Author's note: Happy holidays to all. Consider this story my gift, with love, to those who have read my stories, enjoyed, and then taken the time to write to me or post a review. Many, many thanks for your kind words and encouragement. May we all have warm beds, full tummies, and peace on Earth during this season and always.
Disclaimer: I don't own the story or characters of Gundam Wing, and I most certainly don't make any money off of this little hobby of writing about them.
An Unexpected Christmas
By: Dyna Dee
Warnings: If a religious theme in a Christmas story bothers you, this is not a story that you'd enjoy. I wrote this with Duo's priest outfit, cross, and past in mind, that he would have a Christian background. Sentimental and sometimes fluffy.
With his hands gripped firmly to the steering wheel and his eyes dutifully scanning the road visible in the black of night only by the high beams of the head lights, Heero Yuy searched for black ice on the cold dark surface of the road that could lead to even more problems then the five gundam pilots were already dealing with. He chanced a quick glance to his co-pilot in the front passenger seat. The Heavyarms pilot sat forward, straining against his seatbelt with his hands stretched out to the two air vents available to him, trying in vain to warm his chilled hands with the minimal warmth the struggling heater provided.
A slight whimper from the back seat caused him to glance back to the three seated there. Quatre sat near the door on the passenger-side, Wufei on the opposite side behind Heero, and Duo, who was suppose to be sitting in the middle. The Deathscythe pilot, however, was nearly sitting on Quatre's lap as he huddled close to the blond boy for any warmth his friend's body could provide.
"C.c..ccc.old." Duo's teeth chattered as he uttered the words he'd repeated like a mantra every thirty seconds for the last three hours.
"Shut...up..., Duo!" Wufei growled through gritted teeth, his patience with the shivering boy had reached an end. "We're all cold. You don't need to be constantly reminding us."
"Leave him alone, Wufei." Heero warned, having sympathy for all three boys in the back. "You know he and Quatre have a difficult time with the cold."
"Che," Wufei snorted in a grumpy manner. "I don't hear Winner whining."
Yet the Shenlong pilot's displeasure seemed to silence the braided boy, who resorted to making only occasional mewling sounds from his throat at his state of discomfort.
Heero turned his attention forward again, swerving slightly to miss a suspicious dark spot on the road. He had no fear of going into the other lane as the road they traveled was far off the beaten path and was nearly deserted. They'd only seen four other vehicles pass from the opposite direction as they headed in a northwest direction.
After their mission to destroy a fuel depot for Oz transports to space and a factory that manufactured fuel cells for mobile suits, Duo and Quatre had been forced to hide and abandon their gundams after they were heavily damaged. Word was hastily left for Howard as to where he could pick them up off the coast of Texas for repairs. Then the two pilots joined the other three who had been on the inside track of the mission, masquerading as Oz soldiers to gain access and vital information on the enemy's movements and future plans. The mission was completed successfully, but it left the five stranded on American soil with Oz in hot pursuit. Several times they barely managed to escape the web Oz had spun in order to finally capture the elusive and notorious gundam pilots. Oz was furious and desperate to stop those who had destroyed so much, thwarting their plans for world and colony domination.
They first fled in a zig-zag pattern in a northeastern direction, and when they arrived in Oklahoma City, they stole an older car and headed further north. The plans at that time were to slowly head westward and then southwest and have Howard send someone to pick them up off the coast of California.
They were ambushed in Nebraska. Grateful that they had enough ammunition to defend themselves, the five boys fought desperately to escape, and escape they did. But fleeing desperately had never proven to be the best course of action for them. They stole another car that was warming up outside a residence on the outskirts of the city, and took the back roads heading towards Montana and Wyoming. Two hours into their flight from Oz, the noise from the front of the car began. It started out as a rattle and slowly worked itself up to a clunk and then a banging sound. The radio was gratefully shut off as the only stations they had been able to pick up in this less populated area were those that carried Spanish polka music, farm reports, and radio talk shows. None of the boys had the patience for any of those forms of entertainment, so the silence was welcomed. Duo carried on the conversation until his adrenaline slowed and the sun set, bringing a frigid, numbing cold that penetrated the car. The barely working heater did little to warm the interior, and at its maximum power, benefitted only the two in the front seats. That's when the Deathscythe pilot went silent except for his thirty-second minute complaints about his physical discomfort.
They'd slowly gotten use to the noise the engine was making, and agreed that in the next town they would steal a newer car with a proper heating system, and then the car began to slow, jerking as it struggled to keep going, but eventually the motor stopped, leaving the body to coast to a slow stop.
Heero sighed and slumped forward, his head resting on the cool material that encased the steering wheel.
"Www...why did we stop?" Duo asked as he sat up, having been awakened by the silence that filled the air. He blinked his eyes owlishly as he looked around the area where they had stopped.
"The car died." Heero answered calmly.
"Died?" Duo said in disbelief.
They all turned to look outside. The heavy clouds above them blocked out any light they might have had from the moon and stars. The headlights proved to be their only source of enlightenment as to their surroundings. On both sides of the road lay snow, which looked to be knee deep. The road stretched out beyond the headlights into total blackness, there were no lights in any direction that would indicate a town, distant city, or even an approaching car.
"Come on, Duo." Heero looked back at his stunned looking friend. "Let's go check the engine and see if we can get it running again."
The braided boy looked horrified. "But it's freezing out there!" he exclaimed.
"As it will be in here in a few minutes," Heero rationalized.
None of them had been prepared for the cold winter of Northern America. Though it was late December, they had been working in the far south where the temperatures were still temperate and wore thinner jackets then what was needed in this frozen terrain. They would have fared better if they hadn't been forced to abandon their extra clothing in the last ambush. They were literally left with the clothes on their backs and the money in their pockets.
Duo's reluctance to move away from Quatre's warmth was evident. "Come on, Duo. The sooner we get going, the faster we can get to some place warm," Heero said in a slightly sympathetic tone, not eager himself to step out into the cold.
"A hotel?" Duo asked in a little and pathetic voice.
"If we can find one," Heero assured him.
Quatre moved over his friend to take the middle spot, allowing Duo easier access to the side door. "Shut the door quickly," the visibly trembling blond requested as Duo braced himself to exit the little bit of warmth the car offered.
With a nod from Heero, both boys simultaneously threw open the car doors and a second later slammed them shut behind them. They quickly walked to the front of the car where the headlights shone brightly against them as Heero reached into the front grill and found the latch to pop open the hood.
From the inside of the car the others could hear a muffled conversation coming from under the hood, then abruptly the hood was slammed down with great force. They watched the two boys stomp back to the car and they quickly reentered.
"What a piece of crap," Duo muttered angrily. "The engine is shot, and I'm guessing that the fuel in the gas tank has frozen and contaminated the gas with the ice that's formed on the inside walls of it," he muttered as he grabbed hold of the Sandrock pilot, lifted him and unceremoniously placed him on his frozen lap. He then scooted them both over to Wufei who was giving them a horrified glare of warning to stay away. Duo had learned a long time ago to ignore such glares, and he scooted them both up against the Chinese boy.
"We're freezing here pal, a little help would be nice," Duo muttered.
Feeling his friend tremble from the cold, Wufei relented and put his arm around his braided friend's shoulder and pulled him closer to share what little warmth he had with the two boys sitting against him.
"Thanks, Wufei." Quatre whispered as he shivered and shifted to sit on each boy's thighs. They both in turn encircled his jacket-covered waist with their free outer arms and the three of them huddled together, sharing their warmth and silent misery.
Heero sat in the front and rubbed his decidedly chilled arms. With a sigh, he reached forward and turned off the headlights and flicked on the emergency lights. He then sat back, leaned his weary head against the head rest and closed his eyes. He knew they were in the worst sort of trouble. It was one thing to fight the enemy when they had weapons to defend themselves, but it was another to fight the elements. They were unprepared and destitute on the frozen plains of Montana. There were no signs of shelter, nor was there any sign of wood for a fire. Nothing seemed available but the snow.
"Maybe we could build an igloo?" Trowa ventured, sounding skeptical even as he uttered the words.
"We'd need a shovel or gloves. Our hands and feet would freeze in ten minutes," Heero answered practically.
"A car could come along?" Quatre added with the barest twinge of hope in his voice.
Heero bit back his realistic reply that he hadn't seen a car for the last hour, and the chance didn't look good that it would happen soon enough to help their situation. "Yes, one could," he replied, hoping to reassure his friends in some small way.
In the back seat, Duo began to rock back and forth slightly, mumbling something incoherent under his breath. With his left hand he reached up and grabbed a hold of his cross.
"What are you doing?" Wufei asked concerned and curious.
"Praying," Duo replied in a hushed whisper and then resumed his prayer.
The other three shrugged, not comprehending Duo's religious nature that sat up and bit him on the butt occasionally when things got really bad. They didn't chastize or condemn him about his irregular bouts of being religious. If it brought some measure of comfort to the boy, they weren't going to take it away from him.
Quatre then covered his face and began a chant of his own, joining in with a separate prayer with his fellow pilot. Though they both had a different religious upbringing and neither really lived the precepts of their religion, they had come to agree that they believed in the same God, and it was to him they were now praying for help.
Wufei held the two praying boys and looked for his own comfort in the form of the two boys in the front seat. They'd gotten out of tough spots before, and he didn't doubt for a minute that either one of them could come up with something to pull them out of the frozen hell they now found themselves in. His faith in them wavered a bit when he saw the look Trowa gave Heero. It was the look of defeat. He had no idea or clue on how to save them. He then turned his eyes to Heero's head directly in front of him. Wing's pilot sat silently with his face turned upward as if he too, was asking for divine intervention. The Chinese boy shook his head, he knew better than that. Heero wasn't the religious sort, and neither were he and Trowa. But at times like this, he almost wished he was.
Heero sighed again, signaling he was about to speak. All ears in the car were tuned to hear his voice. "We're sitting ducks here." He stated the obvious. "If the cold doesn't kill us, Oz will eventually spot us if we don't find shelter."
"Shelter doesn't look like an option, Heero." Trowa answered.
"It's not right that we should die like this," Wufei declared, anger in his voice reflecting his frustration at the situation.
"So, what do we do?" Quatre asked.
"I should go look for help," Heero replied.
"No way fella." Duo's indignant voice finally added to the conversation, his tone was firm and resolute. "You'll get lost in the dark and die all alone. It's better that we stay here. If we die, at least we'll die together, not uselessly floundering around in the dark. "
"Who says it would be useless?" Heero turned in his seat, a touch of anger seeping out from him. "Anything would be better than sitting here waiting to die. No one will help us if we don't help ourselves."
Duo looked helplessly at his friend from over Quatre's shoulder. "Please, don't go, Heero," he softened his voice and pleaded quietly. "Why don't you two come back here and huddle with us. It is a bit warmer this way," he urged.
Heero's eyes moved to meet those of his other friends. Quatre, he could see agreed with Duo. Truthfully, he didn't want him to leave. Wufei, his look, usually inscrutable, was now more open. There was deep worry etched in his eyes. His head turned to Trowa, seeking his opinion. The auburn haired boy met his eyes. "It would be useless to wander around in this darkness. I think we can see a good twenty miles around us, and there is nothing there. You'll freeze to death in five miles."
With those words of logic, Heero followed the others request and decided to stay with his friends. "Let's get back there with them," he said to Trowa, then climbed over the seat to press up against Duo. A moment later, Trowa was pressed up against him. Soon Duo was shifted to sit on Heero and Trowa's lap as Quatre had been on his and Wufei's moments earlier. The shared warmth did help a bit to ease the growing chill.
Time passed slowly with the only sound being the hypnotizing click of the emergency lights as they blinked the red beacon into the black that surrounded the car. The braided head rested back between the two shoulders belonging to the two boys holding him. He yawned as he felt a deep weariness settle within him.
"Don't go to sleep Duo," Heero warned.
"Why not?" Duo mumbled. "If I'm gonna freeze to death, I'd rather do it in my sleep."
Heero pinched his arm, hard, eliciting a yelp from the boy. "You don't show much faith in your prayer being answered if you just give up like that," he chastened the now fully awake boy.
Duo grumbled a reply that no one understood and then eased his back more fully over onto Trowa in retaliation for the pinch. Heero easily reached out and pulled him back into his original position so that they both equally shared his warmth and held him firmly in place.
Fighting to stay awake as the numbing cold began to filter into their pocket of warmth, it was Heero who suddenly sat up, obviously listening for something.
"What is it?" Trowa asked, immediately on alert at his friend's movements.
"Do you hear that?" Heero asked, his head turning to see where the sound was coming from. They all strained their ears to hear whatever it was that Heero was hearing.
"Sounds like.....bells." Wufei commented, his head tilted to the side as he listened.
"Do angels have bells?" Duo asked, his voice sounding alarming lethargic. "Are we dead yet?"
"Quatre." Wufei shook the silent boy on his lap. Only a slight moan elicited from the blond's throat.
Heero shifted Duo's dead weight to Trowa and turned towards their Arabian friend and began to rub the Sandrock pilot's arms and hands. "Come on Quatre, don't leave us now," he said in a stern voice to the unresponsive boy.
"It's coming closer," Trowa reported looking out into the dark expanse from his window.
"Look!" Wufei pointed out to the right of the car. In the distance was a single light swinging back and forth. They couldn't see what was holding it up, but it was definitely coming towards their direction.
"Quatre, help is coming. Hold on," Heero urged his smaller friend. He then turned to Duo and began the same process of rubbing his arms to encourage circulation. "Don't go to sleep, Duo," he warned again.
"K," was his only reply.
The three worked at keeping their two smaller friends from sinking deeper into sleep as their eyes stay fixed on the approaching flicker of hope.
"It's a horse drawn sleigh," Trowa exclaimed with disbelief.
"Great!" Wufei said sardonically. "Just what we need is an outdoor ride in a sleigh."
"It's help," Heero stated, ending Wufei's negative thoughts.
The horse was turned and the sleigh angled so that it became parallel to the broken-down car. The sleigh was long, and the three watched as it came to a halt and the large, dark shadow of a man stepped down from the front and moved around to Trowa's window.
"You people need help?" a deep male voice shouted through the glass.
It took only five minutes or less for the five freezing boys to be placed in back of the sleigh, huddling under a mass of blankets. Carl, as the sleigh owner had introduced himself, stated that he'd seen their headlights and their flashers at a distance and hitched his horse up in case some travelers were in trouble. He quickly loaded the five teens into the sled and promised to hurry back to town.
The five boys were covered head to toe in the blankets, warding off the biting cold as the sleigh moved smoothly across the frozen tundra, the sound of snow crunching under the blades, the sound of the horses hooves hitting the frozen ground, and an occasional snort from the working horse the only sounds to be heard. Quatre and Duo were now deeply asleep, yet their bodies were slowly warming as their friends held them close and under the protection of the warm blankets.
It seemed as though the sleigh sped through the dark night at an alarmingly quick pace, yet it had to be a half hour to forty-five minutes before it came to a halt.
"Stay here," Carl requested through the blanket. "I'll wake up widow Jensen and arrange for your stay at her place. Be back in a jiffy," he promised.
"Can we trust him?" Wufei asked his two friends as they waited under the blackness of the blankets.
"We have no choice," Trowa replied, his voice sounding like an insouciant shrug. "He seems like a nice enough guy though."
"Just be alert and cautious," Heero warned.
A moment later, the blanket was lifted and the cold air rushed in. "Come quickly fellas. Widow Jensen has the place all warmed up for you."
The three conscious boys blinked at the vision before them. The white painted, two-storey house, mere steps from the sleigh, seemed to promise warmth and comfort from the glow of the lights that shone out from the inside through the double-pane windows. Outside, white Christmas lights outlined the outer edges of the roof and house, causing the icicles hanging from the roof to sparkle bright. The whole picture presented to them was that of a welcome and promised warmth that was obviously awaiting inside, beckoning to them to leave the cold sleigh.
"I'll carry your friend in, if you like," Carl offered.
"No thanks." Trowa replied casually but gripping the blond boy even tighter. There was no way he'd let a stranger take charge of his friend. "We'll take care of them." He then situated Quatre in a position to be carried in his arms and rose. He noted that Heero did likewise with Duo and Wufei moved to be the first out of the sleigh door, which Carl held open, then turned to help them down onto the icy snow on the ground.
Within minutes, they were inside the home, standing with gaping mouths as they gazed at their surroundings. The warmth of the interior of the home contrasted greatly with the chill of their skin, and soon their extremities began to burn.
"Oh my, you poor children." A sweet, sing-song voice sounded to the left. Almost in a daze, the three turned their heads to behold an older woman, who was the perfect picture of a grandmother. She was rounded everywhere and came complete with a shin-length dress, a floral, starched apron, white curly short hair on her head, and round glasses that covered wrinkled, smiling blue eyes. In her hands was a tray with five mugs with steam proclaiming that a hot liquid was held within them.
"Duo is going to think he's dead again," Wufei whispered and paused to look at the others a bit confused by their surroundings, "We aren't, are we?"
"Come close to the fire and lets warm you up." The elderly lady said gently, leading them from the foyer to the cozy living room. All the furniture was in the over-stuffed style and in a floral pattern with lace doilies where one's arms and head would rest. Every space available on the tables, shelves, and glass encompassed curio cabinets were filled with pictures and nick-knacks. A crackling fire cast its light and warmth onto the oval rag rug that lay before it. Pine boughs were interlaced with long thin branches laden with bright red berries and decorated the hearth and tables, lending a fresh outdoor scent to the room.
As Trowa and Heero settled down into the comfortable seats with their charges still sheltered in their arms, Carl had left the room momentarily and returned with a couple of blankets. "Here, wrap your friends in these." He handed them to Wufei who proceeded to cover Duo and then Quatre with them, methodically tucking in the edges around their chilled bodies. Duo stirred, and turned inward towards the warmth of Heero's body, pressing his nose, red from the cold, into the front of his jacket.
With his free hand, the Wing pilot accepted the tall hot mug of sweetened peppermint tea from the woman and cautiously took a sip.
"I'm Elda Jensen." The elderly woman introduced herself. "People call me widow Jensen, but you can call me either one." She smile warmly at the Wing pilot.
"Heero." The Japanese boy bowed his head respectfully.
She went to the other boy's and introductions were made. They each sipped the hot tea, reveling in the warmth seeping back into their overly chilled bodies.
Elda disappeared for a few moments and returned with sandwiches for the three boys. "I have your beds ready and I'm sure you're tired from you frightening experience. I'll take you upstairs as soon as you're ready," she added.
"Where are we?" Heero asked.
"In Scottsdale." Carl's face beamed with pride as he replied. "The best place to be in America at Christmas time," he added boastfully.
Christmas was like a foreign word to the three boys before him. It wasn't a holiday celebrated on their colonies, though they had heard about it from reading books.
They finished their drinks and stood in preparation of being shown to their rooms. Elda led the way with Carl taking leave of them saying he needed to take care of his horse before it froze to death. Heero and Trowa dutifully followed the surprisingly spry woman up the brightly lit stairs with their sleeping companions in their arms.
Wufei paused at the front door for a moment, watching as Carl jumped into the sleigh and with a slap of the reins on the horse's backside, left the bright lights of Elda's front yard. The Shenlong pilot peered past the light from the house into the surrounding blackness beyond. He thought he saw the faint outline of buildings, but for some reason they looked odd. He couldn't see anything definite, but he wondered why everything was so dark and Elda's house was so brightly lit. He frowned as his mind worked the puzzle over, but turned as the sweet elderly voice called to him that his room was ready. He shrugged and turned, climbing the stairs towards a warm bed he'd only a short while ago believe he'd never sleep in again.
They shared the double beds. Heero and Duo in one room, Trowa and Quatre in another, and though he'd been invited to stay with them for warmth, Wufei declined, deciding to enjoy the luxury of having a bigger bed than he was used to all by himself.
He was the first to awaken in the morning and quickly dressed, hoping to find a shower before Duo used up all the hot water. He could hear the comforting sounds of movement in the kitchen below, accompanied by someone humming a cheerful tune. He smiled to himself. This place was like a dream come true, he thought as he found the restroom and used it, appreciating the soft, fluffy towels and the gentle scent of lilac that softly permeated the room. He looked longingly at the large bathtub, noting the lack of a shower, but decided it would be polite to ask before he used it. After washing his hands and face, he peeked into his friends' rooms to make sure all was well. Trowa lay on his side, facing the outside of the bed, and only the blond hair was visible as proof that Quatre slept quietly beside him.
Peeking into the next room, he had to stifle his laughter as his eyes lit on the other two. Heero was also on his side, but at the very edge of the bed with Duo draped over him, snoring softly. He backed out of the door and headed down the stairs to the kitchen where he could hear the old woman humming happily. He paused at the foyer and glanced out the window. A winter wonderland lay outside; a world blanketed in a thick layer of snow. The outline of many snow covered houses, similar to the two storey house they were currently residing in, surrounded the area. The fresh white snow that had apparently fallen during the night glistened brilliantly in the early morning sunshine. The Shenlong pilot frowned. He never imagined from his glance outside the window the previous evening that they were in such a closely populated area. There had been no lights to indicate that was the case.
"Pretty, isn't it?" Elda's voice came suddenly from over his shoulder, startling him. He frowned. That shouldn't have been possible.
"I'm sorry dear. I startled you, didn't I?" She sincerely apologized. "My husband, Don, use to say I was quieter than a mouse when I walked around the house in my slippers. Guess I'm just not use to a lot of people being in the house with me anymore. I'll try to make more noise." She winked at him in a conspiratorial manner.
Wufei nodded, acknowledging her apology. "How large is your town?" he asked, glancing out the window again.
"Scottsdale?" she seemed to be thinking to herself. "Well let's see, last week little Debbie Stratford had twins. That brings the population total to four hundred fifty eight." She beamed happily at the number.
"Where was everyone last night?" he asked, a perplexed wrinkle creased the space between his eyebrows. "I didn't see any lights outside when we went up to bed."
"That's because everyone around here goes to bed early." She smiled again as she gave him an affectionate pat him on the shoulder. "Early to bed and early to rise is the motto around here," she told him. Her answer seemed to make sense and satisfied his curiosity.
"Would it be alright if I had a bath?" he asked, only to receive a bright smile in return.
"Of course, dear." Her eyes sparkled at him. "Just use the towels on the rack and I'll get more for your friends when they get up.
"Thank you." He bowed respectfully to her then turned to climb up the stairs again.
Heero woke up to a persistent tapping on his shoulder. He rolled halfway over with a scowl already forming on his face when his eyes lit on the braided boy above him, sitting up in the bed, his legs pressed up along Heero's back, and his near violet eyes were wide and his mouth hung open in shock. Heero's eyes followed the same line of sight as Duo's and observed his partner was just taking in their new surroundings. Duo's hand kept mechanically patting his shoulder. Heero brought his own hand up and held the hand firmly in order to stop it.
"We're dead, aren't we?" The American whispered. "I thought hell would be a terrible place."
"Baka," Heero chuckled are his friend's eyes slowly lowered to meet his. "We're not dead. Does this feel dead?" His hand moved to place Duo's on the velvet comforter resting on top of them. The slender, calloused hand stroked the soft texture.
"It feels wonderful," he said in awe. "Did we go to heaven?"
"No," Heero snorted as he moved to sit up. "Sharing a bed with you is nowhere near your version of heaven, more like true hell."
"Sorry." Duo muttered as he moved a bit further away from his stoic but somewhat forgiving friend.
"Don't be, I'm use to it by now." The Japanese boy dismissed the apology. "Should we go check on the others?"
Duo nodded, but only left the warmth of the bed after Heero had risen. In their boxers and tee-shirts, the two pilots stuck their heads out of the bedroom door to make sure the coast was clear. Together they made their way to the next room, it was empty.
"Wufei's up," Heero stated and led the way to the next door. Across the hallway they could hear water running. Duo's eyes lit up.
Heero nodded and they continued. They paused to the next door and Heero slowly turned the nob, noting that not a sound issued from the antique looking glass knob. Both he and Duo peeked through the door to see their two friends still abed. Duo exchanged a mischievous look with his partner and silently mouthed the words "One, two, three." Then, the both of them ran through the door and flew head first over the elaborately decorated wood trim at the end of the bed to land in the space between the two sleeping boys.
"Wake up guys!" Duo shouted merrily. "We died and went to heaven!" he announced with a flourish, and flopped down between the two startled boys.
"Can't you wake someone up in a normal manner?" Trowa asked in an irritated tone as he brushed his long bangs aside to give the American a proper glare. His eyes widened in surprise to see Heero was just behind Duo with a lopsided grin on his face telling of his enjoyment of their little stunt.
"Nope, not when there is something wonderful to discover," Duo answered with a beaming smile. He turned on his side and ruffled Quatre's messy hair. "Hey buddy, ya gotta see where we landed. Looks like our prayers were answered last night."
The blond boy slowly sat up and his eyes opened wide in discovering their surroundings, his jaw dropped as he took in the decor.
"Heero says it's not hell, well, now that he's awake anyway." Duo looked sheepishly at his partner. "So, I figure it's got to be heaven."
"You didn't die, Duo," Heero said again, rolling his eyes at his friend's stubbornness.
"Are you sure, Heero?" he asked taking on a more serious tone. "What do you remember, Quatre? Do you remember dying or being rescued?"
The blond still seemed to be in a confused state of trying to remember and assimilate where he was and how he got to be there. "I remember being so cold and thinking I was dying, that I'd never know what it was like to be warm again," he answered in a small voice. "Did we all freeze to death in that car?" he asked, looking at all his friends for an answer to his confusion.
"No one died." Wufei's slightly exasperated voice sounded from the doorway. They turned to see their friend fully dressed with his damp hair hanging loose about his shoulders in order to dry more quickly. "A man came to our rescue after seeing the emergency lights and brought us here," he explained.
Both Duo and Quatre blinked and then checked their partners for confirmation.
"Is everybody up?" A happy voice asked from behind Wufei. With a smirk, the Shenlong pilot moved aside to allow the elderly woman to enter the room. As she moved past him, her face broke out into a radiant smile. "Wonderful!" She clasped her hand to her bosom. "Breakfast is just about ready if you are," she announced, her eyes sparkling as they lit on the four on the bed.
Duo stared open mouthed at the elderly lady, then suddenly became aware that he was in his underwear. He'd always been quick, but the others had never seen him move faster than at that moment when he pulled down the covers between his two friends and dove to get under them. He peeked out from over the top of the blanket with his cheeks flaming from embarrassment.
"No need to be embarrassed, dear." The woman smiled warmly, understanding the boy's response. "I raised four boys myself, so you've got nothing to be embarrassed about."
Duo's only response was a nod.
Heero, not being embarrassed at all by a female in the room when he wore only his civvies, rolled his eyes at his friend's sudden shyness.
"I put fresh towels in the bathroom for you. I'll be down in the kitchen, so come down as soon as you're dressed." She then winked at the blushing Duo and turned and quickly left the room.
Duo relaxed with a sigh and lay between Trowa and Quatre. "That was embarrassing," he said to no one in particular.
The others started snickering and he threw them a glare.
"It's not funny," he said firmly, which seemed to only make the others laugh a bit harder.
"I've never seen you move so quickly, Maxwell." Wufei said as he approached the bed, his eyes dancing with amusement.
"Well, I'm not use to a woman seeing me in my underwear, especially a grandma," the Deathscythe pilot said defensively.
"I don't think any of us are, Duo." Heero smiled, enjoying his friend's uncharacteristic modesty.
"Well, you might get your jollies by showing yourself off to some old lady, but I don't," the braided boy replied as he moved to exit the warm bed. The other four watched as he made his way off the bed and to the bedroom door, still open. He cautiously leaned out the frame to examine the hallway in both directions to make sure it was clear.
"I'm going to eat and then shower," he told the others.
"Me too," Quatre said and moved out from under the warmth of the covers.
"We'll meet up here after breakfast to discuss our situation," Heero stated and moved off the bed also. They all knew that if Duo got to the breakfast table too much ahead of them, there might not be much left. In an unspoken agreement, they all moved to dress and Wufei decided to wait in his room to descend the stairs with them.
The kitchen was as warm and inviting as the rest of the house. A large white wooden table sat in the center of the kitchen and the old woman moved from the sink to the stove.
"Come boys." She motioned for them to sit at the table. "I've got it all ready for you."
The five quietly sat as requested at the already set place settings. In front of each of them was a bowl with sliced bananas in it. The old woman put a small steaming pitcher in front of them. "It's hot milk." she explained. "You pour it over your fruit."
Quatre was the first to react and followed her directions and the old woman moved to Duo's side.
"Good morning, dear." She smiled at him. "You were asleep when I met the others last night. My name is Elda." She held out her hand for the boy to shake.
"I'm Duo," he answered almost shyly as he took her hand an gently shook it.
"That's an unusual name." She smiled at him. "I'll bet there's a story behind it."
The boy could only nod as he accepted the pitcher of hot milk from Quatre.
"I'm Quatre." The blond volunteered with a polite smile and an extended hand.
The old woman took it and wrapped both of her warm hands around it. "It's my pleasure young man." The look on her face clearly displayed her sincerity.
"Now eat up while I get the rest of the food," she ordered sweetly.
The boy's exchanged glances and then turned their attention to the food in front of them. Moments later, waffles, eggs, toast and sausage were placed on the table and their empty bowls were removed. Milk, juice, coffee, and tea were also offered.
Elda look pleased as she gazed at the young men before her. "Had enough?" she asked. A happy moan was their reply. "Good!" she said as she moved to remove the empty plates.
"No," Heero stood and addressed her. "We will do the dishes for you. Thank you for the meal."
"It was wonderful," Duo added as he too, stood and began gathering plates.
"Really boys, it's no trouble."
"No, it's not." Wufei added. "That's why we're going to do it."
She raised her hands up in a sign that she gave up. "Very well, I'll be back to show you where to put them in the cupboard." With that she turned and hummed her way out of the room.
"I like her," Duo announced with a smile plastered on his face.
"Me too," Quatre piped in, his grin almost matching the braided boys.
The five worked together to wash the dishes and clean the kitchen. When Elda returned, the chore had been completed. She looked at the four boy's drying their hands in surprise. "My, that was fast," she said.
"I think we found where everything goes." Duo looked up shyly through his bangs and Quatre snickered at his friend's continued shyness around the kind woman.
Heero stepped forward once again. "We thank you for your hospitality," he began, "but I'm not sure how we can repay you. Our cash funds are currently low, but if you would accept our word that we'll mail any debt we owe you for our stay, we might pay you that way."
"Now don't you worry about it," Elda said as she moved forward and put a soft, worn hand on Heero's forearm. "You can pay me anytime you like. I can sense you are good boys."
"That can be debated." Wufei said under his breath.
"Well, not by me." She smiled at the Chinese boy. "I can see it in your eyes and how you took care of your two friends last night. You're kind boys and welcome in my home."
"Thank you," Quatre answered for himself and the others, surprised by the woman's openness. "If you will excuse us, some of us still need to bathe."
"Of course." Her kind eyes sparkled. "I'd be happy to wash any clothing you might need cleaned," she offered.
"I'm afraid we lost our luggage," Trowa replied.
"Well, Norbert, down at the mercantile, can outfit you with new clothes. Tell him Elda said to accept your promise to pay later."
In Heero and Duo's room, the five sat on the bed.
"We need to secure transportation," Heero said in his mission voice. "We'll scope out the town and see what is available. I'd like to leave by nightfall so that we don't endanger anyone with our presence should Oz find us."
"Do we all have to go?" Duo asked as his eyes focused on the frosty pane of the bedroom window.
"Yes," Heero replied. "But first we'll go to the store and buy some warmer clothing."
"Can you honestly believe that these people are trusting enough to take our word that we'll repay them?" Quatre asked, feeling a bit of disbelief in finding that such trusting people still existed.
"If they are that trusting," Trowa answered. "then we'll make sure we don't fail that trust."
All five agreed with a thoughtful nod.
Moments later, all five were standing in the entryway of the front door. Elda was there to see them off and give them directions. She handed each of them a warm coat and a hand knitted cap and scarf, explaining that they had at one time belonged to her sons. With a map folded in his pocket, Heero let the other four out into the bright and crisp snow-covered wonderland.
The first thing they noticed was that the sidewalks were shoveled, but the snow covered streets were vacant of any vehicles and unplowed. They walked along together as large puffs of steam emanated form their noses and mouths as they breathed, and as the biting cold pinched their cheeks, each boy felt grateful for the warmer outer coverings Elda had lent them. They passed several streets of snow blanketed houses with windows brightly lit and bearing a warm inviting appearance. The main street of the town had only a couple of stores; a grocery store, mercantile, a hardware store, a post office, and a small café. The five hurried to enter the mercantile to escape the cold. Quatre stepped forward to speak to a clerk as he had been chosen to be the speaker for the group. He asked for and was introduced to Mr. Norbert Nelson, the proud owner of the town's busiest store. The Arabian introduced himself and explained their situation and repeated Elda's message. To his surprise, the tall thin man smiled and clapped the smaller boy on the shoulder.
"Your credit is good here son. Pick out what you need and send me payment when you can."
Quatre dumbly nodded and turned wide-eyed to his friends. This was certainly an unusual way to conduct a business, he thought to himself.
They quickly sorted through what was available, and each boy selecting three complete outfits plus thermal underwear, gloves, snow boots, pants, and down jackets. They each chose jeans and shirts that varied from turtlenecks to soft flannel shirts. Wearing their new clothing out of the store, they looked out on the small scenic town, much warmer now and the bill for their entire purchase tucked securely in Quatre's wallet. Mr. Nelson waved as they departed his store, a ready smile on his face.
Even though each of them carried two large and filled to the top bags, they decided to scout out the town. It wasn't very large, so in no time they were back at Elda's.
She greeted them with her usual warmth and an offer of a cup of hot cocoa to chase away the chill.
Leaving their packages by the stairway, she led them to the living room where they sat with their cups warming their hands.
They chatted with her about their purchases and discretely asked her about the town and its inhabitants, garnering more information about their surroundings.
She sat back with a pleased smile and looked at Duo for a moment with a penetrating gaze. His eyes had been fixed on the pine bough and berried branch on the hearth.
"I was wondering if you boys would be willing to do me a favor?" Elda asked, and the five boys sat up to hear her request.
"It's the twenty-second, and I still don't have a Christmas tree," she continued. "I was wondering if you might find me one that would fit in this room."
Duo's eyes widened. He'd only a small memory of a traditional but poor Christmas celebrated in the orphanage. His heart beat faster at the idea of what a real Christmas might be. "I'd be happy to," he volunteered.
The other looked at him with curiosity.
"Not too big." Elda cautioned as she looked at the ceiling, "About six or seven feet ought to do it."
"Where do we find a pine tree?" Duo asked setting his cocoa aside on a trivet provided on the end table next to him.
"I'll draw you a map." Elda's eyes sparkled with delight.
Ten minutes later the five trudged out into the cold again. Duo carried the ax and map and loped off ahead of them.
"He's excited," Wufei commented as they all watched the bundled up boy walking quickly ahead of them, his braid swinging happily against the new, dark blue jacket. "I wonder why?"
"Let's just hope he uses some of that excited energy chopping down the damn tree." Heero answered, obviously much less enthused about their outing.
The map led them to an area where a lot of pine trees had obviously been planted to supply the small town with this type of tree. They followed Duo around as he studied each of the trees commenting on their qualification as Elda's tree and, after an hour had passed and Heero and Wufei's orders to just pick one, he did select what he deemed to be the perfect tree. It took about ten minutes before the newly chopped tree was being collectively carried back to Elda's home.
She clapped her hands with delight on their return and declared it the most beautiful tree she'd ever seen. Duo beamed, Quatre smiled, and the other three rolled their eyes.
With little hesitation, they set up the tree in the living room in front of the large window and Elda opened several boxes she'd brought down from the attic. They each contained lights and beautiful ornaments. Duo found the angel that was to sit on top the tree and stared at it for a moment before getting a stool to stand on it and with great care, placed it on the top. An hour later, they had a finished, completely decorated and traditional Christmas tree. Elda and Duo's face beamed with happiness as they gazed at it with soft eyes.
"Lunch will be ready in five minutes," Elda announced and left the boys to take their packages up to their rooms.
"Why does that tree make you so happy?" Heero asked as they trudged up the stairs with their newly bought clothing.
"It reminds me of a happy time, at the orphanage," Duo answered quietly. "I had two Christmases there. It's a good memory."
"We can't stay," Heero warned him, knowing it was going to be something Duo would want.
"I know," was the subdued reply.
The other pilots almost cringed at the sad voice of their friend. None of them had celebrated the famed Christmas celebration and this was all a bit odd to them. Duo, however, had an emotional attachment to this holiday. It would be hard for him to leave now when staying and celebrating would bring back happy memories.
They quietly put their purchases away and made their way back down to the kitchen where the smell of molasses and ginger filled the air. Elda was busy working at the counter top next to the stove. She turned as they entered. "Lunch is ready, just have a seat." Indeed, at the table were five steaming bowls of soup with homemade rolls in a bowl in the center, and a glass of milk for each of them.
Elda checked the oven contents and then went back to what she had been previously doing.
"Whatya making?" Duo asked.
"Gingerbread men." She turned and smiled at him. "You can have some when you're finished," she added. "I'm making them for the Christmas Eve celebration. There's going to be a lot of good food there for you to eat," she promised.
"We can't stay that long," Heero cut in, noticing the slight slump of Duo's shoulders as he resigned himself to leaving.
Elda turned around looking surprised. "But dear, it's only two days away. Surely you won't want to be traveling on Christmas."
"We're not of your faith." Wufei stated. "Well, Duo is, " he amended, "but we can't stay."
"Have you some place to go for the holiday?" she asked.
"We don't celebrate Christmas," Trowa said.
Elda blinked, stunned at the idea. Then her eyes settled on the braided boy whose head was bowed over his soup bowl. Her facial features softened as she gazed on him. "Not even you, my Duo."
The boy in question stiffed at the endearment, so like Sister Helen. "Only when I was in an orphanage," he answered, very subdued.
Elda sensed his pain and moved to stand next to the boy. She put her soft aged hand under his chin and tilted it upward so that his eyes met hers. "You're a good boy, Duo. They would be proud of you," she said softly.
Duo's eyes widened and watered slightly. "I doubt that," he whispered and pulled his chin out of her hands.
"Why?" she asked kindly. "Because you're a soldier?"
Those words brought the other four boys out of their chairs to stand rigidly glaring at the woman.
"How do you know he's a soldier?" Heero demanded in a cool tone.
Elda looked up and smiled sadly. "Because of what I see in all of your eyes," she answered. "I've seen that same look in each of my sons as they returned home from the military. The look of a soul-wounded soldier is very familiar to me," she said sadly. Her hand went to rest on the top of Duo's head. "The people who cared for you would be proud that you fight for what you truly believe in, though you are much too young to bear such pain in your eyes."
Duo looked up again, this time voluntarily, into her eyes. He then stood and kissed the wrinkled and so-soft cheek before turning and leaving the room.
The other four did the dishes before leaving the room. When they entered the cozy living room, it was to find Duo sitting on the carpet at Elda's knee. She sat in her over-stuffed, floral chair and her hand gently stroked the soft hair on his head as they both gazed at the lit and decorated Christmas tree. The four pilots shared a sad look with each other, then turned to gaze at their friend once again. None of them had ever seen Duo in the presence of an older woman. It was clear to all of them that the orphan boy from the slums of L-2 hungered for the motherly touch Elda was giving to him. The boy who was a fierce fighter, a soldier who called himself Shinigami, who couldn't remember ever having a mother or a home, still craved those things a mother supplied, the things he couldn't remember but subconsciously missed. The four tuned into the conversation that was ongoing. Elda seemed to be in the process of pointing to each ornament and explaining the importance of each particular one to the boy at her knee giving her his full attention.
"Couldn't we stay, for Duo's sake?" Quatre asked quietly.
"No," Heero said firmly but not unkindly. "If Oz should find us, these people would suffer." With that said he moved forward to take a chair before the fire and the others were quick to follow.
Late in the afternoon, Duo coaxed them all out into the snow where they built walls and had a snowball fight. It brought back memories of when they had first come together and Quatre had taken them to the far north for a brief rest. It was a good memory and this moment in time, when they became just teenage boys once again, would add to it.
The next morning Heero approached Elda after breakfast. "Is there anywhere in town where we could purchase a car?" he asked her as she swept the kitchen floor.
"We don't have any vehicles in Scottsdale," she answered him without looking up.
"No cars or trucks?" He asked incredulous. "How do you manage?"
She paused and looked at him smiling. "We use our horses and sleighs in the winter, and hitched wagons and our feet the rest of the year. We used to have vehicles, but there's no one who will deliver fuel way out here anymore."
"How are we to leave here then?" he asked growing concerned that they were trapped.
"We're expecting a couple of out-of-town trucks here on Christmas Eve. Maybe you could purchase one of them or catch a ride into the next town," she calmly suggested.
"Surely, someone in this town has a truck. Something to get around in." He was clearly disbelieving her statement that no vehicles would be found in the vicinity.
"Did you see a gas station while you were looking around?" she asked.
He shook his head in reply. He was clearly dumfounded at how anyone could survive without modern transportation.
"Don't worry about it." She patted his arm and went back to her chore. "We get along fine without that mode of transportation."
"So you're basically telling me that we are stuck here until tomorrow night," he said, re-stating clearly what she was talking around.
"I wouldn't call it stuck," she replied with an amused smile. "But if you want to leave here in a vehicle, then yes." She gave him a little shake of her head and a chuckle. "That is unless you want to buy a horse and ride out to the next city, but I'm afraid it's a bit cold and far for that."
Without another word, the Wing pilot turned and walked out of the kitchen, not liking the feeling he had that things had been orchestrated for making them stay for the celebration. Was there a reason behind it, he wondered? Were they being detained for some other purpose than being forced to celebrate this strange holiday with the overly friendly people of Scottsdale? He sat down in the wing-back chair in front of the crackling fire in the fireplace and gave their situation a great deal of thought.
After the evening meal was finished and the kitchen put to rights, the five teens sat in the living room with Elda, chatting about the history of the town and its characters when the sound of voices came from outside.
"Carolers!" Elda announced, her eyes brimmed with happiness and reflected the white lights that surrounded her house.
The five joined her at the front window and saw that a flat-bed sleigh laden with bales of hay and a group of people dressed in many layers against the cold of the evening. The twenty plus carolers were in the process of climbing off of the flat sleigh bed and soon were in what looked to be a practiced formation. The woman on the left spoke to the group and with happy smiles, the entire bunch broke out in a happy song, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Their harmonies blended perfectly with each other as the obviously well rehearsed song was delivered.
Several more songs were sung a capella, the harmonies appreciated by four boys who didn't quite understand the sentiment of the words in Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming, We Three Kings, or The Little Drummer Boy. But each stole a glance at the American boy whose eyes became dreamy and suspiciously bright. Elda stood next to him with her arm draped around his shoulder. Duo didn't seem to mind in the least.
The performance ended with the melodious Silent Night, and Elda rushed out into the cold with a tray of goodies to offer the singers as recompense. Soon, the carolers and sleigh were gone, and the small group settled back into their places in the living room. They all heard Duo's wistful sigh.
"Did you enjoy that, dear?" Elda asked the braided boy.
Duo nodded, his eyes turned towards her in order to answer the older woman. "If I remember right, those were Sister Helen's favorite songs. She sang them both Christmases that I was with her and Father Maxwell."
"They are beautiful songs, aren't they," the matronly woman added.
For a brief period of time, the crackling of the fire was the only sound in the room. After the music, the small group seemed content with the feeling the music brought with it of peace and hope.
"We best get to bed early tonight," Elda said, her soft voice didn't intrude on the silence or the feeling they all felt, but rather added gently to it. "We have a big day tomorrow."
Heero was the first to frown. "What happens tomorrow?" Thoughts of something else going on in this strange town than what was apparent filled his head, and his soldier's paranoia wondered again if they were being manipulated again towards staying.
As if sensing his thoughts, Elda smiled at him to reassure him that all was well. "We always have our living creche on the twenty-fourth of December, Christmas Eve. Everyone in the town participates and it's the highlight of our year together."
"Creche?" Trowa asked, one eyebrow raised.
"The nativity scene, the reason for the true Christmas is celebrated here."
"We're not of your faith." Wufei stated again what they'd told her before.
"It doesn't matter, dear. No one is going to force you into anything nor try to change your own beliefs. But we would be honored if you would come join us. It really is quite lovely."
Quatre looked at his fellow pilots. Heero, Wufei, and Trowa were wearing their masks, a sure sign they were digging in their heels and would not accept the kind lady's invitation. Duo, on the other hand, wore the look of an innocent, hopeful child. But as his eyes turned to his companions for their answer he too read the other's faces and knew their answer.
"Please, guys." Duo pleaded softly, his eyes begging them to reconsider. "This really means a lot to me, and I'd enjoy it so much more if you were with me. You're my family, and I'd like you to at least understand a little bit more about me, what I struggle to believe in."
"I'll come." Quatre smiled warmly at his American friend who looked about to melt with gratitude.
The other three exchanged a look with each other, silently communicating. "I'll come, too," Trowa spoke up and looked at Duo, accepting his grateful smile.
"I shall join you also." Wufei added.
"And I." Heero found he couldn't disappoint his friend.
"You guys are the best. Ya know that, don't you?" Duo answered, wearing his emotions on his sleeve.
"I think you're overly tired, Duo," Heero said with a crooked smile. "You're getting mushy on us."
Duo blushed and shrugged. "I think that's allowed at Christmas, don't you Elda?"
The old woman leaned over and hugged the boy she shared the loveseat with. "It's definitely allowed at Christmas," she replied. When she let go her hold on the boy she stood and looked at them all. "I have eggnog in the kitchen and sugar cookies. Anyone interested?"
Only Wufei grimaced at the word eggnog, but he followed his friends to the kitchen to join them at the table for their before bed snack.
The next day did indeed prove to be busy. Elda spent the day in the kitchen cooking and baking like there was no tomorrow. Duo and Quatre stayed by her side to help in any way the could, and the other three boys ran errands and tried to stay out of the way. After lunch, Elda took the three aside and reminded them that Christmas was a time to share gifts with their friends. It would be very appropriate, she told them, if they were to go to the mercantile and buy gifts for each other, wrap them in pretty paper, and put them under the tree.
Reluctantly accepting the mission as specified to them, the three boys left and spent over an hour selecting gifts for each other and put the purchases on their credit account. On their way back to Elda's home, they passed Quatre and Duo, who were obviously headed to the same store with the same purpose. They smiled happily at each other, waved, and continued on their way.
Evening came quickly on the third day of the true winter, and Elda had the boys dress warmly for the evening. She had instructed them earlier that they might want to have their new clothes bundled up in case they were able to catch a ride to the next town with the vehicles that were expected. Six large bags were stuffed full and left by the front door.
With arms laden with an impossibly large amount of prepared food and goodies, the boys followed the quick walking elderly woman down the shoveled sidewalk as she led them to the town square. The teen pilots stopped short upon their arrival and stood gawking at the scene before them. The town square had been lit with white lights in the bare trees that lined the sidewalks leading to the center of the park, illuminating the square with a light comparable to starlight. An open, wood structure bearing the resemblance of a stable stood in the middle of the square. Inside was a small wooden structure that had hay tumbling over the edges and behind it stood a very real cow and donkey, straining their necks to reach the straw just out of their reach.
Yet what seemed most odd to the boy soldiers was the fact that people were dressed in unusual clothing. Some wore turbans on their heads, others wore long pieces of cloth held to their head by a long, thin length of braided leather that was tied around the circumference of their heads to hold the material in place. The women were dressed in lengthy, home-spun looking dresses and head wear similar to the men.
"We dress as the people did in the Bible so that we can more fully imagine what it was like," Elda said, supplying an answer to their silent questions.
She led them to a building just off the square. The interior was brightly lit and it more importantly, it was warm. Many people were milling around, fussing with food and costumes. Another elderly woman, obviously Elda's friend, came up and warmly greeted their hostess and then turned and welcomed her house guests to the town's celebration. She then led them to the table where the food was placed along with many other delectable looking and smelling items.
Duo stood looking down at the tempting food and the others snickered at the look of rapture on his face. "I think this is definitely in the running for the best Christmas ever for me," he said in truthful awe as he faced his friends.
"Oh my goodness!" A female squeal sounded to their right and, embarrassingly, all five boys jumped at the sound. They chuckled at each other's reaction as Elda intercepted the woman fast approaching them.
"Elda!" The woman, who looked to be in her fifties and as homespun as the rest of the town, exclaimed with her eyes fastened on the town's visitors. "Why didn't you tell me you had the perfect boys to be the wise men from the east?" she gently chastised the elderly woman.
"Now Betty," Etta said with sweet patience. "Only one of these boys share our beliefs. I couldn't go assuming they would want to be active participants, but you can certainly ask them and let them decide."
The woman turned to Heero and Wufei and held out her hand. "Hello, I'm Betty Henderson," she introduced herself and talked as quickly as Duo trying to make excuses for something he did that he was about to get in trouble for. "I'm the casting director for our live creche. I have a part for two of the three wise men from the east that come to visit the King and the stable. Would you be willing to play the part of these seekers of truth?" Heero and Wufei both bore the look of trepidation. "There is no speaking part, we have a narrator who will do that," she assured them. "And my husband, Craig, will be the third wise man and will tell you exactly what to do."
"Think of it guys," Duo jumped in. "You can always look back and say we all looked to you to be the wise men who defied a king to pursue your goal, and you can always throw it in our faces that we chose you as "the wise men".
"Who could pass up on a opportunity like that?" Wufei joked with Heero and nudged him with his elbow to let him know it was okay with him if they played along.
Heero looked at his braided friend. "As long as you remember we are the wise men."
"Yeah, yeah." Duo laughed with good humor and pounded his friend on the back. "Like I need a reminder of your ego."
"Elda, could you take them to wardrobe? I think I can take care of the other three," Betty asked even as her eyes wandered thoughtfully over the three other boys before her.
The five gundam pilots met together a half hour later and burst out laughing as they observed each other in their costumes.
Heero and Wufei wore thick, elegant cloaks, lined with fur and trimmed with gold stitching. On their head each boy wore a crown sparkling with jewels. But in order to look older, they were given long dark beards to wear and make-up that gave the look of wrinkles at the corner of their eyes. Trowa was dressed as a Roman soldier. He wore smooth thermal leggings to give warmth, a silver breast plate, a metal skirt and helmet and in his hand he held a spear. After the initial shock and laughter, they admitted he made a great looking Roman soldier. Quatre was dressed in a plain woolen tunic that went over his jacket and wore the head wear that everyone else seemed to have. He was to be a stable boy that stood ready to help Mary and Joseph as she dismounted the donkey and then he was instructed to hold the beast until the end of the drama. Duo, who was dressed in similar attire as Quatre was to be a shepherd boy and carried a long, twisted wooden staff and had a knife in his belt and a water skin hanging over his shoulder.
They joked and teased each other for a few minutes before Elda approached them again. "They're about to start," she told them. "We'll need to be quiet as it begins, and it would be nice if you could see the story unfolding. But first, I would like you to get a plate of food and eat while you're watching. We usually eat after the performance, but the trucks are on their way here and you may have to leave quickly," she explained. "I don't want you to be hungry as you leave us." She led them to the table that was now covered entirely with a large variety of wonderful smelling food. She handed them each a large plate and silverware. "Now help yourselves to anything here, then I'll take you out to watch as you eat."
It took a full five minutes for the boys to fill their plates, and with silverware in hand, they followed Elda out into the square. She led them to what she declared was her favorite spot and they began to eat in silence as the story of Mary and Joseph was told by the narrator and acted out by the young man and woman dressed in the ancient style of clothing. They watched as a man dressed in an impossibly brilliant white costume appeared before the young woman. Then they viewed the marriage of Joseph and Mary and then the trek to Bethlehem on a donkey. Mary's costume had changed so that she looked the part of a woman who was very much pregnant. They finished their food as the two travelers approached a wooden doorway of an Inn and were turned away.
"That was heartless," Quatre said a little too loud. The others nodded in agreement as they continued to watch the drama.
"I'll take your plates." Elda said as she gathered them in her hands. Your parts are coming up. Craig." she called out the a man close to them wearing the other wise man costume. "If you'd take the boys to your beginning spot and tell them what to do," she told the other man who smiled and led Heero and Wufei off into the crowd.
"Quatre, you should go to the stable and wait for the donkey to approach. Just hold the reins until Mary is off of it, then lead the donkey just off to the left side of the stable where you'll see a red X marked on the ground. You'll stay there and just observe the events as they unfold."
Quatre nodded and, after a word of good luck to the other two, he moved to take his spot.
"Trowa, you need to go stand by that man over there." She motioned towards a darkened area close by them where a portly man stood next to a chair that looked like a throne. He was dressed in a draped, gold-threaded fabric in a style resembling a toga and a golden circlet on his head. "He represents Harod, and you are his guard," she explained. "All you have to do is stand there and look intimidating. Can you do that?"
"I'm sure I can manage," The Heavyarm's pilot replied with a sly grin. Then he too turned and disappeared.
"And you, my Duo." She looked lovingly at the boy who stood before her. "You will join the other shepherds." She indicated an area where men dressed in similar attire were gathering. "You will listen to the angels as they sing their announcement of the birth of the Savior. A look of fear at their initial appearance should be replaced by a look of awe and wonder. When they have finished, you will then go with them to the stable where they worship the Christ child. Can you do that?" she asked him tenderly.
"I think I can," he replied, trying to remember all the instructions she'd given him.
"They're watching, you know," she whispered so that only he could hear and leaned forward to kiss his cheek.
"Who is?" he asked looking around him.
"Those you loved. This night is for you, dear," she said, then turned and left him standing alone wondering at her words. Then recalling her instructions, he quickly went to meet up with his fellow shepherds.
Quatre's part came and went, easy and unnoticed. Then he and the other two, watching from their own places and waiting to perform, watched Heero and Wufei play their part, though a bit stiffly, as they followed the beam of a bright light to the throne of Herod. The narrator spoke of Herod and the scheme he set to locate this child they sought to destroy any threat to his throne, then the three wise men turned and went once again followed the bright light across a portion of the square to the stable, where they presented their gifts to the infant king. Following the cues the other wise man gave them, the two teens bowed and then moved to stand on the opposite side of where Quatre and the donkey were. Quatre kept having to bring his hand up to cover his smile at the sight of Heero's crown as it kept repeatedly falling over his left eye, and Wufei's and slipped to the far back of his head, threatening to topple off at any moment.
The rumble of approaching trucks in the distance caused only a slight pause in the play, yet it immediately proceeded with the shepherds in the field. The twelve or so men representing the shepherds sat under the twinkling lights in the trees as the glorious sound of voices began to sing the Alleluia chorus from Handel's Messiah. There was no music to accompany the song, but it truly wasn't needed as the voices, pure and clear, and they sang the many harmonies and filled the cold, night air with it's message. A brilliant light suddenly appeared and shown down on the shepherds. Duo brought his arm up to shelter his aching eyes and he wondered at the brilliance of it, thinking about how much wattage it would take to power such lights. He couldn't see the choir and wondered where they were as the music seemed to be all around him, coming from no one direction but from everywhere.
To the others watching the shepherds perform their section of the program, Duo looked to be playing the part perfectly of the startled shepherd boy surrounded by unseen angels singing their message to him.
The song the angels sung was quite long, and when it ended the light around the shepherds abruptly vanished. A few moments of reverent silence followed the performance. It was shattered when the rumble of trucks, their sound had somehow momentarily been drowned out by the music, was now very much audible. The high-beamed headlights turned onto the square as they rounded the corner and drew closer.
Duo stood to move along with the shepherds as instructed while keeping his eyes on the newcomers. As they approached the lit square, he could see by the markings on the side doors of the trucks that they were Oz soldiers. His heart sank as he knew his almost perfect Christmas was about to be ruined with their hasty retreat or capture.
One of the shepherds, and older man with a true grey beard took hold of the pilot's arm to guide him to their next station. "Do not fear," he whispered into the boy's ear. "They will not detect nor harm you," he assured him. Duo looked at the man as if he had grown horns. How did he know they wanted to evade Oz?
The man dressed as King Harod approached the soldier who looked to be in charge. After a short discussion, the Colonel nodded and he and his men stood on the perimeter of the square, apparently prepared to watch the rest of the drama.
"Tuck your braid in your shirt and all will be well," the older shepherd cautioned the boy. Duo quickly complied and allowed himself to be led to the stable.
The light appeared again and shone down from above on the stable where the three wise men, shepherds, and barn animals silently watched as the narrator brought the story to an end. Once again, the night was filled with the beautiful voices of the unseen choir singing For Unto Us a Child is Born.
As the bright light surrounding the stable suddenly blinked out, officially ending the annual drama, Trowa motioned the four other boys to the back of the stable where Carl, the man who had rescued them from the car several nights earlier, and Elda met them. "Everyone remains in costume until they go home, so yours can continue to disguise you from the soldiers if you're seen," Carl said in a hushed tone. He held a hand up to silence Heero who was scowling and about to speak. "There is no time for debating," he told the boy, then turned to address the others as well. "We will invite the soldiers to join us at our meal. They'll see we are peaceful and will leave their trucks as we escort them inside. We'll be doing a lot of singing tonight and the sound of the vehicles leaving will go unnoticed, " he informed them with a confident smile.
The boys exchanged a look with each other, nodding their agreement to the plan, and then turned as Elda spoke to them. "Go back to my home and take the clothing you purchased. But first," her eyes sparkled with some unknown emotion. "I want you to open your gifts and then take them with you. You will have time, the soldiers will not know the trucks are gone until it's too late, and then they will have to find a way out of here. But tonight," she continued. "I would have you enjoy a Christmas evening in a warm home with a crackling fire and a tree decorated just for you. A memory you can hold onto for the rest of your lives." Everything about the older woman was warm and comforting, a friendly hand of hope in a dark, sometimes frightening world. She then added, "I promise you that you will be safe."
Duo moved instantly and embraced the woman they had all come to care for. "Thank you," he said and kissed her cheek, then hugged her again. When he pulled back she placed her hand on his cheek and whispered something meant only for his ears. The others strained to hear what she said to him, but somehow, even with their training, they couldn't hear a thing, but watched at Duo silently nodded his head several times before Elda moved forward and pressed a lingering kiss to the boy's forehead. She smiled with warm affection at the boy, and then Duo stepped back so that the others could take a turn to individually thank Elda for her kindness and hospitality, promising to repay the money owed from their stay.
Carl acted as lookout during the time they bade their farewells, and when all the Oz soldiers were inside the building they had earlier taken the food to, and the sounds of music once again filled the air, he led them to the deserted trucks, the keys still in the ignitions. With a final, brief goodbye, they took both troop transport trucks. The engines were loud as they turned over and rumbled as they traveled on the rarely used, snow-impacted roads to Elda's house. They all wondered how the soldiers could not hear them taking their trucks, but frequent checks back to the square showed that they hadn't.
The bright outdoor lights of the now familiar home welcomed them, and as they entered the home, the fire was blazing in the fire place and the presents they'd purchased were under the tree. On the coffee table were five mugs of hot spiced cider and a tray of gingerbread cookies. Wufei wondered out loud how was it possible for the house to be prepared for them when everyone had been in the town square? Trowa suggested Elda must have come home during the performance. They could only speculate, and soon dismissed the question as they entered the cozy room removing their costumes as they did.
The five boys sat in the living room in front of the tree and passed around their presents, agreeing that they open them one at a time. They were all pleased with the simple gifts they'd given each other. Oddly enough, none of the gifts were duplicates, but picked carefully with that one individual in mind.
They paused as the last round of packages that were left for each of them were from Elda. They opened them together, openly appreciating the hand knitted scarfs and hats she'd made for them. They finished up their drinks and cookies and then transported their newly acquired gifts and clothing to the confiscated trucks. A half hour after arriving at the house, they left behind forever the small Montana town of Scottsdale.
Duo and Quatre rode with Heero with the Deathscythe pilot sitting in the middle. Every few minutes he would turn around to gaze out the window of the cab and through the opening of the tarp covering the back of the truck he gazed at the slowly diminishing lights of the town. He was sure Elda's lights shone the brightest of them all, and determined to keep his eyes on it until he could no longer see them. Suddenly, even as he was staring at it, the lights went out, just as if someone had pulled a plug or flicked a light switch.
"What the hell?" he said out loud in alarm.
Quatre turned to see what his friend was looking at. "What's the matter?"
"The lights of Scottsdale, they all just... went out," he said alarmed. "Do you think Oz hurt them?"
"I hope not," Quatre said in a worried tone.
"I'll never forgive myself if they were hurt because of us," Duo muttered, still looking at the black space where the town resided on the plain.
"They seemed resourceful enough," Heero said with a tone of confidence. "I don't think Oz would hurt them after seeing that play."
"You liked it Heero?" Duo asked a bit stunned.
"I liked the message it delivered, even if it had a religious message that I don't quite comprehend," he answered. "But to sing of peace on earth and goodwill towards men." He took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "In a way, isn't that what we are fighting for. And if we all believed and practiced the words said tonight, treated each other with kindness and goodwill, maybe we really could make peace happen and wars end."
They sat in the cab of the Oz truck in silence for a moment, then Duo reached forward and turned on the radio and found a station that played continuous Christmas music. Then with a contented sigh, he sat back between his friends.
"Thanks guys for letting me have this Christmas. It really means a lot to me."
"It wasn't really our choice," Quatre commented. "But I'm glad you could have it. I think we all enjoyed it, too."
They drove all night and deserted the transport trucks several miles outside of Casper, Wyoming. The five caught a ride into town with a family in a van headed to their grandmother's house for Christmas dinner. With all their packages, they were literally stuffed into the vehicle.
They found a hotel and rested for the day and, because all the restaurants were closed, they had Christmas dinner with the homeless people at the local armory.
Relaxing in the hotel room that night while Heero went out to find a proper vehicle to steal, one with a great working heater, the four listened to the evening news. They all suddenly came to attention and sat up straight as a report came on from a reporter in Montana. She reported that a troop of Oz soldiers had been rescued by local farmers who found them wandering the plains on snow looking dazed and confused. The soldiers were being hospitalized at a Billings hospital for overexposure and frostbite. The strange part of the story was that several of the soldiers interviewed reported having visited a town called Scottsdale the night before in order to follow up on a search for enemy terrorists. One confused looking soldier said they'd spent the evening sharing a meal and Christmas music with the townspeople, but at nine fifteen that night the lights and everything vanished. The troop of soldiers found themselves in a barren ghost town with no one and nothing they had previously experienced anywhere. Finding that even their trucks were also gone, they followed the tracks of the trucks back to the main highway were locals found them.
The reporter came back to face the camera. "Whether it's a group hallucination or not will be for Oz to figure out, but those of us who know local history know that the town of Scottsdale was destroyed exactly one hundred years ago today in retaliation of, and as an example by the Federation for the town refusing to give up the four sons of a widowed woman, Elda Jensen. They had apparently deserted their military posts when their conscience told them they were fighting for the wrong reasons and fled to the safety of their hometown. The incident sparked criticism from countries all over the world, condemning the Federation for their actions against unarmed citizens. Scottsdale is no more," she said sadly. "But as to what these soldiers experienced is either a yet-to-be-solved mystery or a Christmas miracle."
The four boys turned to look at each other with stunned expressions. "It was real, wasn't it?" Duo asked, his voice small and the confusion he felt was as plain on his face as it had been on the soldiers' faces on television.
Quatre held out the soft grey flannel shirt he was wearing. "This is proof it was real, as are all the things we bought from the mercantile." They each scrambled to find their bags and sorted through them again. All that they had purchased or was given was still there, even the elderly woman's Christmas gifts to them. Duo pulled out the knitted scarf and hat Elda had handcrafted and held them to his chest.
"I can't explain it," Wufei said looking a bit lost himself. "I'm sure it's impossible."
"There must be a reasonable explanation for this." Trowa said with a worried look on his face.
"It was a miracle," Duo said in a reverent tone of awe. "Elda said that last night was for me, that the ones I had loved were watching."
"Duo, you have a..." Quatre began wide eyed, then paused to think of the correct name. His eyes brightened as it came to him. "A guardian angel," he finished in a tone similar to Duo's, that of veneration. "Is that what she said to you behind the stable when we were leaving?" he asked.
The Deathscythe pilot reached up to clasp his cross hanging around his neck, his eyes watering with the realization of what had happened to them. "She said that those who were beyond life's veil wanted me to know that I was, am, and will always be loved. She told me that I am never truly alone and that some day I'll find someone who knows what it's like to feel alone in the world, that they will fill the empty void in my life," he answered in a voice that mirrored his disbelief. At the time the elderly woman had held him close and quietly said those words to him, he'd thought were just words of an old woman trying to comfort someone whom she recognized as a lost and wounded soul. But now those words had a whole new meaning for him, another glimmer of hope for his future.
The room became silent as each of the four boy's became lost in their own thoughts. Toeing off his shoes, Duo moved off the side of the bed and pulled back the covers. Climbing between the sheets fully clothed, he pulled the blankets up and over his head as he turned away from his stunned and perplexed friends. Although he couldn't leave the room, he needed to separate himself from them for a short time and think about everything that had happened, to memorize every detail of the gift he'd been given, and not just of a Christmas he'd always secretly longed for, but for the gift of hope for his future that Elda had given to him with her prophetic words.
Closing his eyes, he tried to take in all the implications of their Christmas in Scottsdale. He knew his belief in God had been strengthened as was his hope for an afterlife. Then it dawned on him that there had been no words of condemnation for his actions as a soldier, no guilt trip or calls to change his ways. He realized he would have to think for a long time, maybe even the rest of his life, to decide what the absence of those heavenly censures he'd been fearful of meant. Then came the comforting reminder of Elda's statement that there was someone out there for him, someone who could take away his sometimes irrational fear of being alone for the rest of his life. He began at the beginning, reliving in his mind the events of the past three days and smiled contentedly, knowing that no other gift that he would receive throughout his life, regardless of how thoughtful, expensive, or precious, could never compare to the gift he'd received of the unexpected Christmas in the small, isolated and evidently non-existent town of Scottsdale, Montana.
Peace and love to all. Dyna