I (briefly) return bearing fics. But first, let me wish you a happy, merry, pleasant, joyful, quiet, peaceful, raucous, relaxing, or whatever other adjective you might prefer Christmas, Chanukkah, Ramadan, Winter Solstice, New Year, Saturnalia (you know who you are), or whatever other holiday you might be celebrating around this time of year.

First is a revision of "Gifts", which is, as some may recall, a Christmas story (originally written in July), hence I figured I'd repost it to the ML with changes instead of just reposting it to my archive with the changes.

Enjoy.

As usual, please post any comments, etc. to email because I don't get out to the ML nowadays.

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Gifts
By LoneWolf
(kodoku na okami)

COMMENTS: Christmas in July. The song had been sitting in the back of my head for weeks when Cutter provided the catalyst for this story. It has changed perspective and title and flow underneath me several times, but I think this is the version I'll keep.

COMMENTS 2: Christmas 2000. I knew when I wrote this that it was somehow part of the "Soldiers and Fools" universe. I finally figured out where. What's scary is how little I had to change to make it fit.

BGM: "Same Old Lang Syne" from Dan Fogelberg's album, "The Innocent Age"

WARNINGS: yaoi-ness, a touch melancholy

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Every now and then something happens that makes you believe that Fate is a conscious entity with an odd sense of humor.

It was Christmas Eve, AC 206. We'd been travelling a lot the past almost five years. Work. You know how that can be when "work" is "crisis prevention and intervention" as our business cards tactfully call it. We had decided to take a couple of days just doing nothing right where we were without any friends or interruptions. Just the two of us, together, enjoying a moment of peace in a season of peace in a world at peace before rushing back into the madness of keeping the peace for everyone else.

Somehow, we ran out of eggnog.

I know how, actually. Both of us found the stuff obnoxiously addictive and I finished the last of it with a late lunch while Heero was out shopping for some gift he wouldn't tell me about. Always like him to wait until the last minute. I had warned him that shopping on Christmas Eve would be Hell, but he had been insistent. Looking at the empty carton, I knew he'd be disappointed if we didn't have any as we sat up late watching Christmas Eve become Christmas Day, so I left him a note in case he came back while I was gone, and set out to find a supermarket that still had eggnog.

It was snowing when I stepped out of the building of condominiums the Preventers kept in the Philadelphia. The doorman offered me an umbrella. I thanked him, but refused it. I have faced much worse than a little snow in my life, and I like feeling the quiet, white fall as much as Heero likes the rain. I turned up my collar and walked up the street on my mission.

Five miles and three stores later, I finally found what I was looking for. I picked up four quarts and put them in my basket. If we didn't drink it tonight, I knew we would tomorrow, and it is only available at this time of year, in the season of peace. Maybe that is why we like it. Maybe it has become associated with peace in our minds. Eggnog, the taste of peace. It sounds funny, but I think it might be true.

As I was walking to the front to pay, I thought of ice cream. He had mentioned that we were out last night, and I knew I would want some tonight. What's Christmas Eve without a little ice cream? I detoured and, three minutes of searching later, stood staring at the array of choices. You would think that with the weather as cold as it was this time of year, the stores would have less ice cream, but there was box upon box of vanilla and chocolate and strawberry and all the myriad other "normal" flavors, and then the designer mixtures began. I sifted through them, finally narrowing my choices down to a simple vanilla or a chocolate-heavy pair of those oddly named up-scale brands. I decided on the vanilla. Heero didn't really like chocolate ice cream. And a scoop of vanilla floating in a glass of eggnog laced with a little whiskey sounded good in my mind.

I pulled the box out of the freezer. The door fogged, and, as it closed, I saw her.

It took me a minute to convince myself it was really her. The last time I'd seen her had been at the bicentennial celebration when we had all gotten together again in that little reunion organized by Relena or Quatre. I can't really remember which of them planned it -- probably both. Now, she still looked good. A little older, but six years will do that, even when you're young. I wondered what she was doing here tonight. My impish nature took over.

I walked quietly to stand behind her. She was studying the frozen pies with a critical eye. I knew she could cook a mean pie, but she'd often told me that sometimes you took the easy route and just thawed something. I set my basket of eggnog and ice cream on the floor and tapped her left shoulder, dodging around to her right side. An old trick. And one she'd learned well, because she turned right first and I found myself staring into her blue, blue eyes. She didn't recognize me, but then I smiled that old roguish smile of mine.

"DUO!" she shouted and nearly knocked us both on the tile floor as she rushed to hug me.

"Oi! I didn't know you'd be so glad to see me." I laughed. "I guess that old, Duo Maxwell charm still works, ne?"

"As if you'd try to charm me when you have Heero." She chuckled, taking the sting out of the words. She wasn't being catty. It had taken us a few years to get over that sticking point in our friendship. At least, that's what we had now. Once, we were more.

To be honest, I didn't want those days back, and we both knew it. I tried to make it up to her, though. "You're still beautiful," I said, meaning it. Just because I love another guy doesn't mean I don't know a beautiful woman when I see her.

She accepted it for what it was. Truth, from an old lover who had moved on to someone else. That didn't make it any less pleasing though, because she smiled one of her genuine smiles and laughed again. "You are a rogue and a charmer, Duo."

"Yep, that's me. So, is that your stuff?" I pointed to the mess where her purse had dumped its contents on the floor when she threw her arms around me.

"Yes," she said, letting me go and bending to pick it up. I knelt beside her and gathered her wallet and keys and some miscellaneous papers scribbled with notes. I wanted to go through everything and learn where she was living and what she was doing and why she was here, but she was right there beside me, and it would be kind of obvious. I knew there were better ways -- ways she'd appreciate more.

"Thanks," she said as I handed them back to her. She stuffed them in the purse. "So, should I get a pumpkin pie or an apple pie?" she asked, standing and turning back to the case in front of her.

"How many people?" I asked.

"Eight."

"When is dinner?"

"Two."

"Better get one of each. You can always have leftovers."

"He's made you much more practical, you know." She opened the case and selected two boxes.

I shrugged. "What did you expect? I've made him a little wilder."

She laughed again. "That I'd like to see. Heero Yuy, wild."

"He -- we are both addicted to eggnog," I said, pointing to the basket. "And I'm pretty sure he'll eat some of that ice cream too. How's that for wild?"

"God. Next thing you'll be telling me he sings karaoke."

I grinned.

Her eyes grew wide. "Oh. No." She started laughing.

"Get a few Fallen Angels in him and he'll karaoke 'Sea of Love' for at least an hour." I laughed too. "And you know he can't carry a tune in a bucket."

She fell on me, laughing, both of us, for I don't know how long. I just know we were both wiping the tears from our eyes at the thought of Heero singing "Sea of Love". As we separated again, she said, "You've been good for each other."

"Yeah." I smiled, thinking of how good we'd been, healing each other's wounds and filling the voids in each other's souls. Heero and I had been, and still are, good for each other. "Hey, why don't we pay for this stuff and go somewhere and talk for a while? I'd like to catch up."

"Won't he be waiting for you?"

"Eventually. But right now he's out shopping--" She snickered again. "Hey, he's getting a gift for me. Anyway, I'm betting he won't be back before 18:00."

She thought for a few seconds, then said, "OK. I have a car. We can pick up a six-pack and have us a little party in the parking lot."

"Sugoi!"

I put the pies in my basket and turned to go to the beer aisle, but she caught me. "I can't stand anything they have here. We'll go by the liquor store and pick up a microbrew."

With brief stutters of conversation we walked to the front and paid for our separate purchases, then out to her car. She drove us a couple of blocks to the liquor store and parked. "I'll be right back. Why don't you put your ice cream in that snow bank outside the door so it doesn't melt."

I stood in the soft-falling flakes after stashing everything in the snow bank to keep it cold. She came back to find me standing there and gave me one of those, "Duo, you're crazy," looks. "Hey, I like the snow," I told her. "And I put your pies out here too."

She nodded and got in the car -- she didn't like the snow. I joined her and we drank the beer and talked. It was a very good beer, too. If this was what she'd become accustomed to, I could understand why she didn't like the stuff in the store. "So, when did you come here from L2?" I asked. It seemed like a good place to start.

"Oh, I never went back after the bicentennial. You know what it's like there." I did. L2 is something of a dead end colony, and most people who want to be something leave it like I had -- like she had. "... then I worked at a salvage yard for a while, then I got a job as an office manager at an architectural firm. That's where I met Ian."

That took a second to register. "Ian. You're married?" She grinned, raising her left hand to display a simple wedding band and a diamond that was at least three carats. "Congratulations, Hilde!" But I wondered why I hadn't been invited to the wedding.

"Two and a half years in January. I tried to send you an invitation, but I couldn't find you."

Ah. "Yeah, I guess that's part of the job." I saw the question in her eyes. "Top Secret."

"Preventers?"

I nodded. "I could tell you, but 'omae o korosu'," I said in my best Heero Yuy voice. That made her smile. We both knew she knew what the Preventers were and that I had been working for them since the war and Heero since shortly after the bicentennial. "I wish we could have been there. I'd've loved to have seen you in your wedding dress." I smiled. "So, an architect must make good money if he can afford a rock that big."

She chuckled. "A lot more than a secret agent, I'm sure. Nice house. Good friends. Good parties. He's good to me." I heard the sigh underneath her voice, and I noticed the thing that was missing. It hurt. I wondered why she'd married him if they didn't love each other. "And Ian Jr. is happy and healthy. He'll be two years old tomorrow."

"A Christmas baby. How lucky." I said. Now I knew why she'd married him. At least he cared about her enough to marry her instead of dumping her when she got pregnant. Maybe she was the one who didn't love him. I said a quick prayer that they would find each other and be happy before New Years. I meant it. She deserved to be happy.

She must have seen the understanding in my eyes, because she shifted the conversation to me. "So, how are you and Heero doing?"

"Perfect," I said, feeling a little guilty to be saying that in the face of her own imperfect relationship. "We travel a lot. That's hard. But we're always assigned together. That's one of the advantages of being friends with the big bosses, I guess. We've been here for a few days doing some preliminary security checks for the World Council Conference next month and decided to take a couple of days and enjoy Christmas. We haven't done that since, oh, 203. We've always been on assignments."

"Sounds like a bitch," she said.

I shrugged. "We both enjoy the work. I mean, let's face it, Heero is always going to have a bit of soldier in his blood and I'm a thief at heart, so I enjoy finding the holes in people's security." I didn't explain that sometimes that meant more than just a consulting job. Sometimes that meant undercover work or a break-in or spying or worse. "It's the only work that really suits either of us." It had taken me a while to accept that about Heero, though.

We talked for a couple of hours more.

About Ian. By the time she was done talking about him I was sure he loved her. I offered some gentle hints that she needed to let go and open up to him -- and heard the old tones in her voice that told me she was concealing anger. At first. But then she saw I was only trying to help her be happy. She shrugged and changed the subject. I could see her thinking about it as we talked on, though.

About Heero. What can I say about Heero that isn't already obvious? I love him and he loves me, and even if we sometimes struggle to say it, we both know it. I don't think either of us could define himself without the other. We are, truly, two halves of a single whole.

About Ian Jr. He was a bright kid from the sound of things. I know. Mothers always dote over their babies and make them out to be the most perfect children in the world, but she didn't seem to be twisting any of it. I have a pretty good ear for that. I could hear that she loved him. That made me feel better for her.

And silence. We sat looking at each other, drinking the last two beers in silence, each of us realizing that we cared about each other, but not the way we had once thought. We had changed. We were different people now. There was a distance between us. Not so great it couldn't be bridged, but a few hours drinking and talking in a car wasn't going to do it.

We didn't have time for more. The sky was getting dark and I said, "I need to go. He's probably wondering where I am."

She watched me for a moment longer, then said, "Why don't you come over for dinner tomorrow?"

I almost wanted to go, but I knew that wouldn't be wise. Parading the old boyfriend in front of the new husband is always a bad idea. "We promised each other a quiet day alone together," I said. Then, "Hilde, he loves you. Give him a chance." I saw that look in her eyes. She wanted to deck me. Then she looked away.

"Sorry. You're right, you know." She turned back to me, her face softer. "I'll try, Duo."

"Don't try. Do it. A Christmas gift for me."

That made her laugh. That's what I'd wanted. I didn't want to leave her sad. I opened the door and pulled the bag with the pies out of the snow and put it in the floor in the back seat. She kissed me. "It was good to see you again, Duo." She smiled. "Really."

It was that smile. The one that said she wasn't hiding anything. I suddenly wanted to be there for dinner, just to see my gift to her begin to become her gift to me. "You're in the phone lookup under O'Clare?" She nodded. "I'll talk to Heero. No promises," I said as I got out of the car and picked up my bag. I watched as she cranked the engine and drove out of the parking lot, turning east.

In one of those flukes of nature, the air had gotten warmer as we sat and talked and drank and now, as the streetlights began to come on, the snow became a soft, cold, steady rain. I had a long walk back in it and wasn't looking forward to it. I should have taken that umbrella. I was silently cursing the change in weather, when I saw a familiar figure detach itself from the front of the liquor store and walk toward me.

Do not ask me how Heero Yuy can walk in rain so cold it's almost ice while wearing nothing warmer than jeans and a light jacket without turning blue and breaking out in goosebumps. All I know is that he can. He pulled an umbrella out of his back pocket as he came up beside me and opened it, covering me, putting his arm around my waist so we'd both be under it. He started us walking toward the condo. "Hello, koi," he said softly.

"Uh, hi, Hee-koi. How did your shopping trip go?" And how the Hell did you find me?

He shrugged. "It was Hell, like you said." Then he answered the question I didn't have to ask aloud. "I saw your note and came looking for you. Saw you standing by the car and just waited. I thought you might need an umbrella." He stopped and turned to face me, touching my hand. "How is Hilde?"

"OK," I said, not certain if I wanted to meet his gaze or not. "Could be better. She invited us to dinner tomorrow." I decided I should, and raised my eyes from his chest. "I'd like to go."

He was watching me. I knew he could tell I was nervous. I don't know why I was nervous. He knew about me and Hilde. Nothing had happened tonight. Neither of us had planned our meeting. I guess I was nervous because I didn't want him to have any reason to question my commitment to him. He put his right arm around my neck and pulled himself up on his toes to reach my face and kissed me softly on the lips. "Here," he said, lowering his arm and opening his hand. "Merry Christmas, koi."

I set down the bag and took the small box he offered. I opened it. Inside was a pin. Maybe and inch and a half wide. A pair of angel wings worked in silver and diamonds. "Heero, it's... It's beautiful. Thank you." I hugged him, hoping I wasn't going to cry. I kissed his forehead because it was all I could reach without breaking the embrace, and right then I really wanted to hold him and feel him against me. "Thank you. But... I didn't get you anything this nice. I didn't know..."

"I have you," he said, simply, softly.

I looked down, drowning in his warm water eyes, and knew he meant it. "Let's go back to the apartment," I said. "I bought some eggnog and some ice cream." I had a comfortable pair of black jeans and a blue shirt that I knew would match his eyes perfectly all wrapped up and waiting back at the apartment. They were poor gifts compared to what he'd bought.

But I knew the things didn't really matter to him. The only thing he really wanted was to spend tonight with me, quiet, alone, enjoying my presence. Maybe we'd do more, but I knew he didn't really care if we did or not. All he wanted was for me to be with him. That was a gift I could give him that he would find far more precious than the clothes. I knew that sitting in bed with him tonight, holding him, listening to the silence that is how he often speaks to me would be the best gift of all for both of us.

He took the box from my hand and closed it, then slipped it into my coat pocket. "Wear it to dinner tomorrow?" he asked as I bent to pick up the bag.

Another gift. Damn. "Heero, we don't have to go. I know you were looking forward to just us tomorrow."

He let me finish my protest, but I'm sure he'd formulated his reply before I finished the first sentence. "Duo, gifts are free or they aren't gifts."

Maybe the greatest gift we can give is accepting the gifts others give us without attaching the strings that were never there to begin with. I smiled, and nodded. "I'll wear it proudly, koi." We turned and I wrapped my arm tight around his waist and we walked down the street together in the cold rain.

We weren't cold, though.