(A little something for your collective stockings. Merry Christmas, everybody! -- PJM)
Sunday, December 24, 2406
~35 Miles Northeast of Sendai, Empire of Morita
Ishiyama, Outer Rim Territories
It was a clear, crisp winter's day in the mountains that overlooked the city of Sendai. The prior night's blizzard had ceased as suddenly as it arrived the day before, and a fresh layer of white powder, up to two feet thick in some places, had accumulated atop the harder-packed snow from earlier in the week. It made walking through the forests outside the Shinguuji family home a little more difficult, but that was hardly a challenge for someone as hardy as Utena Tenjou. Clad in a black turtleneck sweater beneath a white-trimmed blue ski jacket, as well as red snow pants, boots, earmuffs, and mittens, Utena was quite cozy and comfortable as she made her way across the landscape with no particular purpose in mind.
Well, aside from just enjoying a day out with Anthy. Not that difficult, all things considered.
The two of them walked among the snow-covered trees, separated by several feet but neither losing sight of the other. Like Utena, Anthy was dressed warmly for the weather; unlike Utena, her outfit was much more feminine in design. Dressed in earth-toned clothes, which included a plush cream-trimmed brown jacket, thick tan skirt, and appropriate accoutrements, Anthy regarded the forest with a calm serenity, her green eyes wide behind her slim glasses.
Utena smiled to herself, watching Anthy's wavy purple hair shift with her motions as she walked, the slight fog created with every outward breath. After the nail-biting tension and climactic transformation during her junior year's spring break, and the whirlwind of frenetic activity that had been her summer vacation, the chance to take several steps back and just... amble, for lack of a better word ... through a school holiday was more than welcome.
Especially with what was to come when they headed back to the Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute on Jerrado to finish their senior year. It was an ordeal every bit as threatening as confronting the Fallen Prince of Cephiro, or running the gauntlet of the Earth Alliance. Something that struck fear into the strongest of hearts, made doubly dire due to its utter mundanity when compared to the more world-shaking events that Utena and her circle of friends often found themselves involved with:
The college selection process.
All of the Duelists and the members of the IBGF regarded it with equal measures of anticipation and dread. It was a regular subject of discussion in the Castle's halls and the school cafeteria. While the tight-knit group hoped to stay together after graduation, they all acknowledged that the needs of their future hopeful careers could easily trump that desire. Arthur Haineley, DSM's Student Counselor, had been helping out as best as he was able, because he very much wanted them to succeed in this task, but even he was unable to help with the presentation of the Duelists' more "unique" experiences to prospective colleges.
How do you put that on a college application, anyway? Utena wondered. "Over the past year, I: Became a prince; got married; captured a Klingon battlecruiser; and participated in a system-wide riot in the Earth Alliance."
At that thought, Utena's expression turned briefly pensive. While she was glad that she was finally able to visit Ishiyama and Sendai, after the summer tour's aborted visit, the circumstances that required them to celebrate Christmas on the Outer Rim she really could have done without. Her honeymoon with Anthy in Castle Eyrie on Titan had been a special, treasured moment, but regrettably all too brief. She had been looking forward to spending more time there with her wife during the Christmas break, even - maybe especially - with the rest of the Hutchins family and their extended circle of friends and relations present.
But Ishiyama, Sendai, and the Shinguuji household held their own charms. They possessed a timelessness, a sense of history that Castle Eyrie had lacked. Peaceful and remote on the Outer Rim, Ishiyama kept its own counsel and looked after its own. The Shinguuji shoin-zukuri and its accompanying lands were even more isolated. With the additional snow cover muting the outdoors, aurally and visually, it was easy for Utena to imagine that she and Anthy were the only holiday guests the Shinguuji had this year.
Utena allowed herself a smile, her mood lightening. She was really looking forward to seeing Anthy's reactions to the Hutchins clan's holiday traditions, and to her participation in the Christmas Day festivities. To think that little over two years ago, Christmas had been a neutral holiday for her! Now, it was almost impossible for her to fathom that concept. Just one more thing in the long list of things that Kate, Corwin, and their extended family had taught her how to enjoy again.
She continued to walk through the snow-covered forest with Anthy nearby, mentally counting her blessings. There were many blessings to take stock of, much more than she had first considered, and this took up a reasonable amount of her mental processes.
So lost in thought was Utena that she didn't notice the change in the snowy terrain until she, quite literally, stumbled into it.
Utena's startled exclamation caught the attention of Anthy, who was still within earshot. She hiked up the edges of her fringed skirt and made her best speed to where she'd heard her husband cry out, and then came to a halt to see Utena on hands and knees in the middle of a large, semicircular depression, already recovering from her fall.
"Utena? Are you all right?" Anthy asked with quiet concern, already reaching out a hand to help her spouse up out of the snow.
"Mff. Just showing off a little bit for all my fans," Utena wryly admitted as she accepted Anthy's hand gratefully. "Thanks. That'll teach me to watch where I step; those bumps in the snow could be anything."
Anthy nodded as she pulled Utena up to her feet and out of the snow-packed area. There was something oddly familiar about the shape in the snow, but she couldn't immediately put her finger on it. Once she had released Utena and was able to take a better look, it finally dawned on her what that familiarity was.
"... Like a footprint from a giant boot?"
"... Excuse me?" Utena looked at Anthy askance after dusting the snow off her knees and glancing down at her own snow boots. "I'll admit my boots are big, but it's not like I'm wearing snowshoes."
Anthy shook her head. "No, not your boot, dear... the one that made that print." She pointed behind Utena, indicating the large packed shape the other woman had fallen into.
Utena turned around to look. "Wha? Holy..." Her voice trailed off as she finally was able to take a good look at where she'd fallen.
What she had first taken to be a semicircular hollow in the snow was just the metaphorical tip of the iceberg. There was another depression connected with the first, wider and more oval in shape. The weight of whatever had caused the print had been enough to compress the snowfall from the blizzard and the past week's snowpack; Utena could quite clearly see the edges of the layers through the exposed inner sides. This wasn't something caused by a removed boulder or a rolling snowdrift; the deep hollow in the snow was too smooth to be anything but artificially-made.
"What the hell?" Utena inquired of nobody in particular, still studying the giant bootprint as she scratched the back of her head with one mitten-covered hand. The heel of the print had been more than large enough to accommodate her when she had tripped and fell. The rest of it was at least as big as the bed she and Anthy shared back in the Castle on Jerrado, though it wouldn't have been as comfortable to lie in. Even with the snow, the tread ridges were more akin to those made by construction equipment than outdoor footwear.
"I suppose a giant from the Upper Worlds could have created it," Anthy suggested. "Though how one could make it to Midgard is beyond me - Aunt Bell told me once that giants, in general, aren't all that strong in the magical arts."
"Yeah... but what would a Jotun be doing on Ishiyama, wearing a size... " At this, Utena squinted, making out another set of ridges in the bootprint, ones that she could surprisingly understand once she flipped them around in her head. "... B52 TS GTX Salomon Ladies' snow boot?"
"Well, I did say it wasn't likely," Anthy admitted. "In any case, it's obvious we're not the only ones out here, Utena," she continued, gesturing with her own mittened hand further off into the forest.
Utena narrowed her eyes, and through the slashes of white snow and tree shadows, she was able to make out a second bootprint several yards away, the companion to the one they had just now encountered. She considered the two bootprints, and then looked back the way she and Anthy had come. Their path through the woods up the hills was still fresh, and she could easily see the wisps of smoke produced by the fireplaces of the Shinguuji household in the distance. Her expression became more thoughtful - an expression that Anthy was very familiar with.
"What are you thinking, love?" Anthy asked with a twinkle in her green eyes, for she already had an inkling of what Utena was about to suggest.
Utena hrmed, making a show of studying her watch. "Well, it's still morning... late morning, but even so..."
"Mmm-hmm?" Anthy nodded.
Utena looked back down the hill, shading her eyes with her hands. "... we won't need to head back until midafternoon to make it back in time for dinner ..."
"It's not a long walk at all, and even if we get too far out, there are always quick ways back," Anthy added casually.
Utena patted the waist pocket of her ski jacket, confirming the presence of her communicator. "... and it's not like they can't contact us if something does comes up..."
"Entirely true," Anthy replied, her fey expression becoming more pronounced.
"... so, Mrs. Tenjou, would you care to join me in finding out where this trail leads?" Utena finally asked Anthy with a smile and an offered arm.
"It would be my pleasure, Captain Tenjou," Anthy replied with a full smile as she looped her arm around Utena's, and the two of them trudged further onward into the forest.
The two of them continued their hike up through the forested hills. The trail wasn't that difficult to follow - apparently their mysterious giant was taking care not to blunder its way through the trees. Instead, every so often the bootprints stopped in front of one tree or another, packing the snow further before moving on.
By the time noon rolled around, they were ready for a break. They stopped for lunch, finding a rocky outcropping that they could sit on, using a compact survival blanket as a picnic cloth. With the clear blue sky above them, the snow covered hills below them, and the Shinguuji compound in the distance, it was a fine place to just take in the world and enjoy the presence of a loved one nearby.
They shared watercress-and-egg sandwiches that Utena had prepared earlier that day, accompanied by cocoa kept warm via thermos. Dessert was improvised from bowls of snow and honey, the latter heated by Anthy with a magic spell. Once the two of them had cleaned up the remaining traces of honey from each other's faces, they packed up their impromptu picnic site and continued heading onward and upward through the forest.
Winter birds soared through the air or picked out fallen kernels of food from beneath the snow. Every so often, a red-coated deer would poke its head out from the underbrush, look at the two women, sneak a treat from Anthy, and then scamper away. White-furred foxes occassionaly crossed their path, tagging along for several minutes before darting back beneath the trees on their own errands. The forest life seemed rather more active than usual to Utena, though she couldn't be sure if it was due to the passage of the giant earlier in the day, or just the presence of her wife.
When they stopped to give a family of rabbits the parts of their remaining sandwich, Utena finally got a chance to voice the observation that she had made in the past hour of walking.
"Himemiya, I think our giant's gained a follower who isn't us." Utena gestured further along the path they were following.
Anthy got to her feet, and looked in the direction Utena was pointing. "Oh ho."
Where there had once been one pair of giant bootprints through the snow... there were now two pairs. This second pair of bootprints seemed a little blockier than the first set they had been following, but they looked to be about the same size and headed in the same direction.
"Also, have you noticed? Some of these trees have been cleared of snow." She pointed out several conifers along the trail, their thick needles and spreading branches dark and distinct in comparison to their snow-clad brethren, and the piles of lumped snow that gathered at their bases. "If I didn't know better, I'd say these two giants are looking for a Christmas tree."
Anthy considered this for a moment. "Perhaps they are. 'Tis the season, after all."
Utena chuckled softly and took Anthy's hand. "Well, we'll just have to ask them when we catch up to them."
The higher up in the hills they walked, the further evidence they gathered. More pine trees had been cleared of snow, accompanied by overlapping bootprints. Utena wondered why all these trees had been passed over; whoever the giants were, they appeared to be quite finicky as to what would be the "best" tree. Quite frankly, she felt that any of them would have sufficed, but what did she know about the proper selection of Christmas trees?
Utena said as much to Anthy, and as they walked on, they began to compare and contrast the trees they encountered. Utena tended to judge more on the practical scale - the thickness of the trunks, the sturdiness of the branches, whether they could be safely climbed - while Anthy evaluated them in terms of the freshness of their needles, the shape of the boughs, the lack of dead branches. Clearly, the forests around and above Sendai had more than their share of hardy conifers, enough to make any forester or holiday decorator weep for joy.
Which still didn't answer the question of why they all had been skipped, but at least it passed the time.
Utena frowned slightly as she checked her watch. "You know, as much fun as this has been, if we don't meet those two giants soon, we'll have to turn around and go back if we want to make it in time for dinner."
Anthy considered this, and nodded. "A shame, that... it's been quite a pleasant walk, and a good day for it. It may just end up being a mystery to the two of us... forever unsolved."
Utena made an amused sound. "Oh, like that'll happen," she said with a smile. "I'll have to ask Sakura if her family has any legends about giants in the woods. They've lived here for generations, after all. Since the colony was founded."
"I'm sure they have plenty of interesting tales, Utena. A place as ... alive ... as this can't help but have them." Anthy smiled back, and then made a (decidely cute) merfing sound as a sudden gust of wind flipped her hair around her face and over her brown beret and grey scarf. She tried to get her hair back under control, but it only made matters more tangled, given she was wearing knitted mittens.
"Yeah, that's true - hey, hold still!" Utena laughed. "Lemme get that for you...." Utena uncovered one of her hands, and then worked on straightening Anthy's wavy purple hair. The wind at this altitude was starting to pick up, which made it a challenge, but at least wasn't hitting the velocities of the blizzard of the prior night. It threaded its way through the trees and hills, carrying a soft, deep, echoing sound produced by the far-off mountains.
As Utena continued her work, just running her fingers through Anthy's hair and appreciating its softness, she could almost swear that the sounds of the wind were forming words.
"...at about this one..."
"...mm, i dunno..."
Utena abruptly stopped combing Anthy's hair, blinking in astonishment. They were forming words - deep, yet oddly feminine - carried by the wind.
Sensing Utena's tension behind her, Anthy turned around. "What is it?"
Utena made a shushing sound, holding her breath. Anthy caught on quickly, and became silent as well.
"... is the fifteenth tree you've nixed!"
"...ell, you were the one turning down my choices once we joined back up..."
Utena and Anthy exchanged surprised significant glances, and without further discussion, the two of them broke into a run, heading for the source of the deep voices.
Utena Tenjou had participated in more than her share of incredible things so far in her life. In her way, she practically thrived on them, surmounting challenges and shifts in worldview, adapting quickly (though sometimes with good-natured complaint) to the strange turns life tossed at her. It was this spirit that had driven her through to the end of the Grand Tournament, had helped her surmount the shock of the transition to Midgard, had aided her in revolutionizing Cephiro, and led to her successful command of the IPS Valiant.
That being said, what she and Anthy now came upon didn't count as the most "incredible" thing she had seen among the Ten Worlds - it probably didn't even rank among the top fifteen - but it certainly was a contender for a solid position in the top thirty.
For when confronted by the sight of two giant women, both of them clad in winter wear, arguing about which tree would be most suitable for the Shinguuji/Hutchins family Christmas party, there wasn't much either Tenjou could do except stare at the incongruous sight.
The two women looked up at the giants, who hadn't noticed their presence, still involved in their discussion. It was Utena who found her voice first, blurting out:
Anthy blinked, startled, and looked over at Utena, even as the latter facepalmed.
"... okay, now I feel stupid," Utena muttered through her mitten.
Anthy, still looking curiously concerned, placed a reassuring hand on her husband's shoulder. She knew that Utena would explain her reaction to the scene soon enough, and she was patient. In the interim, she looked up at the giant women, studying them.
One of the giants was somewhat shorter than the other, though such a distinction seemed trivial when they both easily matched the heights of the firs, spruces, and other trees in the area. They were dressed for a winter expedition, but the shorter of the two was clad in much more casual outerwear, while the other was dressed in a polar suit that looked to be military-made. The shorter woman had a cute (almost pixie-ish) face, bright teal eyes, clear skin, and a mop of short scarlet curls that were currently restrained by a thickly-knitted cap. Anthy would have almost taken her for the younger of the two, save for the way she carried herself when dealing with her taller companion. This was a woman who was quite used to the duties of seniority and command, and she carried it off without being overbearing about her position (whatever it was - there were no rank insignia that Anthy recognized on her current outfit).
The other woman, who was taller by several feet, had a body and face that could only be described as "Amazonian". She carried herself with easy grace despite her height and mass, and her voice reminded Anthy strongly of Juri Arisugawa's (save for the extra bass undertones). Her hair was green, nearly matching Kyouichi Saionji's in color, but straigher and shorter, framing her face to both sides above her shoulders in gentle curves, save for a section of hair secured at the nape of her neck to trail down her back in a thin ponytail. She had clear skin as well, deep blue eyes, and a purposeful mien. Unlike her companion, she did have rank insignia on her outfit. These appeared to place her as a lieutenant in the Wedge Defense Force, if Anthy was reading them correctly.
However, she also wore a jaunty white-and-red santa hat, appropriate for the season, but at odds with the regimentation of her winter wear. Anthy found it both amusing and touching, and then returned her attention towards her husband.
Utena finally lifted her head back up and looked up at the giants a second time. She shook her head, still not fully processing what she was viewing, but unable to deny its existence.
"Never thought I'd see a reminder of that part of my Galactic History courses. At least not on vacation," she murmured to herself before turning to Anthy with an apologetic smile. "Sorry about that, Himemiya."
"It's all right, Utena," Anthy replied, squeezing Utena's shoulder before finally letting go. "You called them 'Zentraedi' ?"
Utena nodded, looking up at the two women again, before looking back at Anthy. "Yeah. An alien race from the early Earth Expansion Period. When the WDF was just getting started, one of the first really serious extended wars they had was against the Zentraedi. I forget exactly why they were attacking the new colonies and headed for Earth, but somehow Zoner and Gryphon and the others managed to convince one of their leaders that that wasn't a good idea. Later on they prevented one of the other Zentraedi leaders from annihilating the WDF, the Wayward Son, and the Zentraedi fleet that'd become their allies. If they hadn't, I'm told that guy's next move would've been glassing Earth."
Anthy's green eyes widened. "Well, thank the Allfather that the WDF succeeded," she finally said, and Utena nodded in agreement.
"After that, the WDF helped the Zentraedi get reorganized and adapted to the galaxy's culture - seems they didn't know how to cope with parts of it." Utena quirked a grin. "Aside from the Salusians and the Autobots, the Zentraedi are some of the WDF's oldest allies."
Anthy nodded, and the two of them looked up at the two Zentraedi women. Utena considered the fact that they still hadn't noticed their appearance, and decided that more drastic measures needed to be taken. She didn't waste energy trying to raise her voice and shout over their discussion, she just put her pinkies in her mouth and shrilly whistled.
With a start, both giants stopped their conversation, trying to place the location of the sudden whistle. Finally, they looked down, and saw the two Duelists waving up at them.
"Ah, yes? Can we help you?" asked the shorter of the two Meltrandi as she crouched down to get a better look at the two women. At this range, Utena could easily see a brief puzzled expression cross the redhead's face -- as if she was trying to think of something, but couldn't quite remember what it was.
"Well, on the way up here, we couldn't help but notice that you two have been trying to pick out a Christmas tree," Utena said with a grin. "I was wondering if you could use a second and third opinion - er, sorry, third and fourth - from the two of us."
The redheaded giant considered this, and then nodded as she smiled, her scarlet curls bobbing where they weren't restrained by her patterned watch cap. "I think we could be amenable to this. It'd certainly allow us to finish faster. I doubt General Shinguuji would appreciate us taking another day to pick out a suitable tree for the compound."
At this, she directed a pointed glance at her green-haired companion, who returned it, with a muttered, "Look, you keep nixing my choices, what am I supposed to do?"
"Well, if you would take my selections under better consideration --"
"But your selections just aren't right for this gathering --"
Utena ignored the byplay between the two Zentraedi women. "Oh, you're here for Dad's party, too?" She interjected, in order to keep things on track.
At this, she was successful. The two giants stopped their argument, and the green-haired one blinked. She looked down at Utena with equal measures of curiosity and confusion. "Your father?"
Anthy allowed herself an induldgent smile. "Oh, she means Chief Hutchins. You would know him as 'Gryphon', most likely." She glanced over at Utena, who looked mildly embarrassed for having referred to Ben Hutchins as her father yet again. With a twinkle in her eye, she went on. "And we're being remiss -- we haven't introduced ourselves."
"D'oh!" The redheaded Meltrandi exclaimed, and applied palm to forehead. "You're right! Totally slipped my mind. Let's correct that." With a grin, she stood up straight and tall, and saluted the two smaller women. "Vice Admiral Xeralia Fallyna Sterling of the Wedge Defense Force, at your service."
Automatically, the green-haired giant saluted right afterwards and proclaimed "Lieutenant Miracle A. Sterling, Quadrono Squadron, WDF Quelquira-Nuur! Pleasure to meet you, sirs!" Only after she had spoken did she appear to realize that she'd used more regimentation than needed, and an embarrased flush crossed her cheeks.
Grinning, Xeralia crouched down again, and confided to Utena and Anthy, "We'll break her of that habit eventually. Honest! Only took us a couple decades to get her to understand the concept of 'vacation time'..."
Anthy giggled, and Utena chuckled. "Well, with an opening like that, what can we do but respond in kind?" Utena rhetorically asked before standing straight and saluting. "Captain Utena Tenjou, IPS Valiant, pleasure to meet you both; and this lovely lady next to me is my wife, Anthy Tenjou."
Anthy smiled and curtseyed, being appropriately dressed for the part. "Likewise."
Xeralia and Miracle didn't appear in any way discomfited by Utena's bald proclimation of marriage to Anthy. If anything, they both looked appreciative and approving of the fact. And then, with a startled double-blink, Xeralia's focus snapped wholey on Utena. "Wait a second -- 'Tenjou'? As in 'The Paladin of Titan' Tenjou? You're that Utena Tenjou?"
Utena blinked, and then looked faintly embarrased once again, reaching behind her head with her right hand. "Uh, yeah? (I suppose I am)..."
At this, Xeralia's face broke into a grin, and she snapped her fingers. "That's where I thought I'd seen you before! On the after-mission vids Maia forwarded to me!"
Utena blinked. "There's videos of that?"
"You have no idea how popular you are, Capt. Tenjou. Especially among the command-deck set." Xeralia shook her head in wonder. "I have to keep some of my officers from goofing off at their stations reviewing it."
"And that girl in the starfighter that followed your ship off Earth? What was her name, 'Karou'?" Miracle interjected, enthusiastic. "I don't think I've seen anybody inspire our Gnerl-pilots like she has. Fixed-config craft have always gotten short shrift among of the Zentraedi -- but not anymore!"
"Ohhh-kay." Utena arched an eyebrow, clearly not sure how to take this news. Beside her, Anthy said nothing, diplomatically hiding her smile behind a mittened hand, but her eyes twinkled with merriment. Utena glanced to her side, caught Anthy's expression, then rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "Right. Well, you two can tell me and Kozue all about this when we get back... don't we have a tree to choose before sundown?"
Xeralia looked up at the sky, and then nodded. "You're right. We'd best get a move on. I wouldn't want to step on anything in the dark on the way back to the house. It's just plain rude when you accidentally obliterate somebody's landscaping that way."
With their numbers increased, and a little more searching, it now became much easier to reach a consensus. After about another half-hour, Xeralia, Miracle, Utena, and Anthy had finally narrowed down the choices to three trees within several paces of the two Meltrandi. Two robust firs of differing size and shape, as well as a tapered spruce tree that was nearly as tall as Miracle, vied for attention.
"OK, ladies!" Xeralia exclaimed, clapping her mittened hands together. "Now for the bonus round! Which of these three should we choose?" She pointed at the trees in turn. "Fir number one? Fir number two? Or spruce number three?"
Utena looked between the three of them, one more time. All three had their merits, she had to admit. But only one could be chosen; and not only that, in all likelyhood it would stand near the buildings of the Shinguuji household for years to come. She turned, and looked at Anthy. "Himemeya, what do you think?"
Anthy considered her husband's question seriously. After a moment's thought, she said, "Well, I'd choose --" She raised her mittened hand, but as she was singling out her choice, a familiar voice from further away rang out through the forest.
"THERE you two are! Hey guys, I FOUND 'EM!"
Utena and Anthy turned around at the sound. Through the spread-out trees, they could see a familiar white speck, easily made out against the darker branches of the forest, flapping towards them. Two other figures could be seen approaching on the snow-covered ground behind him.
"Nall? What are you doing out here?" Utena exclaimed, and then paused as a thought occurred to her. "We aren't late for dinner, are we?"
Nall snorted, and coasted over to perch on Utena's shoulder. "Nah, if you were, do you think I'd be here? It was rocket boy's idea to gather a posse' to find you two and Terry's friends..." but then he trailed off, his attention being now taken by the two giants standing above them. "Boy howdy, friends are found!" He shook his furry head, and looked back the way he'd came. "There, that's done. Can we go back now, Corwin?"
That named worthy, clad in black winterwear trimmed in silver fur, trudged the rest of the way into the copse of trees. "No, Nall, you know the deal." The little dragon rolled his eyes, at which Corwin grinned. "Besides, Utena and Anthy haven't met Terry yet, and you haven't met Xera and Mira, either."
Meanwhile, the fuchsia-haired woman who accompanied him (and, like the others, was dressed for the weather), retrieved her communicator with her free hand and spoke into it. "Komi? It's Terry. I found our two little lost Meltrandi. Uh-huh, about what we figured. They're still trying to pick a tree out, and now they have help. Right. Once they FINALLY choose, I'll call again with the dimensions."
Xeralia smirked. "No need to wait, Terry - we're done here." She gestured at the chosen tree. "What do you think?"
"Hey, wait a second!" Utena exclaimed. "Anthy hasn't chosen yet!"
"Actually, I did, Utena," Anthy replied, calmly.
"Oh, which, that one?" Nall asked, indicating with a pointing wing at the tree next to Miracle. "Niiiiiice. Yeah, that'll do."
Utena blinked. "Er, right. So. How'd you..." she began to say, but then she noticed that the newest member of the group was carrying Tiny Robo close in the crook of her left arm. Being a smart woman, she realized that the little robot had been used to home in on her and Anthy's position, eliminating the need to ask her original question. "Right." She chuckled, and extended her hand to Robo's carrier. "I see you've got my robot. Or he's got you, you never can be sure. Pleasure to meet you. Utena Tenjou."
The woman took Utena's hand, and shook it firmly. "Therèse Sterling. I see you've met my sisters already," she said with a grin and a jerk of the head upwards towards the two giant women. "And I've gotta say, this little 'bot of yours is a marvel."
Utena laughed, and accepted the handover of Tiny Robo. The little robot made a satisfied rumble as he settled into place in her arms. "Thanks, but I can't take credit for him... he's all Corwin's doing."
"Oh really?" Therèse arched an eyebrow, looking between the two, then smiled. "Ah, I see," she remarked, but before Utena could ask what she'd meant by that, she turned her attentions to Anthy. "And you must be the lucky Mrs. Tenjou."
"Indeed, I am," Anthy replied with a smile, and took Utena's arm again. "Very lucky, indeed."
"Yeah, believe me, these two together... they'd never have made it happen without yours truly," Nall smugly added.
Utena looked wry, and rubbed a knuckle on the top of Nall's furry head. "Well, you had some help, dragon."
"Ow! Okay, okay, I'll be good."
"A likely story," Utena replied with a smile, and Nall smiled a cheesy grin.
Therèse laughed. "Yeah, I can see he's quite the character," she said, and patted Nall on the head.
Xeralia coughed, to get her sister's attention. "So, who's this that you want us to meet, Terry?"
"Oh, right." Terry gestured between the two giants. "Nall, meet my older and younger sisters, Xeralia and Miracle Sterling."
Nall whistled. "You're related? Yeah, I can see the resemblance."
Terry went on, ignoring the interjection. "Xera, Mira? Meet Corwin's friend..."
Nall puffed up his chest, and announced in his most grandiose tone of voice, "Nall, Great Alfheim Cat Dragon, Lord of the Winter Skies, Heir to Aglarond, Boon Companion to the Pillar of Cephiro, at your service."
"Modesty, thy name is Nall," Utena dryly commented. "And you forgot your surname."
"No I didn't!" Nall protested, but Utena and Anthy just looked at him, slightly askance. "Did I?"
Utena and Anthy had no choice but to nod in confirmation. Nearby, Corwin was trying hard not to laugh outright.
Miracle blinked. "Wait... you're a dragon?"
"Yep! I sure am, live and in the fur."
"But, you can't be a dragon," Miracle protested.
Nall smirked. "Oh, really?" he replied, glancing over at Corwin, who had recovered and was now smiling in silent conspiracy.
Miracle nodded, and gestured widely with her hands. "Dragons are giant beasts, as big as any Zentran, winged and powerful, skilled in sorcery and masters of their realms. Whole micron armies cannot stand against them, and even the mightiest of Meltrans would be hard-pressed to deal with them." She paused in her recitation, then amended her statement. "At least, so I've read," she admitted, looking sheepish. "But in any case, you aren't any of these things. Clearly."
Nall chuckled, shaking his head. "Kids these days. What are they teaching them in school?" He looked up at Mira. "Lady, prepare to get an education of the most immediate kind. You mind if I go ahead and stretch out, rocket boy?"
Corwin made an offhand gesture, and smiled. "Hey, I'm not about to stop you, furball ... Just be sure not to knock down the trees, okay?"
Nall snorted. "As if." He pushed off of Utena's shoulder with a spring in his legs and a beat of his wings, and rapidly ascended to a height that was approximately waist-height to the Meltrandi pilot. "'Scuse me while I whip this out!"
Before the two Meltrandi, Nall abruptly expanded, his body, neck, and tail stretching to their full size, along with the rest of him, rapidly filling up the space between them and the smaller people on the ground. The process took mere moments, but such was Nall's control now that he didn't even disturb a pine needle.
"Yaa! Deculture!" Miracle exclaimed, startled, jerking back to make room as Nall transformed. Xeralia held back her own comments, watching the entire experience, with less doubt but equal surprise.
Now fullsize, landing on his paws, Nall arched his neck as he folded his feathered wings back over his body. "Now are you convinced?" he said smugly, his ruby eyes now large enough to match Miracle's blue ones.
Miracle nodded, her eyes wide. Slowly, carefully, she reached an arm forward, to touch the golden ruff of fur on the side of his face.
Nall blinked. "What? I'm not gonna bite or something..."
"You're... real..." Miracle murmured in an awed tone. "You're really real..."
Before Nall could reply to that, Miracle's face lit up into a gigantic smile, her blue eyes shining, and she lunged forward to lean against his side and start scritching his fur. "You're so cute!"
"Gah!" Nall blurted out, surprised at being pounced on by a being that was approximately the same size as himself. "Hey, watch it, lady! Those wings aren't meant to be ... leaned... on.... mrrr..." His protestations died down as his feline and draconic instincts took hold, and his neck and head flopped down into the snow as he began to purr. Given his size, it came out more as a subsonic rumble, which the group could feel through their boots.
"Well, congratulations, Nall," Xeralia commented, with a dry expression. "You have caused a multiply-awarded Meltrandi ace to revert into childhood. I hope you're satisfied." Miracle snorted, looked up at her sister, stuck out her tounge, and then resumed what she was doing.
"Oh, I am, I am," Nall rumbled, purring as Miracle scratched a particularly irksome area. "Yeaah, that's the stuff... riiiight there."
Therèse regarded the scene, and then looked up at Xeralia. "Okay, we've lost Mira and Nall, what've you got left, Xera?"
"I don't know, Terry, I'm boggled beyond all rational thought."
Utena spoke up. "Might I suggest we do what we originally came here to do?" she said as she gestured towards the chosen tree.
"I like this plan. I'm proud to be a part of it," Corwin replied, sizing up the tree. "Yeah, that looks like a good one. Let's do this thing."
With Miracle and Nall presently occupied, it was left to the rest to figure out how to extract the chosen Christmas Tree from the surrounding hillside. Therèse looked up and down the length of the tree, hands on hips, regarding it in the lowering afternoon sun.
"I do hope you brought something to help us dig this thing out, Xera. It's rather too late for me to go back and get my Valkyrie, and without the proper implements, I'd damage the hand manipulators digging it out anyway."
"Oh, we brought an entrenching tool; Mira's got it, if we ever get her away from Nall," Xeralia replied as she brushed off the remaining snow from the tree. Down below, Utena and Corwin were clearing away the dead branches and twigs that fell during this process.
Anthy, now holding Tiny Robo, looked up into the depths of the tree with a thoughtful expression. "Hm. But first, I think there's one detail left to take care of, Therèse," she finally said, turning back to look at the pink-haired Sterling.
Therèse blinked. "Eh? What is it, Anthy?"
Up above, there was a groan from Xeralia. "Oh, hell. I see it too. Terry, we've got a problem."
"What? What is it?"
Xeralia drew back, and pulled off her mittens, dropping them on the ground. She leaned down, and picked up her sister without warning, but Therèse had plenty of experience with this sort of thing, and didn't protest. "This tree... it's already got some residents." She pointed with her free hand, and inside the shadowy depths of the tree, her sister could see the makeshift twigs and debris that made up a squirrel's nest. Higher up, she could make out some vaguely circular objects that looked to be bird nests.
Therèse's face fell. "Well, Hell. Well, that scraps using this tree. Unless you think you can move them somehow, Xera..." One look at her sister's face showed her the level of confidence her larger sister had at making the attempt. "No, huh. Well, what about one of the other trees?"
Anthy shook her head. "No, there won't be a need for that, Therèse. I think Tiny Robo and I should be able to handle it. If you could lift me up, Xeralia?"
With a soft "Grr", Tiny Robo straightened in Anthy's embrace, and flexed his arms and tiny fists in readiness. She waited patiently while Xeralia put down her sister, and then reached over to gently pick up Anthy and her own passenger.
Utena, despite herself, tensed up slightly as she watched this occur. Corwin, standing next to her, put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a smile. Thus reassured, Utena relaxed and watched as Anthy stood on Xeralia's palm like it was a cargo lifter platform, and she and Tiny Robo worked their magic to transplant the animals that lived within the branches to another tree. This consisted of Anthy convincing the woodland creatures to come out to where she was, on the giant woman's palm, and of Tiny Robo extracting their nests.
This took some doing, but eventually the birds and squirrels (and one surprised fox) were relocated to one of the runner-up trees. Now satisfied, Xeralia set Anthy back down on the ground.
"Thanks, Anthy, Tiny Robo," she said, smiling down at the two as they rejoined Utena and Anthy.
"No trouble, Xeralia. It was a pleasure," Anthy replied, with a gracious nod. Tiny Robo gave a satisfied "Grr" as well.
"So, what do we about those two?" Utena asked, indicating where Nall and Miracle were still sprawled, the scratch-fest now having settled down to Nall telling stories of his exploits to the attentive Meltrandi.
"Leave that to me," Therèse replied, and marched over to the dragon's side. With her relative size to the two, she remained unnoticed, until her sharp voice barked out, "Atten-HUT!"
Miracle abruptly jerked upright, jumping to her feet, to the surprise of Nall. "Lt. Sterling, reporting for duty!"
"Woah! Easy there, Mira!" Nall drew back and got to his feet at a slower pace. "There aren't any military bases around for miles."
"Oh?" Miracle blinked, and then blushed. "Oh, hell." She looked down, and glared at the diminutive form of Therèse down near her feet. "I was comfortable there!"
"Yeah, yeah. Enough time for that later, Mira... right now you've got work to do."
Miracle sighed. "Fine, fine... just a minute." Dismissing her sister, she turned to regard Nall, looking at him straight in the eye. "I apologize for ever doubting you were a dragon, Nall. Can you forgive me?"
"Ahh, don't worry about it," Nall replied with a shrug of his wings. "You couldn't have know--" His reply was cut off as Miracle kissed him on the top of his snout. ".... yeaaah, you're forgiven," he finally said with a cockeyed smile on his muzzle.
Utena watched the goings-on with an arched eyebrow. "(You know, if this keeps up, Umi's going to use him for a rug,)" she commented under her voice.
"(Forget rug, she'll use him for wall-to-wall house carpeting,)" Corwin replied, equally quiet.
"Why are you whispering?" Anthy asked.
The two blinked, and looked back at her. "Damned if I know," Corwin finally admitted. Shaking his head, he looked back up and over, to where Miracle had now joined Xeralia in discussing how they would go about the final critical step of extracting the selected tree. After some consultation with Therèse, they finally decided on the plan. Xeralia moved to one side of the tree, while Miracle walked around to the opposite side.
Xeralia reached into the depths of the tree with her re-mittened hands to hold onto the trunk. "Okay, I've got it steady, Mira."
"All right," Miracle replied. She reached behind herself, and pulled out a folded-up assembly of curved metal and reinforced tubing. It took only a few moments for her to unfold the entrenching tool to its functional configuration, and then she hunched over to start digging. Therèse rejoined Utena, Anthy, and Corwin, and the four of them moved back to give the much larger women room to work.
"So, given any thought to what you're planning to do after Christmas here?" Therèse asked the younger trio.
"Uh... well, we're not really sure," Corwin scratched the back of his head with his gloved hands, having shoved back the hood of his coat to do so. "We were originally going to do kind of an abbreviated galactic grand tour, but I figured out the route thinking we'd be in the Solar system at this end, not way out here."
"If I had to guess - and I do - I'd say we're going to be overcome with laziness and just stay here until it's time to head to New Avalon for New Year's," Utena admitted.
Therèse laughed. "Yeah, that sounds like a good plan. Me 'n Komi don't have that option, we have to get back to the shipyards before the end of the week." She then tilted her head, curiously. "Hey, think you'll be down on the Grand Common when the year rolls over?"
Utena grinned, and worked her arm around Anthy's waist. "Damn straight we'll be. This'll be Anthy's first!"
"I'm looking forward to it," Anthy replied with a smile, leaning against her husband.
At that moment, there was a grunt, a mighty rustling sound from behind them, and a proclamation of success.
"There we go! Guys, it's out! You better move back!" Miracle exclaimed, and the others turned to witness the two Meltrandi had finished digging a circular cut into the ground around the tree. With both pairs of arms reaching in to grab the trunk, they lifted the selected christmas tree out of the ground, and carefully tilted it on its side. "Ta-dah!"
The smaller folk on the ground golf-clapped. Xeralia made an exaggerated bow. "Thank you, thank you. And now, for our next trick -- Miracle Sterling will now show off her physical prowess by carrying back the tree!"
Miracle blinked, and looked at her older sister. "Xera, why do I have to carry back the tree?"
"Because I'm Older, Smarter, Cuter -- and I Outrank you."
Miracle rolled her eyes. "I'll accept two of those, sis, but I'm afraid I have to debate the others. Besides, it's going to take two of us to carry it back without dragging." She indicated the length of the tree, now laid out on the ground, with its tangled roots jutting out with a sizeable amount of dirt still present inside.
Xeralia considered this. "Oh. Hrm."
"She's got you there, Xera," Corwin pointed out with a smile.
"Okay, fine," Xeralia conceded. "You've got me. But I'm taking the top part," she said, moving to the upper part of the tree and reaching in to grab the trunk.
"Whatever navs your cruiser, Xera," replied Miracle with a shake of her head, and she moved to the lower half and did the same.
Together, the two Sterlings lifted the tree off the ground, keeping it relatively horizontal. Miracle twisted around and looked back at the rest. "See you back at the house!" she said with a smile, and then with the sounds of much lifting, shifting, and moving, they started to make their way down the hills back to the Shinguuji household in the distance.
Nall watched them go, and chuckled. "Nice kid, there. A little stiff at times, but she loosens up if you give her a chance."
Therèse smiled. "Yeah, she is. She's polished up well. So..." She trailed off, and considered the dragon's furry bulk as he looked down at his friends. "... care to give a girl a lift?"
"Mmmmm, I dunnno..." Nall replied with affected nonchalance. "What's in it for me?"
"Nall!" Utena protested, but it was a half-hearted protest, given her grin as she said it.
The dragon laughed. "All right, all right!" He hunkered down, so that the four could climb aboard, finding easy handholds by grabbing onto his fur. They made their way to the center of his back, between the wings and a little behind his neck, and made themselves comfortable. "Hold on, 'cause here we go!"
Laughing, Anthy held onto Utena, who held onto Corwin, as Nall leaped into the sky with a powerful push of his legs. Therèse let out an undignified squeal of surprise as she held on for dear life, not having expected the suddenness of the launch. Then she joined in the laughter as Nall's wings caught the winds, and they soared over the hills, back the way they had come.
With luck, they would get back to the central compound before the christmas tree did.
"A Walk in the Woods" - a Symphony of the Sword Mini-Story by Philip Jeremy Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited