Title: Coventry Carol
Category: post-series; Christmas; Crossover (Joan of Arcadia)
Summary: "And ever morn and day/For thy parting neither say nor sing/By, by, lully, lullay."
Joan's new neighbors had move into the house next door two months earlier. She'd gone over with her mother to bring them a loaf of banana bread the day after they arrived. The father had accepted it with a quite murmur of thanks before disappearing back into the house. He'd seemed very sad to her, maybe a little tired. Her mother had summed it up as they walked back. "He looks careworn." Joan found that she had to agree with the assessment.
It hadn't exactly been an introduction to the family, but she'd seen them enough to know that they had three little kids. Two very little ones around two and four, and another little boy that rarely seemed to leave the house and seemed to be seven or eight. She saw that child so rarely that it came as a surprise to her to see him sitting out on the porch one afternoon before dark. He looked lonely, with his elbows resting on his knees.
So she detoured away from her own driveway and found herself walking up to him instead. He looked up at her with a slightly wistful expression. "What's up?" she asked him. He reminded her of a child she once babysat, but she pushed the thought away.
"Nothing," he told her, and she could see that he was missing a front tooth.
Joan sat down next to him without waiting for him to invite her to do so. It might not even occur to such a young boy to do so anyway. "You don't look like nothing's up. And believe me, I'm an expert on that sort of thing."
"It's just..." the little boy started to say before trailing off. "No, it's stupid. You'll think I'm dumb."
"No I won't," she promised.
"Yeah you will."
"I promise," Joan told him in a solemn tone. "And I always keep my promises."
"Okay... I'm kind of jealous," he confided. "Dad plays with Ryan instead of me."
"I've seen your little brothers. I bet Ryan is the older one," Joan guessed.
"Yeah. Henry is a baby," the little boy said dismissively. "He hardly counts."
"I have two brothers too," Joan told him. "Sometimes parents have to spend a lot of time with the other kids, and we get left out. It's not really their fault when there's more of us than them."
"I guess." He sounded doubtful. "But dad never plays with me anymore."
"Maybe you could spend time with your mom, sometimes."
"She's not my mom," he said quickly, and it connected some dots for her. The woman was tall and dark-haired, and the littler boys looked like her. It explained how this child was blond.
"Ah, a stepmom. I don't know much about that. My parents have been married a long time." And she could hardly imagine them ever getting a divorce. Especially since they needed them so much still. Even Kevin did. "I bet the divorce was rough on everyone."
"Something bad happened, and they broke up," he told her, and she was slightly alarmed to see a shimmer of tears in his eyes. "I think it was all my fault."
"Oh, don't think that," she told him, and to her surprise he put his arms around her. She just let him hug her. "It's never the kids fault when the grownups can't work things out."
The boy pulled away. "You don't know what happened."
"I'm-" Joan was going to tell him that it didn't matter, but he got up and ran inside the house, leaving her there alone. Eventually she got up and walked to her house.
"Hey watch it!" she complained when her older brother's wheelchair nearly bowled her over.
Kevin grinned at her over the top of a box of Christmas decorations. "She stops on a dime and I didn't break a single glass ball." He patted one of the wheels affectionately.
"I don't think I'm up to hearing you sing the praises of your new chair tonight. Even if it can do marc ten," Joan told him.
"What do you have better to do?"
Joan grabbed a tray of ornaments out of the box and danced away. "Trim the tree?"
"I'll grant you that it's more useful, but I'm not sure it's better. Where's Luke? He's supposed to be drafted into decorating too."
"How should I know? I just got home."
"Luke is with Grace," their mother said from behind them. "So he'll be a little late."
"Grace doesn't even celebrate Christmas," Kevin mumbled as he wheeled himself towards the tree. "Is he going to help them light a menorah?"
"I have no idea," Helen said calmly. "The less I know about what Luke and Grace do, the happier I am."
Helen wandered off in search of lights for the tree, and Joan turned to her older brother and smirked. "God I wish I was the youngest."
"So you could have done whatever you wanted with Rowe?" Kevin asked slyly.
"Yeah right. Maybe if I had done 'whatever I wanted' Adam and I wouldn't have broken up."
Kevin waved a dismissive hand. "But you'll get back together."
"Uh huh." She snorted. "You realize that being psychotic doesn't make you psychic, right?"
Kevin tapped the side of his head. "You know they did all sorts of evals on me right? I'm not crazy. You don't have to be crazy to see that you're going to take him back."
"Whatever." The first ornament Joan hung was something made of metal and feathers. She wasn't sure what it was supposed to be, but her ex-boyfriend had made it for her. It didn't take her mind off her brother's prediction.
"Hey, I remember this one!" Kevin enthused from the other side of the tree. "Mom and Dad bought me this transformer ornament to make up for having you that year."
"Nice, Kevin." Joan stuck her tongue out at him. "Hey, do you know anything about the new neighbors?"
She shrugged. "You're an investigative reporter, I thought you might know something."
"Ha. Calling me an investigative reporter is like calling our garbage man a sanitation engineer," Kevin told her. "Maybe I can find something out."
"Let me know if you do, okay?"
"If you make cocoa I will."
"Fine," Joan agreed. "Give me ten minutes."
The next day Joan found herself distracted on her way to school; she kept thinking about the little boy next door. He can't be right, she thought. It can't be his fault that his folks broke up.
"You look worried, Joan," a young, familiar voice commented. Joan wasn't surprised to see one of god's most familiar guises - that of a young curly-haired girl - watching her from inside the elementary schoolyard.
"How perceptive of you," Joan groused as she walked towards the chain link fence. "But then, you know everything."
"It pays to be omnipotent," the child said arrogantly. "But you are troubled. Why?"
"If you know everything, why don't you tell me?"
She shook her head. "Telling me yourself will make you feel better."
"I'm worried about one of the neighbors' kids. This little guy is so unhappy."
"First of all, he thinks he made his parents get a divorce. And... He hasn't said it exactly, but I think he's worried that his father doesn't love him as much as his little brothers."
"That's sad," God remarked.
"That's it?" Joan asked in disbelief. "You just think it's sad? I was sure you were going to order me to help him."
A bell rang and the real children began to line up. The god-child made move to as well, but she looked over her shoulder. "I don't have to," she said before running to catch up to her class.
Joan watched her go. "God does know everything." She sighed and hurried off herself.
December 22rd, 2006
"So I did some digging about our neighbors," Kevin said.
"What did you find out?"
"Not a whole lot. They used to be FBI agents-"
"What, both of them?"
"Yeah, why?" Kevin gave her a curious look.
"I don't know. I mean, I can sort of see her as having been one, but mister Doggett? He doesn't strike me as the type."
"Well, he was. They left after one of their fellow agents was tried for murder, then escaped. There was some suspicion that they'd been involved in that, but they left voluntarily. She must have already been pregnant since their older son was born seven months later."
"What else did you find out?"
"Not much. They're working civilian jobs now. That's about it."
"No problem. It was actually sort of fun. Maybe I'll become a PI when I grow up."
"When do you plan to grow up?" Joan asked archly. Then she narrowly dodged a couch pillow that flew towards her head.
"See if I do you any more favors," her brother complained, but he was still smiling.
December 24th, 2006
Joan was walking by her mother when Helen stopped her by placing a box in her arms. "Joan, here."
"What is it?"
"A box of Lindt balls."
"Oh, yummy!" Joan exclaimed, reaching to open the paper.
Helen tapped her fingers. "I want you to bring this over to the neighbors."
"Aww." Joan gave her mother a puppy dog look. "Tell me you bought some for our stockings too."
"I can't confirm or deny that allegation," Helen told her with a slight smirk.
"Well, there's still a couple hours for you to do shopping if you forgot to get us some too."
"As if I'd go shopping on Christmas Eve."
"You don't want to disappoint your children, do you, Mom?"
Helen gave her a gentle push towards the door. "Go on."
Clouds passed over the moon as Joan walked across her yard. It was just cold enough to frost her breath, and she found herself wishing that it could be a white Christmas. Though it was probably a silly want considering how infrequently it snowed there at all, she couldn't help but feel cheered at the thought. Even if she was going to have to turn the delectable treats over to someone else.
Joan hadn't reached the neighbor's porch yet when she realized that the little boy was sitting there again. "Where's your coat?" she exclaimed, when she noticed that he wasn't wearing anything to guard against the chill night air.
"I'm not cold," he told her, and she could see that he wasn't shivering.
"Lucky you, I'm freezing. You know, you never told me your name. I'm Joan by the way."
"Luke," the boy told her.
"Hey, that's my little brother's name too, but he's older than you."
"No, he's not," Luke said with some conviction.
"Uh, okay." Joan decided to let that go. She used to think that she'd one day get older than Kevin... And when he'd had his accident, it nearly became reality. "Luke, I've been meaning to ask you something."
"You told me that something bad happened to make your parents split up, and that it was all your fault. Can you tell me about it?" she asked gently.
Luke looked away, but began to speak. "I was riding my bike when a bad man grabbed me. He hurt me pretty bad. But he wasn't the one who killed me. That was his friend." Joan stared at him with dawning horror. Fortunately the little boy didn't notice. He shrugged his little shoulders. "Daddy and Monica found me a few days later, lying on the ground. Broken. It was the first time I ever saw him cry."
Joan's own eyes welled with tears. "Oh, Luke, I'm so sorry that happened to you."
Luke wasn't the first ghost she'd ever seen, but he was the first one she'd ever met. The others had been of people she'd known in life. A good friend. A child she used to mind.
He patted her shoulder, which made her tears spill over. A murdered child was trying to comfort her about his death. "It's not your fault, Joan."
"Well, it's not your either," she said, sniffling. "You know that, don't you?" But as soon as she saw the look on his face, she knew he didn't. "No, you don't. That's why you're still here."
"I just..." Luke trailed off and stared at his sneakers.
"I want to say I'm sorry," Luke said at length. "I never got to tell my Dad that I was sorry that he found me."
"I'm sure he knows-" Joan began, but he shook his head hard. Then he got up and began to run off. "Luke! Wait!"
This time he didn't open the door to go in. Now that she knew his secret, he didn't have to pretend, and simply melted away. To her surprise, however, the door to the house opened again. She was about to say his name when a pair of icy blue eyes met hers. "You're one of the neighbors' kids. Joan. Is there a problem?" Mister Doggett asked her suspiciously.
"No!" she said quickly. "Actually, yeah there is."
"What's that?" He eyed the box she was holding, as if he thought it might contain a bomb.
"Oh, here. My mom sent this over. But that's not the problem..." It only took her a moment to make up her mind. "I was talking to your son just now."
"What are you talking about?" Doggett asked her. "I put Ryan and Henry to bed myself an hour ago."
"No, I meant Luke," she said softly. "I know that sounds crazy, but-"
"What did he say to you?" Doggett demanded in a hoarse voice that took Joan by surprise. It hadn't occurred to her that he might believe she was telling the truth.
"Um." She sat down on the stairs, and he did as well. "He thinks what happened is his fault." She waved a hand. "His death, I mean."
"That's crazy. It wasn't his fault. He was just a little boy."
"I don't know. Little kids think that all sorts of things they have no control over are their fault. Like your divorce," she added. "He said he wanted you to know that he was sorry."
"I know that..."
"Why do you believe me?" Joan asked suddenly. "Why didn't you just think I was crazy?"
Doggett gave her the weakest of smiles. "When I was an FBI agent, I saw so many things that were impossible to believe. Some of them make a little ghost easy to believe in by comparison. Luke died thirteen years ago, but sometimes I still think I hear him laugh."
"He still loves you," Joan told him. "I think that's one of the reasons he's still here."
"But why would he show himself to you and not me?" Doggett's voice suddenly took on a bit of anger, apparently self-directed. "He must hate me."
"No! I'm sure-"
A small blond figure hurdled itself at Doggett, and nearly knocked him over. "I don't hate you, Daddy!"
"Luke! Oh my god, Luke." The look on the man's face was one that Joan had never seen before, such surprised wonder. He pulled the little boy onto his lap. "I thought I'd never see you again, Champ. Why haven't you ever come to me before this?"
Luke's lower lip trembled. "I thought you would be mad at me."
"Why would I be mad?"
"I went with a stranger, even though you told me not to. I tried not to, but he made me."
"That's not your fault. Nothing that happened is your fault."
"Really?" A fragile hope bloomed on the boy's face as he studied his father's.
"Really," Doggett told him, and she could sense that he was steeling himself for something unpleasant. "But it's time for you to go, Luke."
The little boy faded. "You don't want me to stay?"
"Oh, Luke..." His expression gave Joan an idea of what he must have looked like when he discovered his little boy's abused body. "I want you to stay more than anything. But it isn't right. You were a good boy, the best boy, so you know where you're supposed to go."
Luke extended one finger skyward. "There?"
"That's right." Doggett's voice was clotted with tears.
Instead of vanishing into the light, Luke threw his arms around his father's neck. "But I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you too. But I taught you to do the right thing, didn't I?"
"Then you need to go. That's what's right."
With a show of reluctance the boy slid off his father's lap. "Promise that you love me as much as them," he said, clearly meaning his half brothers.
"You know I do, Luke."
And then Luke was gone. There was no smoke, no light, no fading into happy oblivion. One second he was there, and the next he wasn't. There was an emptiness to where he'd been and they both felt it keenly.
Neither of them said anything for a couple of minutes. Joan decided to break the ice. "I don't think I could have told him to go," she confessed.
Doggett hitched a sigh. "I didn't think I could, either. But I know that boy...he would have stayed here forever, if he thought it was what I wanted him to do. But it wouldn't have been right."
"Still, that took more selflessness than most people are capable of," Joan told him.
He shook his head. "Any good parent would have been able to do it."
"Maybe..." she said doubtfully. "Are you okay?"
"I know for sure that my son's soul is at peace." Doggett stood up and picked up the box from where he'd placed it on the steps. "I don't think I could have asked for a better Christmas present than that. Thank you."
"Me? I didn't do anything. All I did was listen to a lonely little boy."
"And you have no idea how much that means." Doggett's voice held an awe that she couldn't understand. "Maybe some day you will. Merry Christmas, Joan."
"You too, Mister Doggett."
She headed back to her own house once he'd gone into his house and shut the door. To her surprise she was only half way up her driveway when a voice called out, "Jane! There you are!"
She squinted in the dark. "What are you doing, Adam?"
He held up a sheaf of paper. "I thought you might want to go Christmas caroling with me. Grace is inside bullying your brother into coming." He leaned towards her. "Between you and me, Luke's a bit whipped."
Adam looked slightly concerned. "Are you okay? You look a little funny."
Joan gave him a wobbly smile. "I saw a miracle tonight."
"Did the blind see and the lame walk?" His voice held a teasing lilt.
"Nope. A father and a son came realized that neither of them blamed the other for growing apart."
"That doesn't sound like much of a miracle to me," Adam said doubtfully.
Their friend Grace chased her younger brother out of the house just then, and they ran by laughing.
"I guess you had to be there." Joan took his hand. "Let's go sing some carols."
Author's Note: Coventry Carol is one of the oldest of traditional Christmas carols, and one of the grimmest. Instead of celebrating the season as most of the songs do, this one asks listeners to remember the children that were murdered by King Herod as he sought the Christ child.
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