Part 3

Luke's eyes cracked open, not surprised to find it dark in his room. He rolled over, but hesitated a moment before turning the lamp on. The upside to not having to share a room was that you didn't have to worry about waking anyone else up; not that it was a familiar problem... Luke tended to be the one woken up, especially when he shared a room with Jade. Luke decided against the bedside light, instead lying there a moment and allowing his eyes to adjust to the dark.

A smile slowly worked it's way across Luke's face, until he was successfully grinning from ear to ear. A burst of energy and excitement washed over him and the younger redhead sat up. There was no way he could just sit in bed... it was Christmas!

A hand reached over to the night stand, searching for the brush he knew was there. Natalia used to tease him about having a comb sitting so readily beside his bed, but she didn't see the mess his long red hair could get itself into during the course of the night. In its wandering, he came upon something; it had a familiar texture but was most definitely not the object of his search.

Luke smiled as he picked up the wrapped package, wondering when Asch had managed to sneak it into room. Sometimes it scared him just how alike the two of them thought. Connection or not, they had both gone and broken the rules, getting each other a present. Luke snickered; they even put it in the same spot for the other to find when they woke up. Not that there was really anywhere else well-suited to put it; at least, not that they'd find. Still, it left Luke with a warm feeling inside.

Setting the gift aside to open later and avoid the trouble Jade would likely cause them, Luke pulled himself from bed. He debated waking the little cheagle who was asleep on the pillow next to him, but decided against it. Mieu was still young, as far as cheagles went, so he probably needed the sleep. So after yanking a brush through his unruly hair, he quietly worked his way down to the lounge.

What had been a roaring fire the night before was now nothing more than ashes and a few glowing embers. Still, relighting them didn't prove to be difficult as the youngest redhead tossed some wood in the fireplace, and soon enough the flames were burning with all their former glory. Luke smiled, sitting on the carpet and allowing the blaze to chase away the coolness of the morning that had seeped into the building.

The lights on the Christmas tree still glittered, hovering protectively over nine neatly wrapped, colourful packages that sat below them. A quick glance out the window told Luke it would be a couple hours before the sun peaked up over the horizon, but he was content to wait. To wait and watch and wonder, just as he had for so many years before.

"Up before everyone else again I see," Asch's voice broke the sound of the steadily crackling fire.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Seven years, and you've yet to sleep past sunrise."

"Neither have you," Luke shot back.

"Yeah well, it's hard to sleep when someone is very much awake and excited."

"Nuh-uh, our fon slots were not synched last Christmas. You can't use that as an excuse."

"Yeah, whatever." Asch sat down on the floor beside Luke, playfully ruffling his sibling's hair.

"Stop that!" Luke shouted, then bit back any further protests. He hadn't meant to be that loud; it

wouldn't do to wake everyone else up. If there was one thing he'd learnt over the years it was this: it was all fine and well for them to get up early, but others did not appreciate being forced to conform to their sleep schedule on Christmas.

"Could the two of you be any louder?" Anise remarked from the doorway.

"Yep, why? Do you want us to be?" Anise rolled her eyes at Luke's reply.

"You too excited to sleep too?" Asch asked. "You're in the same boat as Luke here."

"Hey!" the redhead in question protested.

"No!" Anise argued, her cheeks puffed up. "I'm only up because the two of you are making such a racket! Do you know what time it is?"

"No," Asch answered with a smirk. "But I do know that your room is the furthest away from the lounge. If we haven't woken Jade up, there's no way we woke you up."

Anise grumbled something inaudible as Luke and Asch both snickered, but she accepted Luke's invitation to come sit with them near the fire.

"So...uh..." Anise broke the silence. "What do you do while waiting for everyone to get up?"

"We wait," Luke answered simply.

"That's it? Isn't that boring? I mean, I'd think it would be easier to just sleep in if all you do is sit and stare at the fire."

"We talk," Asch said softly, still entranced by the atmosphere that Christmas morning always created. "Tell stories, chat about small stuff, anything you want really; we just enjoy the quiet of the morning together."

Anise smiled and Luke was the first to offer a story. She was starting to understand, little by little why they loved Christmas so much. It was the times like these that they got to share together, and just be with each other that seemed so special. Soon Anise found herself offering tales of Christmases in Daath, little things, memories she'd cherished without even realizing it. Who knew, maybe it was the fact that they were keeping their voices down, or maybe it was the fact that the only light was coming from the fire's glow and the lights on the tree, but something about this room just filled her with warmth and excitement. There was no explanation for it; she'd talked with Asch and Luke thousands of times, but everything they shared just made her feel so much closer to them. Anise didn't really like the word, but it was the only one that came to mind and it fit beyond all shadow of a doubt. Something about this morning was just... magical.

The next person to join them was Guy who showed up about a half hour after Anise had. He smirked, claiming something like his internal clock was skewed having to get up with Asch and Luke all these years. Better than her excuse, but they definitely didn't buy it. After him, everyone slowly began to join them, adding their own stories and experiences to the conversation until well after the sun had risen. Mieu's stories about cheagle celebrations were actually kind of interesting, but it was Ginji's tales of Aston, Iemon and Tamara on Christmas morning that had proven to be the funniest.

Jade was the last person to join them and, besides being the only person not still in his pyjamas, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that his absence up until now was entirely on purpose. Jade never slept past sunrise... ever. Anise glared at him; he had probably been sitting in his room, which happened to be right next to the lounge, and spent his time listening to them all putting up with Luke's growing impatience.

Even once he'd finally sat down, he joined in on their conversation leaving the younger redhead bouncing in anticipation as they continued to discuss frivolous things. Anise really couldn't resist a snicker, she could see the appeal in Jade's game. She was starting to get curious as to how long they could go before Luke had a complete breakdown.

"Well then," Jade adjusted his glasses after another half hour of discussions. "I think we've tortured Luke long enough. Shall we get around to opening presents?"

"All right!" Luke cheered, earning him a laugh from everyone else.

"And let the guessing begin!" Anise declared, her own excitement overflowing. Thinking back on it, she had no idea where her previous patience had come from.

"Oh that's right," Natalia realized. "It's the last part of our gift exchange."

"Exactly!" Anise replied. "Man, I feel so bad for whoever had to buy for you, Colonel!"

Half the heads in the room turned at her statement. "You mean, it wasn't you?" Asch asked incredulously.

"Me? No!" she answered, shaking her head. "My person was bad enough, I couldn't imagine having to buy for the Colonel!"

"I think you'd better open yours first, Jade," Guy said with a nervous chuckle. "Or else the suspense just might kill Asch." Asch snapped to attention, stopping his eyes from their scrupulous analysis of everyone else, but it didn't spare him the laughter that echoed through the room.

Tear passed Jade the package with his name on it, and he gratefully accepted it. He carefully weighed the present, examining the angles and gently shook it; his analysis trying even the melodist's patience. Just open it already! But as carefully as he'd examined the gift, he utilized an equal amount of diligence in opening it, successfully extracting the box without tearing the paper once.

"Ah..." A glimmer of delight danced in Jade's ruby eyes as he held up the bottle of wine. "From St. Binah's vineyards. The year was a bit sweeter than most, and not quite to my taste." The Necromancer picked up the second item from the box, flipping through the book on the many wines from around the world. In spite of his words, he was clearly impressed and quite pleased with what he received. "Never-the-less, thank you, Luke."

"What?" Asch almost shouted in disbelief, everyone's gaze turning in amazement at the second redhead. "You mean you had Jade all this time?"

"Yeah," Luke confessed, somewhat amused at everyone's reactions. He was just glad that Jade had liked it, he had been so worried about the gift he'd finally decided upon.

"Not to put a damper on things or anything, but..." Guy began, "Luke, how did you pull that one off? You're not even of age yet, there's no way anyone would let you buy wine."

"I actually got Emperor Peony to help me," Luke admitted. "I knew Jade liked good wine, so Peony helped me out. He also helped me figure out what kind Jade would like the best."

"Yes, his Majesty was always rather fond of St. Binah's wine," Jade commented, setting the bottle down next to his chair and taking a closer look at the book Luke had bought him, his eyes scanning the pages at impossible speeds.

"Here, Tear," Ginji picked up the parcel closest to him and passed it over to the person whose name was on the tag. Jade put down his book, returning his attention to the proceedings before him. There was still plenty of interest that remained below the tree, disguised by colourful paper and ribbons.

Tear opened a large stuffed bear, and in spite of her best attempts to hide it (not that anyone knew why she still tried at this point, they all knew she had a weakness for anything cute; bonus points if it was fluffy and could be cuddled), was thrilled at the present. She clutched it's soft brown fur tightly, lost in a burst of delight before realizing everyone was watching her, at which point her face turned red. But everyone laughed and Tear's embarrassment quickly gave way to contentment, joining in her friend's mirth.

The teddy bear, which had already been named "Fluffy", sat on Tear's lap as she eyed her friends, trying to determine the person who had so carefully picked him out.

"Natalia," Tear concluded.

"No, it wasn't me," the Princess smiled, nodding her head towards the person sitting next to her.

"Asch?" Tear's cheeks gained a shade of pink. Of all the people to know to buy her something cute... Asch's grin confirmed her guess. Tear's face hid behind Fluffy and everyone chuckled in amusement.

More than eager to get the attention away from her, Tear passed Ion his gift. Ion tried, but proved himself incapable of the delicacy with which Jade had opened his present and eventually tore the wrapping paper. Ion's gift caught more than a few of them off guard as the Fon Master pulled out a pair of binoculars. Luke smiled; he didn't think anyone else had noticed...

"Anise?" Ion guessed, but his former guardian shook her head, confused as anyone else by the present.

"That one is from me," Natalia spoke up when Ion had given up. "You're quite difficult to buy for, especially when you're shopping with me," she teased.

"I never even noticed," Ion confessed.

"It was while you were fetching your gift," Natalia explained.

"But why binoculars?" Anise asked.

"So he can watch the birds in Daath, or anywhere else," Luke provided. He'd noticed how much Ion loved watching the birds that flittered around when they walked through the wilderness, and was amazed that Natalia had made the same observation. Ion smiled at his friends' perceptiveness. It was something he'd never voiced, but truly did enjoy.

Ginji went next, opening a cushion for his seat in the Albiore. Tear was only further embarrassed when the pilot identified her on his first guess. She was sure her poor wrapping job had given her away, but Ginji pointed out it was, in fact, the frills on the cushion. Guy was as perceptive as Ginji, easily picking out the pilot as the one who had gotten him the tool set. After all, no one else knew fon machines well enough to get him the right set of tools, or to know which ones were the best quality.

With Guy in a corner, already playing with his new toys, Natalia accepted her present and like Jade had, carefully weighed it in her hands. It wasn't overly heavy... she shook it. Really, the princess had no idea why she always bothered with her careful analysis of her gifts when she could just open it and find out... but something about the anticipation only added to the experience.

Asch's heart absolutely sank when he saw Natalia pull out an apron and a set of oven mitts. Of all the things... who in their right mind would give her that?

"Guy," Natalia guessed.

"Not me," Guy answered, as nervous as Asch felt about her present. No it was definitely not anyone who could be regularly subjected to the cooking she was bound to want to do with her new gift.

"Me!" Anise stated proudly. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to buy for a princess? It took me forever to come up with an idea! That was the only thing I could think of that I knew you didn't already have."

"Thank you, Anise." Natalia held up the matching oven mitts, placing one of them on to get a feel for them. "I've always wanted a set, but no one ever seemed to get me some. Now I'll be able to bake Asch birthday cake!" She said with a smile at her fiancé. The redhead forcefully returned the smile. Today was Christmas so she was safe... but Anise was so dead later.

"Master! Master!" Mieu excitedly bounced over to Luke, trying to hide something behind him. "I got you something really special too! I did!"

"What's that?" Luke inquired, still trying to get his snickers under control. He really shouldn't be laughing; no doubt Natalia would force him to eat some of that cake too, but he allowed Mieu to distract him from imagining the consequences that would ensue.

"Surprise!" Mieu pulled out an apple from behind his back.

"Thank you, Mieu," Luke smiled, accepting the small red fruit. He looked it over carefully and set it beside him, making a mental note to return it to the kitchen it was likely stolen from later. It was the thought that counted, and Luke ruffled the blue fur on the cheagle's head affectionately.

"Only three left to go," Luke commented grabbing the nearest package, flipping over the tag to read the name. "Your turn," he smiled and handed the parcel to his sibling.

Asch was never much one for preserving the paper that bound his gifts and it didn't take him long to get at the box inside. The eldest redhead held the package before him, more curious then ever as to what could possibly be inside. It was impossibly light, and the box itself was small. Asch removed the lid, spotting against the red tissue paper, what looked like two metal bars. One shined, with all the lustre of a new crafted instrument, but the other was worn, showing the years it had lived through.

"Wow! That's really cool Guy!" The eight-year-old redhead's eyes sparkled in excitement.

"What do you want, Luke?" The blond snapped back, annoyed at being interrupted yet again. Honestly, was it that much to ask for a break?

"What is that you're playing?" Luke continued curiously, oblivious to his attendant's irritation.

"It's a harmonica."

"It's really awesome, you're good!" Guy rolled his eyes at his charge's admiration. Of course he was fascinated, for Score knows what reason Luke had gotten himself into music lately and given the fact that he didn't have time to learn anything with all his other lessons, Guy had to put up with his fussing and whining. He was such a spoiled brat.

"Can you show me how?"

"You're not allowed, you know that." Guy shot, taking advantage of the low blow, and was satisfied to see the hurt look on Luke's face.

"Well then can I try... just once?"


"Then... would you play some for me? You play really well, it sounds so pretty."


No! Just go away Luke!"

"Why are you giving this to me?" Asch asked, his query directed solely at Guy.

"Wow, well he sure knew who it was," Anise commented. Seriously... what was with him and the Colonel? Asch didn't even think about it!

"It's something I figured you would have wanted," Guy answered simply.

Asch smiled fondly. "You're an idiot."

"What is it?" Luke asked, leaning over his sibling's shoulder.

Asch picked up the instrument and blew into it, a single note ringing pure and clean throughout the room. "It's a harmonica," the redhead answered.

"Wow! That's cool!" Luke's eyes lit up. "But... why are there two of them?"

Asch and Guy both smiled, but neither of them answered.

"Who's next? Who's next?" Anise asked eagerly.

Natalia grabbed one of the two remaining presents from beneath the tree. "Luke."

"Darn," Anise grumbled as Natalia handed the young noble his gift. Her disappointment was short lived, and like everyone else, she eagerly watched Luke unwrap his present. It actually surprised her, Anise expected it to be really hard to watch everyone else open their presents, but just seeing how happy all of her friends were made her happy too. It was just as exciting to see their reactions as it was anticipating what she might get... maybe even more so. Because in the end, Christmas was about seeing everyone else happy, right? That's why you gave presents in the first place, to make them as happy as they made you.

Luke's present was the smallest of all the packages to be found under the tree, but his excitement was in no way proportional to the size of his gift. His eagerness was only temporarily hindered by his inability to get into the small box and Asch was doing his utmost not to let himself be reduced to stitches. Other than the fact that his little brother had been foiled by four pieces of tape, it wasn't really all that funny; but the warmth and mirth that had seeped throughout the room had instilled itself in them all and really, Asch couldn't think of a time they'd all been happier. Everyone laughed as Luke let out an exasperated sigh, and gave in, going to fetch a dagger from his room when he just couldn't get into the box. Even with the knife Luke was having some trouble and Asch watched in wonder as his sibling finally succeeded at opening the box. Just what kind of tape did he use?

The charm hung on the end of a small chain, and Luke held it up in awe. The stone set in the center was surrounded by a gold frame and flashed a rainbow of colours as it caught the sunlight. Luke watched it turn, catching the light every few seconds and just couldn't avert his fascination. It was so pretty!

"That's fonimin," Tear commented also somewhat entranced by the object in Luke's hands.

"Isn't fonimin that stuff they need for fomicry?" Anise asked.

"Yes," the melodist replied. "Because the existing supplies are mostly used in fomicry research, not much is available for charms and jewellery even though it's such a pretty stone. It's quite a rare charm that is believed to protect travellers."

"Actually, that legend stems from it's use in fomicry," Jade explained. "Fonimin has been postulated to stabilize the Seventh Fonons in the replication process and, as such, is used to protect replicas from degrading after their creation. So in essence, it's a stone used to protect replicas. It was likely extrapolated to include the common-folk by the jewellers that made charms out of it."

"Wow!" Luke held his gift with an even deeper sense of awe. "Thanks Ion!"

Ion looked startled that he had been so easily singled out but a quickly replaced it with a smile. "You're welcome, Luke."

"Hey, Ion, what kind of tape did you use?" Luke asked as he set the charm back in its case. Soon enough it would find a home attached to his sword, but for now it was probably safer in the box... assuming Luke could get it open a second time.

"I apologize for that, I didn't intend for it to be difficult," Ion sheepishly admitted. "I just borrowed some tape from Jade."

"That would do it." Asch rolled his eyes. Why was he not surprised?

"I guess that leaves just one present," Guy commented eyeing the last box beneath the tree.

"Well, we have Luke who bought for Jade," Asch began. "I bought for Tear, Tear for Ginji, Ginji for Guy, Anise for Natalia, Natalia for Ion, Ion for Luke, and Guy for me. That means the only person left would be..."

Everyone's head simultaneously turned towards the Colonel who had a smirk on his face.

"Jade," Luke concluded, voicing everyone's thoughts.

Anise stared at her gift with a good deal more caution than before and Natalia couldn't honestly say she blamed her. She'd be a bit hesitant receiving a gift from Jade as well. There really was no saying what went through his head at any given time, and he had proven himself to be quite devious in his ways. Really, the only thing scarier than having to buy him something... was getting something from him.

But all reservations aside, Anise claimed the lonely gift and sat cross legged, balancing the sparkling box, her determined gaze staring down the bow that sat on top. No good, she had no idea. What in all of Auldrant could the Colonel have gotten her?

The box under the wrapping paper was plain and gave no indication of what its contents might be. Anise was determined to get into it without resorting to any kind of tools and Luke was in stitches watching her. Just you wait, she'd show him up! But in the end it was a failure. Just what the heck did Jade do, cement it shut?

Finally Anise conceded defeat, accepted the dagger Luke had used and cut through the cement tape. In a burst of eagerness, she flipped the box over and tore off the lid. Luke's amusement at her antics died when whatever she found inside stopped her in her tracks.

Anise's hands were shaking as she reached in the box and pulled out a hand-made doll. It wore a simple pink dress with white lace along the bottom. Two brown buttons glistened on its face partially hidden by the black yarn bangs that fell in its face. In the doll's hands was a single candy cane, and the rest of her black hair was pulled back and fastened by two barrettes, the kind with the glass beads on the end, at the center of which sat two pink flowers.

Anise clutched the doll burying her face in its dress to hide her tears.

"Are you going to be okay, Anise?" Ion asked hesitantly as she continued to sob into her doll.

"Of- Of course I'm going to be okay!" she managed. "This is the- the best Christmas I've ever had!" Her sobbing began with renewed intensity and Ion rubbed her back comfortingly.

A smile swept through the group; and, while the fire still roared in the background, they all had to concede that Jade had won their little game.

Luke sat on the floor, his present still cradled in his hands, and his friends all around him. For times like these, he could never find the words to describe them, but he would treasure the memories all the same. Christmas was still far from over, and he didn't doubt that the rest of the day, just like the next year, would bring happiness and even more cherished memories.

"Merry Christmas everyone."

Luke's friends all turned to face him, light in their smiles and the same warmth in their hearts.

"Merry Christmas."