So This Is Christmas (cont)

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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!"

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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!"

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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."

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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.

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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?"

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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."

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