Needles

"Eh?" Komui peered through the hair falling in front of his glasses. He eyed the mismatched pair of exorcists in front of him, waiting for the punch line. Neither the hugely built man nor the slender female cracked a smile. Both waited expectantly. To stall for time, he straightened the papers on his desk, which was a joke, considering the state of his desk. Despite his remarkable intellect, he wasn't coming up with any answers and he gave up all pretenses. "Why on earth would you need a tree?"

"I know China doesn't celebrate this holiday but for us, it's a Christmas tradition. We bring a conifer into our home, in this case, the Order." His voice, deep as a well and raspy from the climb up, suited the man's wide shoulders and muscular stature. His serious demeanor was at odds with his hopeful expression.

Bewildered, Komui watched them doubtfully. About this time of the year in China, he and his little sister would be decorating their quiet house with lovely, red patterns for New Years. He had heard of the Christmas holiday but trees in houses? That tidbit he'd missed.

"I see no problem," he conceded hesitantly, "but why are you asking my permission?" After all, it was a western custom. Surely they didn't expect him to deny their holiday traditions.

The female exorcist laughed at his overall confusion and explained in light, singsong French accent, "we didn't know what to expect, sir. Your predecessor, Supervisor Leverrier, banned any sort activities in the Order."

"It's true," agreed the man-Brutus Maxum, Komui suddenly remembered his name-nodding grimly. "Said it didn't suit the conduct of a holy war, he did. For years, we only set up this sorry, little weed in an inconspicuous corner of the mess hall where he wouldn't notice it much."

Gwen Frere agreed and smiled at her friend. "Don't worry, gros copain. It'll be different this year." She turned to Komui with sharp, crystal blue eyes. "Oui?"

Komui nodded hurriedly and smiled in encouragement. "Sure, sure. Get your tree, decorate the Order, enjoy yourselves. I don't mind at all." And he didn't, really. Since his arrival at the Order three months ago he hadn't grown accustomed to the gloomy and dreary aspects of the fortress. A little color would certainly help the place.

Brutus trapped his hand in a friendly but crushing handshake. "You're the best, Chief."

"This will boost the staff's morale," Gwen nodded with a bright smile. "Merci beaucoup."

Before Komui could respond a small figure darted through the open doors and skidded to a halt when she spotted the two exorcists. Before Brutus and Gwen could turn, she spirited her way past and tucked up behind him. "Lenalee," Komui greeted his baby sister, "Is something the matter?" Since their reunion three months ago, she rarely left his side. Lately, she'd regained some of her independence but she still never wandered far from him.

Lenalee shook her head but she seemed mesmerized by the two exorcists. "I, uh. . .just came to. . ."

Feeling the child's nervousness, Gwen smiled broadly at the tiny nine year old. "Well, mon ange, would you like to go on a Christmas tree mission?"

Using her unruly bangs as a shield, Lenalee regarded the two exorcists with suspicion. Did she hear that right? Something about a tree? Komui smiled at her and everyone watched her. Lenalee tucked farther behind Komui and curled her fingers into his lab coat.

Gwen tried a reassuring smile, knowing the history of this particular girl. "There will be snow, there'll be trees," she tempted and patted Brutus' muscled shoulder as if he were a well mannered puppy. "And we'll make the boys do all the work."

Brutus understood his size could be intimidating to children and, like Gwen, he had heard the rumors of Lenalee's years in the Order. He couldn't pull off well-mannered puppy but he did offer her a contagious grin.

Lenalee couldn't help but smile shyly in return. From time to time she had seen him around the Order leaving for and returning from missions with his mace like anti-akuma weapon. She had envied his size, knowing no one could make him do something he didn't want to do. Her brother was tall and even he had to look up if he wanted to meet Brutus' steel grey eyes. Penetrating eyes that didn't miss a thing but twinkled when he caught her watching him.

Komui affectionately threaded his fingers through her hair and caught her attention "Why don't you ask your friends to go?"

Lenalee weighed her options with a caution no nine year old should display and caused Komui's heart to contract. Gwen and Brutus witnessed the same and suddenly today wasn't just about holiday traditions and Christmas trees; it was about bringing fun back into this little girl's life.

"Okay," she answered simply and darted from the room.

"We'll wait by the stables," Gwen called after her.

Big brother instincts kicked in before she fully made her escape and Komui started shouting instructions. "Wear your warm coat. Don't forget your scarf and mittens. Don't stay out too…."

Lenalee didn't want to give him time to change his mind and she sprinted out of hearing range. She slowed only slightly while she thought of her friends. Where would they be at this time? Dinnertime was over. Kanda would probably be in the training hall or in his room. Lenalee veered towards the staircase for the exorcists' living quarters. She doubted Kanda would find the idea off tramping around in snow in search of a tree appealing but she hoped he would come. She needed him to come.

He didn't answer when she knocked on his door and Lenalee charted a course to the training hall. In her haste, she nearly plowed into the eleven year old. "Kanda," she jumped back in surprise and winced as when he lifted his eyes to meet hers. A whopping, dark purple bruise covering his right cheek, spanning from his jawbone to just under his eye. He tried keeping it concealed by his short hair, but wasn't completely successful. "That looks like it hurts."

The usual bitter temper accompanied his fresh collection of rapidly healing bruises. Kanda blinked once and waited. When Lenalee looked as if she might stare at him all day, he asked in a discouraging tone, "What do you want?"

She winced and struggled not let his tone bother her. "Brutus and miss Gwen are going to look for a tree, and they asked if I wanted to come. You can come too."

"Why the hell would I go outside to find a tree?" He looked perturbed at the mere concept.

Just as I thought. Lenalee grinned impishly. "Because you won't find one inside."

Kanda reached new levels of annoyed and started purposefully towards his room. Lenalee dogged his heels. "I don't really get it either, but going outside sounds fun. There's the trees, the snow, it'll be fun."

"It's cold out there," he muttered and closed the door in her face.

Lenalee frowned at the wooden door. She really wanted him to go. It would be a good opportunity to restore their neglected friendship. But how could she convince him? Tease him about the cold? No, teasing got the door in her face. Beg? That would only irritate him but it was her best plan. "Please?"

She almost heard his sigh before the door opened reluctantly. She gently gripped his sleeve so he wouldn't slam the door this time around. She smiled her best beguiling smile. "You're always training with Mr. General Tiedoll."

"And whenever I am here, you're always with your brother," he shot back reproachfully.

Lenalee's smile faded in guilt. She favored spending time with her newly restored brother and knowingly neglected her friend. Had he been lonely, she wondered? He would never admit it and would most likely say he was glad to have her off his hands, but still. . .she wondered. "I'm sorry." she apologized earnestly. "I would really like if you came with me. Please?"

Kanda's expression remained blank and she dropped her hand from his sleeve. Lenalee stepped back and discouraged, turned away. "I'll meet you at the stables in five minutes," said on a deep sign of resignation and his door closed before she could say thank you.

Now, Daisya behaved less predictably. The new exorcist joined the Order a few months prior to her brother. Daisya Barry could be considered Kanda's complete opposite but Lenalee had quickly become his friend as well. After a safari hunt of the Order's halls and interrogating clueless people, she eventually found him in the exorcists' lounge, taking a nap on one of the worn-out sofas. Or so it appeared. "Need something, Moppet?" he asked drowsily, not even opening his eyes.

"Wanna come outside? A couple exorcists invited us to help look for a Christmas tree." Lenalee quickly explained, already knowing his answer.

"Sure, I'll come." he laughed, patting her shoulder as he shifted to sit. Daisya would do almost anything to evade boredom. "What's a Christmas tree?"

Lenalee grinned in response and rushed to her small room, two hallways over. It was a small piece of space, more cozy than cramped. Since her brother's arrival, she had no reason to escape and someone had finally removed the wire mesh barring her only window. Bright, winter sunlight streamed into the room and swept away the dark, depressing aura she'd known during the first four long years she'd occupied this room.

Knowing she would soon be enjoying the sunlight outdoors, Lenalee spared no time for it now. She quickly rummaged through her wardrobe, bypassing a couple spare uniforms, a raincoat, and several leisure outfits. She pushed everything aside and unearthed a thick, black coat. It was similar to her everyday uniform, except it was heavier and lined with white fur along the wide hood and the sleeve cuffs. The garment was hefty but designed so it wouldn't hinder the agile movement she needed for fighting. It wasn't often needed it as she rarely had missions in cold regions. She patted it down and found mittens in the pockets and her scarf in the sleeve. Lenalee tossed everything behind her where it landed on the bed and slipped on warm leggings. And her boots…well, they were her Dark Boots.

Knowing Kanda would get impatient and leave and Daisya would be bored to the point of mischief, Lenalee caught up her winter clothing and dashed out of her room. "Pfft!" she hissed, blowing hair out of her face and jammed her arms through the sleeves. She shoved the mittens in her mouth and started wrapping the long gray scarf around her neck. One end dangled longer than the other and she stumbled. With frustration she straightened it again. Her scarf battle continued as she ran to meet her friends.

-0-0-0-

Kanda and Daisya waited for her by the stairway to the underground canal. One wore a fierce scowl while the other pretended not to poke him. Typical. Lenalee rushed to greet them before Kanda maimed the unrelenting thirteen year old. Once more she trod on her scarf nearly strangling and tripping herself simultaneously and stopped with near disaster in front of the older boys. Kanda's scowl deepened as he knelt before her.

"You're ten years old." he scolded shortly. "You can fight akuma but you can't manage a scarf."

"Fighting akuma is more important," she responded quickly and almost coaxed a smile from him.

"You're not a baby and you should know how to do this by now." He double wrapped the long scarf so it no longer dragged and settled it comfortably around her neck. His fingers gently brushed her bright red cheeks and Lenalee knew he surreptitiously checked for fever. Her cheeks were flushed from running in her heavy coat but Lenalee recognized the touch so often performed by Komui.

Like herself, Kanda and Daisya also wore their winter coats, which were in similar to their standard ones, except for the fur lining. Neither of them wore scarves or gloves and Lenalee thought to remove her own. As if he could read her thoughts, Kanda glared at her just daring her to remove the scarf.

"Put your mittens on," he ordered and followed with, "or do you need help with those."

Lenalee shook her head vigorously and stuck her tongue out at him. The first mitten went on easy enough, but the second resisted her efforts. Lenalee could almost visualize the sigh building in Kanda's chest as he glowered at her. She nipped the cuff with her teeth, yanked it on and held up her hand triumphantly.

Kanda shook his head, unimpressed, "She can fight akuma but mittens defeat her."

"Maybe she bites her enemies," Daisya responded to the other boy but praised her efforts. "Good job, Moppet." He gave an affectionate hair ruffle and started down the stairs. "Let's go, then."

"I got the mittens right," she muttered without glancing at Kanda and trailed after Daisya.

Lenalee kept her hands firmly on the stair rail and planted her feet beside each other before taking the next step rather than putting one foot in front of the other on each step like the older (and taller) boys did. Daisya continued without noticing her painstaking progress, but Lenalee was agonizingly aware of Kanda's irritation as he followed her. She quickened her pace as best she could but her right heel suddenly caught on the step edge and she pitched forward with a shriek.

Her neatly tied scarf suddenly tightened around her neck and she was hauled back to an upright position, heart racing. "Daisya, carry her or I might actually live to be an old man."

At her scream, Daisya sprinted up the stairs but now he turned his back to her. "Up you get, Moppet." he said, hoisting her onto his shoulders.

"Are you sure I won't be too heavy?"

He grinned as they started off again. "Hey, biologically, I really am a big brother. I used to lug around two brothers and a little sister just like you, all at once."

"Oh." Lenalee nodded, trying to hide her confusion but her inquisitive nature won out. "What does 'biologically' mean?"

"It means he and his brothers and sister are in the same family." Kanda explained dryly. "For example, Komui is your biological brother rather than a self-appointed one."

"Yeah, like Kanda and myself," Daisya added, "your adoptive brothers."

"Kanda and Daisya are my brothers, too!" Lenalee squealed, squeezing Daisya's neck in an awkward hug.

"She's never going to forget that." Kanda remarked, walking alongside them now.

"I don't mind, I'd take her over crybaby Darna any day."

Lenalee tried seeing past Kanda's dark hair as she heard her friend sigh. "I'm sorry, Kanda. You don't have to be my brother."

Black eyes flashed with a mixture of emotions but she held her ground to show her sincerity. Lenalee didn't like upsetting him, and she definitely didn't like it when he retreated to his room for hours because of a harmless comment. After a moment, Kanda closed his eyes and smirked slightly. "Be a good kid, and I'll get you something nice for Christmas."

A broad smile crossed her face and she nodded. "Me, too!" Apology accepted!

-0-0-0-

The stables were more like a series of caves down a tunnel that branched away from the catacomb river. Most of the time it was empty, except for a one or two horses at a time as well as a few carriages the Order kept in storage. Lenalee had explored the stables for an escape route and after a failed attempt, she hadn't been allowed near them. With Komui's appearance at the Order, it was one of the many restrictions that had been lifted.

With almost all of the exorcists, majority of the generals, scientists, branch heads, and Central Administration officials at Headquarters for the holidays, the stables were nearly filled to capacity with weary horses and worse-for-wear carriages. Lenalee did not hold fond memories of the stables and she padded nervously after her friends, stealing leery glances at the sturdy animals.

Gwen looked up from the horse she was saddling and waved back. "Très bien, you made it!"

All three friends stopped abruptly. When Gwen and Brutus invited her along, Lenalee had thought only the five of them were going. She definitely did not expecting almost forty people to be milling about stables. Daisya and Kanda shot questioning glances her way but encountered only puzzlement.

"Miss Gwen, why are so many people down here?" stammered Lenalee.

"Word spread," she grinned in delight. "So, we're bringing back at least six trees." All three children looked startled, so she explained, "We have volunteers and one tree just isn't going to cut it for the Order." Lenalee shook her head, bewildered. Most of the forty-something people were finders, but there were a few other exorcists, and she recognized a few of the younger members of the science division.

"This is stupid." Kanda muttered, stepping toward the stall of a smallish mare with a cloudy, blue-grey coat. "Why do we need a cavalry?"

"You don't have to come." Lenalee said in conciliation. "I know you don't like crowds, so-"

"I could use the fresh air." he interrupted. It had been at least three or four days since he'd set foot outside, mostly due to his dislike of cold weather, even if England's winter season was mild. He reached over to pat the horse's muzzle.

"Her name's Mary Blue." Gwen introduced the boy to the grey mare. She tilted her chin to a different stall. "And that one's Rosa."

"You're cute." Daisya complimented the light chestnut named Rosa and the mare whickered in his face.

Lenalee found herself standing alone in the aisle while both boys got acquainted with their respective mounts. Finders were saddling the mares and getting them ready for travel. Just being in the stables with the smells and stables churned memories and Lenalee backed away involuntarily.

"Lenalee?" Kanda asked but jerked in surprise when the mare suddenly rubbed her muzzle against the side of his head. Absently he gave the horse a stroke and focused on his friend who was looking much smaller when standing alone in the stables. "Well?"

"Uh . . ." Lenalee took another step back. "Maybe this wasn't a good idea. . .I mean. . .Komui will get worried if I'm out a long time. It's awfully cold and you're probably tired from training, plus that bruise must hurt-"

Lenalee shuffled her feet when Kanda demanded, "What's gotten into you? Five minutes ago, you were begging me to come outside with you and Daisya."

"It's just-"

"Are you afraid of horses?"

"No...yes...not really. I…" Lenalee hesitated and made further progress out of the stable.

The finder tending to Mary Blue glanced down at her. "There's nothing to be afraid, miss exorcist. Sure, you have to be careful, but Mary's not scary. Are you, girl?" The mare swished her tail and nuzzled Kanda again, nearly knocking him off the stall door.

To save himself further abuse, Kanda slipped easily into the saddle. "I guess you haven't ridden before," he observed from his perch high on the horse's back.

"I've ridden once," she admitted quietly.

"Then it must be Kanda you're scared of," Daisya said but unsuccessfully teased a smile out of her.

"You'll need to come up with Daisya or me as I'd rather not explain to your brother why you fell off your horse."

Lenalee winced at the thought of falling. "Maybe I just won't go."

"Trees, snow, fun," Kanda impatiently reminded, tossing her own words back at her.

Her stubborn streak propelled her forward but she froze when nearing the horse. Kanda leaned over and extended a hand. "All right, come on." Lenalee didn't move and his open hand twitched with irritation. With great reluctance, the Chinese girl raised her hand and gripped Kanda's wrist. Grasping hers in turn, the older boy pulled at her. "Now put your foot in the stirrup."

"I know how to get on a horse." With forced determination, Lenalee jammed her toe in the stirrup and propelled herself upward. Whether her Dark Boots kicked in or it was sheer nervousness, her momentum took Kanda completely by surprise and they both slid over the side of the horse. He hit the ground with a grunt followed by an 'ooompf' when Lenalee landed on top of him. Mary Blue shook herself, peering at the two children on the floor with inquisitive black eyes.

Lenalee skittered back on all fours staring in amazement as Daisya led Rosa near Mary Blue and scratched the muzzle of both horses. He kept his face buried against Rosa's neck as his shoulders shook with laughter. One look at Kanda's expression and she guessed the reason Daisya was actually concealing his amusement.

"I didn't mean to, please don't be angry."

Kanda glared at Lenalee, the mare as she chewed on his hair, and finally at Daisya who really wasn't hiding his laughter all that well. He didn't say a word and Lenalee wondered if he was even breathing.

Kanda rose with a grace uncommon to an twelve year old boy and vaulted effortlessly back into the saddle. His hand once again lowered to her, rock solid and uncompromising. Knowing she couldn't press her luck much further with Kanda, Lenalee climbed to her feet and tentatively approached the horse. Sights, smells, and sounds swamped her senses and fought to overcome her quickly mustered courage.

"She's friendly," Kanda insisted, exasperation sharpening his tone. "Look at Daisya for God's sake!"

He was right; the Turkish boy was now ruffling Mary Blue's dark grey mane. "There's a good girl," he cooed and kissed the horses' muzzle. Both horse sought his attention and butted their heads against the slight figure. Daisya chuckled and returned their affection.

How does he do that? Lenalee wondered. That beast was twice his size.

"Daisya, help me with the duckling."

The older boy left off his conversation with the horses and approached Lenalee with a grin. He swooped her up, lifting her halfway as Kanda leaned down to give her a boost the rest of the way up. Her arms latched around his waist in a vice-like grip as she settled onto the horse's rump. Mary Blue's tail swished as she shifted and adjusted to the weight of her passengers. Lenalee buried her face between Kanda's shoulders and tightened her hold. Kanda attempted inhaling and discovered he could still breathe if only shallowly. He shot a glance in her direction but Lenalee's her face remained pressed against his back.

-0-0-0-

The tree-hunting party trailed their way out of the cave and as the fresh air rifled through her hair, Lenalee managed to peer at the landscape around them. As the pure beauty of the brilliant sun and sparkling snow captivated her, she nearly forgot her worries but her hold never loosened on Kanda's waist. The large group meandered through the dappled shadows of the forest, weaving through bare branches and snow-draped conifers the elder exorcists deemed unsuitable.

Gwen kept shaking her head disdainfully at the sight of them. "Non, non, these won't do." Beside her, Brutus would nod grimly as though the group was undertaking a critical mission. On occasion they would stop to discuss the merits of one particular tree but the group always pressed on with all trees standing.

Lenalee's home region of China never yielded this much snow and she watched in fascination as the walking finders sunk halfway up their knees. No wind stirred the trees or disturbed a fluffy snowflake; the day was as calm as possible and much appreciated by the impromptu expedition. Ahead of them, Gwen started singing a merry tune to which several people joined. The song was in French so Lenalee and her friends stayed silent but Daisya murmured a lyric or two that he recognized with his sketchy knowledge of the foreign language.

Lenalee raised her head as a large icicle suddenly reflected the light of the sun. There were lots of icicles and she was captivated by the winter landscape of the English countryside. In the summer, the rolling hills around the Order were covered in thick forestland, except for the nearby town, affectionately dubbed by the exorcists as the 'The Town Below'.

No one remembered the actual name, but it sourced of most of their supplies. Squinting through the thick forest, Lenalee could just make out the shining rooftops in the valley. She'd been there once or twice and often wondered if the residents found it daunting to live in the shadow of demon-hunters. Maybe she could talk her friends into visiting today. After all, where else could she get a Christmas present for them, or even find the materials to make one. The science labs? Lenalee shuddered at the possible outcomes of that approach.

Some time into the journey, she found herself wishing for a timepiece. It felt like hours since they left the Order and Gwen still declared non, non, every time they approached a promising group of trees. Just what did the perfect Christmas tree look like? Didn't they all look the same? Beautiful or not, boredom crept into her mood. She looked back at Daisya, hoping he wasn't feeling the same way, boredom being his most hated foe. But the older boy seemed content enough. Kanda didn't seem too bothered either.

"Watch yourself." he warned suddenly, ducking his head to avoid a low hanging branch.

Lenalee copied his movements, but a clump of snow plopped onto her head. Crying out in surprise, she lifted her head and shook out her green hair. "Kanda, what's the Japanese word for snow?"

"Yuki."

She smiled and pressed her cheek against his back. "Yuki." she whispered the new word. It sounded like his name 'Yu', but given the annoyance she'd caused him earlier, it was probably best not mention this. But still. . . "Then what does 'yu' mean?"

"Yu? Distant, leisurely. Sometimes it means gentleness and superiority."

"It suits you; why don't you use it?"

He answered with a growl and clicked his tongue. Mary Blue snorted and quickened her pace. Lenalee buried her face in Kanda's back, stifling a whimper.

"Lena, stop squeezing so hard!" Kanda yelped.

"Sorry!" She loosened her death grip around his waist. Since when does he know how to ride a horse? She'd known him for four years today, actually, and he'd never given any indication he was any good with these creatures. The extent of what he could and couldn't do was something he didn't discuss. Then again, talking wasn't exactly something he did. "You're really good with horses," she said shyly.

Rosa trotted up beside them, Daisya still on her back. With how careless he could be, Lenalee had half expected him to fall off in the first twenty yards. "Leave it to Kanda to be more social with animals than people."

Kanda glared at him. "Animals don't do stupid things and they don't talk back."

"Who me?" Daisya grinned and galloped off. "Catch me if you can!"

At Kanda's encouragement, Mary Blue leaped after Rosa. The horses swerved and weaved through the procession and galloped into the open clearing. The animal strained beneath her, hooves pounded against the snow packed ground. Kanda narrowed his eyes and grit his teeth in anticipation as Mary Blue shot past Daisya's mount. Rosa pounded in pursuit after them, straining to catch them, the sound of her breathing loud and labored, chasing…chasing…chasing.

Lenalee's screams reverberated through the forest. Kanda pulled hard on the reins and Mary Blue responded instantly, rearing to an abrupt stop. Daisya reacted simultaneously, sawing on the reins to keep Rosa from barreling into the pair. Before his mount completely stopped he flew from the saddle and sprinted to his friends. Lenalee's cries chilled to their bones as the two friends sought to comfort her.

"No, no, no, no, no…" came the unrelenting repetition. She slid from the horse's back before Kanda could catch her. Lenalee landed hard on her knees but scrabbled into a run before either boy could react. "No, no, no, no, no…"

Daisya swerved to intercept her as Kanda soared off the horse and dashed after her. His longer legs closed the distance between them but Lenalee ran as if her life depended on it. Daisya reached her first as she ran towards him and not away. His arm caught around the waist and her momentum swung them around. He landed hard on his back with the tiny girl pounding her fists again him. Daisya threw up his arms in defense and she took off running. Before she ran two steps, Kanda caught her from behind and pinned her arms.

"I can't go back, I can't go back," she screamed, kicking viciously until he was forced to pin her to the snow covered ground.

"Lenalee," he growled fiercely, concern making his voice gruff. It seemed to penetrate her terror and she stared at him with eyes wide. Tears pooled and Kanda couldn't face her heartbreak.

Daisya scrambled to their side and whispered her name gently. Her eyes flicked to him, only half aware. Her gaze darted everywhere as she returned from the nightmare's grip. From his place of sitting on top of her, Kanda felt the fight or flight tension leave her body and he shifted to sit in the snow near her.

"Lenalee-" Kanda faltered when terror stricken eyes faced him.

"What happened, Moppet?" And even Daisya with his devil may care attitude found it difficult to face her tears.

A shadow fell over them and all three started at the appearance of an exorcist on horseback. So involved with Lenalee, neither battle experienced boy had heard his approach. Instinctively they moved to stand in front of the frightened girl.

"Everything okay?" he asked, dismounting and leading his black gelding as he approached. The coppery-haired exorcist towered over the two boys but they held their ground. "Did anyone fall off?"

Kanda just glared. Daisya was unusually subdued. "It's cool. No one is hurt."

The older man circled the two and knelt by Lenalee. His eyes were penetrating as he cupped her face and brushed her tears away with his thumb. "Is that true?"

Lenalee nodded shyly in confirmation and hiccupped, causing the man to give her a warm smile. She recognized him from spending so much time in her brother's office. Although he was dressed in casual clothes, she knew this man was an exorcist and thought his name was Kazana Reed. As he rose to his feet, he drew the young girl to hers.

"Are you sure you're not hurt?" His eyes searched all three for injuries. "This is a little far from home to have an accident, kids." They nodded solemnly as he mounted his horse and turned back towards the main group. "We should join the others."

No one said a word amongst the three friends. Kanda remounted Mary Blue and held his hand out to Lenalee. Her hesitation was obvious but no more incidents occurred. Daisya waited until the slight girl was settled firmly behind Kanda before returning to his own horse. His concerned eyes never left her. Kanda made no complaint when her arms tightened painfully around his waist. Only the sound of the horses' hooves crunching in the snow could be heard as they returned to the main group.

"Arrêt," Gwen's voice cut through the crowd's chatter. All eyes turned to the woman. "This is a good place!"

With a determination to salvage the day, Lenalee turned her head view the spot that captured Gwen's attention. They were standing in a semi-thick grove of tall, dark evergreens full to the brim with needles. She wasn't an expert, but she knew these trees were healthy. Perfect, some might say.

Brutus nodded his approval and addressed the group. "All right, scout the area. We're looking for a lot of tall trees wit' green needles and lots of 'em. Six is the minimum, but no going over nine; we'll save some for next year."

There were cheers, nods and scattered sounds of agreement as the Christmas tree expedition split into several groups. They wandered in all directions, like wobbly marbles spilling from their bag. All except Lenalee, Kanda, and Daisya. The three children sat with unnerving stillness, even their mounts remained motionless. It was Daisya, never one to sit still for long, who broke the spell. He slipped easily from his horse and circled to lift Lenalee down.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, holding her longer than necessary. "I never meant to scare you."

Lenalee couldn't speak without tears. Instead she gave him a quick hug, which he returned before backing away, and acting all 'boy' again. Kanda landed lightly next to them, ignoring both.

"This was your idea," he muttered without glancing at the girl, "let's find a tree."

Before he finished speaking, Brutus' voice carried across the clearing. "This is the one."

"Race ya," Daisya grinned and took off running.

Kanda sprinted after him but not before grabbing Lenalee's hand and pulling her after him. If you could choose only one thing the girl could do well, running would be at the top of the list. The younger pair shot past Daisya and Kanda felt the sensation as Lenalee's Innocence activated. Soon the young girl left him with snow in his face as she exploded into the lead. Her laughter floated back to him and he allowed a slight smile, as long as no one could see it.

She waited smugly with the group of adults as they surveyed the chosen tree. Kanda and Daisya joined them, still breathless from their race. Impatient with the inactivity, Kanda glared at all of them. Lenalee yelped and jumped back as he unsheathed Mugen. Where was he keeping that?

"Innocence activate," his fingers sliding along the blade as his equip-type Innocence stirred. The adults so intent on their tree didn't even notice the boy until it was too late. Two quick strides brought him to the base of the tree and one definitive slash brought the tree crashing down.

"Whoa," Brutus yelled before Kanda could direct his attention to another tree. "Wait, wait, wait," miserably failing to conceal his laughter. He knelt before the young boy and attempted to be serious. "You're missing the point here."

"Which is," returned with a growl.

"The ax, the chopping, the camaraderie…the whole adventure."

Kanda's baleful eyes zeroed on Lenalee. "This IS stupid," he repeated his earlier estimation and started for the horses.

With a mischievous grin, Daisya pelted after him. Lenalee simply followed because she wouldn't know a perfect Christmas tree from all the other trees in the forest. Kanda's swift stride put a lot of distance between him and the adults. Daisya tackled his legs and set them rolling in the snow. They kicked, punched, and rolled until both were breathless and neither could be declared a winner. There was never an occasion when they could play like this. It was always training, training, assignments, Innocence, traveling to assignment, and more training. Lenalee couldn't remember the last time she was allowed to have fun. She laughed in delight as they sat up.

"You look like snowmen."

The two boys exchanged plotting expressions. "Tickle the Moppet!"

They pounced and attempted to tickle her. Her heavy coat made it next to impossible but Lenalee laughed until she couldn't breath. She squirmed and twisted but there was no getting loose. They settled for shoving snow down her coat. In revenge, she wrapped her arms around each of their necks and gave them both a kiss on the cheek. Kanda and Daisya rocketed away from her in opposite directions and she giggled in pure feminine joy. Boys were so predictable.

Crack!

All three of them froze to the sound of splintering wood, then a loud crash. For a moment, all was silent, then Brutus roared, "Two down!"

Kanda took advantage of Daisya's inattention and shoved him into the snow. The boy retaliated with gobs of snow flung in his direction. Lenalee sighed with a woman's impatience.

"Oh, don't start again," she scolded. "I'm bored watching the two of you."

"Well, we can't have that," Daisya declared dramatically and pressed Kanda's face into a snowdrift. "We are at your service."

"Who's we?" Kanda asked in a low tone after a flurry of kicks brought him free of the snow and sitting on top of Daisya.

"I wanna play house." Her answer forestalled Daisya's retaliation and both boys grimaced.

"Well, we said we would-"

"I never said I would."

"-so we'd better go with it." He stood and brushed himself free of snow. "Besides, making the house it the fun part."

"How do we do that?" asked Lenalee.

-0-0-0-

As Daisya explained the requirements for house making, sounds of the expedition resonated in the forest. Crunching snow, shouting, axes on wood. Every now and then, there was the sound of wood splintering and then a crash would soon follow. His instructions were simple enough; pile together snow and pack it firmly. She helped shove together a sizable mound and Lenalee watched carefully as Daisya packed it together to make the shelter sturdy and durable.

"You always make it at least chest high if it's for yourself," he said, standing back to measure. "But for three of us, we'll have to make it a bit wider. Most important, remember to always put your door on the side of the hut opposite the direction the wind's coming from."

"That way!" Lenalee cried excitedly, pointing toward the east. "The wind's coming from there!"

"Very good!" Daisya ruffled her hair before kneeling to dig a hole in west-facing side of the mound. "All right, tricky part. You have to hollow it carefully so it doesn't collapse."

"Did Mr. Tiedoll teach you how to do this?"

"Yep. Last month in Siberia. That's a really cold region on the other side of the world." Daisya was now halfway inside and shoveling snow out behind him. Once in a while, he pulled himself back out and shook his brown hair free of snow.

It seemed like hard work and Lenalee found herself wishing there was a way to help him. The entrance would only fit one at a time for the moment. She rocked back and forth on her haunches as she watched Daisya's body from the waist down. Little by little, a pair of long legs at first, then kneecaps to wriggling feet and finally, a set of boots disappeared into the mound.

"All right, Moppet, help me hollow this out!" shouted the shelter. "Be careful or this thing will collapse and we'll have to start over!"

Lenalee pushed herself off the ground and made her way to the entrance, then turned and looked around. "Where did Kanda go?" she asked absently.

"I thought he was with you."

"He's not." Come to think of it, he hadn't joined the snow piling efforts. Why hadn't she noticed his absence sooner?

Daisya poked his head out of the snow mound. "I wouldn't worry. He can look after himself."

Lenalee knew that to be true. If Kanda wanted to be alone, it was best to leave him be and worrying wouldn't help a bit. She crawled into the snow shelter and gaped at the shelter's interior. Though the lighting was poor, it wasn't pitch black as she'd expected. Daisya told her to scrape the snow on the walls until she could just barely see light coming through.

"Take your time," he advised, "and don't overwork yourself. Sweat's bad because you lose body heat faster that way."

"Kay!"

Burrowing into the mound and shoveling extra snow back outside took longer than she expected. Between her and Daisya, it must've taken another half hour to hollow out the shelter. She took several breaks outside but Daisya worked nonstop, kicking snow from the mound.

Lenalee turned her head around, still wondering about Kanda. Sighing dejectedly, she crawled back into the shelter.

"Almost done!" Daisya announced and for the finishing touch, he punctured a small hole in the ceiling. "For ventilation." he explained with a grin, then took off his winter coat to barricade the entrance. "And there's the door."

"Won't you get cold?"

Daisya sat back, keeping himself hunched over and shook his head. "Nah, two people produce enough heat between them to last the night in a properly made shelter. True, I might need something warmer, but we're not staying too long. I'll be fine." Reaching out, he patted the walls. "So, this is how you build a snow shelter. You can use evergreen branches for insulation, too. There's your survival lesson for the day, kiddo."

"It's a little cramped." Lenalee admitted, copying his position. Her fingers were tingling by now and she couldn't feel her toes.

Daisya shrugged. "Better than outside."

He was right; Lenalee had to admit it was pretty warm in the snow hut, but she hoped she would never take a mission where she would be desperate enough to spend a night in one of these. Besides, despite Daisya's claim that he wasn't cold, she could clearly see him shivering.

The black coat blocking the entrance shifted to the side and Gwen peered into the shelter. "So you finished it! Good job, it's really cute!"

Lenalee climbed out of the shelter. "Miss Gwen, you haven't seen Kanda, have you?"

The woman frowned. "I thought he was with you."

Daisya crawled out of the shelter and slipped into his coat. "He went off somewhere and we haven't seen him in a while. Thought maybe he was out leveling the forest with Mugen." Gwen couldn't help but smile.

"I'll look for him!" Lenalee volunteered and raced off before anyone could stop her.

"Is that really wise," Gwen wondered, watching the little girl disappear into the dark forest.

"If Kanda disappeared," Daisya sounded much older than his twelve years, "it is probably best if Lenalee is the one to find him." He shook off his mood and grinned. "He might not kill her."

It proved to be rather easy to find Kanda, or rather Kanda found her. Lenalee chose a path with the least footprints. Kanda would avoid the crowd and it seemed a good place to start. She wove between trees and scraggly branches, keeping her eyes peeled for her friend.

Lenalee yelped in surprise as a glowing blade slipped beneath her chin. "You know, that just isn't polite."

"What do you want?" he asked wearily while sheathing his blade.

Lenalee circled the tree and found him leaning against the rough bark, his eyes closed. When he didn't move, she squinted at him in worry. All that training must've worn him out. She'd heard training in the field was strenuous, though due to her numerous escape attempts four years ago, the Order hadn't trusted her well enough to assign a General to instruct her. Still Kanda never looked quite this…punished was the only word she could think of. While he couldn't hide the bruises and weariness, Lenalee wondered what injuries he might be concealing.

"Are you okay?"

Kanda opened one eye and glared at her.

"Sorry."

"I'm sorry, too, you know." Kanda said suddenly. Lenalee looked up at him, but he was staring into the distance. "For scaring you, I mean."

"I know you would never use Mugen against me," she shrugged as if having a weapon drawn on her was no big deal. In their world, it really wasn't.

"No, before," his eyes met hers and for just a moment, Lenalee didn't know what he meant. Her former horror washed over her and she shuddered in reaction. "It isn't just the horses is it?"

"No, it isn't," she admitted and Kanda being Kanda, didn't press her for more.

To her lasting surprise, he stepped close, his fingers running through her hair. "You have pine needles stuck in your hair," his voice merely a whisper.

Needing his strength, needing his comfort, Lenalee leaned forward and slipped her arms around his waist. His hands stilled in her hair as he held her gently. Only moments passed but it was enough to let her fears dissolve. Fingers flicked a few last pine needles and he stepped back.

"It's fine now," he managed to declare and question at the same time.

"It's fine," she agreed softly.

"Let's find Daisya," he snarled in return to typical Kanda "I tired of babysitting you."

With a secret smile at his back, Lenalee followed him towards the sound of people, laughter, and trees falling.

-0-0-0-

Author's Notes: D. Gray Man is the property of Katsura Hoshino. Gwen Frere and Kazana Reed are actual characters in D Gray Man, though Gwen is only a mentioned name. I just gave her a description and personality. I came up with Brutus Maxum myself.

Special thanks to my mom who helped out a lot with this story and to my little sister who proofread the final draft.

Hope you liked it. More is coming.

Translations

Gros copain (big fella) – French

"Oui?" (Yes) – French

"Merci beaucoup." (Thank you) – French

Mon ange (my angel) – French

Très bien (Very good) – French

Non (no) – French

Arrêt (halt) – French