A/N: Very, very, very late Christmas fic. I got terribly stuck in the middle. And, for that matter, at the end. But it's for InSilva, who says that she likes Christmas to last a while, so I suppose I could have just waited and posted it in June. Anyway, happy late Christmas, mate. And, for that matter, happy late Christmas to anyone else.
A/N2: Set after O13
Disclaimer: I own nothing to do with O11
Naturally, it was all his and Danny's fault. Christmas Eve and here they were, the sixteen of them, stuck in a ramshackle house in the middle of nowhere with snow rapidly piling up outside the front door, no phone signal, and a lack of heat, food, decorations and everything else that made Christmas come alive.
They sat around the living room in silence, breathing in the gloom and the dust, and watching the weakly flickering fire that Basher had managed to get going. Rusty wasn't sure exactly what they were burning, and he didn't think he wanted to know.
"Nice job finding this place," Turk said to Linus sarcastically.
"Hey!" Linus answered sharply, glaring round at Rusty and Danny. "They said somewhere remote. Off the grid. This is the best I could find."
"Which will be a great comfort if we freeze to death before Bridger's men find us," Frank said darkly.
Isabel squeezed his fingers lightly. He sighed. Normally they preferred to let the arguments play themselves out before intervening, but right now tempers were fraying rapidly.
"No one's going to freeze to death," he said trying to sound as conciliatory as he could, and he wasn't altogether surprised when they rounded on him instead.
"We wouldn't even be in this mess if you could have kept your mouth shut in front of Bridger," Turk snapped.
"He's got a point, mate," Basher said unhappily. "Guy's got a gun pointed at your head and you ask him where they took the hair for his plugs from? What's that about?"
He shrugged, feeling Isabel's gaze burning into the side of his face. "Curiosity," he offered.
"You know," Linus cut in. "Technically, it was Yen who set off the alarm."
Yen's outburst was predictable, to the point, and reminded everyone that it was Virgil who'd put the trolley in the wrong place.
Virgil, holding Sarah's hand tightly, bristled visibly. "Yeah? Well, that wouldn't have mattered if Livingston hadn't dropped the phone."
"It wasn't just a 'phone'," Livingston began patiently. "It was - "
" - fine," Virgil interrupted. "If you hadn't dropped the smarter-than-smart phone, we wouldn't be here, freezing our asses off."
"Actually, I think it's getting warmer," Judith remarked brightly, as Sarah hissed at Virgil not to swear.
"I don't see why I had to get involved in the first place," Roman said, adding grandly. "I'm an independent contractor."
"Hey, we're all independent contractors," Frank insisted.
"Rusty isn't," Reuben said cheerfully. For some reason, despite his love of luxury, he seemed to be taking this whole thing in his stride.
Frank looked over at him. He shrugged. He wasn't. "We're almost all independent contractors," Frank corrected, with a sigh.
"Anyway," Linus muttered sulkily. "It was all Danny's idea."
It had all been Danny's idea, of course, and he couldn't really blame the others for the baleful glares that came their way. Their way, naturally, because if it was Danny's idea, he was the one who was supposed to make sure it worked, that no one ended up dead or in jail. And that had gone so well that here they were, on the run over Christmas, significant others in tow. Not that they were falling over themselves to show it...but the guilt was very real. He didn't look at Danny – he didn't have to, after all – and neither of them said a word to defend themselves.
"You know, there's only nine rooms as well," Frank said unhappily. "Some of us are going to have to share."
Nine rooms. He could already see the arguments brewing. He glanced over at Danny who nodded fractionally. Right. Okay. He thought rapidly. Frank snored loud enough to keep the dead awake. Livingston had a horror of anyone seeing him undressed. Turk in a bad mood was likely to spend all his time trying to annoy anyone who would let him. Bash almost certainly had something dangerously explosive in his luggage that would bother anyone of a nervous disposition. Roman had a habit of walking around naked, plus his...unusual taste in underwear...would probably equally bother anyone of a nervous disposition.
"Okay," he said, easily. "Think we can all assume me and Isabel are sharing, and same with Danny and Tess, Saul and Judith and Virgil and Sarah. That's four rooms. Then we got Linus and Yen, Basher and Reuben, Turk and Roman, and Livingston and Frank each get a room on their own."
Most people nodded like they were glad a decision had been made. Turk glared at him though, arguing for the sake of arguing. "Why are you in charge of who sleeps with who?"
Virgil rolled his eyes at him. "Probably because he's slept with the most people in this room." There was a second of silence and his eyes grew round as he looked over at Isabel. "Uh, that is, I mean..."
The awkward moment came to an end almost immediately, as Sarah shrugged off her bulky coat for the first time, revealing that she was very noticeably pregnant.
Huh. As one, they turned and stared at Virgil. Three weeks they'd been working on the Bridger job and that hadn't come up? Really?
"Congratulations, dear," Judith beamed. "How far along are you?"
"Four months," she said with a shy smile.
"That's four months?" Linus blurted out.
Virgil gave him something that was a cross between a warning glare and a proud smile. "It's twins."
Mmm. He exchanged a quick glance with Danny. Somehow, he rather thought that Virgil and Turk's parents were probably cackling gleefully.
"Congratulations," Danny said with a smile, and Rusty was probably the only one who'd catch the glint of relief that at four months this was unlikely to be an imminent problem.
"Both of you," Rusty added sincerely.
"Thanks," Sarah said with a smile. "We wanted to wait a bit before announcing...but they're beginning to get a bit much to hide."
The congratulations were slowly echoed around the room.
"Never a dull moment, is it?" Isabel murmured, leaning in close to him.
He grinned. "Not like this was in the plan," he told her.
"What is the plan?" she asked with interest.
He was saved from having to answer by Danny. "First thing is we need supplies," Danny said.
"There was a shop in town," Rusty commented. They'd passed it on the way in. It had been small, but it should have something at least.
"Right," Danny nodded. "Linus, Reuben, Turk – you want to take a drive in and pick up some things?"
"Like what?" Linus asked.
"Everything - "Danny started.
" - anything," Rusty added.
"Any food you can find," Danny expanded.
"Cleaning supplies," Tess contributed.
"Drink," Basher suggested.
"Decorations," Judith said hopefully.
"Flashlights, candles, batteries, matches, any camping equipment you can see, any extra blankets, masking tape, water bottles and a first aid kit," Rusty added rapidly.
Linus blinked at him, slightly dazed. "Right. So, everything everything."
Rusty shrugged. "Yeah. Oh, and some bear spray."
Now Linus was really staring at him. "Bear spray? For bears?"
"Yep," Rusty nodded.
"It's okay," Danny said seriously. "They can't open zippers."
"Think in this case, we should be more worried about them ringing doorbells," Rusty told him.
"Trick or treating bears?" Danny pondered.
"That or carol singers," Rusty nodded.
"There are really going to be bears here?" Livingston asked, looking around nervously, like the bears might just have come down the chimney without anyone noticing.
"Bears, snow and no food," Basher remarked, with an unfriendly glance at Danny. "And this is the shithole we're stuck in."
Saul cleared his throat sternly. "It's only for a few days," he reminded them all. "Then Bridger will be arrested, and we can get on with spending the money."
"Bobby says the warrant's already been issued," Danny told them. "He'll be arrested immediately after the holidays. We just need to keep our head downs for a few days, that's all."
"A few days that include Christmas," Linus sighed. "It's not fair." There was an audible whine in his voice that made him seem more like a three year old than a man who'd just turned thirty-two last month.
"No," Danny agreed. "It's not fair. But we're here, and it's Christmas, so let's make the best of it." He leaned forwards, his voice low, and Rusty automatically shifted surreptitiously, angling himself so that he was by Danny's side, unquestionably supportive. "So this isn't the way any of us wanted to spend the holiday. That doesn't mean we can't make it matter."
"Anyone here really want to let their friends have a lousy Christmas?" Rusty asked quietly.
Reuben shook his head. "If there's one thing this group is good at, it's having fun," he said.
There was an outbreak of slow smiles and thoughtful nods.
That was as good an answer as they were going to get.
Now, somehow, they had to make Christmas happen out of nothing.
By the time Linus and the others got back from the store, lugging boxes full of assorted everything, there was a little more of a festive atmosphere around the place. Someone had found a radio from somewhere, and it was cheerfully blaring out a random sampling of Christmas songs, the fire was roaring away, Livingston and Roman were sitting close together, studying a cellphone intently while Rusty, Yen, Saul and Judith were crowded round the coffee table, with a pile of brightly coloured paper.
"What are you doing?" he asked involuntarily.
"We're decorating," Judith beamed, holding up a long paperchain.
Saul shrugged. "We might as well make the place look more festive."
He supposed that was a good point...although glancing over at Yen, he wasn't sure that his contribution was exactly festive. Maybe they shouldn't be in a hurry to put that one up. And looking at Rusty...he sighed. "Snowflakes aren't green, you know."
Rusty smiled annoyingly. "They say every snowflake is unique. This one is unique because it's green. Did you get everything?"
He looked down at the box he was holding. "Everything they had," he said, laying it on the floor just as Danny and Tess came through with trays of coffee.
"Did they have milk?" Tess asked.
"Here," Reuben said, producing a carton, and a second later a mug of coffee was being pressed into his hand.
"Thanks," he said gratefully to Danny. "Where did you find coffee?"
"He can always find coffee," Rusty called.
"You make him sound like a coffee pig," Roman said with a snort of laughter.
There was a moment of confused silence. Linus blinked. If that was an insult, it was kinda out of nowhere.
"A pig?" Danny asked eventually.
Roman sighed. "A truffle hunting pig?" he offered, speaking clearly and slowly. "He finds coffee like pigs find truffles in the woods. Is what I was trying to say."
"Pigs find truffles?" Rusty asked, sounding bewildered but guardedly intrigued. "There are truffles in the woods?"
"Mushrooms, Rusty," Tess sighed. "Not chocolates."
"Huh." Rusty considered that for a moment. "Disappointing."
Danny looked over at him. "Why is that snowflake green?"
"Pollution?" Rusty suggested.
He heard a noise behind him and turned to see Basher walking in, his hands covered in grease. "That's the boiler working," he announced. "Central heating should kick in any time now, though I had to jerry-rig the pipes, so I wouldn't count on the hot water too much."
Roman made a disparaging noise. "You should have let me look at it."
"Yeah?" Basher looked at him. "Plumbing's not the same as electronics, you know."
"It's not the same as explosives, either," Roman retorted. "If it works, I can make it work better."
Linus shook his head. Right about now felt like a good time to change the subject. "Here's your bear spray," he said, throwing a can over to Rusty.
He glanced at it for a moment. "Huh." With a grin, he tossed it up to Danny.
"What do you do with it?" Danny asked with interest.
Rusty shrugged. "See a bear, you spray it," he said. "Just like wasps."
"Not just like wasps," Isabel murmured. "They're a bit bigger."
"With more teeth," Livingston agreed, looking ill at the thought.
"But less sting," Reuben pointed out cheerfully.
Danny looked at the can of bear spray carefully. "I'm supposed to just do what I'd do if I see a wasp?" he asked.
"Uh huh," Rusty nodded.
They looked at each other for a long moment. Then Danny grinned and threw the bear spray right back to Rusty. "There," he said, smiling. "Done."
Shaking his head, Rusty threw the can over to Livingston, who fumbled with it for a second before passing it quickly to Saul, who just looked at him before handing it to Turk, who laughed and started to remove the lid before Frank quickly stepped in and grabbed it.
"Well, that's it then," Danny said, leaning on the back of the sofa behind Rusty. "Frank has officially volunteered to deal with any bears that happen by."
Frank glared at him and set the can down on the mantlepiece. "Speaking of volunteering," he said. "We went and bought all this food. Now who's going to cook it?"
"Not Danny," Rusty, Tess and Basher said in unison.
Danny shot them all a hurt look. "I'm not - "
" - yes you are," Tess told him firmly, with a shudder.
Rusty craned his head back to look straight up at him. "You really are."
"Well," Danny said. "Guess you three just volunteered."
"Not Bash," Rusty said quickly. "Turkey. Brandy. Fire extinguisher. This ringing any bells?"
Danny winced. "A few."
"Hey," Basher protested. "That wasn't my fault. You distracted me, drawing stuff on your cast."
"I don't mind cooking," Sarah offered from the doorway.
"You don't have to," Virgil said quickly, a step behind her, glaring all round the room like he thought they were going to start demanding the pregnant woman cook for them all.
"I can cook a bit," Linus offered quickly, before anything got awkward. "I don't mind helping."
"I'm sure we can throw something together," Judith said assuredly.
"So that's me, Tess, Linus, Sarah and Judith," Rusty nodded, his lips quirked. "And you know what that means."
"You're immune to washing up," Isabel said with a sigh.
Oh, suddenly Linus was glad that he'd volunteered.
The great outdoors. Never Danny's favourite place. And now, trudging through the woods, trying to find the right tree, he was decidedly out of his element. Hell, he didn't even know what he was looking for.
"The wind changes your face'll stay that way," Rusty murmured, stepping up behind him, the flashlight playing over the ground in front of them.
He considered that for a second. "Devilishly handsome?" he suggested optimistically.
"Blue," Rusty told him.
He laughed, and then, looking round quickly, grew serious. "Isabel...what Virgil said - "
" - it's fine," Rusty said quickly. "Nothing she didn't already know."
"Really." He raised an eyebrow.
Rusty grinned. "I'm giving honesty a try. Who knows? Maybe it'll catch on. Besides," he added, stopping and examining an apparently random tree with an expression of interest. "If we're talking the number of people here I've slept with, really, it's just Isabel, Basher and Livingston. I'm not that bad."
"Three out of sixteen?" Danny pursed his lips. "That's almost a quarter."
Rusty's eyes slid past him for a fraction of a second. "'Course, I've also 'slept' with you," he said, just a little louder than before. "Countless times."
His lips quirked and even as he spoke, he scolded Rusty with his eyes. "That's true," he agreed. "Countless times before..." He took a few steps closer until they were practically touching. "Countless times in the future," he murmured.
A twig broke behind them. "Hey, kid," Rusty said lazily.
"Hi, Linus," Danny said, turning round slowly, with a wide smile. "We didn't hear you there."
Linus stood there staring at them wide-eyed, and as he saw them looking, he shut his mouth with an audible smack. "Uh, yes. Sorry. I should have..." He looked at the way they were grinning and sighed, shaking his head. "Honestly, guys..." He seemed to give up. "Turk and Isabel think there'll be better trees further in," he said. "Because of the wind, they said. They went this way."
He turned, and still grinning, they moved to follow.
"Is anyone else worried about this?" Linus asked, looking back at them.
They exchanged a thoughtful glance. "Worried?" Danny asked.
"You thinking about the bears again?" Rusty asked with interest.
"No," Linus said, patting his pocket where he was presumably keeping the spray can. "Just...do you think we're allowed to cut trees down? I mean, isn't it illegal?"
They stopped and stared at him incredulously. For once, the kid had managed to take them completely by surprise. "Illegal?" Danny asked, his voice choked.
"Well, you know, deforestation..." Linus explained weakly.
"We can always stick a pinecone in the ground," Isabel called, from just ahead of them. "If you're feeling worried about it." She stepped out of the trees, holding a large axe over her shoulder, a glint in her eye that suggested she was having way too much fun. "Honey, I'm home!"
"You want me to go find you a door?" Rusty suggested.
She shrugged. "Think the tree will do me for the moment. Turk's found a good one, come see." She gripped the axe a little tighter and grinned. "You know, I've always wanted to do this."
Danny shook his head. Every now and then, Rusty's girlfriend scared the hell out of him.
Dragging the tree into the living room took an hour or so and left a neat trail of green needles through the house. But, eventually, they managed to get it stood up in a pot in the centre of the living room, looking like...well, looking like a tree in the middle of the room.
"Is that even a Christmas tree?" Tess asked doubtfully, passing round more mugs of coffee.
"It's green," Rusty offered with a smile. It wasn't like there'd been a whole lot of choice. Far as he could tell, all the trees had been the same type.
"It's a spruce," Linus declared with confidence.
"Well, what type of trees are Christmas trees normally?" Livingston asked with what sounded like genuine interest.
"Firs," Linus said, a little more doubtfully.
Huh. They looked at the tree. "I thought that was a fir tree," Danny commented.
Rusty nodded. "It's green," he said again. Which, in his view, was really the main thing. He'd have been quite happy with a palm tree...not that there was much chance of finding one of those around here.
"Alright," Danny said with a smile. "Let's get this thing decorated."
They had paperchains, little stars made out of kitchen foil, and tiny slow burning candles that Basher promised weren't going to set fire to anything. And, fortunately, Linus had brought microwave popcorn back from the store, and Rusty made up a large bowl of it and sat and strung it together easily. Now this reminded him of being a kid. Except back then, they would have had one bowl for making decorations and another dripping with butter so they could eat it in front of the TV.
He sighed to himself. No matter what they did, they were missing out on some serious Christmas traditions.
"Here you go, dear," Judith said, walking up to him with a plate of food...noodles, tinned tomatoes and hamburger patties by the looks of it. There wasn't much choice, after all.
He smiled. "Thank you," he said, laying the popcorn to one side. Looked like everyone else was already eating. Judging by the amusement in Isabel's eyes, he must have got too caught up in the popcorn.
"You know," Linus said with a gloomy sigh, gazing down into the beer bottle in his hand like it might just hold all the answers. "The night before Christmas was always a big thing in my house. Mom always made a chicken and bacon pie...it's like leftovers before leftovers. And we'd stay up drinking hot chocolate, and later brandy, and play boardgames until midnight. Until it was Christmas."
"We always had a crowd in the house at Christmas," Virgil said. "I used to think Mom and Dad just invited everyone they'd ever met."
"They did," Turk cut in, and Virgil just looked at him and rolled his eyes.
"We'd spend the day playing party games and eating more food than you can imagine," Virgil went on. "And then Kay, our big sister, would play the piano and everyone would gather round and sing carols."
"That sounds wonderful," Sarah said, smiling and squeezing his hand. "I want our children to have all those traditions."
Virgil turned and gazed straight at her with a soft, loving expression. "Of course, love," he said, while behind his head, Turk pretended to stick his fingers down his throat.
"Oh, I used to love singing carols when my children were small," Judith said beaming. "And then after my husband died, when the grandchildren were born, we did the same."
"I'm sorry we're keeping you from your grandchildren," Reuben said, leaning over with a glass of red wine in his hand and missing pouring it out on the carpet by the narrowest of whiskers.
A shadow crossed her face. "Yes, well. I'm afraid my children don't approve of me dating again. I...haven't seen them for a few years now. Or the grandchildren. April will be starting high school now, and Ginny and Luke will be almost ten," she said wistfully.
Rusty smiled at her sympathetically, and Saul briefly laid a hand on her shoulder. He'd heard that before, but that didn't mean he was blind to the pain in her eyes.
"I'm sorry," Basher said awkwardly.
"It's water under the bridge," Judith said, with a pale copy of her usual bright smile. "And who knows? Maybe someday soon, Rusty will give Saul some grandchildren."
Grandchildren? His hand jerked and he narrowly avoided tipping his wine down his shirt. Oh, that was...that was... He carefully didn't look at Isabel. Or Saul. Or Danny. Or anyone, actually.
"They wouldn't actually be Saul's grandchildren, you know," Linus pointed out, and now Rusty looked at him sharply. Yes. Yes, they would. In every way that mattered, they would, and Linus actually flinched back a little under the fierceness of his glare.
"There's a piano in the dining room, if anyone wanted to try singing carols," Danny cut in, like the last few moments simply hadn't happened, and Rusty knew that he was covering. His discomfort in the face of any type of commitment might give Danny endless hours of amusement, but there were some things Danny would never let anyone question.
"Again, not you," Basher said fervently.
"Are you volunteering?" Danny answered mildly.
"Hey, I like music, remember?" Basher pointed out. "I own a record label and everything."
"Rusty owns a hotel," Danny answered with a shrug. "Trust me, he still makes a lousy housekeeper."
"Yen can play the piano," Linus remarked, with a shifty, sideways look at Saul and Rusty, like he was trying to figure out if he was in trouble.
Yen sat up straight, with a tomato perched on the end of his fork and told Linus in no uncertain terms that he might be able to play the piano, but he didn't know any Christmas songs. Brown-Eyed Girl was the closest he got.
"What the hell is Christmassy about that?" Reuben demanded curiously.
"It was in Scrooged," Danny explained, and Yen nodded.
Conscious that he was being watched, Rusty lifted his eyes and – reluctantly – looked across at Saul. He could see the anxiety and the apology, and Saul didn't want Rusty to feel pressured, didn't want him to think he was presuming...
It was fine. Of course, it was fine. He smiled and quietly got back to stringing together popcorn, as a discussion on Christmas movies broke out.
"Wow," Linus remarked, wandering over beer bottle in hand. "You've done that before."
He glanced down at the popcorn. "Yeah. Me and Danny used to decorate our apartment with this stuff."
Linus blinked at him suspiciously, obviously trying to figure out if Rusty was being serious. Sometimes, he wondered where this reputation for dishonesty came from. "Yeah? Why didn't you just buy decorations?"
Mmm. Rusty looked up at him, considering, and he could see Danny shaking his head out of the corner of his eye. He smiled. "No money," he said simply.
"Oh!" Linus blinked at him again, startled. "Oh."
"You see, Linus?" Basher said, his voice sour. "Not everyone has the happy-go-lucky childhood Christmas memories that you have."
Well, that was unexpected. Everyone turned to look at Basher, slowly, and he flushed red.
"I didn't mean..." He trailed off, and the tension in the room was palpable. Concern. Because no matter how much they all bickered, everyone always knew when there was something else going on. "Oh, fuck it," Bash muttered, and he abruptly stood up and walked out of the room.
Rusty exchanged a long look with Danny. Plainly, someone needed to follow him, and the only question was who. And even that wasn't really a question, because after less than a second, Danny nodded, and casually stood up and headed for the door.
Rusty grinned to himself, as he felt the sigh of relief echo around the room. Now it was being dealt with, everyone felt better. "Okay then," he said loudly, smiling like there was nothing wrong, even while he knew everyone else knew he was covering for Danny. "Livingston, Roman, how's that phone coming along?"
"Well, uh, we're getting somewhere," Livingston started hesitantly. "It's not so much about boosting the signal as it is about rearranging it."
"And we need to up the graphics output to turn it into a videophone," Roman cut in importantly.
Livingston sighed. "It doesn't need to be a videophone."
Roman pursed his lips. "Maybe you don't want to see who you're talking to, but I have a lot of conversations where that sort of thing is of the utmost importance...as the actress said to the bishop."
"As the who said to the who?" Frank blinked, leaning over and joining in the discussion, and Turk sniggered, and from there the descent into chaos was more or less inevitable.
"What was that about?" Isabel asked as she walked over to him - in a whisper and in Italian and looking towards the door Basher and Danny had disappeared out of.
"No idea," he answered honestly, although he could make a few guesses. He looked up at her. "About earlier...what Judith said - "
" - it's fine," she cut in, smiling. "Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without someone saying something inappropriate, right?"
"Besides," she went on in a low voice, the smile playing around her mouth positively wicked. "We get plenty of practice, at least, right?"
They did. He grinned and stood up, running the string of popcorn through his fingers. "I should put this on the tree," he said.
"You should," she nodded, her eyes dancing.
He walked past, brushing lightly against her as he reached out to the tree.
"Do you think Basher's alright?" Linus asked anxiously, walking up behind him. "You know I never meant - "
" - we know," Rusty interrupted, smiling reassuringly at him. "Basher knows that too. He'll be fine, don't worry."
"Right." Linus nodded guiltily, exhaling steeply. "Right. Do you think I should go talk to him? Tell him I'm sorry?"
"He wasn't mad at you," Rusty said simply. That had been about something else altogether. "Danny will talk to him."
"Yeah." Linus looked relieved. "Danny will take care of it."
The absolute confidence in his voice made Rusty smile inwardly.
"You know," Linus said slowly. "We really should try and do something to make this Christmas...Christmas."
"Uh huh." Rusty looked up at the decorated tree thoughtfully. "What do you think we're trying to do?"
Linus huffed irritably. "I just think we need something else, that's all."
Rusty looked at him curiously. "What have you got in mind?"
Fortunately Basher hadn't gone far. Danny found him sitting on the stairs just outside, his head in his hands. Without hesitating, Danny sat on the step below him and made himself comfortable.
"So, you want to talk about it?" he asked brightly.
Basher sighed. "Should've known," he said, his voice muffled.
Danny raised an eyebrow. "That we wouldn't let you go off on your own?" Yeah."
"I'm fine," Basher said, raising his head angrily. "Just Linus wouldn't shut the fuck up..."
"He's just talking," Danny said gently. "You know what he's like when things go wrong. He'd never want to upset you."
"Upset me?" Basher snorted. "Do I look like a girl, Danny?"
Uh huh. Danny thought about some of the letters Basher had had him read to Reuben. And Rusty thought that he was sentimental. He grinned. "So far today, you've fixed the plumbing and I've cut down a tree. I think we've got enough manly points stacked up to have a serious conversation."
Basher looked at him. "Right...I heard Isabel cut down the tree."
He shrugged. "She grabbed the axe before anyone else could get a turn. But I was there."
"I don't know if that counts," Basher commented.
"Maybe not," he conceded. "So, you gonna tell me what's up?"
For a moment, Basher struggled, then finally he sighed and seemed to sag in on himself. "I hate Christmas," he announced heavily.
Danny's eyebrows shot up. This actually wasn't the first Christmas they'd spent with Basher, and they'd never noticed any kind of problem before.
Basher caught his eye. "Not normally," he explained. "It's just..." He sighed and buried his face in his hands. "When I was a kid, Christmas was all about what we didn't have."
"Oh," Danny said, understanding dawning. He knew that feeling well. And now it was cold, and there wasn't much food, and everyone was tired and on edge, and no matter what the company... "This reminds you," he stated.
"No!" Basher raised his head. "Or yeah. Maybe. Fuck, I'm just in a bad mood. And when Linus was going on with the true meaning of Christmas shit..." He trailed off.
Danny nodded. "Too much to take."
"Yeah," Basher acknowledged tiredly. "Yeah. I'm sorry, Danny. I shouldn't let it get to me."
"It's fine," he said firmly, and he knew that the unspoken addition to that was I shouldn't let anyone else see it get to me. "No one's gonna think any the less of you, and no one's gonna ask if you don't want to talk about it."
"Because they'll assume you've taken care of it," Basher stated, and there was something of the fond and the amused hovering about his eyes, but he still looked weary, and it wasn't good enough. Like Reuben always said, they were compulsive fixers.
"You know, like Rusty said, we used to make decorations out of popcorn," he began, watching Basher's face carefully, letting Basher see the open and the honest. "Christmas dinner was whatever we could steal from the store down the block. And that was after the good Christmases had started." Basher was staring at him. "Before that, it was just...empty. And cold. Point is, I understand."
"Yeah," Basher said softly. "S'pose you do."
"Thing that makes this different," Danny went on, nodding towards the room where their friends were. "If I had to be stuck somewhere at Christmas – or any other time for that matter – this is the group I'd used to be stuck with."
Basher grinned. "Christmas might be lousy, but at least the company's good?"
"The company's the best," Danny said, looking straight at him, his voice filled with the sincerity he didn't have to work at, the truth that wasn't a con.
For a second, Basher just looked at him, and then he suddenly jumped forwards and threw his arms around Danny, hugging him warmly. It was a surprise, but it was never unwelcome, and he returned the hug easily. "Thanks, Danny," Basher said, his voice muffled. A second later he sat back up, smiling with the slightest hint of self-consciousness. "I think you might have to chop down another tree to make up for that."
He shrugged. "According to Rusty, I spend too much time on my hair to be considered manly anyway," he said, easily following Basher into the lighthearted.
"Really?" Basher blinked. "Has he looked in a mirror lately?"
That had been pretty much what Danny said. "There was never any hope for him," he smiled. He looked at Basher keenly. "You ready to go back now?" he asked. The longer they spent, the more people would worry. Linus had probably made up a dozen terrible secrets Basher might be carrying by now.
Basher took a deep breath. "Sure," he said.
A large bowl full of scraps of paper was thrust in front of them the moment they walked in the room. From behind it, Yen glared at them and told them to take a name.
Danny raised an eyebrow and waited patiently..
"Ah, secret Santa," Linus explained nervously. "We...I...thought that it would be nice if everyone at least got a present tomorrow. And I figured that in a house like this, we should be able to make or find something, right? So we're all to pick a name out of the bowl and then we'll work on the presents tomorrow morning and exchange them before lunch." His eyes flickered between Danny and Basher. "If that's okay with you, that is?"
"Sounds like fun," Basher said with his usual cheerful smile, and he leaned past Danny and picked a paper out of the hat. Danny craned his neck as he unfolded it and read Turk's name. "Hey!" Basher objected. "You're not supposed to look. Get your own paper."
With a smile, he did, and moved off before unfolding it. Which was just as well, as he found himself looking at Basher's name. Oh, he'd have to think about this. It wasn't like he exactly had a whole bunch of legitimate talents to draw on.
"Who'd you get?" Rusty asked him in a low voice as he walked over.
Danny looked at him reprovingly. "You're not supposed to ask."
"It's not me then," Rusty nodded.
Danny grinned. Rusty hadn't drawn him either. Wordlessly, they showed each other their papers. Huh. Rusty had Saul.
"Any ideas?" he asked.
"A few," Rusty nodded. "You?" He sounded casual, but his eyes were asking a completely different question.
They both avoided looking at Basher.
Meeting Rusty's eyes, Danny told him in a single glance that they'd talked and it was okay.
Rusty nodded slowly. "Good," he said simply.
They both knew that they'd been keeping a careful eye on Basher for the next few days though.
They all went up to bed a few hours later. The rooms were surprisingly comfortable, all things considered. The beds were soft and piled high with blankets, pillows, and a warm throw with red and gold velvet thread and sequins covering the lot.
"Very festive," Danny murmured, coming up behind Tess, his arms wrapped loosely around her.
She sighed and leaned back against him. "At this point, I think I could sleep anywhere," she told him.
He planted soft kisses along the side of her neck. "I'm sorry," he whispered in her ear. "I'm sorry about all of this. I know this wasn't the Christmas we had planned."
"We're together," she said, twisting round to meet his lips. "That's what matters to me. And we were going to spend Christmas with Rusty and Saul, and we are."
He couldn't really argue with that. But this was the first time they'd got to spend in private since they'd fled, and he wanted to be clear. "I'm still sorry. You know I never want my work to touch you like this."
She reached up and grasped his hand. "But we're safe," she reminded him. "You told me we were safe now."
They were safe. But there had been a tense few hours when he really hadn't been sure they were going to be.
"Besides," she went on. "Have you looked out the window? This is going to look so much more like Christmas than Los Angeles ever could. We've got a white Christmas guaranteed."
He ran his hand through her hair. "Now you're just looking for silver linings."
She smiled. "I'm happy, Danny," she said. "I'm with you."
Without another word, he leaned down and kissed her like he was never going to stop.
There were thick drapes on the window, but they'd left them open and now they were lying in bed together, staring up at the endless spread of shining stars.
"You never get to see this in the city," Isabel murmured sleepily.
He grinned. "I'm not sure any amount of stars is enough to get me to deal with the cold and the bears," he told her.
She sighed. "You have no romance in your soul," she complained.
"Oh, I like stars," he assured her. "I just like movie theatres and Chinese delivery a whole lot more."
"Because that's so romantic," she said, rolling her eyes.
"We're on the run together," he reminded her. "That's kinda romantic."
"Don't remind me," she groaned. "Honestly, you wouldn't believe the number of favours I had to call in to get time off work."
The guilt welled up all over again. Isabel had been looking forwards to their first time hosting Christmas. He'd wanted to make it special for her, especially when it turned out her Dad couldn't come. When he'd casually told her that he couldn't make Christmas dinner because he'd be working a job with Toulour...Rusty had to bite his tongue to avoid saying something. Wasn't that Le Marc was uncaring, just that sometimes it seemed as though maybe Isabel's Mom had had a point. He'd made a promise in his head that he wouldn't put her through that, and he'd worked extra hard to be sure they'd be finished with Bridger in plenty time for Christmas. And now all that had been for nothing.
She nudged him lightly, snuggling closer. "Guilt doesn't suit you," she said firmly.
"Really?" he said lightly. "Thought I look good in anything."
She said nothing, but he could feel her waiting.
He sighed. "I screwed up," he said, meeting her eyes.
"Yes," she nodded. "But you took me with you. You didn't tell me to get somewhere safe or run out altogether." She squeezed his hand tightly. "That's what matters to me. Being with you."
He leaned over and kissed her, and she reached up, her hand pressed against the side of her face, her eyes sparkling...
More practice. Judith would be delighted.
Linus couldn't sleep and he wasn't even sure exactly why. It wasn't the cold – whatever Basher had done to the heating hadn't been completely successful, but there were thick blankets on the bed and certainly he felt warm enough. And Yen had just collapsed on the other bed and fallen asleep immediately like he didn't have a care in the world.
He wondered who Yen had drawn in this Secret Santa thing. It had seemed like a good idea, but now he was beginning to regret it, just a little. Because now he had to scrounge up a present for Danny and he had no ideas. Nada. Zilch. Zip.
Find or make a present, he'd said. Well, there wasn't a whole lot in this house that looked like a present and as for making one...he couldn't draw or do wood carvings or anything like that. He couldn't even do origami, for pete's sake. God, what was he going to do if he just never thought of anything at all?
With a groan, he rolled over and buried his face in the pillow. He would swear he only closed his eyes for a moment, but it was after seven when he woke up. It was still dark and there was a noise outside.
He lay still for a second and then the noise came again, sounding like it was right below the window.
"Yen!" he whispered loudly. "Did you hear that?"
The answer was too muffled for him to make out and ended with Yen throwing a pillow across the room at him. Then the noise came again and Yen sat bolt upright in bed.
"What the fuck?" he demanded calmly.
"Someone's outside," Linus answered grimly, and his head was full of images of Bridger's men, come to track them down despite everything Danny and Dad had said, men in balaclavas creeping inside the house, ready to murder them all in their beds.
With a couple of meaningful hand gestures to Yen – which, judging by the look on his face, Yen didn't grasp the meaning of at all – Linus carefully ducked out of bed and snuck over to the window, keeping low the whole time. Taking a deep breath, he leapt up briefly, managing to get a good look out the window before darting back and pressing himself against the wall.
He could feel Yen's eyes boring into the back of his head. "I couldn't see anything," he hissed.
The noise came again. It sounded closer but at the same time... "It's at the other side," he realised. "The window in the hall. Come on!" He hurried out into the hall followed, somewhat more leisurely, by Yen.
Danny, Rusty, Isabel and Tess were already in the hall, gathered round one of the windows on the landing. And, he realised, looking further up the stairs, Livingston, Basher and Reuben were staring out of the next window up.
"What's going on?" he asked in a whisper, relaxing immediately. With everyone just watching, it was safe to assume they weren't under attack by Bridger's men.
"There's a bear outside," Danny said without turning his head.
"A bear?" His voice squeaked embarrassingly. "An actual bear?" That might be worse than Bridger.
"It looks like an actual bear," Danny agreed gravely. "Of course, it could be a clever disguise."
Rusty looked round at him. "With the size of it, it'd have to be - "
" - two," Danny nodded. "And - "
" - oh, they'd have to be - "
" - close," Danny finished. "Very close."
"Shouldn't we be doing something?" Linus suggested uncertainly.
Rusty twisted round to look at him and for the first time, Linus fully registered that he was only wearing boxers.
"Aren't you cold?" he asked, more or less involuntarily.
"Isabel stole my shirt," Rusty told him with a shrug.
Isabel, who was indeed wearing the unmistakable turquoise shirt that Rusty had been wearing yesterday just shrugged right back. "We're under attack by bears and you're worried about fashion?"
"There's just one bear," Reuben pointed out.
"And it's not really attacking," Livingston added. "It's just sort of...there."
Curiosity got the better of him, and he headed over to look out the window. There was a large bear wandering around below them, snuffling against the wall. It was much bigger than he would have expected. Its fur gleamed against the snow, like it had just wandered off a coca cola commercial. He swallowed hard. He had absolutely no doubt that if any of them went out there, that thing would rip them to shreds. And yet... "Is it just me, or is that really, really cool?" he asked.
Danny turned and flashed him a smile. "It's not just you," he said.
For a long time they just stood and watched the bear, and one by one the others joined them until they were all stood on the stairs, watching as the bear eventually stretched and started padding back towards the woods.
"Well." Roman said slowly from immediately behind Linus. "I will admit, that's not something you normally get to see in London."
Linus turned to look at him and jumped about a foot in the air. Roman was wearing a short red silk bathrobe which was open to the waist, and underneath Linus caught a glimpse of something decidedly...frilly. "Wha..." His jaw was hanging open and Roman was looking decidedly annoyed.
"You didn't look that scared when you saw the bear," Rusty remarked cheerfully.
He really, really wanted a way out of this. "Hey!" he blurted out loudly. "It's Christmas."
"So it is," Judith smiled happily. "Happy Christmas, everyone."
Breakfast was a leisurely affair – coffee, toast, tinned fruit and strawberry ice cream. Somehow, the last seemed to offend Linus' sensibilities.
"It's not exactly breakfast food, Rusty," he protested as Rusty took a second helping.
He glanced down at his bowl. "What do you think proper breakfast food should be?" he asked curiously.
"Oh, you know..." Linus floundered. "Eggs. Toast. Bagels. Fruit or cereal or yoghurt or something."
"Ice cream is sort of like yoghurt," he argued, his face entirely serious.
"No it's not," Linus protested.
"It's made up of fruit and dairy," Isabel joined in with a smile. "That sort of sounds the same to me."
Linus looked at both of them and shook his head. "Any kid you have had better pray they get your metabolism," he told them seriously and Isabel laughed.
"Anyone would pray for Rusty's metabolism," Tess said, pulling the ice cream closer to herself with a laugh. "What?" she added, as Danny grinned at her. "It's Christmas."
And Christmas made for an excellent excuse to eat ice cream for breakfast. Rusty agreed. Not that he needed an excuse.
"We got the phone finished!" Livingston announced jubilantly from the other end of the table, giving Roman a high five that seemed to astonish both of them. "Anyone who's got anyone to call should form an orderly queue."
"And everyone else can get to working on their secret santa, right?" Virgil said, his arm snug around Sarah, who laughed at him lightly.
"Oh, you just want your present," she teased.
"What? It's Christmas," he said.
Apparently Christmas was the answer to all sorts of things...
He managed to find a quiet corner of the kitchen to work on Saul's present in between working on dinner. Far as dinner was concerned, they were doing their best with what they had to work with. Linus had managed to bring back a couple of sides of beef, and they had plenty of canned and frozen vegetables. Plus, french fries. It might not be the most exciting Christmas dinner ever, but there was some red wine that he thought could make a good sauce, and Tess was making french onion soup with just about anything that didn't run away fast enough...he thought they'd be okay.
The present was going well too. Would be going better if people didn't keep interrupting him, mind you.
"You got any paper in here, Rus'?" Livingston asked, wandering in. "It needs to be pretty thick, and different coloured, for preference."
"None in here," he said. "Try in the study on the second floor. There was a bunch of paper piled up on the desk. Doubt there's different colours, but there are some paints in the storage closet in the hall."
"Really?" Thanks," Livingston turned to leave.
"I didn't know you did origami," he called after him curiously, and Livingston spun round immediately, making frantic shushing gestures.
"I'm not...I mean, I can't do much, just flowers and stuff," he explained. He looked round the kitchen. "Got to go!"
Huh. Flowers. That suggested Livingston was making a present for one of the women. Not for him, anyway. Interesting. He turned his attention back to the beef and a moment later Linus appeared.
"Uh, hey, Rusty," he said, leaning against the wall of the kitchen. "How's it going?"
Rusty regarded him steadily. "Fine. What's up with you?"
"Oh, nothing," Linus lied. He stood there for a couple more seconds before breaking. "So, you got your secret santa present all figured out?"
His eyes flickered briefly towards the back door. "Uh huh. It'll be ready soon enough."
"That's great," Linus nodded, looking visibly disappointed. "I mean...I guess I was sort of hoping you might be interested in swapping, but if you're all sorted - "
" - you drew Danny, didn't you?" he interrupted, smiling. "And now you don't know what to get him."
Linus sagged visibly. "Yeah," he admitted. "I'm all out of ideas. Rusty, I hate to ask, but - "
" - get his phone out of his pocket," Rusty told him, looking back down and starting to season the beef. "He keeps it in his inside jacket pocket. Left hand side. You should be able to get it without too much difficulty. Then, use the camera to take photos of everyone here. Just natural pictures. You know. Nice ones."
"Photographs?" Linus repeated sceptically. "Really?"
Rusty smiled and didn't look up. "Your fearless leader has a sentimental streak a mile wide. Trust me. He'll love them."
"My fearless leader?" Linus echoed, blinking.
He grinned. "Well, he's not mine," he pointed out. "Trust me. Have I ever led you wrong?"
"Yes," Linus said immediately.
True. "Have I ever led you wrong when it involved Danny's happiness?" he offered instead.
Linus just looked at him. "Clown conference. Water flower. Custard pie. Does that sound familiar at all?"
Also true. "I'm not lying this time," he promised, turning his head and looking straight at Linus, and after a long moment, Linus nodded.
"Photographs, right?" he said. "I can do that. Thanks, Rusty."
He was still grinning and shaking his head when Basher sidled up to him. "Hey. Rus'. Are there any skewers in here?"
"Skewers?" he repeated, frowning.
"Yeah," Basher nodded. "Or anything like metal wire or something?"
Mmm. "Nothing like that here, but how about something like a metal coathanger?" he suggested. "There were some in the wardrobes upstairs."
"That's perfect!" Basher exclaimed, grinning. "Thanks, Rusty." He leaned forwards and stuck his finger in the sauce Rusty was making.
"Hey!" he protested, looking around for a wooden spoon or something to whack him with. Best he could find was a carving knife and that wasn't the greatest idea he'd ever had. "Watch it. We don't have a whole lot of ingredients going spare."
"Mmm, tastes good," Basher told him. "When will dinner be ready, anyway?"
He shrugged. "Depends how many people want help thinking up presents," he said.
Basher grinned some more. "What did you expect? Linus set this little family a crafts project. Who else are they gonna come to for help but Mom?"
He stared at Basher unblinking. "You wanna maybe try repeating that sometime when I'm not surrounded by sharp knives?"
"No," Basher said cheerfully, and Rusty supposed he should just be pleased that Bash was having a good time.
"I'm definitely not any kind of Mom," he protested though.
Basher just grinned even more, edging his way towards the door. "Well, let's see now, mate. You're the one who does the cooking, you're the one who sorts out the squabbles, you're the one we all go to when we need help...don't you think that makes a sort of pattern?"
"I am not your Mom," he said a little louder, but he was talking to Basher's rapidly retreating back, just as Frank poked his head round the door.
"Rusty, have you...wait, what did you just say?"
It was something of a relief when all the lights in the house suddenly flickered and died.
He stared down at where he knew the beef must be. "This could all take a bit longer now..."
The lights had gone off ten minutes ago and Danny was thankful that Rusty had thought to ask Linus to get so many candles. If this kept up they were gonna need them.
Still. "It's romantic," he said, optimistically.
"It's extremely difficult to draw in," Tess retorted.
Yeah. It wasn't that great for writing in either. "Livingston and Roman will sort it out soon."
"Everything remotely technical is the same to you, isn't it?" Rusty said from the study doorway, smiling affectionately.
Danny looked at him. "You have flour in your hair," he said dryly.
Rusty shrugged. "That's okay. I was planning on heading to San Francisco sometime soon."
"How's lunch coming?" Tess asked, sounding guilty. "I'm sorry I got caught up in everything. I'll be down to make the soup in a bit."
"Not until the power goes back on," Rusty said cheerfully. He walked further into the room and peered down at the sketch of the Midas. "Oh, that's fantastic," he said sincerely.
"Thank you," she smiled.
"That glass there curves to the left though," Rusty added, pointing to a point on the sketch.
"Really?" she asked intently. "Danny borrowed Reuben's phone for reference pictures, but it doesn't show that side too well and I cant remember...are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Rusty said.
"He's sure," Danny said at the same time.
Tess smiled at them and erased the errant line. "There," she said triumphantly.
"Reuben will love it," Rusty commented.
"Do you think so?" she asked, pleased. Then, to Danny's amusement, her expression changed. "Hey! This is supposed to be a secret Santa. I could have been working on something for you."
"Nah," Rusty grinned. "You didn't pick me and neither did Danny or Isabel." he looked pensive and rubbed his fingers around his mouth. "Or Livingston, Linus, Basher, Reuben or Yen for that matter."
Danny raised an eyebrow. "This secrecy thing really passed you by, didn't it?"
With a shrug, Rusty hopped up to perch on the desk. "It's cos I'm so open and straightforward," he explained, which had Tess rolling her eyes. "And I can't help it if everyone comes to me for help."
Huh. He narrowed his eyes. There was something there that Rusty was reluctant to share. "What?"
Rusty sighed. "Oh, you're just - "
" - completely," he agreed. "What?"
"Bash said I'm the mother," Rusty said gloomily.
Tess giggled and hurriedly turned it into a cough.
Danny pursed his lips gravely. "Because - "
" - yes," Rusty said tersely.
Not that that meant he was going to stop. "And - "
" - probably."
"Also - "
" - that's what he said."
"Not to mention - "
" - and I'd really rather you didn't."
He grinned. "Guess I can see where he's coming from then."
"It's not funny," Rusty told him with more than a hint of pout.
"It's a bit funny," Tess argued.
Danny agreed with her. Not that he was gonna say anything. Tess might be generally immune to retaliation but he certainly wasn't.
"Suppose you know what that makes you," Rusty pointed out, glaring at him.
He shook his head. "Even if that was true - "
" - which it is - " Rusty interjected.
" - hush. It just means I have to say 'Go ask - '"
" - you do that anyway," Rusty protested.
"Exactly," Danny said, with the triumph of having proved...something. "Huh. You know, you've been threatened with a lot of commitment this Christmas. Suppose we should be glad the bears are there to stop you jumping out the window."
"Hey, I can do commitment," Rusty protested. "We have a cat and everything."
That was actually a point... "Where is Zombie?" he asked, looking around as if he might have somehow missed a cat in the room.
"Police custody," Rusty explained laconically. "Ramirez, Isabel's old partner took him for the week." He paused. "Some of us don't take the cat with us when we go on the run."
Mmm. It had all worked out in the end. And it made him think. Because it was one thing to leave a cat behind...
"You thinking about Virgil and Sarah?" Rusty asked.
"Yeah." He exhaled slowly. "You think he's thought about - "
" - it's Virgil," Rusty reminded him.
He grimaced. Hell of a thing to try and bring up in casual conversation. "He's gonna need to think about it at some point," he said. "It can't be easy."
"Why don't you get Bobby to talk to him?" Tess suggested quietly.
They both turned to look at her.
She shrugged. "You're worried about him stealing while he's got a child – why not talk to someone who's been there already."
Rusty laughed and shook his head. Danny grinned. "Should never ignore the obvious," he noted. "Thanks, Tess." He had no doubt that Bobby would be more than happy to have a quiet word.
"You know, we're gonna have to get the kids really awesome christening presents," Rusty pointed out.
"Baby shower as well," Danny nodded.
Tess smiled. "You just want to get to be the cool uncles," she teased.
"Of course," he smiled back. 'Father' was a word that had never really appealed to him. But 'uncle'? 'Uncle' he thought he might like getting used to it.
Suddenly the lights flickered back on and they could hear the radio playing downstairs again.
"Oh, good," Tess said, turning back to her sketch eagerly.
Rusty looked down at the paper in front of Danny and raised his eyebrows. "Should I be jealous?"
"Or you could help," Danny suggested.
"Or I could help," Rusty agreed. He looked through the plans slowly.
"You remember visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year?" They'd been at a loose end in Cleveland.
Rusty nodded. "You didn't know who Nirvana were."
"Really?" Tess blinked. "Even I've heard of Nirvana."
"They're grunge," Danny tried to defend himself with the one fact he definitively remembered. "Do I look grunge-y?"
They peered at him thoughtfully.
"It's Christmas," he told them sulkily. "You should be nice to me."
"So, what are you thinking?" Rusty asked with interest, studying the plans. "Hendrix's guitar?"
Danny nodded. "I think it would look rather good on Basher's wall," he explained. "Plus with this plan - "
" - oh, he's going to have fun," Rusty agreed, smiling broadly. "And I see there's a part for me."
"There's always a part for you," Danny said with a certain amount of sentimentality and a lot of truth.
Rusty smiled at him. "You're gonna need to fix your second entrance there - "
He leaned forwards. " - what about - "
" - no, the costumes should take care of that," Rusty explained.
There was the sound of running footsteps and with a quick glance, he and Tess hid their respective presents. A second later and Basher, Livingston and Roman burst into the room, all panting and out of breath. Huh. That was the first time he'd seen Roman looking like he'd made any kind of effort.
"Gentlemen," he nodded politely. "I see our power problem is resolved."
"Yes, yes," Roman said dismissively. "It was simple enough once we realised that the people who built this house lacked imagination, but that's not what's important."
"And what's important?" Rusty asked, a slight smile playing over his lips.
They all started talking at once. And in the midst of the disjointed, discordant explanation, Danny gathered that there'd been a wall that was somehow obstructing Roman's genius, so Livingston had had Basher remove it, and behind it...
"Treasure," Roman announced dramatically, bringing a dusty bottle out from behind his back. "Thirty of these, at least."
Danny looked at it. Fifty years old and looking extremely expensive. Treasure indeed. "Is it drinkable?" he asked.
"The first one certainly was," Livingston said, his face lightly red.
"Well, then," Danny said. "Looks like we've struck a Christmas miracle. Thanks, guys."
"Should make Christmas dinner more enjoyable," Basher agreed. "Uh, no offence, Rus'. I'm sure it'll be great."
"None taken," Rusty said, standing up. "And I should really get back to the kitchen."
"Sure thing, Mom," Basher said, sniggering, and Roman and Livingston looked at him curiously as Rusty winced.
"You're lucky you found the booze," he told Basher severely, standing up and heading towards the door. Danny followed leisurely. Rusty turned to look at him. "You coming with?"
"Thought I'd help you with the cooking," he explained.
"Uh huh." Rusty grinned. "You mean supervise, right?"
"You always need supervision," Danny said with a smile. "Else how do you know you're doing it right?"
Seemed Christmas dinner was a success. Tess' soup had been delicious, and even though Linus' ever-so-slightly-over-ambitious attempt at baking bread rolls had failed they'd added some herbs and grilled the fuckers to make croutons. And the beef, french fries and vegetables had worked out too – Judith had even somehow managed to roast tinned potatoes. He wasn't even sure that should be possible. And then there'd been dessert, which he and Judith had improvised out of toaster waffles, apple pie filling, a homemade caramel sauce and a shitload of sugar, and judging by the rapt silence, that had been a success too.
And of course it had all been helped along by a liberal amount of aged expensive wine, and joyful conversation, which would probably have covered any culinary disaster.
Truth was now, with everyone sat around chatting over coffee and gingerbread men, they all seemed happy, and that was what mattered.
"Okay," Linus announced, bouncing to his feet and swaying slightly. "Present time!"
"Oh, this is what he's been looking forward to," Isabel murmured in his ear.
He grinned. "Who doesn't like presents?" he whispered back. "Don't forget, you've got some waiting back home."
Mmm." She leaned a little closer. "Maybe one less than some."
He looked at her.
"Hypothetically, I might have found one of my presents a couple of weeks ago, and I might have liked the look of it, and hypothetically, I might have taken it with me when you called so we could both enjoy it."
He thought about that for a second. "We were running for our lives and you decided to pack sexy underwear?"
She shrugged. "Hypothetically."
Rusty smiled. "Cara mia."
"I know," she said, and he wondered which of them was Han Solo.
"Like I was saying," Linus said a little louder, standing next to the table where they'd been instructed to set the presents down. "Present time."
"If everyone's quite finished flirting," Turk added, rolling his eyes across the table at them.
Rusty grinned back at him. "We'll let you know," he said.
There were presents galore and soon Judith was exclaiming delightedly over her bunch of origami flowers, and Reuben was declaring his intent to have the sketch framed and hung in his office, while Yen was using his pipe-cleaner dragon to attack the wooden bear that Isabel had carved for Virgil. Rusty hadn't even known she could do that.
"I'm full of surprises," she murmured softly, without taking her eyes off the delicately woven thread bracelet she'd got.
"Oh, this one's for me," Linus said, sounding almost surprised that he'd got something. "It's...a poem?"
"Read it out, dear," Judith said comfortably.
"Right." Linus cleared his throat.
"There was a young thief fond of gum.
Who ended up stuck on the run
In a world full of ice
He found something nice
And spent his time..." He blinked. "Yeah, I'm not reading that part out," he decided hurriedly, but he was smiling broadly. "Uh, Basher, what did you get?"
Basher grinned, having just finished reading through the plan. "Thanks, Danny," he said.
Linus glared at him. "It's supposed to be a secret," he complained.
"It's a plan to steal Hendrix's guitar," Basher pointed out. "Who else is it going to be?"
"Well..." Linus floundered.
"Look at that," Livingston exclaimed, drawing out what appeared to be a working lightsabre.
"I want a shot!" Virgil shouted immediately.
Livingston held it protectively against his chest. "You'll break it!" he protested, and then turned to Roman, beaming. "It's fantastic. Really, I don't know how...I mean..."
"Oh, it was nothing," Roman said dismissively, wearing the bright red knitted hat which made Rusty wonder both who and how. And, also, why, though Roman seemed to like it.
He eyed what he could see of the electronics beneath the lightsabre casing. "I guess we just figured out why the power went out," he murmured, and Roman managed to look about as close to abashed as he ever did.
"Even better, look at this," Turk crowed, holding up what appeared to be a set of homemade fireworks. "Fucking hell! Thanks, Basher."
Sarah leaned across Virgil and slapped Turk lightly on the arm. "No swearing," she told him crossly.
"And the presents are supposed to be a secret," Linus howled. "That's the whole point!"
"Who else could have made fireworks," Turk said dismissively, sorting through them happily. Looked like there were sparklers and firecrackers. "Anyone got a match?" he asked hopefully.
Rusty dug his lighter out of his pocket and started to pass it over but stopped when he felt Danny's leg lightly press against his in warning. Right. He made the lighter disappear. "We can set them off in the kitchen later," he suggested instead. "There's a stone floor. Less chance of burning the house down."
Turk grinned and rolled his eyes. "Whatever you say, Mom."
Oh, fantastic. He was so pleased that had caught on. Not to mention the whole no-setting-fire-to-the-furniture thing hadn't even come from him. That was all on Danny. But, from experience, he had a feeling that explaining they'd had the discussion by playing footsie under the table wouldn't exactly make things clearer. Though it might be worth it to see if Linus' head actually exploded.
Instead, he caught Turk's eye and looked at him for a long moment before letting the smile spread across his face. The special smile that promised consequences.
Turk paled visibly.
"Think there's rules about threatening people at Christmas," Danny commented in an undertone.
He shrugged. "You gotta be sure whether they've been naughty or nice. Oh, and I think you have to check twice. Believe me, I got a list."
"Anyway," Linus said loudly. "Got two presents here that are...cold. Saul, this is for you and Rusty..."
He took his present but he was more immediately interested in seeing how Saul reacted to his. As he watched, Saul drew the little case out of the box. A set of dice carved out of ice, sequins pressed inside for the numbers, a swirl of colour caught at the heart of each one. They shone under the light, sending little iridescent rays dancing over the table. It had taken him five attempts to get that right.
Saul looked up straight at him. "They're beautiful."
"They won't last," he said with a shrug. "But they're good for the moment."
"There will always be more moments," Saul told him, and Rusty could probably spend hours trying to figure out if that was deep or not.
"Really, does anyone not know who their secret Santa is?" Linus demanded.
Rusty looked down at his own present and grinned. "If it helps," he said, "I have no idea who made this. But I aim to enjoy it." A snowcone, made out of real snow with berries and coconut. Just took one spoonful to have him closing his eyes in delight. Oh, that tasted good.
"We just ate dinner," Frank said, shaking his head. "Seriously, where do you put it all?"
"Oh, and this is for you, Danny," Linus said, sounding just a little too casual to be believable. Apparently wine that was twice his age put a serious dent in the kid's acting skills.
"It's my phone," Danny said blankly. He stared at it for a second. "There's some new...huh." Rusty leaned over and watched as he opened up the photo album and cycled through picture after picture. Groups of them standing together. Smiles and laughter. Yen and Reuben building a card house together. Frank, Isabel and Judith fixing the decorations as Saul dozed in a chair beside them. Basher, Livingston and Roman peering conspiratorially at the wall, and a picture obviously taken five seconds later, the wall no longer there and their expressions stunned. Turk and Virgil caught in the middle of some argument, Turk leaping over the back of the sofa towards his brother, both of them laughing. Him, Tess and Danny in the study, both of them smiling at Danny like...
Danny looked up and smiled straight at Linus. "Thanks," he said, his voice pitched low, just a little rough like he didn't quite trust himself to speak.
Linus didn't even bother trying to deny it. He just nodded, beaming like he was never going to stop.
In fact, Rusty thought, looking round the table at the smiles and the laughter and the cheer on display - Reuben and Saul sharing some old joke over the wine, Virgil sitting with his hand resting on Sarah's bump, Livingston showing off his lightsabre, Yen demonstrating some sort of stunt to Judith while Basher looked on and laughed...Everyone kinda looked that way. Happy.
He caught Danny's eye and smiled.
In the end, it had been a good sort of Christmas.