill us all for disgracing him. That was the last time I saw my father for a long, long time."

"She didn't go back, did she?"


Meg hadn't realized she'd been holding her breath until she let it out again. "Thank God." She had dealt with several domestic abuse cases early in her career, and the woman had been beaten to death in several of those cases.

"I'm proud of my mom for getting us out of there. We settled in a different neighborhood a couple miles away and busted our asses trying to help her get by with odd jobs after school, and sometimes during school. We barely graduated. That first year especially was hard on all of us. We went hungry sometimes, but Wilson and I never said a peep about it to her. We hung out with our friends whenever we could, and their moms got into the habit of asking us to stay for dinner or take some extra leftovers home before they went bad, that kind of thing. And then one day a social worker came and wanted to know what we'd like for Christmas. I said, 'A turkey dinner with all the trimmings.' And then I felt bad because I'd implied my mom couldn't get food on the table. But the lady just smiled and said, 'What else?' 'A bike,' I said. And Wilson wanted a hockey stick. And then she sat with my mom for a while and asked about clothes sizes, boring stuff, and Ma told us to go outside and play stickball or something."

Harding took a long breath, and his voice seemed a little more gravelly than usual. "And on Christmas morning, it was like the Garden of Eden under our scraggly little tree. I got new sneakers and pants, not just Wilson's hand-me-downs, and Ma got fancy lotion and these lined leather gloves, and front and center was a brand-new silver bike, all assembled and shiny and beautiful, and Wilson's hockey stick. My mom started crying when she saw the looks on our faces."

Meg felt her own eyes getting a little misty and wiped once more with the pathetic remains of Harding's handkerchief. She knew where this story was headed. "And this was all thanks to Children's Christmas in Chicago?"

"Yep. Somehow, that day, I knew everything was going to be all right, that we wouldn't have to go back to Dad or starve to death. Best Christmas we ever had." He paused to clear his throat and collect himself. "And after I made it through the Police Academy, I vowed to make Children's Christmas in Chicago an annual tradition. Every year, I take a boy's name off and go shopping for him. Never found a Harding tag, though," he chuckled.

Meg frowned. "Why didn't you ever have a tree at the 27th before?"

"I didn't want the men thinking I was a big softie. Makes it harder to keep 'em in line. I used to sneak out and go to the 18th, but then Lieutenant Ryan retired and they didn't put one up this year. I figure I've been at the 27th long enough that I can afford to go a little soft in my old age."

"Who'd you get this year?"

"His name's Kevin. He's ten, and he wants a baseball mitt and anything having to do with Sammy Sosa. A Cubs fan after my own heart, how could I--"

The lights suddenly flicked on, breaking the spell and causing both Harding and Meg to shield their eyes. The background hum of vents and lights and computers kicked back in, and the PA system offered them "Silent Night." They heard faint cheering from beyond. Meg quickly hid the handkerchief behind her back. She must look like hell with her hopelessly smeared makeup. "Try the 5 button. Maybe we won't have to wait for the repairman."

Harding mashed the button, and sure enough, the car began to move.

They reached the fifth floor, and the doors slid open. Meg turned to Harding and opened her mouth to speak, to tell him what a remarkable man he was, but she suddenly didn't know what to say. She had a new respect for him as a capable and courageous man as well as the heart of the 27th, but the harsh fluorescent light made a coward out of her, and she ended up falling back on her tried-and-true professional persona.

"Lieutenant, thank you for listening. I hope that tonight's conversation will remain our little secret."

"Of course, Inspector." He seemed to understand, but his eyes were warm, as though she had chosen the compliment instead.

"I've still got to get Meg that Police Officer Barbie..." She waved a hand toward a nearby display, blinding pink from top to bottom.

"Of course. Good night, Inspector, and...merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Lieutenant," she smiled back as she exited the elevator with her basket back on her wrist, and she had never meant that trite phrase more sincerely in her whole life.

The last thing Welsh heard before the doors closed was, "Cheerleader Barbie?!? Over my dead body!!"

End The Giving Tree by Amanda:

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