Untitled Document

 

 So This Is Christmas

 (Death and Dragon Arc)
 Disclaimer: Not ours. Poo. Gundam Wing and all the characters belong to Bandai and such. 'Happy Christmas (War Is Over)' is by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

 

So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very Merry Christmas
And a Happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

* * * * *

Wufei leaned against the wall outside Lady Une's office, listening to Duo give his annual 'We Really Need Four Days Off Over Christmas, Both Of Us, At The Same Time, Honest, We'll Go Nuts If We Don't Get It, When Was The Last Time We Had Any Time Off Anyway?' monologue.

Sounds like he's still continuing that one run-on sentence, Wufei thought, then tuned it out again, returning to thoughts of the upcoming Christmas reunion. This had better go well... it certainly won't be my fault if it doesn't! He scowled slightly. This holiday is so important to Duo, especially now that it's our turn to host the party. Kami-sama, I'm glad the house was finally finished last month...

Tuning back in briefly, he noted that Duo was still in good voice.

I haven't seen him this excited since we got married. The frown melted into a smile as he remembered...

Trowa and Quatre had insisted on donating one of the Barton-Winner mansions as the site for the wedding... and subsequent honeymoon. The press had gone nearly insane at the news that Relena Peacecraft Yui, Queen of the World, was going to be the Matron of Honour at the wedding of two MALE Preventers (not to mention that her husband was Best Man); at least, they'd gone insane until Relena had called a press conference and torn strips of the worst offenders for their 'narrow-minded, parochial, MEDIAEVAL attitudes'. With Heero standing behind her left shoulder, glaring.

Relena had even convinced Duo not to wear a veil. Though I'm almost certain he was only joking... after all, it wouldn't have gone with his tux.

...DAMN but he looked good...

Absent-mindedly turning the plain gold band on his finger, Wufei lost himself in the memory. Duo in a white tuxedo... long hair rippling loose down his back... tears of joy running down his face as Wufei slipped the ring on his finger...

...Duo in bed that night, naked, arching up towards him...

----------

Sally and Noin walked down the hall past him, bursting into giggles once they were safely around a corner.

"Oh God, I just love it when Chang goes off into a trance with that sappy grin on his face!"

"Aren't those two so sweet?!"

"Yes..."

They looked at each other and chorused, "...not that we'd ever let on!"

----------

Wufei was snapped back to reality as Lady Une's office door opened.

"Thanks, Lady! We appreciate it, really!" Duo bounded out and set off down the hall, braid snapping behind him.

"I take it you won?" Wufei asked calmly as he fell into step beside him.

"Yep! As if you doubted, 'Fei. Shinigami has not lost his touch!"

"So I see." Wufei ostentatiously checked his watch. "Under three hours; I confess I'm impressed."

"You always are." Duo shot him a wicked sideways look from under his fringe, then bounded ahead. "Hope we get snow for Christmas! Lots and lots and LOTS of snow!"

* * * * *

Over the next three weeks, Duo dragged Wufei out shopping at every opportunity. They bought presents, fairy lights, tree lights, tree ornaments, trees (yes, trees, plural; the first suffered a slight 'accident' on the way home), food, mistletoe, more food, party favours, Christmas music CDs, and even more food. Duo had an exhaustive list and insisted on covering every eventuality, fretting between shopping trips that he was sure they were forgetting something.

Unfortunately, they also had to deal with the results of 'an embarrassing abundance of seasonal atmosphere', as one weatherman put it. It looked like Duo had got his wish...

* * * * *

"Winter? Wonderland? I fail to see the logic in putting those two words together in the same sentence, much less next to each other," Wufei snarled as he and Duo limped tiredly past a music shop that was blasting out carols over its PA system. "If I have to rescue one more stranded skier or frostbitten hiker..."

"I know, 'Fei. They'll wish they HADN'T been rescued," said Duo soothingly. "Only a few more days and we're on holiday, OK? Then we can take a break."

"I could almost excuse the ones who were caught up in the hills when the first blizzard hit," Wufei continued, oblivious. "Though they should have been paying better attention to the weather reports! But the ones we're getting now? Idiots! The emergency services have even posted warning signs on all the roads leading into that area, saying that the heavy snowfalls have created avalanche conditions, and the idiots still go up there?"

"I know, 'Fei."

"It would do the gene pool good if we LEFT them up there!"

"I know, 'Fei."

Finally registering Duo's weary tone, Wufei made an effort to calm down. "Well... at least you got your snow for Christmas, right?"

Duo sighed. "Yeah... but it's all up in the hills! We don't have any around the house! I don't get it, 'Fei, that 'lake effect' thingy is supposed to mean we get snow!"

Wufei blinked. "You're right... perhaps we're on the wrong side of the lake?"

"Awwwwwwwww man, I hope not!" Duo looked crestfallen.

Wufei smiled slightly, wrapping his arm around Duo's shoulders. "I promise, Duo, if it hasn't snowed by Christmas Eve I'll borrow one of the transport trucks and a snow blower and get you your snow, OK?"

Duo blinked disbelievingly at him for a second, then broke into a broad grin. "Really?! No kidding? Oh, 'Fei, man, you're the greatest!" He glomped his husband and kissed him enthusiastically, then broke loose and danced on ahead. "Hey, I knew there was a reason I married you!"

Wufei raised an eyebrow as calmly as he could, struggling to hide the effect the kiss had had on him. "Oh? You married me for snow?"

Duo grinned, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. "Well, originally I thought I married you for another short word starting with 's', but I could have been wrong..."

* * * * *

Despite the best efforts of numerous stranded holidayers, Duo and Wufei did get off work on time on the 22nd, went home, and immediately began decorating. They had a lot to do; between the endless shopping trips and double shifts assisting the emergency services, they hadn't really had time to hang any of the zillions of doodads they'd picked out.

Duo quickly got changed into ratty jeans and a warm turtleneck he'd 'borrowed' from Trowa years before, and bounded out into the lounge room; Wufei heard one of the Christmas music CDs start up as he finished getting changed into dark brown slacks and a button-down shirt.

"Riiiiight... one last splash of *ahem* 'cider' on the fruitcake... there's the bow thingies... there's the lights... Oi 'Fei, if you start on the tree I'll put all the window thingies up, OK?"

"Any more 'cider' and that fruitcake will be more dangerous than your 'perfectly innocent' punch at the last birthday party," Wufei said as he emerged from the bedroom.

"I know!" Duo grinned. "Ain't it great? Watching her drinks won't save Relena this year; we're finally gonna find out what the Queen of the World acts like when she's drunk!"

"Duo, you are a reprehensible, irresponsible, irredeemable idiot... and I love you just the way you are." Wufei pulled Duo into a long, sweet kiss, then drew back slightly. "By 'window thingies', do you mean the red velvet bows with holly sprigs that are going to go over the windows on the inside, or do you mean the candle lanterns with bows etc that are going on the windowsills to be seen from outside?"

"Ahh... um... both?" Duo replied fuzzily.

"Sounds fine to me. The tree stuff goes lights first, then tinsel, then ornaments, right?"

"Sure, whatever... gimme another kiss first?"

----------

Wufei stood back and eyed the tree critically. He'd put the lights on -- symmetrically, with all of them visible, not hidden behind a branch -- but had had a little trouble with the tinsel. There just was not enough of each colour to achieve the effect he'd originally wanted; still, he thought he'd done quite well. Now for the next step...

He was halfway through sorting the ornaments by size, colour and relative shininess, when the stereo (loaded with five CDs and set to 'shuffle') switched to a carol he'd never heard before. (Admittedly, there were a lot of carols he'd never heard before, since he'd never celebrated Christmas until two years earlier, after he married Duo and Quatre first suggested the annual get-together.)

Wufei straightened up and stared at the stereo, puzzled. "Who the hell is St. Nick?" He'd certainly heard of Santa Claus, and Rudolph, and a bunch of other reindeer, but St. Nick?

"Duo?"

No answer.

"Duo? Duo! Where-- ah." Duo's jacket was gone; he must have gone outside. Shrugging into his own down jacket, Wufei went looking for him.

Walking slowly around the house, he found himself relaxing at last. It felt so good to finally have a place that was theirs, far enough out of the city to be peaceful, it was a large wooded estate on the edge of a lake. The house had been designed to their specifications, and finished only recently.

We would have been able to afford the house much earlier if we hadn't donated most of the money we 'appropriated' from OZ to all those children's charities... but it made Duo happy. I'd rather have a happy Duo in a tiny apartment than a miserable Duo in a mansion... and now I've got a happy Duo in a mansion. He paused, smiling, to look out over the lake.

"Whoa-- whoa-- oh, sheeeeEEEEYOW!" There was a loud crash to Wufei's right as Duo landed in a large bush, followed by quieter clattering noises as some small objects slid down the roof into the gutter.

"Duo?! Duo, are you all right?! Duo!" Wufei fought his way into the bush and found his husband sprawled on his back, dazed.

"Owww... Wufei, why didn't you catch me?"

"How the HELL was I supposed to know you were up there? Are you okay?!"

"Yeah... a few bruises, that's all. And my dignity'll never be the same again."

Wufei snorted. "What dignity?"

"Oi!"

He started helping Duo out of the shrubbery. "Come on, back inside. I'll make you a hot chocolate. What were you doing up there, anyway?"

"Um... just putting up some... stuff."

"'Stuff'?" Wufei let go of Duo's arm, since he seemed to be standing OK on his own, and stepped back to where he had a good view of the roof.

Duo watched him nervously, fidgeting with the end of his braid.

"Duo," Wufei said in a calm, conversational tone, "I remember buying all those lights... but I don't remember the sleigh and reindeer."

"I, ah, got them in my lunch hour yesterday... while you were doing all that paperwork. The shop delivered."

Wufei considered this for a moment, then nodded. He figured he could live with a plastic sleigh and reindeer on his roof; at least the sleigh was red and the reindeer realistic. He'd seen enough fluoro pink and purple cartoon monstrosities in the last few weeks to convince him that at least 20% of the human race had no taste whatsoever.

Duo twiddled his braid some more. "You, ah, aren't mad?"

Wufei raised an eyebrow, walking back to slide his arm around Duo's waist and steer him back to the door. "When I get angry, do I ever leave you in doubt?"

"Well... not when we're alone..."

"And do you see anyone else around here?"

"Since I didn't get a plastic St. Nick to go in the sleigh, no."

"Ah. That's a point. Who is St. Nick?!"

----------

Ten minutes and one explanation later, Duo had his hot chocolate and Wufei had the bag of leftover marshmallows.

Duo hid a smirk behind his mug as he watched Wufei absent-mindedly work his way through the fluffy pink and white lumps. If I tell him what he's doing, he'll get annoyed at himself for giving way to his sweet tooth without even realising. If I don't tell him what he's doing, he might just automatically throw away the empty bag when he finishes and never realise what he did... but if he does realise, he'll get annoyed at me for not stopping him.

Aaah, what the heck, it's cute. And he could use a little more weight anyway... he keeps on working through lunch and forgetting to eat.

Wufei glanced over at Duo and narrowed his eyes, concerned. "Duo, your lips are blue. How long were you up on the roof?!"

"Uh... not all that long... um, what time is it?"

Wufei reached over and plucked the empty mug out of Duo's hands. "Go upstairs and have a hot shower, OK?"

"Hey, I had my jacket on!"

"And those ratty jeans that wouldn't keep the heat in if you lined them with tinfoil. It's below freezing out there; go get warmed up. Now, Duo."

"Yes, Mama. No, Mama. Three bags full, Mama..."

"Get up there!"

Wufei started cleaning up as Duo bounced out, putting the dirty mugs in the sink and tossing the empty marshmallow bag away without ever noticing what he'd done. As he moved out of the kitchen and turned to go back to trimming the tree, his foot struck a small box.

Hm? What's this? Oh, right, the mistletoe... He snickered. Duo wanted to wallpaper all the ceilings with this stuff. Might as well hang it up first.

----------

Wufei looked thoughtfully at the last sprig of mistletoe. He'd stood on various pieces of furniture to get the other bits hung, but the doorway leading to the stairwell was a little awkwardly placed; it was at the end of the hall, and unless he really wanted to move the sideboard (which he didn't), he couldn't get a chair close enough. So, since he hadn't grown quite as much as Duo had over the last few years, this piece of mistletoe was dangling from a string that stretched across the doorway, and it was hanging a little low.

Hmmm... Duo and Heero should just scrape under. Trowa and Zechs can duck. And if they have a problem with that, they can damn well put it up higher themselves! Satisfied, he went back to the tree.

A few minutes later, he heard Duo leaping down the stairs. I'd better warn him just in case-- Sticking his head through the lounge room door into the hall, Wufei called out, "Duo, I put--"

Duo bounced through the doorway, wearing nothing but two towels, before he could finish the sentence.

Wufei had been right; the mistletoe was high enough that Duo should have squeaked under. Unfortunately, the towel wrapped around his hair raised his height several inches. When he felt the mistletoe snag the towel, Duo automatically swatted at it, catching his hand in the string and pulling it loose just as the towel fell off. The long wet hair piled on top of his head tumbled down, taking the mistletoe with it.

Duo flailed at it, sputtering, getting it tangled worse. "What the--? Who the fuck had the idea to hang this stupid shit up here anyway?!"

Wufei sighed, scrubbing his palm over his eyes. "You did, Duo. 'Every doorway on the ground floor, and all the light fixtures,' you said."

"Uh-- well-- well, why'd you hang it so low?!"

"Couldn't get a chair into that corner."

"What about the stepladder?!"

"You had it last I knew. Care to tell me where it is?"

"Um..." Duo paused, thinking, then blushed. "Er... no?"

Wufei lowered his hand just far enough to shoot a sardonic glance at him. "It's outside somewhere, isn't it?"

"Uh..."

"How far into the woods?"

"Ah... twenty minutes walk... south. Southish."

"How long has it been there?"

"Mmm... over a month."

"Why?"

"Well, see, there was this tree... only I couldn't reach the bottom branch... and--"

"I get the picture. We'll buy a new one after Christmas. Now come here so I can get that out of your hair."

"Eheh... tell me you aren't mad first."

Wufei raised an eyebrow at him. "Didn't we have this conversation an hour ago? Get over in front of the fire before you freeze your towel off."

Settling down behind Duo, Wufei carefully disentangled the mistletoe and started separating the wet strands with his fingers. After a few minutes of this, Duo shifted his weight slightly and sighed; mistaking it for a sign of impatience, Wufei apologised.

"I'll start brushing it soon, Duo, but I want to get the worst knots out first -- I don't want to yank at your scalp."

"Hm? Oh -- no, really, I'm in no hurry." Duo smiled over his shoulder, almost shyly. "I was just thinking how nice and peaceful this is... and, y'know, you're here, and doing something nice for me, and being careful 'cause you care, and it feels good..." He blushed. "I'm just... really happy."

Wufei's hands paused for a moment, then continued. "Really happy?"

"Yeah."

"Then... I'm sitting with you, doing something I enjoy, and you're enjoying it too... we're alone in our house... and I'm really happy too."

One violet eye peeked back at him again. "Really happy?"

"Yeah."

"...that's cool."

"Yeah." Wufei grinned and picked up the brush, blushing slightly himself.

Neither of them spoke for some time after that; Wufei just slowly brushed through Duo's hair, continuing long after all the knots were gone, and Duo relaxed, eyes closed, swaying slightly with each sweep of the brush. As his hair dried, the feel of the strokes changed; by the time Wufei set the brush aside and started running his fingers through the shining masses again, the cool slide of it against his shoulders told Duo it was almost completely dry. He carefully didn't sigh; 'Fei was pulling it away from his shoulders, gathering it up as if to plait it, and while he didn't want it to stop he ALSO didn't want to make Wufei feel bad about stopping.

He blinked as Wufei gently pushed the masses of hair forward over his shoulder and ran cool fingers over his back.

"You've got a couple of new bruises here... and here. They from when you fell off the roof?"

"Uh, I guess so; I haven't done anything else today that might ha-aaah!" Duo jerked upright, eyes wide, then swallowed and continued in a voice that was suddenly half an octave higher. "'Fei... what'cha doing back there?"

"Kissing them better." Duo could feel warm breath against his back as Wufei spoke. "Isn't that what a devoted--" lick, nibble, kiss "--husband is supposed to do for his beloved?"

"Uh-- I g-guess so..." Duo's breath quickened as Wufei's lips moved slowly lower on his back, one hand settling on his hip, the other sliding around to flatten against his stomach. "Ah... 'Fei... are you aware that most of my bruises are on my butt?"

Warm lips smiled against the small of his back as Wufei pulled the towel loose. "I guessed."

* * * * *

Wufei woke up.

Even before he opened his eyes, he knew exactly where Duo was; there was a warm weight pressed against his side, a leg thrown over his thighs, and an arm lying limp across his chest. Soft puffs of breath were tickling the hollow of his throat, Duo's bangs were tickling his chin, and the feeling of something loose and silky tangled around his left arm reminded him that he never had got around to plaiting Duo's hair.

Five years ago, I never dreamed I'd end up as Duo's body pillow, he thought, carefully disentangling himself and sliding out of bed. The hair posed a problem, but two-and-a-half years of practice made it possible without waking his lover. Bereft of his warm, human huggy toy, Duo made a discontented noise and clutched one of the pillows instead.

A few minutes later, Wufei managed to drag himself away from the sight and ducked into the ensuite for a quick shower. On the way, he paused for a look out the window; he was smiling when he turned on the water.

When he re-emerged into the bedroom, towelling droplets off his chest, Duo was in the process of waking up; he blinked drowsily through his bangs and smiled, sweetly, looking somehow completely innocent and much younger than his true age. It was a sight that Wufei was sure he could never get tired of.

Of course, it didn't last.

Yawning hugely and flopping onto his back, Duo stretched across the full width of the bed. Then, grinning wickedly, he started singing.

"I'm dreaming of a white Christmas--"

Wufei snorted. "Baka. Stop dreaming and look out the window."

"--Just like the ones I used to-- huh? Why?"

"It must have been snowing all night; there's at least six inches on the ground and it's still coming down."

"YES!" Duo punched the air in triumph and bounded out of bed, scattering blankets and pillows as he leapt onto the window seat and threw the curtains open.

Leaning into the closet as he hunted out the right pair of pants, Wufei heard Duo start up in the middle of a different song.

"Walkin' in a winter wonderland--"

"Duo."

"--Gone away is the bluebird-- oh come on, 'Fei, it's just a song! --Here to stay is a new bird--"

"Duo."

"All right, all right! Sheesh!" Duo chuckled. "Grinch."

Turning around, mouth open to respond as he tugged the pants over his hips, Wufei froze at the sight that greeted his eyes.

And a very nice view it is...

Duo was kneeling on the window seat with his nose smushed up against the glass, craning his neck as he tried to see everything at once, swaying his hips in time with the carols in his head.

It's a good thing we've got double glazing, or I'd have to use a hairdryer to thaw his nose off the pane, Wufei mused, slowly pushing his slacks back off his hips. Hmm... we don't have that much left to do today. I think we can spare a couple of hours...

Downstairs, the phone rang.

"I'll get it!" Duo leapt off the window seat and ran out of the room.

"Oh shit-- Duo! Wait!!" Wufei scrambled after him, yanking his pants up as he ran.

----------

Lady Une turned a pen over in her fingers as she waited for the call to be answered. They are not going to be pleased... I expect Maxwell will put up a fight, but Chang's overdeveloped sense of duty should--

The call went through and the vidphone's screen blinked on. Lady Une's eyes widened and she froze, staring at the vision before her.

<<Maxwell-Chang resiEEYOW!>> Duo's cheerful smile vanished sideways off the screen. <<Ow! Not the hair! Not the hair!>>

Still staring wide-eyed at the screen (which was now showing part of a rather tastefully decorated room), she was vaguely aware of a tightly controlled Chinese voice, just within range of the other set's pickup. <<Duo... please put some clothes on before you answer the phone.>>

<<Oh! Shit! Sorry, 'Fei... I forgot I didn't wear anything to bed last night.>>

<<You never wear anything to bed, Duo! What's there to forget?!>>

<<Eheh... I'll just go get dressed and make breakfast, shall I?>>

Lady Une had barely got her breathing under control when Wufei stepped into view; she could feel it speeding up again as her eyes wandered slowly downwards. I've never seen Chang with his hair loose before... or shirtless... water trickling down his oh my oh my oh my I do believe he hasn't done up all the buttons on those pants-- She yanked her eyes up to meet his as he spoke, feeling a blush spread over her cheekbones.

<<Lady Une? Is there a problem?>>

Ooooooh no, not at ALL.. She cleared her throat. "Chang. I'm sorry to disturb you when you're supposed to be on holiday--" and goodness only knows WHAT I interrupted but I'd LOVE to see "--but yes, we have a problem. As I'm sure you're aware, there were fresh snowfalls last night, extremely heavy snowfalls with the usual consequences. The emergency services are handling all the problems in town, but once again they are stretched to their limits; and there have been fresh avalanches--"

Wufei paused midway through smoothing his hair back, fresh trickles of water making their way down suddenly tensed muscles. <<You're cancelling our leave.>>

"Yes. I'm sure you under--"

<<No.>>

"--stand, lives are... what?"

<<I said no.>> Wufei planted his hands on the vid table and leaned forward aggressively. <<You know what we've got planned -- hell, you and Sally Po are invited -- and there's still a lot to be done. We won't both come running back just because some microcephalic moron is endeavouring to improve the human race by freezing himself out of it!>>

Une suddenly realised that she was pressing herself back into her chair, trying to get further away from that furious black glare. "But-- I--" Her spine stiffened. "I have to send someone, and you two are what I've got!"

<<I'll handle it myself.>>

She shook her head. "Impossible. I can't send you up into the hills without backup."

<<Then find someone else to go with me. Also, I will be back off duty tomorrow night. I will not allow this nonsense to ruin Duo's Christmas.>>

There was a pause.

Somehow, Lady Une could hear all sorts of violent possibilities in that little pause.

"I... think Noin is available... she said something about 'sending Zechs to buy the tree and then putting her feet up'."

<<Understood. I'll be there in an hour.>>

Still staring at the darkened screen, Une picked up a file and began fanning herself. "Oh my... oh my oh my oh my..." She was mildly annoyed at the inadequacy of that statement, but decided that nothing stronger really covered it either.

"Oh, my..."

----------

Wufei could hear Duo cheerfully warbling in the kitchen as he stalked upstairs to get changed. Hm. I must remember to get into Lady Une's office and wipe the recording of that call. God only knows what might happen if anyone else saw it!

----------

Lady Une was still fanning herself when Noin poked her head around the door. "Relena Yui is here for your meeting, ma'am... uh... is something wrong?"

"Hm? Noin? Oh! Yes, ask her to come in -- oh, and go find Sally, could you? And come in yourself. Ah, I'm afraid I have to cancel the first day or so of your leave, but believe me, you won't mind!"

"Yes, ma'am!"

Zechs, outside casually chatting to Heero and Relena, overheard; he stopped Noin for a moment as she emerged. "Problems? Is my leave cancelled too?"

"I don't know yet -- whatever's up, it must be big. I've rarely seen her so agitated! Have you seen Sally?"

"She was in Lt. Green's office as we went past."

He raised an elegant platinum eyebrow at Heero as Noin zipped off down the corridor and Relena, looking concerned, stepped into the office. "Sounds fascinating... shall we?" Heero nodded, and they followed Relena in.

They backed out again a second later as Lady Une planted a hand in the centre of each chest and literally pushed them out. "Oh, no, no no no no no... really, gentlemen, it's good of you to be concerned but I assure you your assistance is not required with this matter, thank you, goodbye!"

The door closed in their faces.

They looked at each other.

Heero spoke first. "Well... that was out of character."

Zechs nodded. "Definitely. But I think I can take it that my leave is not cancelled."

"Ha! I'd say so."

The two men politely stepped aside as Noin and Sally hurried past. The office door closed again behind them with a very definite 'thunk'.

There was a slight pause.

"The way Une's acting, I doubt they'll tell us what's going on," drawled Zechs.

"I think you're right."

"But I, for one, am now immensely curious."

"You're not the only one."

Another pause.

"I hear you got in trouble last year for bugging the Preventers' offices."

"Hn."

"I don't suppose you've done it again?"

"...I might have."

"Any rooms in particular?"

"Une sweeps her office personally. Every day."

"Damn."

"Mmm."

Zechs sighed. "Well... all we can really do is stay here and listen."

Heero raised an eyebrow at him.

"After all, we want to be in earshot if they change their minds and call us in, don't we?"

"Ah. Of course."

"We'd be derelict in our duty, otherwise."

"Don't push it too far, Merquise."

----------

Lady Une activated the large wall screen she used for briefings, then turned to her audience. Relena, Sally and Noin were watching her alertly, tensed and ready to discuss whatever emergency had unsettled her so.

"Ladies." Une clasped her hands together, fiddling with the remote control. "I have to admit, this is... well... only peripherally Preventers business. Very peripherally. In fact, it's stretching a point to call it Preventers business at all."

The other women looked at each other, confused.

"This is a recording of a vidphone call I made just a short while ago," Une said, pressing a button on the remote. Static fuzzed the wall screen, then cleared to show 'now ringing, please wait'.

"Ladies!" she declared triumphantly, a wicked smirk beginning to curl her lip. "I now present to you... documentary proof of at least one reason why Chang Wufei married Duo Maxwell!"

Duo flashed onto the screen in all his tousled morning glory.

----------

Outside, Zechs blinked. "That was Noin," he said slowly. "I'd know that whistle anywhere."

----------

"Oh, wow. He's grown well," said Sally admiringly.

"Oh... my..." Relena was blushing beet-red, but never took her eyes from the screen.

"Rewind! Rewind!" cheered Noin, bouncing in her seat.

"There'll be plenty of time to rewind later," Une said, smiling. "Keep watching; now we have 'why Maxwell married Chang'."

There was a pause.

"Oh... MY..." Relena started fanning herself with Lady Une's mouse mat.

"He's grown too," Sally commented, eyes sparkling.

"No kidding. You know, the first time I saw him I said he was only a baby. Damn, but he's developed!"

"Now we get to the scary bit--"

"Oooh! Look at those EYES!"

"Flex! Flex! Oh, muscles!"

<<--will not allow this nonsense to ruin Duo's Christmas.>>

"And there's the OTHER reason Duo married him," said Relena quietly.

There was a solemn silence for nearly three seconds.

"Okay, NOW rewind."

----------

"I don't know what's going on in there, but I think they're enjoying themselves," Zechs said, one ear pressed to the door; all pretence of decorum had been abandoned. "I wish she didn't have an electronic lock -- I'd be able to hear something through a keyhole!"

"Any luck?"

"Relena just said 'oh my' again. And Noin said something about rewinding."

Heero kicked his ankle. "Someone's coming."

When Trowa and Quatre came around the corner, Zechs was leaning nonchalantly against the wall next to Heero.

"Good morning, Heero, Zechs. Is Lady Une in her office? I'm supposed to be having a meeting with her and Relena, but we're running a little late this morning." Quatre shot a quick glance sideways at Trowa.

"It's not my fault," Trowa said, raising an eyebrow at him. "You're the one who--"

Quatre's hand was suddenly over Trowa's mouth. "Only the first... delay... was my fault. I refuse to take responsibility for anything else."

Trowa was smirking when he took his hand away, but didn't disagree.

"Relena's already in there. So are Sally and Noin," said Heero.

"They seem to have started without you," said Zechs.

"They wouldn't let us in."

Quatre blinked. "Oh? Why not?"

"They wouldn't say."

"Let's see if they'll let you in, shall we?" Zechs knocked firmly on the door.

There was a surprisingly long pause; then the door opened a crack and Lady Une peered out. "Yes?"

"Quatre's here," Zechs said, trying to angle his head to see past her without being too obvious about it.

"Quatre--? Oh! Yes, I remember -- hold on a second." And she closed the door.

----------

Une turned to the other women, holding the door closed. "Quatre's here!" she hissed. "I forgot he was coming! We'll have to stop."

Sally and Noin pouted; Relena looked thoughtful. "Why don't we invite him in?"

Everyone else looked at her as if she were insane.

"We can't do that!" Sally protested.

"Why not?"

"He's a guy!" Noin pointed out.

"Noooo! Really?" Relena rolled her eyes. "He's also a very sweet gay guy who will probably enjoy this as much as we are. And we can trust him to keep his mouth shut."

They all looked at each other.

----------

Quatre was staring wide-eyed at the door. Trowa looked enquiringly at Zechs and Heero.

"That was out of character."

"We know," they chorused.

"Something's definitely going on."

"We know."

"Any idea what it is?"

They shook their heads. "Heero hasn't got any bugs in there and I can't hear a damn thing through the door," Zechs volunteered.

Trowa was just opening his mouth to respond when Lady Une and Sally opened the door, grabbed Quatre, and yanked him inside. Sally paused just long enough to smile sweetly and waggle her fingers 'hi' at Trowa before she slammed and locked the door.

All three of the men left outside stared incredulously. Finally, Heero spoke.

"All right. First it was interesting. Then it was suspicious. Now it's surreal."

"And it's damn annoying, too!" Zechs agreed.

----------

Quatre abruptly found himself in a comfortable visitor's chair with four women smiling evilly at him. "Um... Lady Une, what is going on?!"

Une grinned and waved the remote commandingly at the screen. "Watch and enjoy, Quatre, watch and enjoy!"

----------

A couple of minutes later...

"Okay, we have another whistle from Noin, another 'oh my' from Relena, and that's the third 'oh dear' from Quatre," Zechs announced.

----------

As the recording rewound (for the umpteenth time), Noin leaned over towards Quatre. "Sooooo, Mr Barton-Winner," she purred, "any comments on how your other half measures up to that?"

"Noin!" Relena squeaked, aghast.

Quatre raised a calm eyebrow. "Why Lucrezia, I'm surprised you'd ask. You should know by now I'm not the type to scr-- ah, kiss and tell." He smiled wickedly. "Why don't you ask Ms. Yui?"

"Oh no! No, no, no! Leave me out of this!" Relena said frantically, flapping her hands.

"And of course," he continued smoothly, "you wouldn't expect us to tattle without volunteering some information of your own, hmmm? How does Zechs 'measure up'?"

"Oh, yes," Sally said, leaning forwards. "Do tell!"

"Ah-- well-- I-- you see-- ack!"

----------

Wufei walked into the kitchen and paused, watching Duo bounce happily in front of the stove as he transferred food from pan to plate. His closed, angry expression slowly melted into regret. *Damn it, why now, when he's so looking forward to this break?*

"Duo..."

Duo spun around, balancing a plate of pancakes, eggs and bacon on one hand and brandishing a metal spatula in the other. "'Fei! I made your favourite--" Then he registered Wufei's uniform, and his face fell.

So did the plate.

Wufei dove and managed to grab it, rescuing all but one slice of bacon. Placing it carefully on the bench, out of the way, he braced himself and looked back at Duo's face.

Huge violet eyes, shimmering with unshed tears...

*Oh, shit. I swear, that onna is going to regret this!* Reaching out gently, he gathered Duo into his arms, taking the spatula and flicking it into the sink before it could smear grease all over his jacket.

"Love... please, Duo, don't look like that. It's only until tomorrow afternoon. I'm sorry."

Duo dropped his head onto Wufei's shoulder and sniffed. When he spoke, his voice was suspiciously muffled. "More frozen skiers?"

"Yeah." Wufei's voice was so disgusted that he got a watery giggle in response.

"I'll go get changed."

"No." Wufei's arms tightened, holding him still. "Your leave hasn't been cut."

Duo's head popped upright at that. "But-- who's backing you up?!"

"Noin."

"Oh. That's OK, I guess... but why?"

"Because you are going to finish decorating the tree -- I'm sorry I didn't finish it last night--"

Duo snickered, still suspiciously bright-eyed but getting his cheerful mask back under control. "I'm not. You had someone more fun to do."

"--*ahem* cook the turkey and whatever else still needs to be done. That way, we can still have a great Christmas reunion. Right?"

"Right."

Wufei kissed him gently and stepped back. "I don't really have time for breakfast--"

"Aah, that's okay." Duo waved dismissively. "I'll just eat your share too. Hey, I eat half of it even when you're here!"

On his way to the front door, shrugging into his overcoat, Wufei paused and looked back. Duo was standing in the doorway, smiling; but it didn't reach his eyes, and his hands were twisting a dishcloth into knots.

"Duo, I promise... I'll be home for Christmas." He turned, reaching for the doorknob, and continued in a dark voice. "Even if I have to dig those damned skiers out with my bare hands and kick them down the mountain..."

The door closed behind him.

The smile faded from Duo's face. He stood there a while longer, staring blankly at the door, until there was a tearing noise and he looked down to see that he'd twisted the dishcloth so hard it had ripped.

Slowly, he turned and walked back into the kitchen. The dishcloth went into the garbage pail; he picked up the plate of cooling food and stared at it for a moment, then dumped it too. The plate clattered into the sink and Duo dropped into a chair, slumping forward onto the kitchen table.

----------

Une hit the stop button, glancing at her watch. "That's it for now, ladies and gentleman."

"Awwwww!"

"I'm expecting Chang to turn up in five minutes at most, Sally. Do you really want to be sitting here watching that when he gets here?"

"Ah, yes, well--"

"The door is locked," Noin put in helpfully.

"That won't stop him if he wants in. He knows my vidphone automatically records everything; he's going to want to wipe this call."

"Ah. Right."

"And of course I'm going to have to let him."

----------

Zechs jerked back from the door, rubbing his ear. "Owww... that was loud!"

Heero looked up from where he was chatting to Trowa. "I heard it too-- what was it?"

"For some reason, they all screamed 'NO!' at once!"

----------

"Now, now," Une tutted virtuously, "I can't refuse to let him delete it. After all, it does contain... personal material. And I can't say it has to be kept because of 'immediate importance to Preventers operations'."

"Female staff morale?" Noin muttered hopefully.

Everyone else sighed.

"However... consider these early Christmas presents." She held up a handful of video discs.

----------

Trowa, Zechs and Heero looked up as the door opened and the room's occupants filed out.

As Noin walked past, she leaned over towards Trowa and muttered, "Now I know why they call Quatre the 'terror of the negotiating table'. Brrr!" Turning her head, she called out, "Lady Une, I'm just going to get my cold weather gear; if Chang arrives before I get back, could you tell him I won't be long?" Receiving a nod in answer, she walked off.

Trowa blinked after her, then turned to Quatre. "What's she talking about?"

"Ah... nothing really important," Quatre insisted, blushing slightly. "I just... turned one of her own arguments against her."

Trowa looked pointedly at the blush, but didn't comment.

Heero wasn't so reticent. "Relena, you're bright red. Is something wrong?"

"Ah-- no, no, really I'm fine," she blurted out, fanning herself faster.

"Are you sure? You--"

Une leaned out of her office and interrupted. "Relena, may I have my mouse mat back?"

Relena blinked at the object in her hand. "Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't realise-- here."

"Thank you."

She started fanning herself with her handbag instead. "Um... Sally, shall we go and get a drink?"

"Sounds like a good idea. Shall we?" Arms linked, they left. Heero glared suspiciously after them, but didn't follow.

Une turned to the remaining four. "Gentlemen? Is there anything further?"

"No... I don't believe so," Quatre mused. "Guys?" The others all shook their heads.

"In that case, I have quite a bit of paperwork to do, and Chang Wufei will be here soon for his assignment."

"I thought he started his holiday today," Zechs said curiously. Quatre blushed a slightly deeper shade of pink.

"So did he," Une said dryly. "Unfortunately, Fate -- along with some singularly stupid specimens of humanity -- has conspired otherwise. Noin will be going backup for him."

"Ah; I see." Though why that would cause all this fuss and secrecy, I don't see.

"Hello, Wufei!" Quatre chirped, blushing furiously. Luckily for him, nobody seemed to notice.

Wufei stalked down the corridor towards them, acknowledging Quatre's greeting with a stiff nod. "Quatre. Trowa. Zechs. Heero. ...Lady."

"Chang." Une stood aside and gestured gracefully towards her office door. "Please, come in; Noin will be along shortly. If you'll excuse us, gentlemen?"

The door closed behind them.

"Well... she's back in character, at least. What was that all about, Quatre?" Heero said.

"Ah... nothing you need to know," Quatre said nervously, slowly backing away.

"Really, Quatre," Zechs purred, moving up beside Heero, "you know we won't settle for an answer like that."

"Ask Noin and Relena!"

"We're asking you."

"Er... Trowa! Help!" And he was off at top speed with the other three pelting after him.

----------

Lady Une spoke first, before Wufei could even open his mouth. "My terminal is unlocked; vidphone records are saved to drive H. Go right ahead."

Wufei deflated slightly, deprived of the expected argument before it had even begun. "...Thank you." He quickly found and deleted the file.

"No, really, thank you. For coming in," she added quickly. "I know how you feel about this job."

He snorted. "I hope you don't expect me to be polite to them."

"As a matter of fact-- ah, Noin, come in-- please, be seated, both of you." When they were all settled, she continued. "You are not expected to be polite. Quite the contrary."

"Oh?" Licence to be rude? This may not be as bad as I thought.

"You may not be aware of it -- I believe you and Maxwell were actually halfway up a mountain rescuing a solo free-climber when this was announced--"

Wufei almost growled at the memory. Solo free-climbing in avalanche country immediately after a blizzard, ye gods. 'For the adrenaline rush,' he said!

"--but the local administration have decided that they are no longer willing to fund rescue operations that are caused by sheer stupidity. Especially when the normal emergency services are swamped and they have to call us in. We are rather more expensive, after all; and since this is not at all what we are meant to be doing, we are not pleased to be stuck with it."

"So... we let them know we're not happy?"

"Oh, more than that." Lady Une smiled wickedly. "We are not happy. You, personally, are not happy. The emergency services are not happy. The state government is not happy. And the cash register is ringing up new charges every minute... which they will be expected to pay. I expect you both to make absolutely certain that every member of that skiing party is aware of all these facts. To that end--" she pulled a small palm-pad computer out of her desk drawer "--Noin, this is for you. This datapad is keeping a running total of all the costs involved with this rescue, starting from the moment I called Chang--" both women blushed very slightly "--and he went on duty. Please keep the rescuees informed about their bill, in as offensive a manner as possible without actually giving them reason to sue you."

Noin took the datapad, grinning. "I think I can manage, ma'am."

"Oh, by the way, it will sound an alarm whenever there's a major change." Une shuddered. "It's a particularly noxious alert noise, copied from a late 20th century anime that was long ago, thankfully, terminated."

"I can't wait," Noin muttered, eyeing it with much less enthusiasm.

"Chang, your part in this is similar. Tell them what you think of them. Glare that--" Une blushed again "--absolutely devastating glare of yours. Try to make them feel like something that just got kicked out from under its rock because the other little creepy-crawlies refused to associate with something so disgustingly uncivilised. Am I being quite clear?"

Wufei smiled coldly. "Perfectly."

"Again, just try not to get sued... although we could probably win any court cases, so don't try too hard. Here's the data on where, who, what and-- NO! WRONG DISK! WRONG DISK!"

Wufei blinked as Lady Une suddenly snatched the disk back out of his fingers and stuffed it into her desk drawer.

"Ah... sorry. Wrong disk. I was, ah, working on something else at the same time as I copied your mission data... here's the right disk. Dismissed!"

----------

Duo sighed, rolling his head sideways on the table so he could peer up at the microwave clock. "Gotta clean up. Gotta do the tree. Gotta... get a grip, Maxwell, he'll be back. He promised." He sighed again, pushing himself up. "'Fei always keeps his promises." He wrinkled his nose at the congealing remains of breakfast. "Yuk. Gotta do the dishes. Thank God we got a dishwasher!"

Over the next couple of hours, Duo cleaned up the kitchen, did the dishes, finished the tree, and rescued the hammer and pliers from under six inches of snow in the gutter. Feeling a bit chilled after that, he settled himself in front of the fireplace with a mug of triple-strength hot chocolate. Making a mental note to buy another bag of marshmallows to replace the ones Wufei had eaten, he started thinking about What To Do Next.

"Um. I could bake cookies... but we've already got a heap. We've done all the decorations. I can't start the turkey until tomorrow afternoon. Um..."

His eyes focussed on the fireplace. Specifically, the mantelpiece.

"Oh, yeah! That'll be perfect!"

----------

Fifteen minutes later, Duo was in the mall, weaving his way through the crowds of last-minute shoppers. "Where is it... where is it... I know I saw it around here somewh-- aha!" He skidded to a stop in front of one of the seasonal booths.

"Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, sir!" the girl manning the booth chirped. "How can I help you?"

"Oh, I want a bunch of stuff, Duo grinned, running his eyes over the racked stockings, T-shirts, Santa hats and other Christmassy cloth goods behind her. "Umm... how big are the stockings?"

"We have them in five sizes, sir--"

"I need something that'll hold about as much stuff as a pillowcase. That's what I was gonna use, 'cause I'm trying to keep this a secret--" he winked, getting a giggle in response "--but I got a chance to shop alone and here I am!" The cheerful tone was a bit forced, but nobody who didn't know him would have noticed.

"About as much as a pillowcase.. I think you'll need the biggest size, sir. Will this do?"

"Yeah, that's great! And I need 'em embroidered, big letters."

"No problem, sir. If you'll just write the names down so I don't make any spelling mistakes, I'll do that right away."

"Okay... lessee," he muttered, scribbling. "Me, Wufei, Quatre, Trowa, Relena, Heero, Noin -- I'll put 'Lu', that'll bug her -- Zechs... mmm, Sally and Une said they probably wouldn't make it, but they might, so... and Catherine and Rashid. Boy, was that pairing a surprise! I thought Trowa was gonna have a heart attack... Here ya go!"

"Okay... twelve? Looks like you're going to have a great Christmas party!"

"I hope so!" Duo muttered.

A short while later...

"There you are, sir. That'll be 180 credits, plus tax."

"Sure..." As Duo was digging notes out of his wallet, his eyes fell on another part of the display. "Oh! And I need one of those Santa hats, with 'Santa Duo' on it!"

* * * * *

And so this is Christmas
For weak and for strong
For rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong
And so Happy Christmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red ones
Let's stop all the fight

A very Merry Christmas
And a Happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

* * * * *

Wufei and Noin trudged through the snow, following their inertial tracker's guiding pointer towards the 'rescuees'. Behind them, the helicopter that had dropped them and their kit wheeled around, flying back towards the city and its next job.

"I hate this mission already," sighed Noin.

"Hn."

"I could be snuggled up to Zechs... sipping mulled wine in front of a roaring fire... watching--"

"Don't rub it in."

"Sorry."

Pause.

"I guess you're working up plenty of ire to aim at the idiots."

"Hn. ...I guess you're working up a good total to wave in their faces."

"I imagine so." Noin pulled the datapad out of her pocket and keyed the screen active. "Hm... yeah, it just hit seven thou--"

<<Pikachuu!>>

Noin dropped the datapad.

They both stared at it, lying in the snow.

"Lady Une wasn't kidding," said Noin. "That's hideous!"

Wufei nodded emphatically. "I agree. We should charge extra for being forced to listen to it."

"Now there's an idea," Noin mused, cautiously picking it up. She relaxed slightly when it stayed quiet. "What would we call it, though?"

"Call what?"

"The extra money for being exposed to that ridiculous noise. Anime Audio Allowance?"

"No... sounds too frivolous. The pay clerks would never process it."

"True. We'd get snippy little memos asking us to submit an itemised expense account explaining exactly why we felt it necessary to buy an OAV soundtrack."

"Heh. Duo got reimbursed for a soundtrack CD last year."

"No kidding? How'd he slip THAT past the Accounting Trolls?!"

"It was part of a bribe. The informant specifically requested it. Lady Une signed off on it as a legitimate expense."

"What sort of informant asks for CDs instead of cash?"

"One of Duo's informants."

"Aaaah. Understood. ...So, what would you call it?"

"Mmm... Pikachuu Penalty Rate?"

"Heh. That's a good one."

----------

Wufei stood, arms folded across his chest, and glared coldly at the group of skiers as Noin explained the situation in an irritatingly cheerful air-hostess voice.

"So you see, ladies and gentlemen, since none of you are actually injured we will be walking back to your base camp the long way, spending the night there, and in the morning walking further down the mountain until we reach a point where ground transport can pick us up. Any questions?"

The group's self-appointed spokesman puffed up angrily, looking ridiculous in his expensive fluoro pink and yellow ski suit. "That's outrageous! Why didn't you just come in in a helicopter and airlift us out? We'd be home by now if you incompetents had just used some common sense!"

Noin's voice got even sweeter. "Since you are currently standing on a mountainside, in avalanche country, under a very precarious-looking mass of snow that would probably go zooming down the mountainside at incredible speed if a helicopter came within three miles, that would have been a singularly stupid thing for us to do. Oh, sure, it would have got you off the mountain very fast, but you would be dead. Now, since it was a minor avalanche that destroyed your gear and stuck you here in the first place, and this entire range is signposted as avalanche country, I think you need to reconsider just who's lacking in common sense, hmmm?"

The flabby man sputtered, attempting to regain the moral high ground. "Well-- well-- you came in by helicopter, didn't you? Over there! I saw it! Why aren't we just walking over there to be picked up?!"

"Oh, that would have been awfully expensive. We thought you'd prefer the cut-price rescue... since you are paying for it."

"Wha--" No!" "How--" "Who do you--" "You can't--"

"Ah ah ah!" Noin held up an admonishing finger. "Avalanche country, please don't shout!"

They shut up quickly. The flabby man continued in a quieter voice.

"That's absolutely ridiculous! I won't pay!"

Wufei finally spoke, his voice dripping contempt. "Do you read the papers? Watch the news? Listen to the radio? Even, and I know this is pushing it, read very large signs by the side of the road as you drive past?"

"Eh? What-- well, yes, of course, though I fail to see--"

"For the past three weeks," Wufei interrupted, "every news bulletin in every media has carried the news that these hills are hazardous. Every road leading into this area has been signposted 'DANGER -- AVALANCHE ZONE -- ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK'. Despite this, cretins like yourselves have insisted on continuing to flock to the area to flirt with death. While I personally would like to leave the lot of you to freeze in the interests of improving the human race's average IQ, humanitarian considerations have prevailed. Congratulations. You're not going to die.

"However, the day before yesterday, the state government issued a bulletin -- again, every news report in every media covered it -- saying that they would not pay for rescues that became necessary after people entered dangerous areas of their own free will despite official warnings. The signposts on the roads were changed to include this information. Therefore, when you entered this area yesterday despite all the warnings and the weather report saying more snow was on the way, it was as if you signed a contract agreeing to pay for your rescue."

"But-- that's ridiculous! That sort of 'contract' can't possibly be binding!"

Wufei raised an eyebrow. "You don't read software licence agreements either, I see."

As the man blinked in puzzlement, one of the two women in the party finally spoke up. "But you can't put a price on human life!"

On cue, Noin whipped out the datapad. "Oh yes we can! The money spent so far on this rescue mission, counting all equipment use so far and our salaries, including long shift loading, penalty rates for being called back from leave and hazard pay, totals up to eight thousand nine hundred and ninety--"

<<Pikachuu!>>

"--sorry, nine thousand credits and counting. Divided by six, that means that one thousand five hundred credits have already been spent on saving your skin. You'll be getting a bill."

Flabby got his breath back. "I won't pay! I'll take you to court!"

"You'll lose," said Wufei coldly. "And you'll also be arrested and charged with committing a public nuisance, and wasting official time and resources. Do you have children?"

"Ah-- no--"

"Good. Don't. Stupid people shouldn't breed."

----------

Duo struggled to drag his key out of his pocket, balancing his load with one arm and a knee as he craned his neck to see the door past his load of stockings, chocolates and assorted silly stocking fillers. Finally getting the door unlocked, he edged in, swinging it closed behind him with one hip before just making it to the couch and dumping everything in a heap.

As he got the fire started again, he found himself looking out the window at the growing darkness.

"Hey, 'Fei... what'cha doing now?" he wondered.

----------

Wufei swore under his breath as he skidded slightly on the steep trail. He paused, making sure that his footing was stable again, then carefully hitched up his burden and continued.

At least he doesn't flail around and yelp when that happens any more, he thought grumpily.

It had been annoying enough when they first started down the mountain. The six stranded skiers -- Wufei hadn't bothered to assign names to faces -- had bitched and moaned almost continuously to start with, but two hours of Wufei's cold-voiced derision and Noin's chirpy price updates had pretty well shut them up.

Then one of them, in a moment of inattention, stepped off a ledge and ended up twenty feet further down the slope with a twisted knee. Wufei had been carrying him piggy-back for the past half hour.

At least he seems to be the lightest of the lot. "What were you people thinking, coming up here? It would've been a stupid idea even without the avalanches. None of you are in any sort of shape, and most of you are seriously overweight."

"It wasn't my idea," sighed the man he was carrying, "but I'll admit it seemed like a good idea at the time. Talk about a rotten holiday."

"You think your holiday's been ruined? I could be at home right now, sitting in front of a roaring fire, drinking eggnog with my husband."

He could almost hear the man blink. "Um... did you say 'husband'?"

Wufei's voice chilled even further. "Yes. Husband. Is that a problem?"

"Nosir!"

"Good."

<<Pikachuu!>>

Noin's cheerful voice floated back from her position at the head of the group, picking the best trail. "Eleven thousand credits, ladies and gentlemen! Isn't it comforting to think of those brave men and women back at Preventers HQ, tracking our locator beacon, listening for our radio calls, racking up the overtime?"

----------

Somewhere else...

"All right, Quatre. I got rid of Heero and Zechs for you. Now are you going to tell me what was going on in there?"

"No... I'm going to show you."

*click*

Pause.

"..."

"..."

"Quatre, we shared safe houses with them for twoyears. We tended each others' wounds. How the hell did we miss this?"

"My thoughts exactly, Trowa."

----------

It had been full dark for some time when the straggling little party finally made it back to the cabin the skiers had rented as their base camp. Luckily, the last part of the trek had been along a broad, flat ledge that was almost a road; even more luckily, the prevailing winds in the area continually swept along the ledge, keeping it mostly clear of snow. Those same winds made it incredibly cold, but Wufei preferred wind chill to ten-foot snowdrifts. He told the skiers so, in detail and with explanations, when they complained.

They were awfully glad to reach the cabin -- probably because it got them out of the wind, back to their food supplies and portable heaters, but possibly because Wufei stopped lecturing for a while.

Noin sidled up to him as he stretched the kinks out of his back after depositing the injured man on a bunk. "If I didn't know better, Chang, I'd say you were enjoying this. You're certainly getting into the part."

Wufei eyed her incredulously, but not without a glint of humour. "I'm cold. I miss Duo. Duo is probably missing me, which is worse. I'm having to help rescue a pack of idiots who I wouldn't willingly associate with outside of work. I had to carry one of them most of the way here, and that damn datapad is really getting on my nerves. No, Noin, I'm not enjoying this. I'm just making sure I share the pain."

----------

Duo curled up on his side of the king-sized bed, hugging his pillow to him in a vain attempt to feel less alone. Finally he sighed, turned over, and burrowed into the other pillow, clutching it to him as he breathed in the faint traces of Wufei's familiar scent.

"Morons. Idiots. Bakayarou!" he muttered into the pillow. "Dragging my 'Fei away to rescue you now... I hope he makes you squirm!"

----------

Finally warm and fed (though definitely not happy), the assorted party settled down in sleeping bags as Wufei switched off the lamp.

There was quiet for five minutes.

<<Pikachuu!>>

The faint blue light of a datapad screen blinked on from Noin's bunk.

"It's midnight, ladies and gentlemen! And since Christmas Eve is a public holiday in this state, all the Preventers involved in this operation have just gone onto triple time!"

A chorus of faint groans came from the other bunks.

----------

The skiers didn't complain much when Wufei rousted them out of bed as soon as faint light started to colour the eastern sky. They knew better. Noin updated them on how far the total had grown while they slept, and they started getting breakfast organised.

Wufei looked at his bowl of trail muesli with powdered milk, then turned to Noin. "You know, I'm even more glad that I came instead of Duo. Can you imagine his reaction to this?"

One of the skiers muttered, just loud enough to be heard, "Wish he had come instead of you. We mighta had it easier."

Wufei looked at him. "Oh? You think so?" He turned back to Noin, who was starting to giggle. "Noin? Do you think Duo would give these people an easier time?"

"Well," she sputtered, "it would certainly be -- haha! -- different!" Then she fell sideways onto her bunk, laughing helplessly.

He put his bowl down and rose to stand in the middle of the limited floor space. "Let me see... how would Duo handle this? Hmm... all right, imagine that I'm four inches taller, with violet eyes and long brown hair in a plait down to here."

Noin scrambled for the datapad. Did I see-- YES! Recording capability! There is a God!

The man who'd spoken opened his mouth to say something, but froze with it still open as Wufei stretched upwards, clasped his hands behind his head... and changed. His eyes snapped open, wider than usual, glittering with manic energy. A broad, somehow menacing grin spread over his face, and he started to bounce on the balls of his feet.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the God of Death is in the building!"

Noin stuffed a corner of the thin pillow into her mouth to muffle her laughter as she watched, delighted. Oh god -- when did he get to be such a good actor?! I swear that's Duo's voice--

Wufei started to pace, still bouncing, gesturing extravagantly. "Now, we have a couple of options here, people. Option one is that you can walk down the mountain on your own little footsies, carrying all your gear yourselves 'cause it's damn sure Lu and I ain't gonna be bothered, and without complaining. Option two is where Lu and I go back down the mountain, get in our mobile suits, get back up here and kick you down, then charge you for the privilege. And believe me," he grinned even wider and winked, "getting kicked in the ass by Shinigami is a privilege!"

The skiers watched wide-eyed; Noin bit harder on the pillow. Did he just wiggle his eyebrows?! I hope this thing has enough memory to get all this...

"Option three is pretty icky. That's the one where we just leave you asswipes up here to freeze, and it's getting more attractive by the minute. Of course, we'd have to come up here after spring thaw to get your bodies. They'd be pretty disgusting by then, what with wild animals and all. I'd probably have nightmares about the way you all looked, and hafta get counselling -- oh, and compensation for mental pain and suffering. It'd be really expensive, and your loving relatives would get the bill.

"I know you think it's pretty harsh, having to pay for us saving your worthless asses, but think about it! I mean, what kind of spud do you have to be to get into this kind of mess? And at Christmas! You could have a little more consideration for people like Lu and me, y'know, dragged away from our nearest and dearest to save the lives of a bunch of jerks who probably vote for candidates who pledge to lower the Preventers' budget."

Abruptly, Wufei stopped pacing and dropped back into his usual voice and mannerisms. "At this point, Duo would probably go into some length about how being dragged away from his 'nearest and dearest' means being dragged away from me, and consequently not 'getting any'. I trust you'll excuse me if I don't." And then he was back in character and continuing the rant.

----------

Duo sneezed hard three times, waking himself up. "Damn... someone must be talkin' about me. *yawn* Hope it's good..." He rolled over and dozed off again.

----------

Wufei finally stopped and smiled coldly at the skiers. "That was just a sample of what Duo would have subjected you to from the moment he reached you. His lungs do not get tired, and he can talk for hours without repeating himself when he's really wound up. Now," he eyed them sardonically, "do you still think you'd prefer being rescued by him?"

The skiers mutely shook their heads.

Noin was wound up in her sleeping bag, with just her laughing eyes and the datapad's video pickup peering over the edge. She carefully shut it off and tucked it down out of sight, then spat out the corner of the pillow and started untangling herself. "I don't know, Chang... after that performance, it looks like they got the best of both of you!"

Wufei snorted and began fastidiously straightening his uniform, eyes still sparking with the wicked humour that had made him begin the impression. "I won't dignify that with an answer," he said loftily. "Now, if everyone has finished breakfast, we should pack up and get moving."

<<Pikachuu!>>

"Noin, I'm going to shoot that thing when we get back to HQ."

"I'll help. Just give me time to download its memory to Lady Une's computer first, okay?"

----------

Duo lounged around in bed for a good chunk of the morning, but couldn't get properly into the lazy mood he was trying for. Finally, he gave up, got out of bed and started tidying up.

"Damn it," he groused as he shoved sheets into the washing machine. "Lazing around and being a slob isn't half as much fun without somebody trying to make me stop."

Wandering aimlessly around the ground floor, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he was brought up short next to the stereo when his stomach suddenly growled loudly. *Oh... yeah, I never did remember to eat yesterday. I guess it's a good thing 'Fei's not here to see-- screw it, if 'Fei was here it wouldn't have happened. Guess he's right when he tells me I don't look after myself properly when he's not around.* He switched on the stereo and dropped in a few more Christmas CDs, then headed for the kitchen and breakfast. (Brunch. Lunch. Whatever!)

Sitting at the table licking mayonnaise and mustard off his fingers after finishing off a couple of enormous sandwiches, Duo slurped up some of his coffee and started singing along with the music.

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire... Jack Frost nipping at your-- chestnuts. Chestnuts." His eyes widened in horror. "Oh man! I can't believe I forgot the chestnuts!"

Five minutes later, he was blasting down the road on his way to the closest store he remembered having an 'Open Christmas Eve' sign, muttering to himself. "I don't believe this. All those shopping trips, all those damn lists, and I still forgot one of the best parts of Christmas! Shit!" Shifting gears down and tapping on the brakes, he slowed to legal speed and purred demurely around a corner, waving cheerfully at the police car parked behind a screen of bushes as he drove past. Around the next corner, he stamped on the accelerator and burned up the road again. "Chestnuts! Jeez!"

----------

Five stores and two hours later, Duo was home again. He had his chestnuts.

Unfortunately, he didn't have his keys.

Peering in through a window, he could see them sitting on the coffee table. Sighing, he started to trudge around the house, checking windows.

He wound up back at the front door. "Damn... usually I forget to lock at least one window! Or the back door. Or the door that connects to the garage." He checked his watch. "I dunno when 'Fei's gonna be home... and I've got to put the turkey on to cook in an hour! I really don't want to break a window; we've only had the house two months and I've already had to break in three times."

He walked back into the garage and closed the door, shutting out the wind, and sat down against the door to the house. "Okay. If 'Fei's not back by three-thirty, I break a window."

----------

Noin and Wufei walked -- no, stamped -- into Preventers HQ. Everyone who caught sight of their expressions suddenly had something to do elsewhere, or discovered an absolutely fascinating piece of paperwork on their desk.

Wufei held his hand out to Noin. "Okay. The morons have been delivered to the proper authorities. We don't need the datapad any more. Give it to me."

Noin held it behind her back. "First, just let me download the memory, okay? Five minutes, I swear."

<<Pikachuu!>>

"Oh, shut up."

Five minutes later...

The Preventers currently using the indoor firing range looked up in surprise as two well-known officers stalked in, still in cold-weather gear. Finding all the lanes occupied, they walked up to the nearest and tapped the man using it on the shoulder.

Noin smiled brilliantly at him. "Do you mind if we cut in? Just for a minute? We won't be long, we promise."

"Um -- sure!"

"Thank you!" she chirped. Wufei hit the control to wind the target back up the lane.

The range was silent as everyone craned their necks to see what was going on, target practice forgotten.

Wufei took the paper target off the hook and handed it wordlessly to the man. Noin ceremonially hung the datapad in its place, dangling from its wrist strap. Then they wound the new target out to the very end of the lane, drew and checked their guns...

...and just stood there, guns pointed at the floor.

They seemed to be waiting for something.

<<Pika-->>

BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM!

Wufei reeled the hook back in, picked the strap still dangling from it off with finger and thumb, and dropped it fastidiously in the bin full of spent shells.

Noin took the paper target from the man's slack fingers, hung it back on the hook, and sent it back out to where he'd had it set. The two of them reloaded their guns, holstered them, then turned in unison and sauntered out.

"See you tonight, Noin."

"We'll be there at seven."

----------

Wufei pulled his car into the garage and got out, sighing in relief -- then blinked in surprise.

There was a very dejected-looking Duo huddled in front of the door to the house, shivering. He looked up and managed a sheepish grin.

"Hey, 'Fei."

"...Hello, Duo. Forgot your keys again?"

"Yeah."

Wufei pulled him gently to his feet and picked up the grocery bag he'd been sitting next to. "Why didn't you pick the lock?"

"Forgot the lockpicks too," Duo admitted. "If you hadn't come home in another ten minutes, I was gonna break a window. I hafta put the turkey on." He almost whimpered in relief as Wufei opened the door and warm air rolled out over them both.

"What's this?" Wufei asked, peering curiously into the shopping bag as he carried it into the kitchen.

"Chestnuts," Duo answered. "All the time we were shopping, you know how I kept saying we were forgetting something? Chestnuts. You've got to have roast chestnuts at Christmastime!"

"So when you remembered, you went blasting out of the house without your keys?"

"Um... yeah."

Wufei smiled, pulling Duo into a warm hug. "I missed you."

"I missed you too, 'Fei. Hope you made those jerks crawl home. If I'd been there, I'd've given them a piece of my mind!"

Wufei started to laugh.

"'Fei? What's so funny?"

"I think -- haha -- oh, god! I think I did it for you..."

----------

Much later...

Duo snuggled drowsily up to Wufei, running slow fingers over his chest. "Mmm... told you I knew a better way to warm up than a hot shower."

Wufei chuckled, stroking Duo's back. "True."

There was a pause.

"Much as I hate to say it, we should get up."

"Nnn... plenty of time yet."

"I'm not so sure. What time is it?" Wufei stretched over to the bedside table and retrieved his watch.

There was another pause. This one, however, had more than a trace of 'Oh God, What My Eyes Are Telling Me Just Cannot Be True, Please Hold While I Restart My Brain' in it.

"Duo." Wufei's voice was unnaturally calm.

"Mmmh?"

"IT'S SIX-THIRTY!"

"Oh SHIT!"

Blankets exploded in all directions as they erupted out of bed.

----------

6.55pm:

The doorbell rang.

"I got it!" Thundering footsteps came down the stairs.

"DUO! ARE YOU WEARING CLOTHES THIS TIME?!"

"Yes, Mama!"

Outside, both Lady Une and Sally blushed. They blushed even more when the door was yanked open to reveal Duo... with his hair loose, shirt open and untucked. Both sets of eyes did a quick flick-flick down and up again, focussing determinedly on Duo's face.

"Heyyy, Une! Sally! Glad you could make it," Duo cheered. "C'mon in! We've got eggnog and punch and all sorts of stuff!"

Another car pulled into the driveway.

"Cool! Heero and Relena are here too! Hey, Your Majesty," he called out, "glad to see you got rid of the pink limo. I always wanted to step on it with Deathscythe, accidentally-on-purpose."

Relena blushed bright red as she saw him, but managed a response. "Oh? With or without me in it?"

"Hmmm..." he mused, tapping his chin. "Now there's a question... ack! Heero! No! Just kidding! KIDDING!"

Relena giggled as Heero chased Duo into the house, fanning herself with her handbag.

----------

Over the next half hour or so, all the guests arrived; the house was bustling as Duo and Wufei showed everyone to the various guest rooms. (Several bits of mistletoe were tried out on the way there.) As it was the first time most of them had seen the house, they were also kept busy showing people around and answering questions... like, "Why have a fireplace if you've got central heating?"

Duo gave Catherine a 'duh' look for that one. "For snuggling in front of, of course!"

"Ah. Silly me."

Wufei walked past where Une and Relena were eyeing the drinks suspiciously. "I made the eggnog in the red jug," he said quietly, "so it should be safe..."

They reached for glasses.

"...if Duo hasn't got to it yet."

They put the glasses back down.

----------

The turkey was perfect.

In fact, everything was perfect. Relena complained after her third slice of fruitcake that she was surely going to gain weight, but Duo told her "one day of indulgence out of 365 won't hurt" and passed her another slice. Despite the fact that she had switched to soft drink before the meal began, a faint alcohol flush was beginning to spread across her cheekbones; you couldn't tell, though, because every time she looked at Duo or Wufei she blushed. Wufei had already brought her a glass of ice water and turned the central heating down because he thought she looked overheated.

After dinner, everyone was about to adjourn to the lounge room when Duo spoke up.

"Everybody... since we're doing all the stuff that's usually done on Christmas Day today, so that certain hard-working people--" he mock-glared at Une and Sally, then Heero and Relena "--don't have to worry about being called back to work for an emergency and missing all the good bits, there's something I want to set up. Could you all wait in here for a minute?"

Everyone agreed, and Duo thundered upstairs.

"Any idea what that's about?" Heero muttered to Wufei.

"No idea. When I came home this afternoon, one of the cupboards in our room had a sign on it saying 'Keep Out -- Secret Christmas Business -- Duo's Stuff'. It wasn't there before; it might have something to do with this."

"Sounds likely," Zechs agreed.

Footsteps thundered downstairs again, past the dining room door and into the lounge. There was a short pause, and Duo ran off for another trip.

A few minutes later, Duo stuck his head in the door. "Okay! You can come in now!"

They filed into the lounge room.

Relena gasped in delight. The main room lights were dimmed, but Duo had turned on the lights on the tree, and multicoloured fairy lights twinkled from all around the edge of the ceiling and across the mantelpiece. The fire was burning brightly, and twelve huge Christmas stockings were hanging from the firescreen in front of it.

"I wanted to hang them from the mantel," Duo said, holding something behind his back, "but I figured it was a bad idea if they caught fire, so... Okay! Everyone sit down and I'll get them for you!" And he whipped the Santa hat out and pulled it on. "Santa Duo is on the job!"

As everyone found seats on various bits of furniture, Wufei caught Duo's wrist as he bounced past. Pulling him close, he smiled up into his eyes and whispered "Thank you," then tugged his head down for a kiss.

Sitting primly in an overstuffed armchair, with Heero perched on the arm, Relena smiled wickedly and piped up in song.

"I saw Wufei kissing Santa Claus, underneath the mistletoe last night..."

One by one, Sally, Noin, Une and Catherine joined in. "They didn't see me creep, down the stairs to take a peek..."

"Relena! Women! Stop it!"

----------

Snow gently fluttered down onto the frozen lake. In the forests around it, wild creatures turned their heads towards the elegant house as cheerful sounds drifted across the landscape.

"All right ladies, all together now!"

"Noin! Sally! --QUATRE?!"

"And after this verse, ladies and gentlemen, I have a video disk to play for you; Chang Wufei plays Duo Maxwell in 'Snowbound'!"

"NOIN! GIVE ME THAT DISK!"

* * * * *

And so this is Christmas
And what have we done
Another year over
A new one just begun
And so Happy Christmas
We hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very Merry Christmas
And a Happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear
War is over, if you want it
War is over now

 
       

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