This Is Christmas (cont)
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
"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,'
"--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
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.
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.
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
"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.
"I could be snuggled up to Zechs... sipping mulled wine in front
of a roaring fire... watching--"
"Don't rub it in."
"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
"I imagine so." Noin pulled the datapad out of her pocket and
keyed the screen active. "Hm... yeah, it just hit seven thou--"
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?"
"The extra money for being exposed to that ridiculous noise. Anime
"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
"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.
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
"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--"
"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
"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
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--"
"--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?"
"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
"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
He could almost hear the man blink. "Um... did you say 'husband'?"
Wufei's voice chilled even further. "Yes. Husband. Is that
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?"
"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."
"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."
[cont] [back to Mel and