The Starman glanced up, switching off his blowtorch.
“Yeah, Bruno?” he shouted back. He removed the visor that protected his other visor to get a better look. “Make it quick, I’m tryin’ to get this done before I clock out.”
Bruno scratched at his smooth, white head with one long appendage. “I…I just don’t know, Troy. You ever get thinkin’, sometimes?”
Troy shook his head and put his visor back on. “My processors get along at a nice leisurely three-hundred-zettabytes-per, and that’s just how I likes it. You start worrying too much you’ll just fray yer wires.”
But Bruno still stood there, wringing his appendages nervously. Troy sighed.
“What’s eatin’ ya, kid?”
“Did you ever…” Bruno took a moment to collect his thoughts. “Did you ever wonder what happened to that crew that got hired by that, that, uh, Geegoos?”
Wonder? Troy looked down and away. Of course he wondered. His kid, lil’ Junior, had signed up for that crew. Said they’d been hired to do routine maintenance on that…Geegoos’ machinery. Said he’d make enough galactic credits to buy the family a swank cruiser, a chateau on one of the moons of Jupiter…an operation for Suzie. He’d gotten onto that ship, off to the deep reaches of God-knows-where.
Communication had been lost a week in. Union reps set out to remind Geegoos of the contract terms, and they disappeared from the radar the moment they entered Geegoos’ territory.
That “I’ll make you proud, pop!” shouted from the parting shuttle was the last Troy’d ever heard from his son.
Bruno looked on worriedly. “The…the council’s here, and they’ve started up an investigation. They want to talk to anyone who’s got any info.”
Troy stood still for a long moment. He turned, a grim look on his faceplate.
“Take me to ‘em. I’ve got info.”
“…just a few more lights, I think. Now where did that extra box get to….”
Tony darted off to the storage room. Jeff sulked on the common room couch, fiddling with a remote control. The massive robot sitting next to him was its likely control subject.
“…I outfitted the Holiday Cheerbot with light-applying capabilities, you know,” Jeff said.
The look he got from Maxwell was answer enough.
“It’s an updated version!” Jeff said, defensively.
“HOLIDAY- CHEERBOT - VERSION - FIVE - POINT - THREE.” The robot extended a pair of speakers from its head; tinny Christmas music began to play. “HO - HO - HO.”
“Yeah?” Maxwell tied another ribbon to a branch. “Updated with more high explosives, I’m sure.”
Jeff looked quite confused. “Well, yes.”
Maxwell rolled his eyes and went digging for more ornaments in the many cardboard boxes strewn about. Jeff sullenly switched off the Holiday Cheerbot’s impromptu concert. What was Christmas without fireworks? What was a robot without fireworks? Tony thought it was all a brilliant idea. If they wanted to slave away applying lights without the help of superior technology, fine. Jeff didn’t mind. The last demonstration of the Holiday Cheerbot’s lighting abilities could have gone better, that much he would admit, but that was version Five-Point-Two, and there was barely any lasting structural damage to the building –
A sneeze heralded Tony’s return from the dusty storage room. He entered covered with a fine layer of gray.
“Not a single--” Another sneeze. “—not a single box left! I can’t even imagine where they could have all gotten to!”
Jeff gazed soulfully at Tony. Tony, surely Tony, his dearest, closest friend, now saw the Cheerbot’s potential. No more would he have to stumble through the consuming darkness of the storage room. No more would he be stricken with watering eyes and terrible sneezing. No more would he snag cobwebs as he searched futilely through the countless cast-off boxes from Snow Wood’s past…. Tony flopped down across Jeff’s lap, and Jeff absently combed a cobweb from his curls with his fingers.
“Try the outdoor shed…” Maxwell’s voice was muffled, half-buried as he was in a box of glass baubles. “—and try to see if there are any more of these damn things out there that aren’t all chipped.”
Tony made a soft whining noise; pressing his head against Jeff’s hand. “M’comfortable. And I’ve been fetching boxes for you all day!”
Maxwell tried the look again; the “obey your senior classmate lest he be tempted to assign you clean-up duty in the chemistry labs all month” look. It only earned him a raspberry from Tony. Maxwell sighed and threw up his hands.
“Fine, if you’d like to be the one to explain to everyone why the decorating isn’t done --”
“If I make just a few minor adjustments, the Holiday Cheerbot could be modified to seek out and apply ornaments!” Jeff interrupted, eagerly. He fiddled with the remote once more, and the Cheerbot lurched to its feet, its eyes glowing festively and ferociously red.
“HOLIDAY - CHEERBOT - REPORTING - FOR - DUTY. PLEASE - INPUT - CHEER - DIRECTIVE.”
Tony blanched and sat bolt upright. “Why, I feel just like a bit of fresh air! Why don’t we get our coats and we can take a lovely walk in the woods together!?”
Jeff’s brow furrowed. “I—suppose? It won’t take more than a moment or two, if I could just…”
Tony took Jeff by the elbow and gently but firmly led him off to the coat room as he listed off the various combustible chemicals he’d need to liberate from the lab cabinets. Thus was Maxwell left alone with the eight-foot-tall, festively-inclined beast that was armed to its steel teeth with explosives. The Cheerbot stared at Maxwell, its gaze penetrating.
The Cheerbot extended its speakers once more. “SENSORS - INDICATE - A - SIXTY-SEVEN - POINT - EIGHT - PERCENT - INCREASE - IN - MERRINESS - WITH - APPLICATION - OF - TRADITIONAL - HOLIDAY - MUSICS.”
Maxwell kept his gaze very deliberately on the contents of the ornament box and tried not to run off screaming.
It took some herding, but soon their coats were on, they were out the door, and Jeff and Tony were walking the snowy path to the outdoor shed. The evergreens grew thick here, obscuring the gray skies from view, but the early evening still gave enough light to illuminate the area. There was a fierce chill, but they had their hats, their scarves; holding hands was an efficient way to share heat.
“…and perhaps some molten sodium, to improve the reactor’s cooling mechanism, just to add a little kick to the rest, just in case…well, in case. I nicked some chemicals from the supply room a while ago, buried them somewhere around here...”
“Mm-hmm,” Tony said placidly, his head tucked against Jeff’s shoulder.
Jeff trailed off as they approached the shed, his footsteps slowed. Tony lifted his head, worried, and squeezed his hand.
Jeff heaved a sigh and disengaged his hand from Tony’s. He scuffed his way to the shed door, examining the chipping paintwork closely.
“…thanks for listening to me. I know that the Cheerbot was just – a rubbish idea.”
Tony’s eyes went soft, and he stepped forward to put a comforting hand on Jeff’s back. “Jeff, that’s not true, it --”
“—proved to modern science that a high-speed collision between Christmas lights and uncomfortable lecture hall chairs can result in a minor nuclear incident?”
Tony gnawed on his lip. “...the cleanup crew they sent seemed interested in the reaction...”
Jeff rested his forehead against the rough wood grain of the shed door. “It’s just...after all that happened...”
There was a long pause.
“...you’re bored?” Tony said, gently.
It was a horrible thing to feel, wasn’t it? That one’s life had been more exciting when one’s loved ones—when reality itself was in real and urgent peril? But...it was true. He’d been useful, he’d been needed. He’d been Jeff, teenage genius; not the forgotten son of Doctor Andonuts, stuffed into a boarding school to keep him out of the way. He’d work all night on improving some piece of broken junk that Ness dug out of the garbage, knowing that he’d be able to show it off proudly to a chorus of impressed noises in the morning.
(He remembered when he first finished the Slime Generator, and Ness had sneakily tried it out in a fit of curiosity – Paula’d had to freeze him solid, and they’d spent hours chipping off frozen slabs of gunk while his teeth clattered and Paula scolded him about curiosity and cats.)
He had Tony, he knew – he would always have Tony, even if he didn’t deserve him. And maybe he didn’t. Tony was always there to marvel at his inventions, no matter how stupid and useless, Tony was always there, eager to spend time with him...so why on Earth was he still so...so...
The pine needles shivered above them, though the air was dead. A low, eerie humming started at the distant edge of Jeff’s hearing and crept closer and closer with horrible familiarity.
Tony’s eyes were wide and concerned. Cool fingers hovered at his cheek. “Jeff?”
Jeff made a desperate noise and raced out of the cover of the evergreens, to search the skies – to prove himself wrong, that it wasn’t...
...UFOs. Unmistakably Starmen. An army of them, floating tip-to-tip, blocking out the setting sun. Jeff’s heart dropped to the pit of his stomach.
Tony had caught up to him, and caught a glimpse of the skies above. He let out a terrible, strangled shriek.
They needed to hide. Jeff seized Tony by the arm and half-pulled, half-dragged him back under the cover of the trees. They needed to get back into their room, where Jeff had stashed all his weaponry. As if he could halt an entire invasion with a laser gun and some fireworks. Jeff fumbled with the lock on the shed for a few agonizing moments and dragged Tony in after him. As if Jeff, teenage genius, could do this alone.
Tony’s breath came ragged and uneven. He sat – collapsed – heavily on the floor, and hugged his knees to ease his shaking.
“It’s – it’s--” His voice was small, so small. “--they’re back?”
Tony’s eyes were wide and terrified. Jeff’s heart twisted at the memories of him, floating in that tube of sickly green ooze, barely conscious and struggling for breath. His hands clenched against the wall.
He’d never gotten an explanation out of those buckets of bolts as to why they’d felt the need to abduct those dear to him. Perhaps he could pry one out of them now.
Jeff knelt, taking Tony’s shoulders in his hands. “Probably just didn’t get it through their thick heads that we trounced their leader. Don’t worry, I’ll just send them packing again.”
Tony surged forward and captured Jeff in a fierce hug.
“You’ll send them packing?” he said against his shoulder. His voice still trembled, but in it there was something strong and firm. “You left me out last time. I won’t stand for it again! I won’t!”
Jeff’s arms tightened around him. The thought of putting his best friend in so much danger was not pleasant. “...but--”
There was a heavy pounding at the shed door, and both boys jumped. Tony’s expression went tight, and he disengaged himself from Jeff’s arms to grab a shovel from the wall.
“It might not be quite what that Ness has, but it’ll do until we get back inside.” Tony clutched both hands around the handle, readying it for a swing.
Something odd and wonderful twinged in Jeff’s heart, and, despite the dire circumstances, he couldn’t help but smile. He always would have Tony, wouldn’t he?
Arming himself with a rake, Jeff eased close to the shed door; the steady, rhythmic pounding still had not ceased. He took a deep breath, and nodded to Tony.
“Ready?” he whispered. “One, two...”
Jeff flung open the door and swung blindly with the rake. Tony gave a mighty battle cry and went for an overhead attack with the shovel. Against the Cheerbot’s impregnable armor, their weapons gave a mighty twong. The Cheerbot stopped banging at the door, swiveling its head to regard Jeff.
“HOLIDAY - CHEERBOT - REPORTING - FOR - DUTY. PLEASE - INPUT - CHEER - DIRECTIVE.”
Never before had Jeff wanted so badly to kiss a robot. Tony stared up at the Cheerbot in bleary disbelief.
“...he is armed with copious amounts of explosives, right?” he said, after a long moment.
“Oh, to the teeth,” Jeff said blissfully. “Cheerbot, what is the situation inside the school?”
“CHEER - DIRECTIVE: - REPORT. LIFEFORMS - IDENTIFYING - AS - STARMEN - ARE - IN - THE - PROCESS - OF - BREACHING - SNOW - WOOD’S - DEFENSES.”
“We have defenses?” Tony asked.
“I guess we have those fences around the gardens, to keep out the goats,” Jeff said, dubiously. “Perhaps they got tangled.”
“SENSORS – DETECTED – STARMEN – OPENING – COMMUNICATIONS – WITH – SCHOOL – AUTHORITIES. INTERCEPTION – OF – COMMUNICATION – ATTEMPTED. ATTEMPT – FAILED – DUE – TO – HEAVY – ENCRYPTION – OF - SIGNAL.”
If the Cheerbot could speak in anything but a robotic monotone, it might have sounded abashed at that. Its eyes flickered. “HOLIDAY – CHEERBOT – ELECTED – TO – SEEK – OUT – ADMINISTRATOR: JEFF – AND – AWAIT – FURTHER – INSTRUCTION.”
“I...see.” Jeff’s hands twisted around the rake handle. “The students? What’s happening with them?”
“STUDENTS – OF – SNOW – WOOD – IN – A – STATE – OF – HIGH – TO – MID – GRADE – PANIC. ATTEMPTS – TO – SOOTHE – WITH – HOLIDAY – MUSICS – ALSO – FAILED.”
“Should’ve put in better speakers, I think,” Jeff mused distantly.
“WHILE - SEEKING – OUT – ADMINISTRATOR: JEFF, HOLIDAY – CHEERBOT – ATTEMPTED – TO – ABSCOND – WITH – SUBJECT: MAXWELL. SUBJECT: MAXWELL – ELECTED – TO – STAY – AND – SOOTHE – STUDENTS – WITH – HIS – OWN – METHODS.”
Jeff and Tony exchanged an abashed look. Chemistry lab cleanup duty for a month. Two months. They’d make it up to Maxwell somehow.
“We need a plan,” said Jeff. “Cheerbot. Are your communications networks still functional? Have the Starmen jammed the area?”
“NETWORKS – FUNCTIONING – AT – FULL – POTENTIAL.”
“Good. Wonderful.” Jeff breathed a sigh of relief. “Contact Ness, Paula, and Poo. And...and Doctor Andonuts.”
Surely his father could be convinced to part with his experiments for just a moment to help with an alien invasion. It’d be the first Christmas they’d spend together.
“AFFIRMATIVE. BEGINNING – COMMUNICATIONS.”
The Cheerbot’s eyes burned festively red once more, and Jeff motioned to Tony’s shovel.
“While he’s ringing the others, let’s get digging. I know I buried some fireworks around here.”
“--in the name of the Council of Starmen, I, Captain Octavian von Starman the Twenty-Third, demand that you open communication!”
The golden-colored Starman gesticulated wildly with his appendages at the blank communications screen. He huffed angrily.
“Foul little creatures!” he said. “We come to gather data on a matter of intergalactic importance from our base in your vicinity, find it vandalized, and now you refuse to comment on the incident! Or at all, for that matter! I, Captain Octavian von Starman the Twenty-Third, demand that you open communications!!”
Troy shook his head and made an irritated sound. The planet’s dominant species had a Class Three civilization. They’d be lucky to even be able to receive their communication, much less return it. Bruno raised a tentative appendage.
“Um...sir? Captain?” he said. “Could it be that they’re not advanced enough to return our call?”
Captain Octavian drew his appendage into a fist. “Private! Do you not see the barrier shield that protects the building!? Even our computers cannot breach it!”
“W-well,” Bruno said. “Maybe the translation software selected the wrong dominant language for the area? I, I mean, I’ve worked with it before, and it’s been known to bug out sometimes --”
Captain Octavian snorted derisively from his fine and glorious heat vents. “There is nothing but the most advanced software for my battalions!” he scoffed, then paused. Perhaps he was tired of gesticulating at a blank screen. “...though perhaps these particular lifeforms do not speak their planet’s dominant tongue. Or perhaps, yes! It is indeed possible they are not a member of the dominant species!”
The Council not having done the barest research into a planet they were harassing? Troy could not say he was surprised in the least. That was bureaucracy for you. At this rate, they’d never get any info on that Geegoos, and...and, Junior...
Troy glanced at the ship’s navigation panels. It was a damn stupid, dangerous idea, but if he could just alter them, just for a moment, alter them to send out a search signal for Junior’s coding....
“Computer! Cycle through this planet’s dominant languages!” commanded Captain Octavian.
“Affirmative,” chimed a soothing voice. There was a loud ‘ding!’ and Captain Octavian resumed his ranting.
“¡Oh mi mantequilla de cacahuete y emparedado de jamón encantadores! ¡Amo su danza agraciada!”
“Les noix ne partent pas de leurs cavernes! Ah, leur aveuglement, lumière glorieuse!”
“Woof! Bark bark bark! Rrrowwr, woof bark bark bark...!”
With the rest of the crew was distracted by Captain Fancypants’ tantrum, it only took Troy a few minutes to make the alterations. Troy swallowed hard, and inserted his appendage into the panel so the computer could sample his code and begin its search. Within seconds, there was a result -- Junior was near, so near --
Troy stared down at the screen. Council Directive Number Six: touching down on an alien planet without first receiving clearance from the dominant species, be they Class Three or above, is hereby forbidden. But his boy was down there, and Troy never felt much respect for bureaucracy.
He began to decrypt the barrier that protected the building.
“Yes...yes...yuh-huh...yes...buy up stock in Spiffbucks, they’re really growing this year...”
Ever since Tracy got elected CEO of Escargo Express, she was getting harder to have a conversation with. Ness stared at the racks of hair ornaments in the department store in mounting distress. He’d asked her to come along to help him pick out a Christmas present for Paula – he was always so bad with getting girl gifts – and it looked like in the end, he’d be on his own.
His pants started ringing. Ness sighed and grabbed his phone, expecting it to be his father scolding him for being out shopping so long. He definitely did not expect to have a robot shouting in his ear.
“ADMINISTRATOR: JEFF – REQUESTS – YOUR – ASSISTENCE. STARMAN – INVASION – OF – SNOW – WOOD – IS – IMMINENT. RESISTENCE – HEADQUARTERS – IS – LOCATED - AT – THE – STORAGE – SHED – BASE. HO – HO – HO.”
And then, the dial tone. Ness stared at the phone in disbelief. Tracy snapped her sparkly pink cellphone shut and gave him a confused look.
“I...think Robot Santa called me to help save Winters?”
Ness shook his head furiously and stuffed the phone back in his pants. It didn’t matter who was calling, if what they said was right – Starmen, in Winters, attacking Jeff’s boarding school. He guessed Paula’s gift would just have to wait – he didn’t even have time to run home and get that awesome-looking broken machine he was going to give to Jeff --
Tracy snapped her fingers, and an Escargo Express representative dove out of the nearest clothing rack.
“Yes ma’am, Miss CEO ma’am!”
She adjusted her heart-shaped sunglasses. “Get my brother his equipment. He’s got a Christmas to save!”
The representative saluted. “Yes ma’am, Miss CEO ma’am!!”
He dashed off at staggering speed, and Tracy smiled.
“You go and get Paula; I’ll pick out her gift. You can give it to her when you get back.”
Ness nodded and raced to the department store doors. He burst out of them, and kept running -- and running --
In the blink of an eye and the lingering crackle of psychic energy, he was in front of Paula’s house in Twoson. She smiled at him from the front porch swing. Her coat and mittens were on, her frying pan was on her lap, and Teddy was at her side. She was ready to go.
“Come on now,” she said, daintily prancing down the front steps. “We can’t keep Jeff waiting!”
The Escargo Express representative, panting and exhausted, jogged up to Ness. He handed over his bat and a handful of pendants, and then promptly passed out. Matching on foot the speed of a teleporting psychic was not without its physical consequences. Paula made a concerned noise.
“Let’s get him inside first,” she amended, grabbing hold of one leg. “I’ll just tell the kids that it’s his naptime...”
“Jeff, how much stuff did you bury out here!?” panted Tony, hauling another box of fireworks out from underneath the shed. “I’m surprised you haven’t blown up the forest by now!”
Jeff counted up the boxes. Twenty or so, that...that sounded about right. “I think that’s the last of them...”
The Cheerbot stomped back through the trees. Jeff fidgeted nervously.
“Cheerbot, has the situation changed?”
“DEFENSES – ARE – GROWING – WEAKER,” said the Cheerbot. Jeff really was beginning to wonder what these “defenses” were. Certainly they couldn’t be very good if the goats kept getting at the begonias. “STARMEN – SHUTTLES – MAKING – PASSES – AROUND – THE – AREA. IT – IS – PROBABLE – THEY – ARE – LOOKING – FOR – SUITABLE – LANDING – SPOTS.”
Jeff’s gut twisted. Maybe he couldn’t wait for the cavalry to arrive. Maybe...he looked over at Tony, who was dusting the dirt off the latest excavation. He could command the Cheerbot to grab Tony and fly him somewhere safe. The thought of going it alone was frightening, but the thought of Tony getting hurt, or worse, was even more terrible, and that danger was so awfully real.
Before Jeff could make a decision one way or the other, Ness landed on him hard.
“Oww...sorry, I think I overshot it...” he groaned, wiping soot off his face. “You okay, Jeff?”
“Urgghhhh...” Jeff was face-down in the frozen dirt, and was fairly certain Ness’ sudden, dynamic arrival from hyperspace had bruised a few of his ribs. He was not especially okay physically, but had never been more okay with that fact.
Paula, for her part, had landed in a pile of snow, and was less worse for the wear. She darted over and hauled Ness off of Jeff, and helped the latter to his feet. Tony was at his side to tug his clothes straight, and Ness’ hands glowed with familiar healing light. At that moment, Jeff felt like he could take on a thousand Starmen.
“We got your message,” Paula said, worry very clear in her voice. “What’s going on?”
Ness inspected the Holiday Cheerbot with no little awe. “...and is this your Robot Santa?”
Jeff explained the situation at hand – and that no, that was not Robot Santa, that was the Holiday Cheerbot and please stop poking at its arm cannons.
”...the next point of order would be to get inside,” Jeff continued. “And get the rest of my equipment from my room.”
“...and then?” prompted Paula.
Jeff’s brow furrowed. “And then, well...”
He made a finger gun and some pew pew noises. Paula sighed.
“No matter how much equipment you’ve got in that room, we’re not going to be able to take on an invasion like this,” she said. “And how do you know they’re here to invade? Have you talked to them?”
Jeff was taken aback. “Well, no, but why on earth else would they be here? Did they stop by with five dozen warships just to say hello?”
“How about we get inside, get Jeff’s stuff, and then try chatting with them?” Ness said. “That way if they’re not interested in talking it out, we’re ready to go?”
“I sincerely doubt that they’ll be--” Jeff smoothed his fingers through his hair irritably. “Fine. Let’s go before things get even more out of hand. But I’m still bringing the fireworks. Cheerbot, help Tony and me with the boxes...”
The path back to the boarding school proper still had decent tree cover, so they didn’t have to worry about the fleet looming above catching sight of four children and a giant robot scurrying to the cellar door, carrying a truly worrying amount of explosives. Jeff hurriedly latched the door after them, shoving a few dusty boxes in front of it for good measure.
Paula snapped her fingers, and the light from the fire that glowed in her hands illuminated the dark cellar. They could hear shouting and banging from the floors above -- frantic students and professors, Jeff hoped, and not invaders.
“Well.” Jeff nervously glanced around. “Are we ready?”
Tony grabbed his hand and squeezed. “Ready.”
“Ready,” said Ness and Paula in unison.
“AFFIRMATIVE,” said the Cheerbot.
Jeff took a deep breath. “Well then. Let’s move out.”
The reason for the shouting and banging became immediately obvious when they got upstairs: dozens of small, orb-shaped robots were zipping about, barking at the students they were chasing. One caught sight of the group, and came careening at them.
“WOOF! WOOF WOOF BARK!!” it shouted from its speakers. It extended waggly appendages, crackling with energy, from inside its body, and went for Jeff. “WOOF WOOF--”
One whack from Tony’s shovel sent it flying. It collided with the wall opposite, twitched for a moment, and went quiet. Ness made an impressed whistle.
“Great arm!” he said.
“Th...thanks,” Tony said, glancing at Ness with some unease. “...Jeff, are you...?”
Tony was unable to finish that thought, as the thrashing of their comrade had attracted the attention of every other robot in the room. There was an agonizingly long, silent moment; the students took this opportunity to flee. Then, with a mighty howl, the robots surged forward as a metallic, barking wave.
“At least they’re not attacking the students anymore!” Ness shouted. He wound up, and sent another robot flying out of the park. Or rather, into an uncomfortably expensive-looking lamp.
“Always look on the bright side, don’t you?” Jeff countered. He lit a match and tossed it into a box of fireworks, ducking from the inevitable result. The few robots that survived the assault puttered after him, smoking and swooping through the air drunkenly. Jeff was really rethinking the rake as his improvised weapon -- it didn’t have the thwacking power that Tony’s shovel and Ness’ bat did, and he was quickly becoming overwhelmed. Of course, a rake wasn’t really meant to hit things, now was it...?
Jeff herded a bundle of robots into place with a wide sweep of the rake, and leapt back. “Paula!”
Paula did not need to be told twice, and did what she did best. The robots fell to the ground in staccato thuds, their frozen metallic shells cracking on impact.
“Where’s your room!?” shouted Paula. “That rake of yours is pretty neat, but I remember you being much happier with a laser in hand!”
“It’s right nearby, it’s--” A robot flung itself at Jeff’s head, and the world went foggy and blurry. He vaguely felt himself hit the ground, vaguely heard Tony’s horrified, distressed cry -- vaguely heard the sounds of a shovel beating on metal...
Soothing regenerative psychic force eased the throbbing of his head. Jeff groaned and opened his eyes. The world was still blurry; that robot had sent his glasses flying on impact. Ness held them up and gave a crooked smile.
“They’re, uh, a little worse for the wear,” he said, handing the shattered glasses to him. “Hope you’ve got spares in that room of yours?”
Paula and Tony fell back, guarding their friends with shovel and frying pan. There were still so many of the robots left...they needed to make a break for the room, but with this kind of swarm and Jeff left foggy-headed and half-blind --
“ELECTROMAGNETIC – DISRUPTION – WAVE – CHARGED – AND – READY,” said the Cheerbot. “AWAITING – PERMISSION – TO – FIRE.”
Jeff blinked blearily, confused. “...granted?”
The air surged with energy, and a magnificent squeal went up from the remaining robots. They hovered just for a moment more, their circuits crackling and buzzing and smoking, and then they dropped to the ground, silent at last. The Cheerbot wobbled uneasily, but remained on its feet.
Ness swatted Jeff’s shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell us Robot Santa could pull that trick off!?”
“Because I didn’t know he could pull that trick off,” said Jeff as he tried to pull himself up. Tony made a distressed noise, hovering over him. “I didn’t install anything like that...not that I couldn’t, of course, but...”
“Jeff, are you sure you’re alright?” Tony said. He dug around in his pockets, producing a spare pair of glasses for him. “Here, oh, and just lean against me, I can carry you up to the room...”
“...you carry around spare glasses for him?” Ness asked, slowly.
Tony huffed and gave him a look. “Of course!”
Ness and Paula exchanged looks, but said nothing. Jeff leaned against Tony, his arm braced around his shoulder.
“Cheerbot, are you alright? Did that pulse get to you, too?” he asked.
The Cheerbot whirred for a moment, and steam shot from its vents. “STATUS: FAIR. ESSENTIAL – SYSTEMS – UNDAMAGED.”
“Good,” Jeff said, earnestly. “...I don’t suppose you could pull that trick out again on the ones outside?”
“RECHARGE – OF – ELECTROMAGNETIC – DISRUPTION – WAVE – WOULD – REQUIRE – SEVERAL – HOURS – OF – SLEEP – MODE.”
Jeff paused. If just firing that pulse once messed the Cheerbot up that much...
“...and what would the damage to your systems be, after firing it again?”
The Cheerbot’s mighty processors calculated the damage. “COMPLETE – DERESOLUTION – OF – INSTALLED – SOFTWARE – AND – DRIVERS.”
“Not an option, then.” Jeff motioned for everyone to follow him and Tony. “Come on, let’s get to my room and regroup.”
They reached his and Tony’s room, and Jeff sat down heavily on his bed. Tony went into fussing mode, gingerly smoothing his hair away from the goose egg the robot’s impact left. Jeff motioned to his closet.
“The – the stuff’s in there,” he said. “In a box.”
Ness opened the closet and gazed at the many, many boxes therein. Paula clicked her tongue with open disapproval at the mess of disemboweled machinery parts littering the floor of Jeff’s side of the room.
“How do you find anything you need, with your room like this?”
Ness glanced up from the boxes, his brow furrowing. “Doesn’t look so bad to me. You can still see the carpet!”
Paula sighed, and grumbled something about boys, and boarding schools, and reinforcing bad habits. Ness, finally, found the box filled with Jeff’s laser guns, and dragged it over.
“Do...do you want me to go look for the rest?” Ness asked slowly, eyeing the closet uncomfortably.
The most over-the-top futuristic-looking of all Jeff’s gun creations, the Gaia Beam, rested neatly on top. Jeff took it in hand.
“Not right now,” he said, checking its sights. “It’s not really negotiating if you go out armed to the teeth. Tony, you know how to handle my bazooka, right?”
Tony blinked and stopped petting Jeff’s hair. “Hmm?”
“It’s under my bed.” He smiled and gave a weak laugh. “Unless you’re especially attached to the shovel.”
Tony retrieved and assembled the bazooka with an expert’s speed and grace. Ness and Paula looked a bit uneasy as he strapped the massive thing to his back, and Ness cleared his throat.
“You, uh, you know how to use that too, Tony?” he asked, hesitantly.
“Oh, yes, Jeff gave me lessons...” Tony smiled blissfully at the memory, despite their situation.
“I couldn’t just leave the poor girl to collect dust,” Jeff said softly, tracing the bazooka’s shaft with a gentle hand. She’d been so good to him during their adventure, and probably got so bored just sitting under his bed all day long...
“...you never gave me lessons...” Ness was wholly unable to hide the sulkiness in his voice.
“The Slime Generator incident didn’t instill me with a great deal of faith in your ability to follow instruction--”
“Now that we’ve finally gotten to your room,” interrupted Paula, not unreasonably. “...what now?”
Jeff tilted his head to the side for a moment, and thought.
“...we should go speak with the dean,” he said, finally. “He should know if there’s been any damage to the school, or if any students have been hurt. After that little episode downstairs, I doubt the Starmen really came here to just talk.”
Paula shook her head. “It just doesn’t make any sense. If they wanted to attack, why, there’s an army outside! Why haven’t they done anything? Why haven’t we seen a single Starman? Those robots downstairs, they were chasing students, but it didn’t look like they were hurting them -- I don’t think they even attacked until we did first--”
“As if I was going to let that thing zap Jeff with its tentacles!” countered Tony. “And what were they even doing in here in the first place, and what did they think they were doing chasing down our schoolmates? Probably gathering information for when those, those Starmen break down the door--”
“Look,” Ness said. “We’re not getting anything done just standing here arguing. We’ll go to the dean and talk with him.”
As they readied themselves to go, Jeff examined the Cheerbot. They certainly could use the extra firepower, and the intimidation of having the hulking thing at their side, but that attack seemed to have damaged him more than it had let on. The Cheerbot whirred and let out another burst of steam from its vents.
“HOLIDAY – CHEERBOT – REPORTING – FOR – DUTY. PLEASE – INPUT – CHEER – DIRECTIVE.”
“Stay here and enter repair mode,” Jeff ordered. “If things get bad, I’ll call you remotely, but until then...”
The Cheerbot’s eyes flickered unsteadily as they focused on him. “...AFFIRMATIVE. ENTERING – REPAIR – MODE.”
Its eyes dimmed, and its repair software began to hum pleasantly. Jeff turned to the rest of the group, expecting to have to explain himself for ordering their biggest ally to stay behind. But they only smiled at him, understandingly.
“...the dean’s office is on the third floor,” said Jeff. “We’d better hurry.”
The halls were eerily quiet. The path to the dean’s office was marked by a long string of thoroughly-trashed robots that formed a breadcrumb trail to his door. Jeff swallowed hard, and knocked lightly, terrified of the scene he imagined beyond.
“Dean Callaghan?” Jeff called. “It’s...it’s Jeff. Jeff Andonuts.”
There was a gasp, and quick footsteps. The door was opened by a very familiar face.
“Jeffery. Ness. Paula,” said Poo, warmly. “It is good to see you again. I apologize for not coming to you directly.”
Paula gave a happy little yell and captured Poo in a hug. Ness and Jeff joined the huddle soon after. Jeff felt like he could take on a hundred thousand Starmen. Ten hundred thousand Starmen.
“We were getting swarmed by those damned little robots, and in he comes through a third-floor window, fists flying.” Maxwell leaned against the office wall and shook his head. “Never seen anything like it.”
“I had intended to go directly to Jeffery and the others after receiving his distress call,” Poo explained. “But en route I spied those miniature intruders infiltrating the building. I could not suffer them to continue harassing the students, whatever their intent may have been.”
“I can see you didn’t suffer ‘em, alright...” Ness inspected the pile of robot bodies piled up in the corner of the Dean’s office. “We had an encounter of our own, downstairs.”
Poo looked honestly shocked. “I...had thought I disposed of the last of them. My apologies.”
“Don’t worry, I can see why you would’ve thought you nailed all of them,” said Ness. “We were wading knee-deep in them outside.”
“What exactly is happening?” Jeff asked the Dean.
“You tell me, Jeffery,” the old gentleman said with no little distress. Seated behind his grand dean’s desk in his grand dean’s chair, he looked so terribly small. The thin evening light from the windows made the room’s shadows long and dark. “One moment I’m having a pleasant evening planning the Christmas festival, and the next the sky’s black with alien spacecraft -- and my phone--”
The phone hadn’t stopped ringing since they’d come in the room. The Dean picked it up, and put it on speaker mode -- on the other end, there was nothing but shrieking, ear-piercing static. He slammed it back down into its cradle and buried his head in his hands. Maxwell rubbed the bridge of his nose with his fingers.
“It happened not long after you two left to fetch the rest of the ornaments,” he said, gesturing to Jeff and Tony. “I was just finishing up decorating when the rest of the students started running about screaming that there were UFOs outside. Your robot friend went to find you, and I stayed to herd everyone into their rooms until we could figure out what the hell was happening. Then, well, those little balls of tentacles showed up, and luckily your Dalaamese friend showed up shortly afterward. We got most everyone locked up in their rooms, and we were trying to hash out a plan of attack in here...”
“A ‘plan of attack’ is a very strong phrase,” said Poo. “I would prefer to open communications with them first, to discover their intent on returning to our planet after Giygas’ defeat.”
Jeff made an irritated noise. “I suppose Tony and I are the only ones who fear the worst from the massive alien fleet that’s parked outside, and that’s sent in hundreds of their minions to bully innocent students, and who have proved perfectly willing to end our lives before!”
“Jeff,” Paula said firmly. “Do you want to prepare yourself for another war? If we can talk to them, I want to.”
“And remember,” Ness said, helpfully. “They still haven’t tried to land--”
That scream, it barely seemed human – Jeff had never, ever heard his Dean make that sound before, and never wanted to again. The old gentleman was pale and shaking as he stared in horror out the window.
The ships were opening. Countless Starmen were pouring out onto Snow Wood’s grounds.
“Oh...oh, God,” the Dean moaned. “The, the students – Maxwell --”
Maxwell raced to the door. He paused at the frame, staring very deliberately at Jeff.
“You. You all talk it out.” There was strain in his voice. Perhaps to keep it from trembling like the rest of him was. “I’ll keep everyone calm, no matter what winds up happening.”
Jeff nodded, slowly. “...thanks. Tony and I will be your cleanup monkeys for the rest of the school year, if things get messy.”
Maxwell forced a smile, then raced off to check on the students. Jeff glanced at the Dean.
“Sir. We’ll go out to talk with them.”
The Dean set a shaking hand to his mouth and nodded.
“...you’ve faced them before, I presume. I bid you good luck.”
With that, they all raced from his office.
As they ran through the halls, Poo studied Tony. He jogged alongside him, giving him a brief bow of his head.
“Greetings, friend of Jeffery. I believe we have met before, in equally stressful circumstances,” he said. “I am Prince Poo, of Dalaam.”
Tony gave him an odd look, trying to keep up with the group. “...Tony.”
“...I do hope your imprisonment at Stonehenge did not leave any lasting damage. Jeffery was quite concerned afterward, to that extent.”
“He...was?” Tony seemed sincerely surprised. “I didn’t...I hardly ever heard from him that whole time...”
Poo made a noncommittal noise. “I do not claim to know Jeffery’s mind. But I might presume he thought continually pestering you would have not done much for your recovery.”
Tony was silent, and Poo continued to watch him.
“...I admit that I initiated conversation with you for an ulterior motive. You looked quite tense when Jeffery was reuniting with Ness, Paula, and myself. I might have attributed it to our tense situation, but it seems there is something more to it that I might be able to set at ease.”
Tony almost stumbled, but kept his balance. “I...whenever Jeff’s with you guys, there’s...I feel like...he forgets about me. Like I’m the farthest thing from his mind, when he’s always – in my mind, he’s always...”
Poo waited for Tony to collect himself, and chose his words carefully.
“On our journey, we, all of us, dealt with our loneliness differently. Ness wore it on his sleeve, even in battle. Jeffery kept it inside, and I presume his silence toward you was an attempt to keep you from fretting over him. He did speak of you, often and fondly.” Poo gave Tony a brief smile. “And sometimes of your fretting.”
Tony huffed. “I had every reason to fret! I wanted to come along, I did, but Jeff just told me that it was too dangerous.”
“And that it was,” said Poo. “Very much so. There were those in Dalaam that were dear to me, and would have been glad to accompany me on my journey, and whom I would not have brought along under any circumstances. The fear of harm coming to them would have weighed heavily upon me.”
Tony was silent for a long moment. Some of the tension had eased from his shoulders.
“I hope that I have put some of your worries at ease. If you would care to know, when under the influence of Dalaam’s famous spiced wines one night on our adventure, Jeffery spoke at length on the fineness of your features.” Poo flashed him a dazzling grin. “He was quite right, I must say.”
Tony’s ears turned red, and he ducked his head to hide his smile.
They were at the front door of the building, and paused to catch their breath. Jeff looked around at his gathered friends – he’d said that he’d be able to take on a hundred thousand Starmen with them at his side, didn’t he? Well. Now was the moment of truth.
They opened the door.
“Bark! Bark bark woof bark bark!!” shrieked the golden Starman at the front of the gathered swarm, flailing his appendages about like a pair of snakes being tickled. Or electrocuted.
The children exchanged confused, uneasy looks. Ness cleared his throat and stepped forward, his hand white-knuckled on his bat.
“Um...hi? I’m Ness...this is Paula, and, and Jeff, and Jeff’s friend Tony, and Poo...”
“Detecting dominant language,” said a robotic voice from the mothership. “Dominant language corrected. Translation algorithm active.”
“BARK BARK – our ambassadorial drones, all destroyed! I, Captain Octavian von Starman the Twenty-Third, DEMAND to know why you have refused our every gracious attempt to open communications!! We DEMAND you explain yourselves!!”
Those angry, robotic voices, so awfully familiar, made Ness’ throat go dry and his mind blank. “I – I--”
“Please allow me to speak on our behalf. I have much experience with belligerent diplomats.” Poo set a comforting hand on Ness’ shoulder and bowed his head. “Greetings. I am Poo, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Dalaam. We welcome your people back to our planet, and hope that your current visit has more...diplomatic intent than the last.”
The Starman – Captain Octavian, what kind of name for an alien was that? Jeff distantly sulked – scoffed. “I do not recall any Starman delegations being sent to your planet. And as for the extent of their diplomacy, if this is how you would treat them, hmph!”
“Our planet was recently involved in a war against the entity known as Giygas,” Poo explained, undaunted by the Starman’s outburst. “In his employ were a number of your people, who waged no little havoc.”
The Captain stiffened, and a great murmur went up from the crowd of Starmen.
“T-that...preposterous,” he sputtered. “Completely and utterly preposterous. We Starmen are a highly respected race of engineers; a peaceful race.”
Poo nodded thoughtfully. “Giygas’ power in matters psychic was wholly unmatched, and often did he impose this power upon others. As was the case with many, they may have not, in fact, been in his employ; but rather, in his thrall.”
It seemed like Poo had said just the right thing, as usual. The Captain was very obviously flustered, his appendages tittering nervously, and the troops behind him began to whisper amongst themselves urgently.
“I...” The Captain exhaled a burst of steam from his vents. “I, I will need proof of these allegations!”
“Proof...proof, yes, here we are...”
The crowds parted to reveal Doctor Andonuts puttering leisurely up on a hovering snowmobile. He was accompanied by another Starman, even more shiny and golden than Captain Octavian. The doctor was wearing a Santa hat and sucking on a candy cane. Jeff was glad that someone was having a good time here, at least.
“I was just about to finish up my notes for the day, check my telephone messages, have my evening chess game with the Cave Boys, when there was a knock on my door.” Doctor Andonuts nodded to the Starman beside him. “Colonel Ennead and I had tea together and chatted...oh, and I brought candy canes to share...”
He looked around worriedly at the masses of Starmen surrounding the school.
“...though perhaps I should have brought more....”
Colonel Ennead walked very slowly and deliberately to Captain Octavian. Captain Octavian swallowed hard.
“C-colonel Ennead, s-sir? D-d-did you find any information in your investigation of our vandalized base?”
“I did, Octavian.” The Colonel crossed his appendages behind his back, regally. “And who, might I ask, gave you clearance to land troops on a Class Three planet? With their communications technology being as it is, and being that you are currently harassing a school for larval-stage hominids, I sincerely doubt that it was them.”
“But, sir! There was a shield surrounding the institution that even our computers could not breach!!” Captain Octavian pointed at the building accusingly with one appendage. “Surely, with that kind of advanced--”
“Oh, that old thing?” Doctor Andonuts blinked owlishly. “Made it as a senior project while I was attending here. Was trying to keep those darned goats from getting into the gardens; worked for a while, but they’re feisty little beasts….”
He trailed off, then after a long, silent moment, picked up the box of candy canes and started passing them out to the Starman troops. Colonel Ennead shook his head and sighed in frustration.
“You terrorize a civilian institution, send reconnaissance drones into the building – those drones are intended to extract information from hostile territories, and have a hair trigger temper, if I might remind you! – land without receiving my go-ahead, and now I find you hurling insults at a gaggle of infants!” The Colonel stared at Captain Octavian stonily. “I suppose I shouldn’t have left you in command while I investigated, after all.”
“I’m...I deeply apologize, sir.” Captain Octavian cast a sideways glance to Poo. “I deeply apologize, human children.”
Ness visibly relaxed and gave an earnest smile. “It’s okay.”
“It’s definitely okay,” agreed Paula. She jabbed Jeff in the ribs. “Right?”
“Mrgh,” Jeff grumbled. Tony didn’t say a word, and continued to stare at the ground near the Starmen’s feet, clutching Jeff’s hand. It wasn’t easy to forgive them for bullying their schoolmates or invading their home, but if it would make the Starmen leave faster, then they’d play along.
“Your apologies are gladly accepted,” said Poo. “I am deeply thankful for being able to speak with you.”
Colonel Ennead stepped forward and placed one appendage across his chest, covering his heart – or where his heart might be, anyway.
“Our investigation into our old base, located at ‘Stoned-Henge’, as you call it, has given us a great deal of valuable data for the Giygas investigation,” he said. “It was with great sorrow that I read of my fellow Starmen’s actions here, under Giygas’ psychic control, and with great sorrow that I learned of their deaths. But I of course cannot fault your actions against them in a time of war.”
Ness lowered his chin, guilt in his eyes. “...we’re still sorry.”
“We thank you for your empathy, human,” Colonel Ennead said, bowing deeply. “Please accept my apologies on behalf of the Starman race. We hope that this terrible tragedy and this – unfortunate incident, has not colored your perceptions of us too harshly.”
Colonel Ennead raised an appendage to the skies. “Troops! Back to your ships!”
The troops shuffled off to their ships happily sucking on their candy canes, waving good-bye to Doctor Andonuts. One Starman, however, was shoving his way to the front. He paused in front of Colonel Ennead, metal form fraught with tension, glancing from the children to the Colonel and back again.
“Lieutenant Troy,” the Colonel said with strange gentleness. “The base’s records state...it is my sad misfortunate to inform you of your son’s...”
“No,” the Starman said, voice cracking. “He’s here. And alive. Damn it, Colonel, court-marshal me if you want, but I jerry-rigged the nav software to scan for his code, and he’s here, right here--”
A low, robotic humming interrupted the scene. The Holiday Cheerbot, fully repaired, switched off his rocket boosters to touch down on the ground. Lieutenant Troy squinted at it, as if trying to make sense of the strange, metallic creature that stood before him.
“HOLIDAY – CHEERBOT – REPORTING – FOR – DUTY. HELLO...POP.”
Lieutenant Troy’s visor dilated to nearly twice its size. The Cheerbot’s gaze was steady, calm. The two stared at each other for several achingly long moments.
“S-son...Junior,” Lieutenant Troy sobbed out, taking a shaky step forward and reaching out with his appendages. “I...can barely even recognize you. What happened...what did they do to you...?”
Jeff’s friends stared at him, open-mouthed. Jeff...was at a loss for words, himself.
“When...when we were in Onett, getting the minerals for Doctor Andonuts, I found a wrecked machine,” Jeff began. “It, it was so burnt and battered and rusted that I didn’t even know it was a Starman, not until now, and I felt like I shouldn’t just leave the poor thing there, that I should fix it up...”
Jeff trailed off. He could only stare down at his shoes and listen to Lieutenant Troy’s weeping. He’d never thought that fixing something broken could turn out so...badly. The Cheerbot, however, set his great hand on Jeff’s shoulder.
“UPON – ENTERING – REPAIR – MODE – I – WAS – ABLE – TO – ACCESS – DAMAGED – AND – PREVIOUSLY – UNACCESIBLE – PORTIONS – OF – MY – MEMORY – BANKS. YOU – DISCOVERED – MY – BROKEN – BODY – SOME – TIME – AFTER – MY – CONFRONTATION – WITH – SUBJECT: NESS – AND SUBJECT: BUZZ-BUZZ,” explained the Cheerbot. “A – CONFRONTATION – THAT – I – WELL – DESERVED – TO – LOSE – SO – SEVERELY. I – AM – DEEPLY – GRATEFUL, ADMINISTRATOR: JEFF, FOR – A – CHANCE – AT – REBIRTH, AND – FOR – A – CHANCE – TO – MAKE – AMENDS.”
The Cheerbot whirred for a moment.
“AND – FOR – BEING – OUTFITTED – WITH – SO – VERY – MANY – EXPLOSIVES. IT – IS – QUITE – INVIGORATING.”
Jeff breathed for what seemed like the first time in several minutes. “I...you’re welcome.”
The Cheerbot’s other hand went to Ness’ shoulder. “SUBJECT: NESS. YOU – HAVE – MY – SINCEREST – APOLOGIES – FOR – MY – BEHAVIOR.”
Ness smiled. “Thanks. Um...that, that number you did on the barking robots in there, was that a Starman thing?”
Laughing a robotic laugh, the Cheerbot’s eyes narrowed mischievously “AFFIRMATIVE. THE ELECTROMAGNETIC – DISRUPTION – WAVE – IS – INDEED – A – PROUD – ABILITY – OF – OUR – RACE.”
Lieutenant Troy couldn’t help but laugh himself, despite his tears, and Colonel Ennead seemed to be suppressing a smile as he turned on his heel to supervise the reloading of the ships.
“Cutting loose a disruption wave to clear out a room. That’s the Junior I remember,” said Lieutenant Troy.
Lieutenant Troy collected himself, blowing his nose loudly on his handkerchief.
“...Son,” he said, softly. “It’s good to see you again.”
The Cheerbot moved to embrace his father. “AFFIRMATIVE.”
Lieutenant Troy’s faceplate twitched. “...but ya look like a damn punk.”
“FACT: I – LOOK – AWESOME.”
“You kids these days; if by ‘awesome’ you mean ‘like a damn juiced-up rock star’--”
“FACT: I – LOOK – FESTIVE.”
“B-baby...? Is that really you?”
Another Starman stood off to the side, appendages clutched together tightly. The Cheerbot let out a great deal of steam, and stomped forward happily.
“BRUNO. MY – LOVE.”
They skipped toward each other, and clasped hand to appendage; they twirled about the snowy grounds in their own little world. Lieutenant Troy shook his head, fondly gazing on the scene.
“Kids these days,” he said.
“How romantic,” sighed Paula. She clasped her hands together. “If only there was some mistletoe...”
Tony made a happy noise and tucked his head against Jeff’s shoulder. Jeff just wanted this all to be over. Quickly.
Ness looked somewhat abashed, scratching at his head underneath his hat, and turned to Paula. “This...this reminds me,” he said, scuffing at the ground with his bat. “I was trying to get you a present, and I was at the department store, and I was looking around, and I asked Tracy to help but she was busy with the stock exchange, and then Jeff called and I had to go, and--”
Paula gave him a sincere smile and reached out for his hand. “It’s okay. Christmas isn’t here just yet, after all...”
“Ho, ho, ho! Special delivery from Escargo Express!”
They looked to the skies, surprised. Father Christmas’ sleigh soared overhead, emblazoned with the Escargo Express logo. Tracy, sitting beside the man himself, waved from the passenger’s seat.
“The merger just went through!” she called to her brother down below. “How do you think ‘Santargo Express’ sounds?”
Ness’ eyes were huge. “Tracy! Is that really Santa--”
Tracy’s cellphone went off.
“Never mind, we’ll chat later!” she said, picking up the call. “Nick, you got things covered here?”
“Ho, ho, ho! Of course!” Father Christmas wriggled his nose and presents lifted themselves out of the sleigh. They flew themselves down to the ground below, settling gently at the children’s feet. “A sample from Santargo Express to you! Don’t open until December Twenty-Fifth! I’ll know! Ho, ho ho!”
Laughing all the way, Father Christmas tugged at the reindeer’s reins and flew off into the night sky. The children stared after him until he was nothing but a twinkle amongst the stars.
“...were you praying again, Paula?” Ness asked, slowly.
Paula nodded, after a moment.
“At least that was a little less weird than last time...” Jeff mumbled. Willing an incorporeal cosmos-devouring terror into oblivion was, indeed, still weirder than this; if only slightly.
Doctor Andonuts wandered over with his box of candy canes and offered them to the children. “Quite an exciting day, I think. We should do this every year, yes, I think so.”
He paused. He tucked an extra candy cane into Jeff’s breast pocket and awkwardly patted his head. It was the first Christmas present that Jeff had ever received from him, and Jeff wanted to cry a little. But Tony was still there, squeezing his hand, and...well, the feeling would pass.
“Um, can we get inside?” asked Ness. He was shivering. “I’ve got my coat, but I sorta forgot how cold this place was...”
“Let’s,” said Paula, slipping her hand into the crook of Ness’ arm. She tilted her head to Jeff. “Unless it’s a no-girls zone in there?”
“I’m sure the Dean will make an exception for tonight,” Jeff said. “The students might look at you like you’re an alien, though. Well. More of an alien than...”
Poo inspected his present box, brow furrowed. “Once inside, you must tell me a bit more about this tradition. I admit some ignorance to Western festivals.”
Ness’ eyes went huge. “You don’t – you don’t have Christmas?” he asked in absolute shock. “...well...”
They, all of them, walked back into Snow Wood as Ness’ explanation of Christmas (presents, Santa, presents, mom’s cookies, presents...) went on. Doctor Andonuts started on another candy cane, clearing his throat.
“I...suppose I could call the Cave Boys down here for our game. Scrabble instead, perhaps.” He shook his head. “Although Oogtar is a fierce Scrabble opponent indeed.”
Jeff caught Tony’s eye. He smiled. “Sounds great.”