A First Christmas
By Lynne Hoffman


Music tinkled softly as angels slowly circled above the infant's crib. The shepherds had finally settled down and were resting cozily nearby. The baby too, slept, wrapped snugly in a blanket. All around visitors came and went and left gifts. A lucky, well loved child. Grateful, blessed parents. Busy people, at a busy time.
The master of the house cursed as he trimmed the snapped and broken branches of his favourite tree. His wife murmured low sounds of comfort and he quieted. Shortly he turned his attention to the fire and stirred it, lest it go out. She invited their guests to partake of more refreshments. Trays of good food and cool drinks were passed around and people began to relax and feel at home.
And still, amid all the hustle and bustle the child slept on. The shepherds raised their heads from time to time to take in the festivities but settled back to their ever-watchful rest with hardly a stir. The Kings arrived, all three of them and soon there was a truly festive atmosphere. People who hadn't gathered together in years were pleased to see one another again.
Elizabeth arrived. And Michael. Joshua, his wife and his father. Even Paul made it. It was good to see everyone again. Old friends renewed their acquaintances with one another and stories were exchanged but the biggest draw was the baby. Babies were always popular. It seemed that everyone liked a new baby and the same was true of this particular baby as well.
Joshua's father congratulated the baby's father and shook his hand firmly, kindly. Elizabeth smiled benevolently and looked as though she had some wise pronouncement to make but had decided rather to not offer her opinion for a change. Michael, restless as ever and with a large dose of his ever-present curiosity, walked over and took a close look at the sleeping child. He felt an almost overwhelming urge to reach out and stroke the infant's velvety cheek. He had a soft spot for children, and babies, in particular.
On the other hand, Paul took a casual look and walked away to join the adults, deciding that one baby looked remarkably like another. He'd accepted the invitation to be there willingly, without question and thought he'd join the queue to see the baby while it still slept. He liked babies, so long as they were sleeping. Once they were awake he found them disagreeable. Thankfully this one was still soundly sleeping.
Soon, everyone who wanted to see the baby had taken a peek and the child was left to sleep in peace. A blissful, ignorant sleep, content in its own small way. As each visitor left and the constant buzz of excitement died down, silence filled the air and rather than continuing to sleep, the baby became aware of the solitude and objected, loudly.
Lifted up, exalted and cooed at. Brought into the main hall to rejoin the crowd. The angel mobile above the bed jostled and tinkled with more verve but the child's father stilled it with his hand.
Joshua's father called to the infant's father, in his sagacious manner, "There you go. Don't take a plea on that one. Go for a life sentence."
The man smiled, proudly, "No chance for parole."
Adam Schiff reached out to relieve the man of his bundle, asking wearily and with an unfamiliar uncertainty, "Would you mind?"
Ben Stone shrugged his shoulders and inclined his head. Then he handed over his new daughter to his former boss.
"It's been a while, huh Dad?" Joshua Schiff leaned over his father's shoulder and chucked the baby gently under her chin.
"You're not kidding. Wouldn't Mama have loved this?" Adam spoke tenderly of his late wife.
Joshua nodded, "The noise and lights don't seem to bother her do they Ben?"
"No, she actually seems transfixed by the lights."
"It seems she also likes crowds."
"So it does."
"Here. It's been too long, I don't feel comfortable holding a baby." Adam passed the child back.
"And here we were all being so quiet," Elizabeth Olivet observed wryly as she stepped closer, contemplating whether or not she wanted to ask to hold the baby and then deciding no, she didn't. Unless a child of her own came along, she didn't want any substitute in her arms.
In a seldom acknowledged part of her psyche, she realized she was feeling a PERSONAL emotion. She was jealous. Men were so lucky. Ben was so much older than she was, it wasn't fair. The child in his arms should have been a grandchild. SHE should be the one cradling an infant so lovingly. Sadly, she thought it would never come to be. She was more like Ben than she wanted to admit.
Her career came first, like his had. She put it ahead of everything, like he had. Now he had what she wanted. A family life. And she was the one stuck in a rut becoming more and more aware with each passing day that the batteries on her biological clock were grinding to a halt. She sighed, almost giving herself away and withdrew into her professional shell, prepared to ward off what ever cutesy comment he offered in response.
Ben smiled and laughed softly, "Women never seem to be able to make up their minds on what they prefer."
"Is that a legal opinion or are you opening yourself up to analysis?"
"Neither, just a simple observation."
"With you Ben, nothing is ever simple," Elizabeth made an observation of her own, much to the amusement of Ben's wife Nora.
"So right you are, Dr. Olivet." Nora smiled and relieved her husband of his armload. The baby was becoming restless again and Nora suspected it was more than just the fact that the child liked to be with people.
"You're a determined woman. Throwing a Christmas party so soon after giving birth."
"Alex is a month old."
"And that makes her what? Ready for independence?" Elizabeth asked teasingly, though with slightly more bite than she had intended.
"Hardly. It's just that, well, I love Christmas. I thought if there was ever a time to make overtures to our former workmates, this was it."
"'Our'?"
"Ben and I are both former ADAs."
"I didn't know that." Elizabeth sounded, and was, surprised.
"I quit years ago. Fourteen years ago, in fact, last month."
"So, yours was a reconciliation of sorts." Elizabeth said, in reference to her hosts' relationship. She said it as a statement and wasn't expecting a reply.
Ben gave her one anyway, "I wouldn't say 'of sorts'. We had a relationship then, we renewed it two years ago."
Nora turned away from them, still cradling her infant, aware that despite Olivet's careful wording, Ben's admission had surprised her. Their relationship had surprised a lot of people, especially the speed with which it had seemed to explode. She wandered into the living room to check on her other guests and found she was just in time.
The music needed changing.
She elbowed her way carefully over to the entertainment stand. And the milling crowd parted magically for her.
"Let me change that," someone offered.
"Better that than this," Nora answered back, teasingly, indicating her sodden feeling child. The woman laughed and held out her arms anyway.
"I don't know about that. I love babies. C'mere you little darling," Anita Van Buren deftly plucked Alex from the warmth of Nora's embrace.
"Watch your blouse!"
"She's so pretty. Aren't you pretty," The police Lieutenant cooed softly to the child before turning back to Nora, "I wanted a girl s-o-o-o bad. Not that I'm unhappy with my sons... " She laughed her light, infectious laugh, "Let me change her, Mrs. Stone. There are some things I think you never forget how to do."
"Maybe not, but I wouldn't think of asking a guest to change the baby."
"You didn't ask, I volunteered," Anita refused to relinquish the little girl, "At least let me carry her to her room." And with that, the two women went down the hallway to tend to the baby.
Ben watched them disappear with pure pride. He had been dismayed at first when, shortly after their return from their honeymoon, his wife had informed him she was pregnant but that feeling had given way to joy in relatively short order. Now barely nine months later, here they were, entertaining a houseful of guests and preparing to celebrate their first Christmas together as a family.
As if there wasn't already something miraculous about Christmas.
He thought, reflectively, of the first Christmas, so long ago. Of another baby born into a family of love, and all the visitors that infant's parents had received. These people, here in his home, were all friends and acquaintances of either his or his wife's or their older children. That other family had been alone, in a strange City. All their visitors had been strangers. The parents hadn't even had a home to receive them in. Not until the Magi had appeared. Three Kings had arrived to visit tonight too, but they were neighbours, not actually visiting Royalty.
Thank God.
Ben began to circulate again, he checked on things in the kitchen. His grown daughter was handling herself admirably, keeping the trays of canapes filled and making sure the punchbowl was fresh and cool. David, his teenage son by Nora was standing outside and for a minute Ben wondered what he was up to. Then he heard him whistle. A shrill, boys-at-play whistle and in reaction Ben heard the clicking and scratching of dog feet running across linoleum as their two German Shepherds scrambled out from beneath the baby's crib and bounded to the door to join the boy.
Almost immediately the dogs started barking, announcing the arrival of yet more people. Ben went to the front door to let them in.
"Claire! Good to see you."
A dark-haired young woman painstakingly made her way into the living room.
"Likewise. I'm glad you're doing well, Ben."
"You're glad I'M doing well?" Ben was taken aback.
"When you quit, you were terribly depressed."
"But... "
"I know. At least if you're depressed you're not dead. For a long time I confused the two, wishing I were dead rather than depressed. I had it backward Ben. I didn't want to be dead. Depression comes and goes, dead is forever." Claire smiled, her large eyes expressive, "I also know the cure. The same cure you found."
"Love?"
"Yes, at least good, firm support."
"We're lucky, aren't we." Ben smiled at his former assistant. She was recovering nicely from her near fatal car crash.
"Yes. You've had Eleanor," Claire referred to Ben's wife by her full name, "I, thankfully have had Jack. Not quite the same but close."
At this comment Claire's companion, Jack McCoy, raised his eyebrows in mock disappointment.
"Nice of you to bring her, Jack."
"I thought so. Looking good, isn't she?" Jack looked from Ben to Claire, smiling tenderly at the young woman who was also his former assistant.
"Very. You really have made some good progress, Claire."
"I really have had incredible support." She passed her crutches to Ben and Jack eased her gently onto a nearby chair before taking charge of the girl's equipment. Ben noticed a protective air to Jack's movements and wondered if Claire had meant romantic love in her comment about the two of them finding the same cure for what ailed them.
"Can I get either of you anything?"
"Something to drink, please Ben." Claire's fair skin glowed pink and healthy in the flickering firelight of the Stone's fireplace. There was definite laughter in her eyes. "This is new to me. Having YOU fetch and carry for ME."
Ben laughed. Jack offered to go with him to get the refreshments and so he and Ben went together to search out a tray of goodies.
"It takes getting used to, doesn't it?" Ben said, casually, to Jack.
"What does?"
"Having them give the orders." He almost laughed out loud at Jack's startled expression.
"Is it that obvious?"
"Only when she looks at you."
It was Jack's turn to laugh, "You know Ben, all those years ago, I used to think there was something in the way Eleanor looked at you... "
"There was."
Both men laughed, heartily, relieved. Their 'secrets' were out. They had both fallen in love with young, vibrant women. Women whose futures, it seemed, had not included either of them. But fate is funny that way. For Ben and Eleanor, it had intervened way back when she had been his assistant in 1984. But he hadn't been ready to commit to her then and knowing that Eleanor had given up waiting for him. She had left him.
For Jack and Claire, it hadn't been an instant romance. Claire had been bound and determined not to get involved with another co-worker ever since her disastrous affair with former Judge Thayer while Jack had promised himself that female co-workers were off limits to him, sexually. All that came of bedding his assistants was heartburn when they resigned their positions and faced him on the opposite side of the courtroom.
While Eleanor had carried a secret with her when she walked out on Ben, there was no secret Claire was hiding from Jack. And although Claire had contemplated leaving the DA's office, the growing closeness developing between her and Jack had always made possible for him to talk her out of it. Yet, she still nursed a restlessness borne of disenchantment with the legal profession. Still, in spite of that it was a remarkably cruel twist of fate that finally solidified the relationship between Claire and Jack.
Following the witnessing of an execution, Jack had gotten himself utterly and completely drunk. Depending on Claire's integrity and reliability, he called her to ask for a ride home. He knew she would overlook his lapse of judgement and not make an issue of it on their return to the office. But Claire had been in no hurry to rush off on her mission of mercy and when she finally did show up he'd tired of waiting for and left on his own, in a cab. Claire was surprised to find though, that another of their acquaintances was at the same bar, in an equally inebriated state and she offered him a lift home. They were half way to his apartment across town when they were broadsided by a drunk driver.
Claire spent eight months in hospital. Lennie walked away without a scratch. The driver that hit her got a slap on the wrist. Jack got a heart ache that he couldn't deal with. Slowly it came to him that he missed her more than he should be missing someone who was merely an assistant and against his better judgement, he had to admit to himself that he loved her. Once he was able to do that he was able to make more than the perfunctory visits he'd been making to her in the hospital. He was also able to get on with the business of justice rather than revenge. Now she'd been released, she was making excellent progress and Jack was happier than he'd been in years. Ben knew the feeling.
It had taken him far too many years to get over the heartbreak of having Nora walk out on him in the first place. When he learned of her return to Manhattan and of the secret she'd kept from him, all he wanted to do was work on a reconciliation. Eleanor had been just as willing to pick up the pieces and start again and now, almost two years later, here they were. Celebrating.
Celebrating so much.
For Ben, it was a very good evening. There was an acceptable resolution to his trials. He may have burnt-out professionally but there was a bright new candle burning in his future. He left Jack and Claire sharing a glass of punch and went to search out his wife. He found her, watching Anita as she put the finishing touches on a diaper change. Anita held the baby up for inspection.
"There you go precious. There's your Daddy."
Ben took the baby from her. Anita whispered something to Nora on her way out of the bedroom and Ben's wife broke up into gales of laughter.
"What was that last exchange all about?" Ben asked as he lightly kissed his child's forehead.
"Anita said it was easy to tell she was a lawyer's child."
"Oh? How so?" Ben bit.
"She was absolutely full of... "
"Don't say it," Ben cut her off with a grin, "Shame on her."
Alex was drifting off to sleep again, so he slipped her into her crib.
"She won't sleep long Ben, it's past her feeding time."
"Oh, well. Then I'll make this quick." He reached out to his wife and embraced her, "Merry Christmas darling."
"Merry Christmas Benjamin."

end


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