"What's up, PC?" Alden asked as he walked into the room. She immediately saw the look of worry on his face. He was a little jagged around the edges. He had not been sleeping well, it appeared. He tried a reassuring smile, but he just looked tired.
When he arrived, he saw PC witnessing DefenderCam footage of the fight in the hills against the Three + 1. She noticed him and invited him to take a seat.
Defender looked at the footage and sighed.
"Thanks for making time to see me. I've been studying footage of the fight and I've come across a couple of observations that I thought you, as team leader, might want to hear," she said.
"I do have a question, though, to start. When you were fighting Gargoyle...when you hit him, when he hit you...did you feel as if you were overmatched?" PC stopped to smile. "Be honest, I know you're a man's man and you did well, but I want your thoughts.
"I always feel overmatched. And I'm usually terrified for my life," Alden said. "But I did what I could to let the rest of the team complete their objectives."
Upon hearing that, PC paused the footage, whirled around in her chair and faced Alden. "OK, I think first I need to stop being PC for a minute and be Lorelei. What's wrong? And please don't brush me off on this, because the way you walked in here you looked *worse* than after your fight with Gargoyle, and no offense, but that's saying something."
Turning the situation around a little, Alden asked Lorelei a question instead. "When you are watching footage of our tangles, what goes through your mind when you see your father on the business end of the beat-down stick?"
"I would imagine the same thing that goes through Mara's. On an intellectual level, I know what he does is dangerous but necessary. Personally, I have no more desire to become an orphan as Mara does to be a widow." Lorelei paused. "Does what's on your mind have something to do with the fact that Mara actually saw you in a hostile situation?"
"She's always known what I do is dangerous, but this is the first time she's ever seen it first hand. And I end up dealing with someone tougher than myself. We will have much to talk about during our vacation next week." Defender rubbed his hands together and rolled his shoulders. "But we were discussing my run in with Gargoyle."
As Defender spoke, Alex walked by and overheard what was said. He stood at the doorway to listen as PC continued.
Actually, it's not just about you. Something you said actually proves my point...what you said about 'allowing the team to accomplish their objectives'. As if each person had an individual objective, not a team objective. And you can stop skulking, Dad, and come in and listen too."
A little embarassed, Alex walked in and took a chair next to Alden.
"Anyways, my above statement bore out as the fight went on. Yes, you each had a target and an objective, but the original plan was based on faulty information. From what it appeared, Ka-Sador was matched with Gargoyle based on flight, however, Gargoyle's enhanced strength wasn't taken into account. Also, since we had no idea what Mongoose's powers were, we didn't know he was a speedster. That was our first mistake...not thinking through the big picture...but that's actually minor to the real problem.
"In reality, we didn't make the team adjustments necessary to regroup and get better matchups..."
"Hold on." Sting said. "I did try to do that...once I saw Mongoose was a speedster, I did switch off..."
"Yes, but all Mongoose *had* was speed. Granted, you were his best match in a footrace...but you were also probably the only one on the team who strengthwise could truly go toe to toe with Gargoyle. Meanwhile, Gargoyle was picking the team off one by one...Ka-Sador, then Defender, then Wanderer. You were worn down after chasing Mongoose, and I really believe that if Ka-Sador hadn't come back to consciousness, you would have lost.
"My point being is that right now, these tapes show me that if we're going to be effective as a team, we need to start practicing what we want our goal to be. Right now, on a personal level I feel the team is bonding rather nicely, which is important...but tactically, I don't think we really know each other. Boss, you, Wondy and Dad all have paranormal strength, but we don't know to what levels as a team. I mean, YOU know, but not everyone does. Conversely, we have almost no team tactics beyond 'dogpile on the big guy'.
"I think that to truly be the best we can be as a team, we need to first catalog fully the abilites of all personnel, both active and reservist, and then we need to actually devote time in practice to learning each others powers and tendencies in combat so that we can complement one another.
"The third thing we need is better communication, and I think I've already come up with something there." PC pulled out a unit roughly the size of a half-dollar that looked akin to a hearing aid. "I'm working on the two-way technology, but this is a prototype of a comm device, similar in design to yours, Defender. What this will do is allow us to eventually communicate with each other...but more importantly, let me communicate with you...on a more secure basis than our current comm units allow. This will allow me to assist in coordinating field work among the team, in conjunction with the camera in your systems, Alden, to get people more focused on everything going on, avoid blindsides, and better adapt original tactics to the current surroundings.
PC took a breath before leaning back in her chair. "I want to take this to the team, but I felt that you as team leader needed to be behind this before I go any further with it."
"You feel fairly strongly about this. I agree that we need to get better about working together." Defender rubbed his face and took a deep breath. "You know, we do have a large area that we have speculated the Eagles used for practice. As for communication, our current coms are set up with ear bud jacks."
"Are they wireless?" Lorelei asked? "Also, eventually the mic units would be in the earpiece as well, which would leave the team totally hands free. It's designed more for field communication in the heat of combat. We can get our heads together on that after the new year, but I'm basically talking streamlining what we already have more. As far as the room goes, my next big project is to get into that room and see what's what in there...see if there's any special tricked up systems down there."
"Sounds like you've really thought this out, hon." Alex said.
"Yeah, I have. I'm sorry dad, but I don't want another First World to happen to the Protectors. And I don't want to lose you the same way I lost Mom. We need to be as ready as we can be."
Sting very visibly blanched at her statement, half surprised she said it, half upset that she apparently brought something up that hadn't been discussed for a long while.
Defender let the silence pass for a few moments before speaking. "Hopefully the season will go quietly. We can go over all of this when Mara and I get back. That is assuming... Sorry, was there anything else?"
"Actually, yes there is." Sting said. "Where are you and Mara vacationing?"
"We'll be spending a few days in Goldwater Springs and the rest of the week with relatives in Falcon's Bluff. I've left contact information in the database and will take my communicator in case of a major emergency. Otherwise, I'll be completely out of touch. Mara and I need some time alone."
"Completely understandable." Alex replied. "I just wanted to know in order to be able to file a flight plan with my pilot."
"Well," Alex said, "I was *going* to basically tell you you needed a vacation, but you figured that out for yourself and made your own plans...I knew there was a reason I respected you...therefore, since the Dutchmen have been working with Hope-Bryce Cybernetics in the hopes that they will be working on some advanced training equipment for the team, I've arranged for my jet to be on loan to you, Mr. Bryce. The board knows this is one of my ways of wheeling and dealing for the team, and even though it's the team's plane, it's my money running it, so they're not saying a word. I've also instructed the pilot to make sure that you're taken care of throughout the vacation. Meals, rooms, whatever you need, it'll go on my personal card. All in the name of business, of course."
Alex smiled. "In other words, Alden, Merry Christmas from me to you. And please don't get all noble on me, I know you don't need my financial assistance, but let an old man feel good about making someone's holiday nicer. Besides, you know I can beat you up if you make too much of a fuss about it."
Alden smiled slowly, overcome by his friend's generosity. "I don't know what to say."
"To me, nothing...simply smile and enjoy the holiday." Alex said. "To Mara, however, you have a great deal to talk about. Go and be with your wife. The city's in good hands."
"All I ask," Lorelei interjected, "is to keep your homing device on. Trust me, nothing short of the Apocalypse will make you hear from me in the next week, but if something happens to *YOU*, we need to be able to find you. OK?"
"I'll be in good hands too, trust me," Alden said as he saw Mara walk by the door to the conference room. She lingered and the two shared a knowing look. In that moment, Alden knew that she had overheard the entire conversation. They would indeed have a lot to talk about.
"Are you coming?" She asked from the hall. "You promised we would be able to swing by the house and the mall before sundown. At this rate..."
"I'm ready," Alden answered. "Try to keep Ka-sador and Max out of trouble while I'm gone. And Flex... well, I ... Merry Christmas all. See you for New Years." Alden walked out of the room and slipped a hand around Mara's waist.
"And no, we can't stop by Victoria's Secret, even for a minute." Mara commented with a smirk. "You've not been a good boy lately."
"Can I at least have a big cookie?"
As Sting and PC watched Alden walk out of the room, Lorelei finally broke the silence. "I'm sorry I said what I said...I just get so..."
"I know," Alex responded, "but you really shouldn't have brought up the First World. It's something I'm not comfortable talking about yet."
"Maybe you should become comfortable with it, Dad." PC retorted. "They're your friends."
"I know...and it's because of that that I haven't said anything yet. Or have you forgotten the last time that I let my comrades in on a personal matter?"
"There's no way you could have forseen Tsu..."
Alex interrupted. "I don't really want to talk about this anymore, OK? Maybe later, but not now...I have to go meet Max."
Alex left the room abruptly, leaving Lorelei with a very concerned look on her face.
* * * *
"Er... You've got me cold. I'm the Ghost of the Park. You pesky kids and your dog."
"Jinkies." Sting deadpanned. "I take it you're hunting our local sex offender as well".
"Without a doubt. Have you had any luck?"
"Nothing yet, but it's hard to be in several places at once." Sting said. "Would you have anyone in your service that could also patrol? I don't mean do anything if they see it, but at least possibly witness something to give us a visual ID of what we're looking for? Many hands make light work.
"I have a few subjects that spend time in the park. So far, they haven't seen anything. My plan was to give this a crack for a few weeks. If I found nothing, I was going to have a knight or two concentrate on the park for a while." Max noticed a pair of lovers walking hand in hand. "After all, we have to keep this place safe for everyone."
"Of course," Sting said. "That sounds like a good plan. Where have you been so far so I know I'm not follwing the exact same flight plan. Lets us cover more ground."
"No problem. I've got this shiny doodad," Max said, holding up his Protectors comm unit. "I've been that way, so let's split off that way and that way."
* * * *
"Well," PC began, "I think it met something resembling eggnog at one point. It's carton eggnog...Christmas night I'll be making it from scratch, I hope you enjoy it." PC paused to adjust the tinsel. "What other traditions do you have for Turning of the Year. If it's something we don't replicate here, I'd love to make the place feel more comfortable for both you and Ka-Sador."
"Other traditions? The Fire Dance. Our celebration takes place on the, umm, longest night of the year. You have a word for it?""
"Winter solstice?" offered PC."
"Yes! So, there is a ritual left over from our primitve days of lighting a fire and dancing over it to remind the sun to come back up. In the modern age, it's just a small fire usually, or a light strip, and the children leap over it a few times. We could always afford a real fire." M'Krell stopped for long moment. "I do not know what Ka-Sador's people's traditions are. What will you be doing?"
Ka-sador sighed softly and walked away from the cultural exchange, looking over the Wall of Heroes.
"Oh, I'll be here." PC said. "Dad and I will probably spend some time alone after the Jones Street party before coming here with whoever comes. I really hope most if not all of the Protectors can make it. My entire life, I've seen Christmas as a time for family, and this is the first year I feel I even have a family outside of my dad in quite a long time."
"My family is light years away, and at war ..." M'Krell's voice broke. "I'm sorry this is not becoming behaviour in a Princess."
"Well, it's perfectly unstandable behaviour from any sentient, feeling being." PC said, gently putting a hand on her shoulder. "Of course, you know you're welcome with us. I for one am very thankful you're here...sometimes I drown in the testosterone and overall...maleness...of the residents here."
PC quietly excused herself for a moment, and walked over to the Wall of Heroes and addressed Ka-Sador. "I'm sorry, did something I say upset you?"
[NO, JUSST KA-SADOR NOT SURE WHAT HISS PEEPLE DO EETHER] the alien then began to tell PC about the slave pits and arena. Ka-sador had very little contact with other Orionids, and the few he used to talk with were either old and addled doing menial tasks or brutal warriors who had little time for a youngling. [KA-SADOR HAS NO FAMILIE, NO TRADISHUN, NO CULLTOOR.]
PC smiled and gently turned Ka-Sador so that she could look him straight in the eyes. "Well, I have three things to say to that. First, traditions always begin somewhere. Just because you may not have any right now doesn't mean you won't. Culture...well, sometimes culture can be overrated. For instance, I'm sure you've seen all the commercials on television thare are saying buy this, buy that, trying to tell the people that buying things is the reason we have Christmas.
"But one thing that many of us believe is that the reason we celebrate Christmas is to celebrate the bith of a man who's very life was a model of the peace, love, and happiness that all of us as Protectors strive for for our world and beyond. He was born in a stable, and his first night of life he slept in a trough designed to feed horses, because his family wasn't even able to find shelter for his birth. But his 33 years of life, and his three years of active service to the people of his time, are considered by many to be the most inspiring, powerful message that has ever been written. From what many would call a nightmarish start he became known throughout our world as a man of peace.
"My point is this...you, my friend are very wrong on one point...you do have a family. From the teachings of this man I speak of, we know that family is more than bloodline. It is what we do for one another, not for what we get...but simply because we care for one another. As Protectors, we do what we do to make the world a better place, to make Port Alexander a better place, and we don't expect a single thing. We do it because we care. It's the same reason you're a part of us, why M'Krell, Mara, everyone in the Protectors are choosing to spend Christmas with each other. Because *we*, Ka-Sador are your family. Otherwise, we'd do our thing and go our seperate ways each day like it was a job.
"Face facts, buster...you're stuck with us. And when the time comes when you face the Krai and one day, God willing, liberate your people...I can guarantee you that the Protectors will be there to help you make it happen. And we'll be there not just to right wrongs and liberate an oppressed people...but because you, Ka-Sador, and M'Krell...you are our family. And we are yours. Never forget that."
Lorelei stepped back and stood quietly, looking for a sign of understanding from the Orionid.
Ka-sador stood silent for a few moments letting the words of this young earthlander sink in. Then, with a smile forming across his beak, he said [KA-SADOR UNNERSTAND, BUT KA-SADOR NOT DREENK EGGNOG] The bird-like alien hoped that such a bold defiance of what was surely a hallmark of this celebration was not misinterpreted; but he could not force himself to consume anything that came from the all too familiar oval-shaped container.
Lorelei smiled. "I understand. It's DEFINITELY not for everybody. But if you would be so kind..."
Lorelei walked over to the ornaments and lifted an eight-pointed silver star. She handed it to Ka-Sador. "This is another tradition...this goes on the very top. And considering the tree is 10 feet tall and I'm only 5' and change...if you would do the honors?"
Ka-Sador took the star and with a single graceful flap of his wings lifted the few extra inches needed to allow him to place the star on the top of the tree.
* * * *
Patricia Renaldo quietly opened the door to the study, the Christmas Party downstairs was in full swing and the sounds of music and chatter flooded the room breaking the silence. Shortly after the official introduction of the Ballet and subsequent welcoming Simmon Marious had slipped away upstairs as he usually did. Patricia knew exactly where to find him, gazing off across the grounds out to the sea from his study window.
She stood there silhouetted in the door way, and he spoke. "I'm sorry dear, I am not a good host."
She entered and closed the door, walking up to him. "You have other talents besides entertaining guests, you are gracious to offer up your home," she said genuinely trying to get him to open up.
"I hope you are right, however events like this do not need me around, " he said sadly. The man known as Simmon Marious continued to look out across the crashing waves, "It is times like this that I truly feel like an outsider. I am not one to put down roots, and family holidays make me feel like a wanderer." He stopped abruptly and looked over to her sympathetic face which broke into a big smile.
"Are you finished with your silly pity party?" she asked before grabbing his arm. "You have friends, a family, and roots here with me. Now come, return to the party. You won't believe who Marie Vladistock has set her eyes on."
* * * *
Sting looked up the Beggar King outside the shelter, and made a request. "Can you get the kids of the Duchy to write letters to Santa Claus? I'd like an idea of their names and what they want. I'm going to try to get some presents for them."
Max gave a little laugh. "Are you prepared to take out another mortgage on your home?"
A few days later, he showed up with several hundred letters. At Sting's surprise, Max nodded sagely. "We do what we can to help, but you have only seen the tip of the iceberg. For one thing, my duchy actually sees many families from the surrounding cities. Word of our situation has spread over the last couple of years and we see way more than our fair share. For another, I consider all the unfortunates a part of the nation, whether they know it or not. So, I got the children's wards at the hospitals, especially the terminal ward at Port Alex General. Letters from the kids of the shelters and the orphanages are all included here. I did organize them by location and then age, in case you want to pick and choose. Oh, and I would have gotten letters from the kids in juvenile hall, but the new head master is not a friend. I can try to sneak those, if you would like. After all, this is the best time of year to let them know that regardless of their mistakes, someone still cares about them."
"Well said, my friend." Sting said, looking over the letters. "I think we can definitely work out a little Christmas cheer there too. See what you can do."
Max nodded, a little surprised that the numbers only seemed to surprise him momentarily. Sting looked around to make sure they were alone.
"Max, I think there's something you should know. The full-time team members know, but I haven't made a point to tell the associates yet. However, in addition to being an Associate Protector, you're also a friend, and should know."
Sting pulled the mask back, revealing the face of the man that has spent a lot of time and energy recently refurbishing the Jones Street Shelter. "I grew up in a ramshack cabin in the back woods of West Virginia with a coal miner for a father. I may not have seen the times some of your subjects have, but I know what a hard life feels like, especially as a child who barely had food in his stomach. If I can make these kids feel good for just one day, a day when no one should feel alone, then it's worth the second mortgage."
Sting smiled and pulled the mask back over his face. "I need a large favor from you and your subjects. I wish I had time to sort through all of this, but it's hard. If you could provide me one list with the age, location and such of all the kids, as well as delivery manpower on Christmas day for anyone unable to come to the shelter, I will be in your debt."
"Santa Immergrun, at your service." Max said. "And this year it's easier for me to slip down the chimneys."
Pulling a list from his pocket, he handed it to Sting. "Here are all the names. I'd already taken the liberty to make myself a master list."
* * * *
The Bright lights and sweet smell of Turkey roast filled the air of the Wander No More House. Eddying around it mixed with the happy sounds of laughter and fun as the odd assortment of people filled the main dining room.
The Wander No More House was a safe house and place of solace for prostitutes and other refugees, from the hard life of the street. Flex looked about taking in the wonder of being together and feeling safe, for the first time in who knows how long. Flex a.k.a. Jim Reed had many regrets from his past, but the accident that turned him into the mouldable hero was not one of them.
Moving about the room were other invited guests of which his fellow peers, the Protectors Port Alexander's premier super team, where the most prominent. Flex thought how weird it felt as his real features, altered by the shape changing properties of the plastic alien skin that was no fused with his own, lay hidden from people who knew those features so well. Flex worked and lived at the house as Jim Reed as a handy man. The invitation to be here as his alter ego presented a moment of crisis which he managed to get around. Sarge and the others thought Jim was with his Mom, and he had been. But now he was back early so he could attend as Flex. "This double life thing is hard to get straight." Flex thought to himself. He stretched out his left arm and extended his left hand to scope a drink from the table located on the other side of the room. Although he had not intended to draw attention to himself, the obvious use of his flexible power drew appreciative nods and whistles. Flex was just glad that he could control his skin tone and not appear as embarrassed as he felt.
Flex felt his thought drifting as he thought back to his other life in the Parts. The many nights he had spent with the gangs he had run with or with "Blackie"! Bill Black was what people in the Parts called, a 'finder'! If you wanted a job done and you needed someone, then Blackie was your man. He put people and jobs together like meat and gravy, Jim and Blackie had a falling out over Jim's acceptance of a job with a new gang Blackie was not happy about. It turned out to be Jim's last job before becoming Flex.
A couple of years before Blackie had taken a shine to Jim. He'd taken to looking out for Jim, steering him away from some of the harder and more dangerous jobs and making sure that he was looked after. Jim had, previously got by on his wits and having someone like Blackie was like having eyes in the back of your head. It was still a hard life and Jim still found he had to think his way out of many a tight spot, but it worked out somehow.
Blackie was no saint but he told Jim that he reminded him of his son, whom he'd lost in 'Nam. The falling out was stupid really. Jim wanted to prove himself, when dared at a local bar and had accepted a position with this new gang. Blackie did not approve and Jim had told him where to get off! Blackie may have liked Jim, but no one treated him like that! Since then they had not spoken. "For all I know, Blackie still thinks I am dead." Flex thought. A sudden tapping of metal on glass drew Flex's attention as the Wanderer drew everyone's attention including Flex to give a toast. But the Wanderers words were lost on Jim, as he wondered if sorting his life out included going back to Blackie? "One thing at a time." Flex thought as he raised his glass at the end of the Wanderers toast and let those thoughts slip away as he focused on enjoying the party once again.
* * * *
Sting was drawn to the residential dome by the smell. A delicious melange of roast beef (a turkey having been forgone in deference to Ka-Sador's avian origins) and spiced cider. When he arrived, PC was directing Ka-Sador who was placing the last few decorations high on the dome's roof. He glanced at the clock, it was five 'til seven, the others should be arriving soon.
Ka-sador called out [STEENG, YOO LYKE STARS?] The alien had been showing more and more comfort since his talk with PC, and as he set softly down beside the new arrival he whispered so as to not offend PC. [KA-SADOR TRY TO TELL PC THAT STARZ ARE NOT ALINNED PROPERLEE, DO NOT SAYE ANYTHING], he then gave a wink and strode off to another box filled with tinsel.
Sting laughed as he walked over to a nearby storage room that was locked with a personal code Sting had entered earlier in the week, then came out carrying a large box filled with brightly wrapped presents. He then started setting the presents beneath the tree. "The stars look great, KC. Everything looks great. I'm beginning to believe my daughter has no life."
PC gave him a mock expression of hurt. "I'm sooooo sorry, Dad, not all of us get invitations to ritzy partys and get to make moon eyes with champion skiiers"
Sting pulled his mask off and looked at PC with a "Shush" look. "Now Lorelei, I'm sure that Ka-Sador has no desire to hear about my love li...I mean, my personal affair...I mean..."
Ka-sador looked on curiously with his head tilted sideways, [STEENG HAS FOUND SUITABLE GENETIC FOOSHION PARTNER?]
"Not on the first date, I hope!" PC retorted as Sting rolled his eyes. "I'll get you for that" Sting mouthed to PC before answering Ka-Sador. "I've found someone that I'm curious about, Ka-Sador, and I think I'll leave it at that for right now."
"I heard laughter, oh!" M'Krell came up the stairs from the apartments. "Is it that late already?" She saw Sting's packages, "I have no gifts. Ka-Sador wouldn't let me out to shop." She pouted prettily.
Ka-sador turned away and rolled his eyes. It never ceased to amaze him how impervious to reality royalty could be. One step outside could spell certain abduction and possibly execution for M'Krell if the Krai were to stumble upon her, he answered her accusation with a tinge of pride [KA-SADOR MADE GIFTS FOR FRENDTS].
The alien continued to string garland around the Wall of Heroes, sneezing whenever he got too close to the aerosol snow that was sprayed on the glass.
M'Krell laughed, "Don't roll your eyes at me, Ka-Sador. I'm teasing you. Actually, I made Alden buy the things on my list before he and Mara left for their trip. I'll be right back." She ran back downstairs and returned with a bag. "They're all small, but ..." She put the packages under tree.
Immediately Ka-sador approached the tree and began to sniff the packages.
Alex stood and walked over to M'Krell. "As royalty, your presence is present enough for all of us." He gently kneeled and kissed her on the hand as Lorelei laughed. "You are such a ham." she snickered.
"Well, someone has to pay attention to her while you and Ka-Sador are together staring at the stars." Alex retorted. At that, Lorelei's face turned beet red before gaining her composure. "It's not the same thing, and you know it."
Alex walked over and hugged his daughter, kissing her on the forehead. "Told you I'd get you back."
"Oh, you just wait" Lorelei said playfully.
"Speaking of royalty," Alex said, "I hope Max can make it. I know his business with his people keeps him too busy to be full time but I hope he realizes he's as much a part of us as anyone."
Ka-sador looked upon the exchange between father and daughter with mirth, and gently took liberty with M'Krell along the same topic, inquiring as to whether she thought the Meg would approve of Alex's gesture. So as to not cause any undue embarassment he asked it in Illani.
"I never met the Meg," replied M'Krell in the same language, "but if he flies into rage every time some one pays me a compliment, then he'll be eternally angry."
With a sly smile, Ka-sador chuckled to himself at the arrogance of royalty. There were entire songs sung in the pits about such behaviour, but he had to admit that M'Krell was very atypical of the stereotype. He looked over to the console chronometer and asked [WHEN OTHERS ARRYVE?], trying not to appear anxious since he had made a special seaweed salad from the on-site garden.
As the heroes continued to exhibit yuletide cheer, the lighting briefly shifted to amber marking the arrival of a recognized (and authorized) visitor to the Fortress. As the lighting returned to normal, the Wanderer was seen on the monitors entering the entrance tunnel carrying a large sack. The visual alert identifying all who came into the Fortress by biometric scanning was beginning to grow on the residents and they all dreaded that day when the lights would turn red indicating an intruder had breached the Fortress.
Soon thereafter the airlock doors circulated and the man in black walked into the control dome calling out "Merry Christmas!!" as he made his way into the Residence Dome. With a chorus of "Fa-la-la-la" he exchanged pleasantries before popping out of existence and returning almost instantaneously without the sack.
"When can we eat?" he asked rubbing his hands together with glee.
"I think we can go ahead and start." PC said. "Max is hosting a dinner with his people and will be late...I figure if by some miracle he's still hungry there will definitely be leftovers."
PC then went to work laying out the incredible spread. The roast beef was the centerpiece but there were also stuffed shells (PC noted that her mother always celebrated an Italian christmas), mashed potatoes, corn, several salads (including Ka-Sador's seaweed salad) and many other delicacies .
Ka-sador brought a pitcher of fruit cocktail to the table as the Wanderer looked a bit disappointed that there were no cheese fries, but at least there was a gravy boat filled with chocolate syrup near his place setting. Upon seeing this he bowed gracefully to PC for her thinking of him.
"I apologies for no cheese fries," PC began, "but we didn't have a fryer installed in the kitchen yet, and would you believe even McDonald's closes for Christmas?" PC raised her hand to her mouth in mock shock at her own statement.
Finally, PC said "Soup's on!" and the heroes sat down to enjoy their holiday meal.
Some time passed, with much eating and conversation going on. PC turned to Ka-Sador and said "This seaweed is delicious...especially with a light raspberry vinagrette! Would you care..."
Flashback to December 25, 1993
...for some hot chocolate?"
Scirocco had walked into the meeting room at Peacekeeper headquarters carrying a tray with several steaming mugs on it. She smiled pleasantly at the four gentlemen sitting at the table, serving first a large, bald boyish looking fellow.
"It depends" said the gentleman at the table's head in a thick French accent. "Is it zat swill the UN Commissary serves, or is it true hot chocolate, made with real milk?"
"I think the latter." Scirocco responded, her voice speaking impeccable english with a slight Arabic accent to it. "I picked it up from a coffeeshop on the way here. It had a very good taste, so I brought some. Have any of you been by Rockefeller Center? The tree is GORGEOUS this year."
"I have." Aftershock responded. "I walk by there on my way to my day job." He was pleasantly surprised to see Scirocco so excited about the season...before joining the Peacekeepers, the sheltered young woman had barely known of Christmas, but she embraced the spirit of the holiday with a passion that rivaled his own. He did tell a white lie...the studios where he filmed his NFL pregame show weren't on the way to Rockefeller...but he wanted to encourage Scirocco, who for most of her time with the team had felt very uncomfortable expressing herself.
Aftershock thought on the events of the past couple of months. This would be the first Christmas he spent at home with his daughter...normally he would travel to be with her and his ex-wife...but this year, thanks to Ripper, that would not be possible. The team, too, was healing from the loss of Tsunami, but spirits seemed to be stronger as of late. Tonight, everyone would be leaving to be with their own loved ones...but for now, the Peacekeepers were together, celebrating the various holidays of the season. The quiet time was nice.
He looked again at Scirocco, who had finished giving everyone their drinks and was....
December 21, 1994
...was lying, with a look of shock on her face and blood gushing from her nose.
Aftershock saw this and blanched. He looked up to see the white hooded form of White Pride standing over the body.
"Oops, look like she broke. Can't say'z 'n I'm surprised...inferior workmanship 'n all dat."
The villian spat on the fallen body, and that was all Aftershock needed. In a rage, he gestured at the ceiling above the now in-ruins Keep, ravaged from a shocking surprise assault from the First World. The ceiling crumbled, and huge rocks fell on the unsuspecting villian. After several seconds, he was buried, crushed under the rubble.
Aftershock had no idea if he was alive or dead...and he didn't care. Scirocco and Fliedermaus were dead, he had no idea of the rest of the team...Big Ben and Schlacthaus were locked in a life and death struggle the last he looked...and his thoughts were a mess. How did they get access to the Keep?
It had to have been the witch. She had left ominously several days before after a large disagreement with Legionnaire, coupled with her country's desire to remove her from the team. She had simply left, and threatened the destruction of the team. She had always been cold and aloof, never really part of the team in spirit...but could she have been capable of giving the deadliest people on the planet the keys to the...
December 25, 1994
The teenage girl, eyes sore from crying, listened raptly to the sound of the newscaster as she sat on a chair, curled up in a fetal position.
"...are still trying to find the bodies of Fliedermaus and Aftershock, two members of what many feel are the now defunct Peacekeepers, after a devastating battle in their now decimated headquarters, the Keep. The total deathcount of the battle now appears to be seven, with three of the four members of the First World confirmed dead along with the Peacekeepers known as Scir.."
She heard the door shut behind her and she screamed. She turned around...and saw a battered figure of a man wearing sweatpants and a New York Jets sweatshirt. He looked shellshocked as she ran to him, crying, and embraced him.
"Oh my god," she said, "I thought you had died."
Dazed, the man could only say "I think I did...part of me, anyway..."
She looked at him. "How..."
December 25, 2000
"...about some more Roast Beef, dad?" Lorelei asked cheerfully, jarring Alex from his daydream. He was silent for a second, before broadening in a smile and saying. "Sure, I've got room!"
A wonderful meal was shared by all. As the last crumbs of dessert were settling upon the plates, the alarms began to sound as an unauthorized person had entered the base. The heroes raced to investigate, only to find a very embarrassed Maximillian Immergrun, dressed as the Homeless Santa complete with a presents bag tossed over a shoulder. "Er... surprise?"
"Oh GEEZ!" Lorelei said amidst the laughter. "I forgot to adjust the systems for you, Max! I am SO SORRY."
"Makes you wonder how Santa manages to get into IPAC" Alex said amusedly.
"Oh come on, Dad, it can't be TOO hard to get a bunch of coal in there." Lorelei quipped.
Once the alarm system was reset, everyone made their way into the main chamber, where everyone passed their presents along to everyone else while Lorelei provided everyone with their beverage of choice. Soon, amidst the sound of the velvety voice of Nat King Cole, they began to open their Christmas booty.
As the heroes left to get their gifts and reassembled, the Wanderer cleared his throat and dug down deep into his sack. "PC," he began, "it is not good for a young lady like yourself to spend all her time holed up in this undersea retreat so I decided to see that you got out some." The Wanderer extracted an all expenses paid weekend at the Goldwood Springs spa. "Maybe you'll meet that special young man," he said with a wink.
Lorelei just looked at him dumbfounded, then smiled. "I think this is just what the doctor ordered. Thank you."
"And for papa," the Wanderer continued walking toward Sting, "I thought about ski lessons, but decided upon this." The Wanderer handed Sting a framed black and white photograph of the Port Alexander College football team that shocked the world with their upset of Notre Dame back in the 1940s. "Inspiration, old boy."
Alex arched his eyebrow at the mention of ski lessons, but decided to let it go. "This will look great in my office. Thank you, sir."
"Ka-sador, I know what you've been wanting." The alien perked up with a quizzical 'how do you know' expression only to be told that Santa revealed it, as the Wanderer presented him with the Frozen Hell movie DVD collection. Ka-sador smiled broadly as the Wanderer added, "Now you can study Sven Broderick's fighting style."
"And your highness." The Wanderer bowed respectfully before Max, "it is not as large as I had hoped, but this check should assist with several scholarships for the youth of the duchy."
"And madame princess, a necklace which caught my eye the other day. I do hope you enjoy it."
"Oh dear, it appears that our leader and his lovely bride are not here." The Wanderer pulled out a leather bound and hardback book. "This first edition copy of _War of the Worlds_ and rare textbook on Cybernetics will have to wait."
"I suppose it will." PC said as she reached around and handed out her presents. Her dad was given season lift passes to a nearby ski resort as Lorelei giggled.
Max opened his box to see an antique pocket watch with fob, with the year 1904 engraved on the back of the watch. "Even the most benevolent, giving ruler deserves something for himself." PC said.
She then leaned over to Wanderer and opened a catalog of industrial cooking equipment. "I didn't want to really drag it in here," PC began, "but I had a restaurant-level deep fryer installed in the kitchen. Now you don't have to go out to have cheese fries." PC said with a smile.
"And for you two," Lorelei said to Ka-Sador and M'Krell, "I have this."
They opened the box to discover a picture of a cabin. "This is a cabin on the less-active area on Lake Godluch. I know it's kind of hard to get away from it all, but that should allow the two of you some private time away from most eyes out there. The country out there is beautiful, but it's a little hard to get to...unless you fly."
Max took the two gifts he had been given and smiled. He slipped the check into his coat and quickly swapped out his normal pocket watch with the one that had been gifted him. That done, he dove into his bag of Christmas cheer. "I wanted to find the appropriate items for you all, but my time was a little limited. Luckily, I have a group of very skilled artisans that made my searching that much easier.
"I'll place this gift for Defender on the pile. Don't tell him, but it's a reproduction of a Victorian microscope. It seemed somehow appropriate. For the two beautiful ladies who give life and verve to this stuff Fortress, I had something special made for each of you."
He handed a small box with a beautiful, hand-beaded scarf to M'Krell. A similar box was given to PC. In it was a bracelet made of amber and onyx beads. Another box came out of the bag, this one for Sting.
"A few months ago, a member of the Duchy passed away. His name was Jacob Manx. He had been a recovering addict and lived what was left of his life as well as he could. He had no relatives and his possessions passed to the Duchy. He had been a sports fan and had a small collection of memorabilia. Much of it has been redistributed. But one item stood out that I thought would be perfect for you."
Inside the box was a football, signed by Kordell Touchstone. "Jacob had met Kordell a couple of times. He told me how Kordell had inspired him to escape a troubled past and focus on making the best of the present. Jacob was a great inspiration to my people. Just as you have become over the last few months. So, I thought that if this magic football could mean so much to one man of inspiration that it might also mean something to another.
"And for my winged friend. I've seen how brave a warrior you are. And a living warrior should have an appropriate monument to his prowess." Max produced a small statue of the alien in flight. It was carved of soapstone and had a very pleasing smell to it. "This one was hard to get done because there are no pictures of you in the news. But PC was kind enough to help me with a couple of images from the internal security cameras. I was told the hardest part was getting the tone of your skin right."
"Finally, I ran into trouble thinking up something for you, Wanderer. It was when I walked past the crystal merchant in the Floating Market that it occurred to me." One more box came out. Within was padding and a pair of goggles made of wire and crystal. "Obviously something for your shelf, but something I'm proud to present.
"Oh. There is one more thing. This comes from the artisans of the Duchy as well as the people. When they found out I was coming here, they asked me to deliver this to the Protectors." Max produced a plaque from his bag. "To the Protectors. You have made the streets so much saver for us all. Signed, the people of the Duchy of Immergrun, the Beggar Nation. As you are the acting leader..." Max said as he handed the plaque to Sting.
As the evening wound down, Alex asked for everyone's attention and to raise a glass.
"I just want to take a moment and to make a toast before the evening ends. I want to thank all of you for making the past several weeks...and this Christmas...one of the happiest of my life. What we do isn't easy...and what we face in the coming year could be even harder. But I'm very happy that whatever we face...Dr. Saruva, the Net, the Krai, whoever...we can not only face it as comrades and "heroes"...but as friends and family."
Alex raised his glass. "To a bright, safe, and happy future...and throughout the galaxy...peace, and good will to all."