"Master Winner, are you sure you don't want me to stay?"
Ethel, the estate's esteemed, plump cook, was halfway inside her coat, merely slightly smudged white apron still hugging her sizable shape.
In contrast, the green apron with a large red heart-shaped chest pocket Quatre was wearing, was anything but clean, grease stains, bits of dough and whatnot attached to it rather randomly. Finding one corner still clean, he wiped his hands off there. "I think I can handle things from here, Ethel. Thank you."
The woman was not entirely convinced. "Are you sure? I know how you tend to worry over the smallest of details, and I-"
Quatre smiled. "It'll be alright, Ethel. I've been in your apprenticeship for months, I hope I'm able to keep the meal hot until it's time to serve it by now - everything is ready, isn't it?"
"Yes, Master Winner. Everything is in its proper kettle, pot or pan, sizzling with heat or steaming off, as they should." She stopped again, pulling the coat over her other arm, beginning to button it. "Are you sure-"
Quatre snickered. "Yes, I'm sure. I think I've taken up too much of your time as it is." With a sigh, he continued. "I'm really sorry to have kept you and Murray here over Christmas . I didn't mean to-"
The aging woman interrupted him, smiling. "Now, now, Master Winner. You know full well neither Murray nor I have anywhere to go, anyway." She giggled, one hand briefly scratching the slightly graying dark curls over her right ear. "And you know Murray would never leave the grounds unless you forced or fired him. I say, that man is obsessed - even with the lawns and flower beds under inches of snow, he tends to the buds in the greenhouse, and keeps the driveway clear, and runs out the second one of the small decorative outdoor candles along the driveway goes out. The poor man is a workaholic, no doubt about that." She finished with the last button of her coat, and reached for her scarf.
"Murray and you are welcome at our table, you know that, right?"
"Oh yes, Master Winner. You have only invited us about a dozen times today." She giggled again, high trills of laughter in deep contrast to her otherwise bass voice. "It just wouldn't be proper. Murray and me will have our own dinner over at the servants' quarters. It's nice and quiet there this time of year." She sighed. "Frankly, I think I'll enjoy cooking for just two people. This dinner is for your friends and family, Master Winner." Seeing the slight disappointment in Quatre's face, she immediately regretted adding the last bit. "Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I heard your sisters couldn't come."
Closing his eyes, Quatre shook it off. "That's all right, Ethel. I feel I've only recently begun to know them, so it would be unfair of me to think they would take the long journey from the colonies - especially the ones with families of their own."
"It's a shame, though. So many sisters as you have, you would think at least one would..."
"I didn't expect them to. For some, it clashes with their beliefs, and for others, it clashes with work, or yet others with family." The same had been true for the Maganacs, mostly. Rashid was the only one who could come. He sighed again, a thin smile forming on is face. "Still, most of the people I truly wanted to come, did come. We're only short a few guests now."
Finished twirling the scarf around her neck, Ethel reached for her proportionally correct purse, taking down a pair of mittens from the clothes rack by the kitchen service door. "May I ask a personal question, sir?"
Quatre smiled, once again reminded of a request he had made so many times. "Ethel, I wish you would start calling me 'Quatre', instead of 'Master Winner' or 'sir' - I feel like none of those things. I feel like 'Quatre'."
With a mock expression of shock, she put her big hands in her sides, resting them just above the hips, barely able to contain herself from using a scolding forefinger to push her point through. "It wouldn't be proper decorum, sir. If Murray found out I was skimping on formalities, he'd be all over me in an instant." She grinned, revealing one missing tooth. "Not that I'd be adverse to the idea, but the man is a walking statue; cold, stiff, and usually bearing a grim expression." She laughed, quickly bringing herself under control again. "Oh, forgive that little outburst, Master Winner."
Quatre sighed. "Quatre. Call me Quatre. Please. I'll talk to Murray in the morning." He paused. "You said you had a question?"
Ethel looked down at the floor, building up the courage to look Quatre in the eyes. "Mas- ...Quatre... Why do you celebrate Christmas? I didn't think you were a religious man."
Quatre beamed back at her. "Oh, that is easy. I arranged this to get all my friends here. Christmas seemed like a good time to invite them - I assumed most of them would have spare time. Besides, nobody should be alone at Christmas, even if they don't celebrate it."
Donning her mittens, Ethel put one hand on the door handle. "I think I agree with you, Quatre. Nobody should be alone at Christmas. At least not in this part of the world - the blasted media sends nothing but Christmas carols and Christmas commercials and poor God himself knows only what. It's not fun to be reminded of a family holiday when you are alone." She sighed. "Well, I'd better get over to Murray - he'll be upset if I'm not back promptly. I wouldn't be surprised if he timed me." Gentle, high-pitched laughter. "Have a good evening, Quatre. If there's anything, anything at all, you know where to reach me. If not, I'll be back tomorrow to prepare breakfast."
"Thank you, Ethel. Merry Christmas. Oh, please give Murray my best wishes too."
"I will." She opened the door, chilly wind and light snowfall greeting her, as she huffed a bit, folding her arms around her, tightening the coat just a little. "Merry Christmas, Quatre." And with that, she was out the door, Quatre closing and locking it behind her.
Quickly surveying the kitchen, he determined there would be nothing more for him to do here until it was time to serve the meal. He reached behind his back to untie the green apron, took it off and hung it on the rack next to the door. After washing his hands in the kitchen sink and wiping them dry on a towel hanging at the end of the counter, he unrolled the sleeves of his white shirt, glad to see neither the shirt, nor vest, nor pants he wore had gotten any stains, courtesy of the large apron.
Quatre stepped out in the hallway, briefly looking up to see if Trowa had put up the mistletoe where he ordered to, satisfied with the little brush of green up by the roof, dangling off one support beam. He had just entered the large living room where his guests were mingling, when he heard a car engine rev up a bit, and the sound of wheels slightly spinning in the thin layer of snow. He went over to the window just in time to see a cab drive down the driveway, struggling to get out on the main road. Apparently, the public road authorities were nowhere as devoted to clearing the public road network as Murray was to the estate's driveway and walkways. At the sound of the doorbell, Quatre stepped back out in the hallway and walked to the main door, opening it to greet one demonized Santa; Duo Maxwell, black overcoat and boots, big brown sacking bag slung over one shoulder, green suitcase by his feet, impish grin proclaiming trouble ahead. "Merry Christmas, Quatre!"
"Merry Christmas, Duo," Quatre replied, stepping to one side, free hand motioning Duo to enter. Duo stamped his boots free of the snow before crossing the threshold, gently putting the sizable sack down next to the suitcase, giving Quatre a quick bear hug.
"Sorry if I'm late, Quatre. Got held up by overzealous security at the spaceport. When you're inbound from L2, they just don't trust you. They seem to think we're all thieves, for some strange reason."
Quatre briefly looked outside before closing the door, question forming in his mind. "Duo? Where's Hilde?"
Duo was struggling with the top buttons of his overcoat. "Oh, sorry, Quatre. I forgot to call - she couldn't come. Told me to tell you she had some unfinished work to do at the salvage yard, and that she's really sorry." He grinned. "Of course, the truth would probably be that her boyfriend invited her to meet his family for Christmas - and I know she wouldn't want to miss that, crazy girl that she is."
Quatre's jaw drooped just slightly, not quite sure what to say. "Oh..."
Duo raised a questioning brow, unbuttoning his coat. "What, Quatre?"
"Oh, nothing. It's just that I thought-" He stopped himself. "Never mind."
"Okay, what? You don't go about avoiding eyesight unless there's something left untold."
With the most apologetic of faces, Quatre took his gaze off of the floor again. "I'm sorry. I just assumed - we all did - that she and you were..." He couldn't make himself to finish, embarrassed of having jumped to conclusions.
"What, that Hilde and I were a couple?" As he hung up his coat, the idea made him unable to contain a laugh. One look at Quatre's questioning face was enough to halt it to a chuckle, though. Duo shrugged. "Guess I can't blame you all for making that assumption. Hilde and I run the salvage yard together, and we're flat-mates, but that's all. She's my best friend, but I don't think we could see each other as anything more than that. Well, we tried once, but it just turned awkward, you know?" Quatre was still perplexed. Duo sighed. "This is what I get from setting up shop so far away from the rest of you guys. We just don't stay in touch, do we?"
It was Quatre's time to shrug his shoulders. "We try. We're almost always busy, or hard to reach. The company ties up most of my time, Trowa disappears with the circus from time to time, Wufei gets caught up in Preventer assignments, Heero... Well, you know how elusive he can be, and you are just out of reach, period."
"Hey, it's not my fault the L2 comm systems keep breaking down. I'm not the one scavenging them for spare parts, or responsible for keeping it glued together and occasionally operational. And it does work, you know - about every other month or so. Your invitation got through, didn't it?" The grin grew ever wider.
Quatre smiled. "Obviously. It's good to have you here, Duo." He sighed. "There's been so many last-minute cancellations, I began to worry when I didn't hear from you."
Duo struggled with getting his boots off. "Yeah... Well, you know, me and parties. Didn't think I'd miss one, did you?" Again, flash grin. "So, other than Hilde, who's chickened out from the festivities?"
"Zechs and Lucrezia couldn't come. Didn't expect they could, though - travelling from the Mars colonies to Earth takes a while. However, that's not the excuse Lucrezia gave me. She didn't want to make the long journey because it might endanger the baby." Quatre beamed at the words, waiting for Duo's reaction.
"Wait a sec - Lu's pregnant? We're going to have another mini-lightning-count running around soon?" He chuckled. "Damn, there goes peace and quiet - for them and for the rest of the world. Guess the gift Hilde and I bought is a bit redundant, then."
Duo stopped talking right there, finally getting the last boot off. Quatre's curiosity was peaked. "What gift?"
With a smirk, Duo reached for the big sack. "Look, I didn't have time to wrap most of these gifts in - I've been busy making- Ah, never mind." He rummaged around in the coarse material before fishing out a big white rectangular box. He opened the lid just slightly, giving Quatre a peak at the content. The blond immediately blushed, and his jaw dropped slightly. "Hilde and I figured we'd give them a little 'hint', but it looks like they caught the clue without us." Duo grinned, closing the box.
Relocating his ability to speak, Quatre struggled with words. "Wha- Where you really planning on giving them those things - for Christmas?"
"If I remember correctly, the scripture says 'give me your little ones'. We figured they'd have to make some 'little ones' to give first, and thought this set of play things might speed things up a bit." With a snicker, he searched around the sack for another item. "Besides, the look on their faces would have been priceless, don't you think?"
Quatre cleared his throat, refusing to give a clear answer, embodiment of tact and caution as he usually was.
With another impish grin, Duo halted his search. "If you want, I could always switch the 'to and from' label to yours and Trowa's name."
Briefly fighting a sudden choke, as well as even redder cheeks, Quatre was momentarily lost for words. Duo laughed.
"See, that was the look Hilde and I was hoping to see on our friendly Martians. Don't worry, I won't put it under the tree," Duo reassured him, though the slight wink he gave hinted at what he was thinking. I'll just hand the package to Trowa when you aren't looking. I'm sure he will know what to do with it... "So, Hilde, Zechs and Lu - any others not coming?"
Again, Quatre cleared his throat. "Dorothy was to come, but called this morning to say she had an abrupt change of plans. She said she had to go to L1, but she didn't have time to explain why. She apologized, but-"
"Wait, Dorothy? You invited her? Didn't she stab you once?"
With a disarming expression, Quatre went on. "She's not really a bad person, Duo. She's mellowed a lot since then. You never met her, did you?"
"Not really, but from what the rest of you have said about her - especially what Trowa had to say - wasn't all that flattering."
The blond shook his head. "Trowa just has a problem forgiving her for that little incident, and-"
"I wouldn't call being stabbed with a rapier and nearly getting killed an 'incident', Quatre. Have to give you credit for forgiveness, though. You've got a kind soul, pal. A bit too kind sometimes."
It was Quatre's time to snicker. "Thank you, Duo."
"Don't mention it. All the rest of the gang is here, then?"
"Trowa isn't here right now." At that, Duo shot a questioning brow skywards. "No, it's not what it sounds like," Quatre explained. "Trowa had to go to the airport to pick up Catherine and the circus manager. Had I known what flight you were coming in on, I could have told him to pick you up too. I'm sorry." Apologetic, Quatre engaged in a quick study of floorboards.
"That's okay, Quatre. I got here, didn't I?"
"Relena couldn't make it either. She was asked to attend a peace seminar at L1, and didn't feel she could turn it down. She'd try to drop by tomorrow or later, but couldn't promise anything."
"Damn, the princess isn't here?"
A bit puzzled by Duo's sudden look of disappointment, Quatre was about to ask when Duo pulled out yet another object from the big sack, an unwrapped piece of metalwork.
"I worked really hard on this one, too. Guess I'll have to give it to her some other time." He held the object - which looked mysteriously like a crown - out for Quatre's inspection.
"That looks... What is it?"
"It's a crown, stupid."
"Made of scrap metal?"
"Not just any scrap metal. Look here." Demonstrating each of the elements used as he went along, Duo continued. "See, the bottom support ring is a cross-section of an artillery cannon. The little decorative rings here are cross-sections of gun barrels - you can still see and feel the grooved insides that makes bullets rotate. The decorative arches are revolver triggers, and the little ornaments along the top are empty shell casings of various caliber. And here..." Duo continued to ramble on about his masterpiece, at the same time handing it to Quatre. The crown wasn't as heavy as it looked, but the rough surface scratched his hand. With that in mind, he halted Duo's flow of words.
"Duo, wait a minute. She couldn't wear this crown. It might give her a serious wound, with all these rough metal edges, and-"
"Rough? Damn, it slipped off again." Again, the braided one dived into the sack, emerging with a ring of soft material, a leather strap once used for carrying machine guns, now processed and fashioned as a brim. "See, this was to go around at the bottom edge. I guess the glue wasn't as strong as I thought," he sighed. "Guess I'll have time to fix it now, since she isn't here."
"It is a good idea, Duo - making a peaceful object out of discarded weapons?"
"Yeah, that was more or less what I was thinking. Figuring how she hates weapons, I figured she'd like to see some alternative use of them. Not that she needed another crown, but it was the first thing that came to mind." He grinned. "I'm looking forward to seeing her expression when she gets it - and again when she gets it."
Quatre smirked slightly, though didn't maintain it for long, considering it slightly disrespectful.
"I guess Heero isn't here either, then."
Again, Quatre was a bit puzzled. "No, Heero is here. Why? Shouldn't he be?"
"He is? Well, I thought he and the princess were always together. Last I heard before I went back to L2, she offered him a job as a bodyguard. I thought he accepted."
Quatre shook his head. "No, he didn't." Sighing, he continued. "You really have been out of touch with us, Duo. Heero turned her offer down because he made her a promise."
"That he'd never kill anyone again. I think Relena was more pleased with Heero keeping that promise than she would have been, had he taken her offer."
"He didn't stay with her? I thought-"
With a chuckle, Quatre interrupted. "I guess we weren't the only ones jumping to conclusions."
"Guess not," Duo grinned, shrugging his shoulders. "Look, most of the gifts in the sack haven't been wrapped. I just didn't have time, I had to finish-" He stopped himself briefly. "I just didn't have time. So, putting them under the tree right away is not really an option. Where should I put it? I don't want anybody sneaking a peak at the bounty inbound from Maxwell." With a wink, he closed up the big bag.
"I guess you can put it in your room in the meantime. It's up the stairs, second door on the right. There's a name tag on the outside, and-" Again, his entire composure went apologetic. "Perhaps it was just as well Hilde didn't come. I put the two of you in the same room, and..." Blushing slightly, he didn't go on, much too embarrassed.
Duo just laughed. "That's okay, Quatre. This way, I'll have more room for myself, right?" He flipped the sack over one shoulder, and grabbed his green suitcase with his free hand. "Second to the right?"
Quatre nodded, and with that, Duo made his way up the stairs, just as the door opened again, heralding the return of Trowa and his circus family.
Duo had unpacked in a hurry - that is, he got as far as to open his suitcase, before the temptation to test the bed springs became too great. The big bed - with remarkably quiet springs - practically begged to be jumped in, and Duo gladly obliged, leaving the blankets and pillows in a comfortable mess, making him feel so much more at home. The sack of gifts was deposited in one corner, but before abandoning it, Duo reached in for one small box, not intending it to mix with the rest of the gifts. Quickly, he put it in one of his pockets.
As he made his way down the stairs again, he wondered if the others had heard him jumping in the bed. No one had come rushing to stop him, so he assumed they hadn't. He had just entered the hallway on his way to the living room when he noticed Heero, dressed only slightly more than his standard casual, leaning against the wall, clearly avoiding the gathering of people.
"Hey, Heero! Merry Christmas," Duo exclaimed, as he stepped up to serve Heero the same bear hug he'd given Quatre earlier. Heero didn't reply, neither verbally nor physically, acting all statue. Undeterred, Duo immediately sought the answer to the question Quatre had avoided. "I was so sure you wouldn't be here if Relena wasn't here - Why aren't you with her?"
Heero shifted uneasily, but his voice remained as calm, cool and clear as a sunny winter day. "I refused her job offer. I left. End of story."
Duo shrugged. "I thought for sure you two were together. Like I told Quatre, I don't get to talk to you guys often enough. I didn't know."
"Now you do."
Suspecting their conversation had about run its course, Duo was about to resume his walk to the living room, when Heero grabbed his shoulder.
"She's back at L2, probably celebrating with her boyfriend and his family right now."
Heero looked slightly surprised, but it didn't last. "I thought you two were-"
Duo grumbled. "Not you too. I just told Quatre - Hilde and I are flat-mates, and we work together - but that's all there is. We're friends, that's all. Sheesh, I really wish the L2 comm system didn't fail all the time. Looks like we never get a chance to talk." He hesitated for a second. "Come to think of it, this is the first time I've talked to you for nearly a year - where have you been, Heero? I tried contacting Relena to get a hold of you, but some snotty secretary just shrugged me off and said I'd gotten the wrong number. I asked Quatre and Wufei too, but they couldn't tell me how to reach you either. How Quatre got a hold of you with the invitation, I have no idea."
"I've been away... thinking. I needed some time alone. Trowa gave me notice of the party when I called him a month ago."
"Sheesh. As if you didn't seek solitude enough as it was. At least you're here now, pal. And I'll be damned if I'll let you stand here alone in the hallway tonight - you're going to socialize with your friends, and that's final."
"Yeah... Friends..." Heero muttered.
Duo was about to continue the lecture, when the sound of a throat being cleared interrupted. Glaring at the two of them was Mariemeia, prim, bright red dress matching the sentiment of her frown. "Would you two please move?"
Grinning in return, Duo responded. "We're not blocking the hallway, double-em. You've grown a bit in the last year, but not that much."
The little girl growled, and pointed to the ceiling. Looking up, Duo saw the little bush of green hanging directly above him and Heero. "Damn, so that's where Quatre hid the mistletoe."
"Yes," hissed Mariemeia, "So would you please move aside?"
Ignoring her, Duo gave Heero an impish grin. "Well, it's tradition. Here goes."
Slightly alarmed, Heero took a step back. "Wait, Duo - we're - we can't-"
Before he could object further, Duo kissed him.
Briefly, on his cheek.
Quickly, Duo turned his attention to Mariemeia, not noticing how Heero let one hand touch the same spot soft lips had grazed seconds prior, gently caressing it.
"Now, little lady - just why is it so critical for you to keep the mistletoe clear, huh? Someone here you have a crush on?"
Mariemeia's cheeks tinted just a bit. "N-no. It's not that, it's-" Curling her hands into fists, she stamped her foot. "Oh, forget it."
Duo continued to taunt her. "Well, it obviously isn't Heero or me - and you know Quatre and Trowa are both spoken for - by each other, no less - And the only other guy here anywhere close to your age would be Wufei. Is that who it is?"
Clenching her fists, Mariemeia stomped her foot again, folded her arms and turned her back to him in sheer defiance. "I'm not talking to you."
On impulse, Duo copied her actions, folding his arms, turning around, eyes closed, nose to the sky. "I'm not talking to you either."
Heero quickly lowered his hand again, just in time for Duo not to see what he'd been doing as the braided one opened his eyes again.
"Come, Heero. Let's go meet the others," he stated, grabbing Heero's wrist, not intending to leave him standing in the hall. Duo set a brisk pace, dragging the stumbling, reluctant Heero along.
Lady Une, Rashid and the manager were chatting by the open, lit fireplace. Wufei sat in the couch of the sofa group in the center of the room, Sally on his right, Catherine on his left. His face bore the strangest of expressions, as if he couldn't decide if his position between the two lovely ladies was a good or a bad thing. Quatre occupied one of the green stuffed chairs, Trowa standing at his side. Duo released Heero from his grip, and went to greet the rest of the group as he had Quatre and Heero, starting with nearly squeezing the life out of Trowa, then assaulting a less-than enthusiastic Wufei. It was a hug he'd have to fight for, but the mere fact it bothered Wufei was incentive enough for the braided imp.
Heero got a hold of Trowa's shoulder. "We have to talk. Now," he snarled quietly. With that, he dragged Trowa away from the chatty group, and over to the large bay window overlooking the garden now covered in a blanket of snow. "Who did you tell?" Heero growled, making sure his back was turned to the party.
Trowa's one visible eye was unfazed. "Tell what, Heero?"
"You know what I mean - you told Quatre, didn't you?" Not getting an answer, he was getting agitated. "Just - just don't tell me you told Duo. Please, you didn't-"
Trowa grabbed Heero's wrists, taking the hands off his shoulders. "Heero, if you're thinking of the things you told me last month, I haven't told anybody - and I would never tell Quatre or Duo, since you specifically told me not to."
This calmed Heero down a bit, but not much. At Trowa's words, he fell momentarily silent, contemplating. "He knows," he muttered.
"Duo. He knows. I'm sure of it."
Trowa was a bit puzzled. "Heero, I didn't tell anyone. Did you tell anybody else? And what makes you think he knows, anyway?"
"He kissed me."
Trowa's brow raised just a bit, and he hesitated a bit before responding. "Well... Then everything is okay, isn't it?"
Heero shook his head in frustration. "No. It was on the cheek, and under the mistletoe."
Heero sighed. "I just - why did he do that? He has to know, he wouldn't just-" Heero placed his palms to his forehead, fingers ruffling his bangs as he tried to relax again, putting both arms down, then crossing them, facing the window.
Trowa waited a few minutes for Heero to calm down, and proceeded to place a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Heero, Duo is a friendly guy, you know that. There might be nothing to it."
"No, that would be even worse. I want there to be something to it. I - I just don't know if there was."
Again, Trowa went momentarily silent. Ever since Heero had confessed to him how he felt about Duo just a month ago, he had done his best to encourage his friend. Not being allowed to tell Quatre made it more difficult, as he always turned to Quatre for advice in such matters. Heero had staunchly refused involving the blond, knowing Quatre was far more likely to blabber the secret to Duo outright, or become so intensely involved it would cause him pain. Trowa had respected Heero's request of privacy, but keeping it a secret was obviously not going to help in any way. He looked over at the gathering of friends, where Wufei was doing his best to keep a sofa cushion between himself and Duo, fending off an impending hug. Sally and Catherine were laughing at the scene. He found himself smiling just a little, too. It was then he noticed an absentee. "Where's Hilde?"
Heero had closed his eyes, trying to shut the world out for a little while. "She's not here. She's back at L2 with her boyfriend."
Again, Trowa's one visible eyebrow twitched. "I thought-"
"Yeah, so did I. They're not."
"Well, that's a good thing, isn't it? I mean, for you?"
"It doesn't mean he'd... It doesn't mean anything."
Trowa sighed. "Heero, just tell him. It'll gnaw on you from the inside forever if you don't do something about it. What's the worst that can happen? It's Duo - he won't be angry. Worst case scenario, he says he's not interested."
Heero didn't answer, hoping Trowa was right, but not trusting him to be.
Quatre stepped over to interrupt the two, gently taking a hold of Trowa's arm. "Trowa, could you help me set the table?"
It was way too clear that Trowa would be hard pressed to refuse. Even so, he looked to Heero for approval first, and got a nod in reply. Shortly after, Heero was alone at the window, looking out at the snow and the darkening sky, from where gentle flakes had resumed falling.
Yet, he did not get a long period of solitude, as Duo noticed him shunning the crowd yet again. Leaving Wufei to consort with the ladies, he went over to lay a hand on Heero's shoulder. "Look at all that snow. What do you say, Heero - tomorrow; you, me, and the rest of the gang in one big snowball fight?"
Heero's frown deepened, just a tad. This did not go unnoticed by Duo.
"How come you're so damn glum, Heero? Christmas is a time to be happy - and to be with your friends. You're not doing that, standing here by the window, all alone."
Heero sighed. "I wouldn't know."
"Wouldn't know what?"
"What Christmas is supposed to be like. I've never celebrated it before."
"I guess the goat with the grapplefingers didn't like festivities?"
Heero smirked at the disrespectful statement, for but a flash. "If you mean Dr. J, you're right. He wasn't too fond of celebrations of any kind. He saw them as distractions. He didn't have a problem with potential enemies being distracted - but he would not have it for himself."
"Didn't you ever get a basic run-through of what Christmas is? Not ever? Not even after the war?"
"I know what Christmas is, Duo. I just haven't experienced it for myself - until now. Dr. J gave me many lectures on religions, including Christianity. Mostly for background references, knowing your enemy and all that. We never celebrated any of the religious holidays, though - or any other regular holiday." Heero paused, not sure if he wanted to divulge this part of his past. He softly bit his lower lip, before deciding to keep talking. At least it'd keep Duo in his presence. Perhaps he'd summon the courage to confess along the way. "I was nine when I first asked why we didn't celebrate any of the holidays. He had just given me a primer on Christianity, and Christmas was imminent. From what the doctor told me, it sounded... fun. I guess I still remembered what fun was like back then..." Again, Heero's thoughts drifted, and he grew absent-minded.
Duo noticed the slight glazing in Heero's eyes, and patiently waited for the story to proceed. However, he grew slightly restless. "So... What did J answer you?"
In a flash, Heero came back from whatever faraway place his mind had visited. "Huh?"
"When you asked about Christmas - what did he say?"
"Oh. He gave his usual speech of why celebrations were a waste of time, and so on. I confronted him with the fact that it was a good idea for me to experience a religious holiday, in order to understand it better. Learning through action was one of his tutoring principles, and my nine-year-old self figured it was an ingenious way of getting what I wanted. I underestimated Dr. J's cleverness, though. He gave me a celebration, all right. Newtonmas."
Raising both brows, Duo looked away from the window, staring Heero right in the face, curious. "Newtonmas? What's that?"
Heero briefly closed his eyes, his slight, tired smirk fading as briefly as it came. "That is what I asked Dr. J too, all those years ago. He just grinned in an all but good way, a sure signal he'd thought of a way to both give me what I wanted and what he felt I needed. In short, Newtonmas. You see, Sir Isaac Newton - the scientist - was born December 25th, 1642. Instead of celebrating the birth of a carpenter's apprentice whose teachings of peace sparked great wars, Dr J felt it better to treasure the same day for the birth of the first truly modern scientist, the first to publish scientific articles and journals - in short, he found a way to worship his idol, literally."
"He made up a holiday, just to escape your question?"
"Not quite. Later, I found out Newtonmas is celebrated by some people - mostly as an atheist alternative to Christmas. That way, you could still have the family gathering, the tree, the gifts - all of that. I don't think there's a separate set of rituals for Newtonmas, though. Dr. J made his own set, one fitting with my studies."
"Meaning he mixed in Newton's sciences in the celebrations. Instead of reading from the Bible, we read excerpts of Newton's 'Principia' - the book where he formulates his three laws of motion. We did experiments to test the laws instead of presents - 'the gift of increased wisdom', Dr. J called it. In place of fancily draped trees or other decorations, we had a light source and a prism, showing that light was composed of color by creating rainbows, another thing Newton had discovered." He stopped to let a slight smile pass by, sighed, and continued. "I think that is my favorite memory of Newtonmas - the arches of color looked beautiful, something truly different than the otherwise drab days of training I endured. I'm sure that's what the doctor intended."
"What about a substitute for the food?"
Heero let go a chuckle. "I figured you'd ask about that. Out of principle, J didn't want me to grow soft - the celebration was done to teach motivations and appreciation of the unusual, I think - not to grow complacent. Other than an extra apple - which was a bonus to the standard meals, regardless - there was nothing special about Newtonmas in the way of food."
"And apple? That was it? Geez, I'm glad ol' man pestilence at least knew better than to tamper with Christmas when the Sweepers wanted to party."
"I think Professor G and Dr. J had separate views on a lot of things."
"Probably right." Silence crept between the two again, but Duo didn't want this rarity of a conversation to end. It was not every day Heero told of his past. "So... What's the three laws again?"
"Newton's three laws - what are they?"
Slightly surprised, Heero blurted out an accusing question, immediately regretting it. "Didn't G give you physics lessons?"
Duo grinned, fortunately not offended. "I didn't stay with a nutcase as long as you did, Heero. I was a bit more busy about how to operate, maintain and build Gundams than remember every single bit of math and physics G tried to cram into my mind."
"Oh. Well, this is basically how they go. The first law states everything stays put or moves in the same way until some new force influences it - if you kick a ball it'll keep going in one direction for a while, but the forces of air resistance and gravity will make it change direction, speed and such. The second law deals with how the speed of objects change when you apply forces to them, as in how much faster an already moving ball will roll if you kick it in the direction it is moving, or how the ball eventually stops rolling due to friction and such forces. The third says that for every action you make, there's an equal and opposite reaction - if you step off a boat onto a lakeside, you move in the direction of the shore, but the boat tends to go the other way, making you run the risk of an involuntary bath."
Thinking he had gotten the gist of it, Duo interrupted. "So... It's all about how forces influences things?"
Heero shrugged. "Something like that."
Again, they went silent. Inadvertently, Duo mumbled an icebreaker. "We're all at the mercy of forces we don't fully understand, aren't we?"
Duo shook his head. "Never mind."
They both stared out through the window. Outside, the small, white crystals, no two of them alike under a microscope, kept falling without a sound.
"Do you miss it? Or him?"
"Newtonmas, and Dr. J."
Heero took a moment to think. "I'm not sure. It's the first time I really have time to think of what I miss - not that Newtonmas in Dr. J style was much to miss in the first place, but... It just reminds me I'm lonely, without a real place or purpose anymore. With Dr. J, I never had to worry about free time, as there was none. In the last year, I've felt lost."
Duo smiled at him. "You're never lost, Heero. And you're never lonely. You have friends."
No answer but closed eyes.
"Look, if you're still looking for work, Hilde and I could use an extra hand at the salvage yard. It isn't much, but the job is yours, if you want it - and if you can take me bossing you around." Duo grinned. Heero didn't flinch. "And by the looks of it, I'll be short of a flat-mate soon, too. Another opening for you, if you want it." That, at least, sparked some interest in Heero, as he turned to look at Duo. "Heero, you're never lonely, okay? We're all there for you, if you want us to be."
Trying his best to remain stone-faced, Heero wanted to jump on the offer, accepting it immediately, even if it could only make matters worse. At least, he'd be close to Duo most of the time. Still, it wasn't what he wanted. Unnoticed by Duo, he bit his lower lip, and returned to stare out the window, silence again engulfing the moment.
"My best Christmas memory was from the year at the Maxwell Church orphanage," Duo began. "It was the first real Christmas celebration I had ever been part of. It wasn't anything fancy - we didn't have the money to spend on an elaborate feast, much less a real tree imported from Earth. We had each other, though - and that was enough. Father Maxwell didn't really preach, he told us the story of the birth of Christ as if it was some grand adventure or fairy tale. I was glad he didn't push it on me - I think I would have hated Christmas if he had done that. He talked about the spirit of Christmas, instead of using the heavier religious backdrops. Father Maxwell and Sister Helen were always so kind and supportive - even when I told them I didn't believe in God, they didn't love me less. I remember Father Maxwell telling me it didn't matter if I believed in God or not, because God believed in me." Duo snickered. "Got to love the guy for his gentle persistence. Anyway, none of the Christmases with the Sweepers could match the joy of that one, and during the last two, we were kinda too busy to party. Two years ago, we had to rip apart a huge spaceship, and last year, that spoiled little brat in the hallway decided to take over the world." With a grin, he added "What earth-shaking event do you think will interrupt us this year?"
Heero didn't answer. That last remark made him lose all nerve, all power to spill what tormented his mind, heart and soul. By default reaction, he let go a snort, and walked away from the window, back out in the hallway.
Duo, slightly puzzled by Heero's reaction, decided to leave him alone for a while, thinking it better to teach the loner social skills in small doses, as to not to overload the poor boy. The little box hidden in his pocket would also have to wait a while, he concluded. In the meantime, there was always Wufei to bother, and behind the mischievous, grinning face, numerous alternatives to do just that were forming.
Upon entering the hallway, Heero ran into Trowa and Quatre, trip to the kitchen cut short by a stop under the mistletoe. Mentally, he calculated the approximate time past since the two had left the living room. Hoping nothing was burning on the stove, Heero cleared his throat, clearly surprising the lip-linked couple. Quickly wiping his mouth on his palm, gently blushing, Quatre was - naturally - the first of the three to speak. "Uh, hi, Heero. Uhm, Trowa and I were just going to the kitchen and-" Quatre grabbed Trowa's wrist. "We'll go set the table now. Come, Trowa." And with that, the two raced to the kitchen, Quatre dragging Trowa along, the latter turning to Heero, smiling, mouthing the words "go for it", as he disappeared out of the hallway.
Heero sighed, leant back against the wall, and folded his arms. Part of him wanted to, another part did everything to hold him back, the rest was undecided. Hilde not being there, and not being 'the one' in Duo's life, should have made his task easier, but instead the indecisiveness - perhaps even the slight chance of success - made it so much harder to go through with. Granted, he only had to say three words, three little syllables, to change things forever, one way or the other. When he had first accepted Quatre's invitation, he'd thought he had nothing to lose by coming clean. Now, he felt he could lose a friend - his best friend, most likely, even though they hadn't spoken for nearly a year, and the chance to be close to Duo, even live with him - but on the wrong premises. He frowned, and felt his fists clenching, cradled in his elbows as they were. The very thought of how lonely he truly was - and the fact he had chosen to stay like that voluntarily - made him even more depressed. Even so, it was not enough to convince the majority of his mind to follow Trowa's recommendation. Was it worth risking the strands of friendship for something greater? In lack of consensus, the vote in his head was put off. Perhaps in the morning... he concluded, as further thought was crudely interrupted by Wufei yelling Duo's last name in anything but a quiet, controlled manner.
With the speed of a bullet, Duo came running out in the hallway from the living room, skidding as he turned to flee down the corridor, barely ducking a couch cushion accompanied by a string of curses, mostly in Chinese. Wufei could definitely make sailors blush, given the chance. Playfully sticking his tongue out in response, Duo dodged another cushion, and ran over to Heero, hoping to hide behind the stoic pilot, should the target of his antics decide to pursue. Taking up a safe position by Heero, far side from the living room entrance, Duo was barely able to stop laughing. Against better judgement, Heero grew curious, and opted to ask.
"What did you do to Wufei?"
Still grinning like the madman he was, Duo took a moment to catch his breath and dry his eyes before answering. "Oh, nothing. I just made an innocent little comment, that's all."
"Hard to believe."
"You as innocent," Heero smirked.
"Hey! I'm as good as they get, Heero. Don't you forget that!"
As if I could, Heero's mind answered, smirk now but a memory.
Duo was about to counteract the sadness creeping over his friend's face with some silly joke or another, when Catherine stepped out from the living room. She picked up one of the cushions and turned to the two boys, smiling. "Duo, don't worry. Sally is calming Wufei down, so it'll probably be safe for you to join dinner afterwards." As she walked over to the other cushion, adding that to the first pinned against her chest, she cautioned "You really ought to know better than to tease Wufei like that, though. You know how sensitive he can be," letting her free hand wave a warning forefinger for future reference. With that, she stepped back into the living room, leaving the two boys in silence.
This did nothing to quell Heero's curiosity, though. "Okay, what did you say to make Wufei go off this time?"
"Uhm... Well, I just mentioned how some sayings and popular expressions go that there's connections between some objects and... body parts. Like, how there's supposed to be a direct proportional similarity between a man's nose and his... Well, you know - and how there's supposed to be an inverse proportional relationship between that and a man's car." Duo chuckled. "I remember old man pestilence was very fond of the first. He never said if there was any truth to it, though."
"And this angered Wufei?"
"Nah, it just made the whole bunch blush a bit. What ticked him off, was when I suggested there was also an inverse similarity between a man's weapon and his... other weapon, upon which I stated I carried only a small knife, and reminded the group of Wufei's katana." Duo's grin grew ever wider. "That is what made him explode. After turning beet red, of course. Don't know if it was because of more than just anger, though."
Heero gave a half-smile, barely stifling a laughter. "You know, I could take offense of that too."
Grin fading fast, Duo immediately went attentive, not quite sure what to expect next. "How?"
"Weapons of choice. In the knives and swords section, I go for a rapier." The slight smirk on his face, combined with the absence of a death glare in his eyes, was enough for Duo to understand he wasn't really offended.
The braided boy cut short a snicker, fighting a slight blush of embarrassment. "Well, sorry 'bout that. Didn't think so far - but that's not what I'm known for, now is it?"
No response other than a silent half-smile came, and the hallway went quiet for another few minutes.
In his pants pocket, Duo again felt the tiny box he had stashed there earlier push against him, reminding him, urging him onward. Not wanting to brood on it, he acted on impulse, speaking before thinking, one hand going for the box. "Heero, I got something for you," he said, at last managing to get the small square container out in the open. "It isn't your Christmas gift, that's for later. This one's just... Well, an extra one I didn't have time to finish, much less wrap in." Tossing the box to Heero, he tried acting as casually as he could, waiting for Heero to inspect the content, ready to monitor any and all responses to the same.
Heero snatched the box out of the air by instinct, one hand only. The plain white box gave away nothing. A bit puzzled, he blankly stared at Duo, not quite sure what to do.
"Well, aren't you going to look?"
Flipping the lid aside, the box' content was revealed. A ring - at least, it looked like a ring. Picking it up for closer inspection, he could see a set of grooves on the inside of the little piece of white metal. In contrast, the outer surface was neatly polished, very smooth to the touch. Gently testing its tensile strength, Heero concluded it was made of gundanium. Before he could ever ask the question, Duo was answering.
"Yeah, it's gundanium - I took one of the nuts from Wing Zero's wreckage after they rushed you to the hospital - just felt like taking a memento. I filed down the outer edges, but I didn't have time to remove the inner edges. I only started on it last week, so I didn't have time to finish it. The plan was to file the grooves away, maybe engrave it. Even if I had had the time, I still would have to measure your finger to make it fit properly, though, so I couldn't have made it a real surprise. Figured you'd like a memory from Wing Zero, other than the bits they put in that touring museum exhibit. It's going to be like this one," Duo said, and held up his left hand, showing the back of it, and the shiny black ring clutching his ring finger. "I took a nut from Deathscythe before I blew it up, and made this ring out of it. Thought it'd be cool to carry something other than just memories of my old pal." Lowering his hand, he paused a bit. "So... What do you think?"
Heero was mesmerized by the little trinket, running one finger along the side of the nut, dipping in to feel the grooves. If it were to fit anything than his pinky, they'd have to go. Duo's words began to sink in.
"You were thinking of engraving it?"
Duo hesitated a bit, scratched his neck and looked down at the floor. "Yeah..."
Heero's voice remained completely dead-panned. "What were you planning to write?"
Leaving the sudden itch alone, Duo gulped once, looked straight at Heero, and told the truth. "I wanted it to say 'Yours Forever. Love, Duo Maxwell.'" He recoiled slightly, fearing a violent reaction to his admission.
Indeed, it caught Heero's attention. The boy snapped his eyes off the ring, and he stared right at Duo, jaw slightly drooping, eyes blank. Remembering to blink, he took Duo's left hand, placed the white ring in it, and closed it. "Take it back." Duo's face glazed over, and his gaze fell to the floor again. "And please, have it engraved." Surprised, Duo looked up again, only to see Heero smile back at him, truly smile, a new light evident in those usually cold blue eyes. Not thinking of any better - or worse - Duo hugged him, literally squeezing the wind out of him. Heero returned the hug, though did not apply quite as much pressure.
"Does this mean that... I don't mean to push you, but-"
With a strained, air-deprived voice came the interrupting answer. "Yes, Duo. I love you too. I really do. Just don't kill me, okay?" Heero let his arms relax slightly, relieved Duo did the same so he could breathe again, despite the comforts and joys of close contact. "Thank you. I've been thinking of telling you - how to tell you, for so long. I just - I just didn't dare. I..."
Duo broke their now loose hug, though he took a firm hold of Heero's hands, letting the white ring be pressed against both of their palms. "You could have visited me, called me, sent a damn letter - anything. Had I known you weren't with Relena, I'd have-" Duo stopped himself. "Well, the past doesn't matter. Present does, right?"
Heero was about to answer, when their annoyance for the evening reappeared, none too pleased with having been shooed away by Trowa and Quatre earlier, nor with where Heero and Duo were currently standing. "Are you two here again? You got no business being here, go away!" The little would-be lady, arms crossed, right foot tapping, accompanied the order with fiery eyes. The two boys looked up, and sure enough, they were back where they started, under that little branch of green.
As their eyes met again, Duo's eyes briefly sparkled at another impulsiveness. Not taking his gaze off his object of affection, objection to affect gone, the impish grin returned. Quickly pocketing the white nut of shining armor, he snaked his arms around Heero's waist, slowly eliminating distance between them. "I don't know, double-em. I think Heero and I have business here this time." Heero tensed for a second, but copied Duo's actions; embracing arms, slight head tilt, smile, closing eyes... Initially but a soft caress, minute pressure added for first repetition, more for the second, enough to part flesh, gentle sparring following. Intensity rising, Heero got too eager, causing a sidestep, hips contacting, and at this point, they appeared to have forgotten to breathe, much less that they were in the hall, and not alone.
"Argh! Get a room, you two!" The little redhead was furious, but might inadvertently have saved two lives, as Heero and Duo broke apart for air, mind of either far from fully present, both smiling, unwilling to look away first. By the time Heero finally blinked, Duo became aware of the girl sobbing just a few feet away. One look at her, one at Heero, receiving a nod, their embrace dissolved. Crouching in front of Mariemeia, Duo brushed a few drooping strands of red away, getting the girl to at least look at him, water having replaced fire.
"Okay, Mariemeia. What's wrong? Why is it so important for you to keep the mistletoe free?"
Duo wiped a lone tear on her cheek away. Mariemeia grabbed his wrist, and dragged him over to the still open doors to the living room, peering around the corner, not wanting to be seen. Above her, Duo also peeked into the room. "That is why," Mariemeia stated, pointing at the fireplace, where Lady Une was still engaged in conversation with Rashid and the manager. "I'm trying to recruit a father."
Taking a step back, Duo pulled the redhead after him, not entirely sure if the little brat was joking. "Come again? You're trying to get Lady Une hitched?"
"Yeah... I know mom isn't truly happy, and when mom isn't happy, I'm not either. I thought if I could find someone to make her happy, it would be better for the both of us."
Duo peered out in the living room again, where the two uninformed potential candidates were softly laughing at some amusing fact or another the Lady in blue had offered. "And those two were your best ideas?"
The little tyke frowned. "It's not like she has time to socialize. If mom isn't working, she's with me. At work, there's nobody who'd she let close - she's very strict about separating work from her personal life, so that's not a possibility. Whenever I try to drag her along somewhere, I have to go to less-than-obvious places, like public parks. If I could haul her into a singles bar, I would. So, this is the first time mom talks to someone, not about business, or errands, or... Well, I figured it was worth a shot, and wanted to trick her and at least one of the other two over here, to see if there was something I could build upon. And they're not that bad - Uncle Trowa said the guy in red owns a circus, and the other one has military background, so they both have similar interests with mom; controlling and organizing a bunch of beasts and freaks into order." The girl paused a bit, not sure if she'd get yelled at for that last comment. Her mother didn't approve of such statements, she knew that much. No reaction came, other than Duo's warm face. "Look, I know this is kinda selfish, but I really want mom to be happy, okay? She won't ever admit it, but she's lonely."
Duo closed his eyes for a minute, shook his head. "Mariemeia... Lad- I mean, mom, loved your real father really much. She still does, and-"
"I don't love him. He never came to see me, and-" A few tears began trickling down her cheeks again. Duo hugged her in an attempt to comfort.
"Your father never knew about you, Mariemeia. If he had, he would have let nothing stop him from seeing you, I'm sure of that." He paused, letting the little girl finish her sobs. "Look, double-em. I think we should let mom make her own choices, okay?" At first considering leaving it at that, the pleading eyes of the redhead made him add something he hoped he wouldn't live to regret. "If Heero and I help in getting mom, the circus manager or Rashid out here, would you promise to leave the rest of your mother's love life in her own hands? I'm sure she wouldn't do anything major without asking you for advice, but you have to let her make that choice herself. Pushing her would be unfair, you understand that, right?" Reluctantly, Mariemeia nodded. "Okay. Here's the deal. Heero and I will help you get your mother out here at some point tonight. Now, that's no guarantee anything will happen, so you might get disappointed, but that will be all. Afterwards, it's up to mom, okay?"
Again, the redhead slowly nodded. "Okay."
Duo hugged her again, wiped slightly moist cheeks, and sent her back into the living room. Through it all, Heero had leaned against the wall in complete silence. Eyes closed, a fatigued smile crept across his face as he sighed. "What did you drag me into now, Duo?"
"Hey, she's just lonely on Lady Une's behalf. Nobody wants to be alone, remember?"
Heero came over to him, hugged him. "I remember."
Duo rested his chin on Heero's shoulder, eyes following the hallway roof down to the mistletoe. The last few blissful hours kept repeating in his head, and an earlier thought returned. "Heero, if there had been an apple up there instead of mistletoe, what would the traditions of Newtonmas require?"
"That I drop the apple on your head?" Heero suggested with a smirk, not letting go.
"Oh, ha-ha. Very funny."
"Or..." The rest was but soft whispers of breath in Duo's ear, content more than enough to make the braided boy blush furiously, though still grinning widely.
"As much as I love you, there are some things I won't do in a hallway with all our friends just a few feet away, Heero." Pausing to let his lips tug gently at Heero's earlobe, Duo continued. "But if you want, we could always do experiments with Newton's laws."
Heero loosened the embrace enough to look quizzically at Duo's playful look, not quite following.
"You know, forces, friction, actions and reactions..." Not so subtly, he ground his hip against Heero's, stressing the point, dragging Heero into the close hug again as he continued to whisper. "Quatre put me in a double-bedded room. I'm sure that'd be a good lab."
Smirk, voice a soft growl. "Hmm... What about lab equipment? Should I ask Trowa?"
Grin. "No need - I think I've got that covered. Just have to switch some labels on the Christmas gifts."
Heero relaxed the warm embrace just enough to place a quick kiss on Duo's inviting lips, not missing the low rumble coming from Duo's stomach. He smiled. "You'd want to have dinner first, right?"
Dealing with a flash blush, Duo smiled back. "Well... I wouldn't want to insult Quatre by skipping the dinner he's been slaving away at all day. He told me he'd helped in preparing almost everything, and you could practically see the guy beam with pride for it. Wouldn't be nice not to eat, now would it?"
"You'd better try to grab a fresh apple for desert during dinner, then..."
Duo's time to take the initiative, returning the kiss.
"Merry Christmas, Duo."
"Merry Newtonmas, Heero."
"And definitely a merry me."
Heero was about to continue the kiss relay race, when Duo's open hand halted him. "What did you say?"
"What, merry me?"
Duo grinned as wide as a canyon, hugging him tightly. "And here I thought you'd never ask."
It took a while before Heero's baffled expression faded, and he figured out what the braided embodiment of mischief was getting at. "Duo, I didn't say-"
Duo laughed. "Relax, would you? I'm just teasing." Another kiss. Smiles.
"I suspect I'll have to watch my every word around you from now on, right?"
"You left yourself wide open for that one, Heero. I just couldn't resist."
Heero planted his lips on Duo's forehead. "That's okay. I hope to reverse that later."
"Oh, we'll see about that..." Duo teased, not willing to submit quite so easily, despite how wobbly his knees felt. After one more warm hug, they re-entered the living room, hands locked.
The evening was, for all guests, a most pleasant one. As the eve turned night, joy permeated the house - except maybe for Catherine's room, which, despite having Heero's empty room between hers and the double-bedded lab of Duo's, was not soundproof enough to prevent the sounds of experiments coming through. Luckily, Catherine, remembering previous visits to her brother and sleepless nights at Quatre's mansions, came prepared with earplugs and sleeping pills. A glass of water later, not one of the people in the mansion felt anything but bliss.