"The top's crooked. Let's look further up the hill."
The sun was setting, drenching the mountains in orange and violet. Noting the fading light, Joe trudged in the direction that Ryu pointed. Though the lower altitudes probably wouldn't celebrate a white Christmas, the mountains the two men currently explored would have been a skier's dream had they not been private property. The thick snow made hiking more difficult, though, and now Joe wished he'd brought snowshoes instead of just the boots. His cybernetics added at least twenty pounds to his slim frame, enough to make a difference in punching through the surface crust. Ryu wallowed in the snow behind him, puffing.
"Naw, that's got brown on the bottom--"
"They all do, and we're out of daylight. I say it's that one." Joe turned a determined glare on the larger man. "We'll cut the brown parts off."
"I cut, you carry," Ryu said.
"In your dreams." Joe pulled off his pack and produced an electric saw. "You're the one who wanted an eight-foot tree, and I'm not eating needles all the way back."
Ryu held the tree steady as Joe trimmed off the undesirable branches. The smell of fresh wood and evergreen sap filled the air, and when the saw stopped, Joe took a slow, deep breath. "Oh, yeah."
Ryu grinned, then swung the tree up on one shoulder and spat out a mouthful of needles. He put it down. "Dammit, I can't see." The tree wasn't heavy so much as bulky and awkward. With a snort, Joe hefted the trunk, leaving Ryu to handle the crown, and the two followed their trail back down the mountain.
They had made it halfway to the jeep when the sound of rotors caused both men to look up. Strobes flickered in the darkening sky, and then a bright spotlight engulfed them. "You there!" A voice bellowed through a loudspeaker. "Stop where you are!"
Joe halted and glanced behind him. "You didn't notify Security this year either, did you, Ryu?"
"What for?" Ryu shook his head. "Some sorry ninja we are--we can't even swipe a tree unnoticed."
Dr. Nambu was in the entry when Ken opened the door to reveal ten security guards and their two captives. Joe wore a tolerant smirk; Ryu just looked embarrassed. "Sorry to bother you, Hakase," said the lead guard. "Do you know these two?"
"Oh, great," Ken muttered.
"Yes, they're here for the holiday party. Do you need a damage report signed?"
Joe's smirk widened into a grin, and the guard beside him moved back a half step.
"No, sir, though they insisted on carrying the tree they chopped down with them. Sir, even a top security clearance does not mean they can deface ISO property--"
"I'll discuss it with them. Thank you." When the men dispersed, Nambu turned a severe look on Joe and Ryu. "I wish you wouldn't do that."
"You'd think they'd be used to it."
"We changed staff after the war, and it's been two years, Joe." Nambu turned and walked back to the warmer reception room. Behind him, Joe frowned.
"What was that about? I'm not the one who does this every year."
"Yeah," Ryu said. "But I'm better at looking innocent."
Joe shook his head and turned to help Ryu bring their trophy inside.
"Thanks." Julia took the coffee cup full of eggnog, her eyes scanning the screens. With no family obligations, she'd specifically asked for this shift and for this project. Though she doubted Dr. Nambu could be in better hands in terms of protection, it was still ISO policy to keep him under surveillance, and she enjoyed working behind the scenes. Today she wore a red sweater with a holly pin, and tied her dark hair into a ponytail with a green ribbon.
She didn't know how the team had celebrated their Christmas Eve, since they had scattered out of G-Town as soon as they'd gone through their last mission debriefing. She suspected they'd spent the evening at Jun's old snack bar--now under new management. But Dr. Nambu had reserved Christmas Day for a private party with the team at the ISO's old mountain installation.
"I just got off the phone with Foley," Takashi said. "He's steaming about the tree."
She sighed. "Tell him to email me his report. I'll take care of things from here." Shaking her head, she muttered, "Where's his Christmas spirit?"
"Probably at home, where he wants to be," Takashi said. "Too bad he doesn't know who he arrested--it would've been a great story to tell his kids."
"What about you? Any holiday plans?"
"I get overtime and New Year's off. I'm going home to see the folks." Takashi shrugged and poured himself another cup of eggnog. "Paul left us a bottle of rum."
"Not for me, thanks."
"Aren't you going to celebrate Christmas?"
"Once I'm off the clock, sure." She looked at Takashi for a moment. "Oh, right. My folks sent me a package. But I think this beats sitting at home after Mass, eating takeout chicken in front of the tree."
"Boy, I thought my social life was bad."
"Comes with the job, my friend. Besides, look at what we've got on TV tonight--the networks would kill for it."
"Later on, we'll perspire
On the screen Jinpei sat on the floor in the middle of the great room, untangling Christmas tree lights and singing hoarsely along with the sound system:
As we cringe by the fire
And face so afraid
The bills left unpaid
From shopping at the malls in Utoland..."
On its rotation, the camera caught Ken standing by the window, staring outside. Jun opened old cardboard boxes filled with decorations.
The door banged open, and in came the tree, dusted with snow. With Joe and Ryu steadying it and Ken acting as critic, they secured the tree in its stand. Joe sprawled onto the nearest couch and watched as Ken, Jun and Jinpei wound lights and ribbons, passing them from hand to hand, and hung ornaments, occasionally arguing over what went where.
"So whaddaya think?" Ryu grabbed the trunk and gave the tree a little rattle. "Impressive, huh?"
"Worth the hassle?" Ken said.
"Yeah!" Ryu said. "That's half the fun, getting something to put the presents under."
Joe said, "Figures."
Ken headed for the couch, and Joe moved over to make room. "Seems like a lot of work for an oversized air freshener."
Joe chuckled. "You're just sore because you had to buy something to put under it."
Jinpei snickered. "Got you there, Aniki."
"That's not true." Ken blinked and put a hand to his chest. "You wound me!" The others laughed, and Jun cracked a tight-lipped smile.
Ryu disappeared into the coat room to find the packages, and Jinpei followed suit and helped him arrange the gifts beneath the tree.
"Did they get our stuff?" Takashi asked, leaning on the back of Julia's chair.
"All five packages. I think we have a couple of hours before they open them."
Dinner, prepared by ISO chefs, was served an hour later. Dr. Nambu arrived first and stood behind his chair as he waited for the other five to come into the dining room. Decorated for holiday functions earlier in the week, the formal dining area was decked with real garlands of holly and pine, and white candles supplied all available light. Outside the picture window that covered the far wall, stars glittered above a silvered landscape.
Jinpei arrived first in all his adolescent grace, skidding through the door in a flurry of arms and legs, then teetering as he took in the formal place settings. "Check out the spread! Now I know for sure Oneechan didn't cook--Oww!" He hadn't ducked fast enough. Ryu followed Jun, grinning. The five took their accustomed seats, old habits from dinners long before the war had started. Ken sat at Nambu's left shoulder.
Dr. Nambu took his seat and raised his glass. "I'd like to start with a toast," he said. The others found their glasses and raised them. "To the holiday, and our opportunity to celebrate together, with those who matter most. To peace on Earth, at least for this day."
Glasses clinked to the soft murmurs of "Kampai."
Two servers appeared with platters of food. Nambu watched as Jinpei and Ryu dove headlong into the repast. With a long-suffering expression, Jun said, "Will you slow down? It's not running anywhere. Besides, we're supposed to pass the dishes clockwise, starting with Hakase."
"You can shovel in your food any other day than today. Now pass the turkey to Hakase."
"Is that a promise? Ow-ow-ow! Oneechan, you're not supposed to hit people at the table."
Ken stared into his glass. Joe watched the others for a long moment until the platter came his way. Then he elbowed Ken. "Better grab something before it disappears."
"And pass the butter."
Nambu watched them: five familiar faces altered by time and events he wouldn't have believed if he hadn't documented them himself. Ken had turned wary, and while a little caution would temper the recklessness characteristic of both Ken and his father, Nambu hoped that he wouldn't take it too far. The optimism that had given him so much strength during the first war was fading. Joe had noticed it too, and was watching Ken more carefully than before. As for Joe, the drastic changes he had faced over the past two years had taken the edge off his rage; now he budgeted his energy, though he still smoldered at the core. Jun had also become more reserved, but with a tougher exterior than in the beginning. She relied less on her teammates now. Jinpei and Ryu had probably changed the least of the five, despite Jinpei's voice change. But even Ryu seemed sadder. The professor could only hope that the war would end before it sapped them further.
Thanks to a well-scheduled enemy rout, the ISO had bought some time for the holidays. Today they could forget, at least for a little while.
In her plush quarters with the burgundy and gold-trimmed walls, GelSadora reclined in an easy chair in front of a wall-sized television, watching cartoons. She wore a silk bathrobe instead of her usual costume, and a cup of hot chocolate warmed her bare hands. On the side table sat a plate of sugar cookies and a candy cane.
Despite the destruction of their latest battle mecha, Gallactor's operations were ahead of schedule. Two bases were nearing completion and a third was being surveyed. Feeling generous, GelSadora gave the troops two days off for the holidays. It kept them from griping, though no doubt they would squander their time drinking themselves sick. As long as nobody was hung over when she did her inspection rounds, she didn't care. For now, she had locked her doors with orders that she was not to be disturbed.
On the table in the dining area, surrounded by shredded wrapping paper and ribbon, sat her gift. One of her base commanders had given her the holiday sweets and a crystal music box with a tiny twirling ballerina inside; something that had made her smile when she opened it. Best watch that commander, she knew. He showed initiative and ambition. Too much ambition, and she'd have to have him shot.
On the screen, an animated reindeer and a giant snow monster had begun a song and dance routine. GelSadora stared, hypnotized. Her evening had been filled with the magic and wonder of Christmas, or at least the idealized version on the screen. Rudolph, Scrooge, the Grinch, the kid with the half-dead Christmas tree, and Santa Claus... all seemed familiar in a very recent way that she couldn't define. Picking up the candy cane, she sniffed it, and the smell of peppermint brought more impressions flooding in.Small hands stealing candy canes from a Christmas tree. A woman's voice: "You have to be a good girl if you want Santa to come on Christmas Eve."
"I'm always a good girl."
"Sosai," she had asked during yesterday's audience. "Everyone is celebrating something--do you?"
"We celebrated the solstices... back when Selectoru was still on the star charts," X snarled. "Why must you ask such stupid questions?"
"Nothing, Sosai-sama. I just wondered."
"Wonder about keeping us on schedule. That's your job."
She'd bowed and left, smarting at the anger in his voice. That's when she'd retreated to her quarters and the television. Sosai would come around once the Solar Shift Plan was executed. And with the world in Gallactor's control, he'd give her the kind of celebration she saw on the screen. The whole world would. She'd mandate it.
The song and dance routine finished, and the program cut to a commercial. A man and woman held hands in the falling snow. Putting the candy cane back on the plate, GelSadora reached for a cookie.
"I need more of these--thanks, Ryu!" Ken flipped through the leather-bound flight log.
"Figured you did," Ryu said. "Though with the time you put in, you should have a library of them. Just think, you could retire at any time and get a plum job with the airlines." Ken wrinkled his nose, and Ryu laughed.
One by one, the gifts lost their disguises, and discarded wrapping paper piled up on one side of the room. Joe received a bathrobe and found himself well-supplied with driving gloves--no one had forgotten the pair he'd shredded the day of his return. (Ken couldn't help grimacing when Joe opened his second pair.) Ken's gifts had been mostly videos and some home accounting software. Jun had gotten photography equipment, Jinpei a backpack and several video games, and Ryu some scuba gear and fishing lures. The professor had gotten a new coffee cup and gourmet samples as well as some books he'd asked for.
After the familiar gifts had been opened, five more remained. Instead of names, they bore the team's numbers.
"From the security staff?" Ken said, frowning at the tag. "That's odd."
"They asked to contribute this year," Nambu said.
"Why, if all we do is cause them trouble?" Ryu asked.
"They think highly of you all," Nambu said. "They specifically requested it, and I gave the okay."
Together, the five opened their packages to find Christmas stockings full of small gifts: candy, picture frames, and toy models of their old vehicles. The team looked at each other with raised eyebrows, though Ryu seemed especially enamored of his toy Godphoenix. "They got the details down pretty good," he said. "I want the whole set!"
"Let me know when you find it, "Ken said.
Joe pulled from the toe of his stocking a box of neon Band-Aids and a small card. Heopened the card and stared, then flipped it shut.
"What is it, Joe n'aniki?"
"Just a card."
"Then you don't care if we see it, right?" Jinpei said, and as Joe turned toward him, Ken plucked the card from his fingers.
"What's it say?" Jun asked.
"Just a lot of signatures," Ken said, "And, 'Welcome home.'"
"They missed him terrorizing the guards that bad?" Jinpei said, grinning.
"Our investigative team put a lot of energy into tracking him down when the clues started appearing," Nambu said. "If anything, you kept them on their toes, Joe."
"Us, too," Jun said.
"You never gave me a card." When Jun glared at him, Joe flopped back against the couch and stared at the ceiling. "I know, I know." He sighed. "I get the message. No more playing dead. I promise."
Ken snorted, then snatched a pillow from the corner chair. It hit Joe squarely on the side of the head. Joe turned, smoothly reached for the nearest sofa cushion....
"Damn, Jun got him good!"
"She's fast, too," Julia said. "Notice she got all the gifts out of the way."
The sound of their laughter brought two more staff members into the room, where they crowded around the monitor. "Ow, that's gotta hurt."
"Oh man, good one!"
"Ah, that's it. Dr. Nambu's kicking them outside."
"Bill's got all the exterior monitors. C'mon."
Julia waved Takashi off, and he left to join the others at the next station. Taking another sip of her eggnog, she watched as the camera panned to show Dr. Nambu standing by the window, watching the snowball fight outside.