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How Lovely are Thy Branches?

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Heero dragged in a long rectangular shaped box and let it fall with a thud to the living room floor, startling Relena and waking Millie from her nap. Relena stared at the giant FRAGILE stamped across the top of the otherwise nondescript box as Heero shut the front door.

"What is that?"

Heero pulled off his gloves and shoved them in his coat pockets, his cheeks pink from the cold and the sudden exertion.

"It's a box."

After a look from Relena, he elaborated, "It's a tree. Amazon must've dropped it off today." He shrugged his jacket off and tossed it onto the arm of the couch before scooping Millie up into his arms. "Are you excited for a Christmas tree?" he asked her, sounding excited himself. She looked at him like she had no idea what he was talking about, and likely didn't, but nonetheless she smiled.

"We didn't have a tree last year," Relena said. "Do we really need one this year?"

" Yes ," Heero said, holding Millie to his chest. She rested her head against his shoulder and cooed. "It's Millie's first Christmas, and it's ours as parents. We need a tree. Normal people have a tree and lights and all that other shit, don't they?"

Relena sighed. "If you insist. I would've been just as happy not bothering, we had a nice Christmas without one."

"It wasn't that we didn't have one, it was just one of those chintzy fake ones that are about twelve inches tall and run on four double-A's. I wanted something...better."

Relena grabbed his Preventers jacket and went to hang it up. "Whatever you say, dear." She gave him a kiss on the mouth before kissing the top of Millie's head.

"I figured you'd want something bigger anyway." Heero rested his cheek against Millie's. "What did you do for Christmas growing up? I imagine you had a regular sized tree." He sat down on the couch and shifted Millie so he could bounce her on his knee.

"We had a ten foot tall tree that was all glammed out, feasts with hundreds of people I didn't really know, so many presents... It was glitzy and glamourous and too over the top for anything I would want to have now. We even busted out the fine china - I don't think we've used ours yet." She sat on the arm of the couch.

"I don't even know where it is," Heero admitted. "It's in a box in the attic, I think. That's where I would've put it, anyway." Heero hadn't looked in the attic since they'd moved into the house over a year ago. "I don't know why your mother insisted on getting us some."

"Wedding tradition."

"Ah, yes, buy some really fancy, pain in the ass to wash place settings you bust out maybe once a year to impress family who've looked inside your cupboards and fridge already and are silently judging you."

"What was Christmas like for you as a boy?"

Heero kissed both of Millie's fists, his brows furrowing as he gazed off into the distance. "We didn't...really celebrate it."

Relena looked like she didn't know what to say. Who would? Who doesn't have a Christmas anything with a kid?

"My stepfather was never around for it, too busy working to care, and he argued that he shouldn't spend money on a kid that isn't his." He brushed through Millie's dark hair with his hand, trying to smooth down a cowlick. "You don't have to worry about that, Millie-lily. You'll get all the toys you could ever want and then some or I've failed you as your father."

Relena bit her lip. "Heero..."

"My mother tried, I guess, to give me some kind of Christmas, but I never really got presents. We never had a tree, though there was one at this shindig I had to attend to make Seis look good." He shrugged. "Even then I just kept to myself and didn't bother with anyone."

Millie wriggled out of his grasp and slid down his leg to go investigate the large brown box currently sat on the living room area rug.

"I want her to have a better childhood than I did," he said quietly. "I want her to have a tree and presents under it and parents who are loving and warm and let her believe that Santa is an actual thing instead of some dumb make believe bullshit."

He stood from the couch then and went, switchblade in hand, to the box so he could open it. Making sure Millie was out of the line of fire so to speak, he opened the flaps and gazed upon the green plastic mess that lay before him. On top of the green mess was a sheet of paper with instructions, which were in several languages that weren't English. Examining that, he opted for the Russian set, which were the clearest ones in his opinion.

"This isn't exactly what I had in mind when I ordered it from Amazon," he said, as he pocketed his knife.

"It can't be that hard," Relena said. "It's a hinged design, right? It's already mostly done, you just snap it together in the stand they give you and fluff it. It shouldn't take longer than maybe a half hour tops."


It took two hours to put the tree together. Millie didn't care much about the entire process, too consumed was she over the box it had come in to pay much attention to her father cursing over the branches and questioning why it "looks so sparse."

"Heero, have you ever seen a real tree before?"

Heero fanned out the 'branches'. "Yes, Relena, I've seen trees before, we have those in space."

She ignored the sass. "Evergreens?"

"This isn't that hard, it says to razvetvite vetvi i izognite ikh vverkh, and I am razvetvite vetvi i izognite ikh vverkh'ing them."

Relena blinked at him before looking through the instructions to find a language she actually understood. To her delight, German was one of the choices, and she went to the step Heero was on and skimmed it before saying, "It doesn't say to fan them out like a literal fan, it says 'Ziehen Sie die Äste heraus und krümmen Sie sie nach oben zu den Spitzen, um ein natürlicheres Aussehen zu erhalten.' They're supposed to stick out--here, let me."

Relena reached out and bent the branches so that they stuck out and curved, looking more natural and pine tree like. "See? It looks fuller already, and that's just one branch." She flipped through the instructions again. "There are instructions in Japanese, maybe those ones would be more to your liking."

Heero muttered something in Japanese under his breath he was sure she'd only caught the tail end of, as he followed her example with the remaining branches.

"Maybe we should get a real tree next year," Relena mused. "No fluffing required, plus they're better for the environment and they smell absolutely wonderful."

Heero stepped back to admire his handiwork. "It still doesn't look full enough." He looked to his wife. "Do we have decorations to fill the spaces?"

Relena shook her head. "I wanted to buy some last year, but you said it was a waste."

"That's before we had her." He nodded to Millie, who was playing with her toys on the floor. "'Family Christmas' didn't have meaning until you had her."

Relena toyed with a couple of the branches. "If you want decorations, there's still plenty of time to get some. If you want, I can look at some things on Amazon, but really, there's nothing wrong with an...au naturale tree. Some people put bows instead of ornaments, or string popcorn garland..."

Heero shook his head. "I want something like this." He showed Relena a picture he had found on Pinterest, of a tree so heavily decorated, she wondered how it hadn't tipped over yet.

"Heero..."

"When we show pictures of our first Christmas as a family to Millie when she's older, I don't want her to ask why our tree was naked, or sparsely decorated, or why there was a lack of something."

"She would just assume it was due to a lack of funds--"

"Which we have no lack of." Heero took her hands in his. "Relena. Please. I know you think I'm out of my mind for this--"

"I don't." She smiled softly. "I'm just giving you options. We could have a naked tree and that's fine, we could tell her that we decided to go 'bare' on purpose. But if you want to go all out..."

Heero nodded.

"...then we'll go all out."

Heero grinned before kissing Relena and nodding towards their daughter.

"Did you start Christmas shopping for her?"

From the deer-in-headlights look he got from his wife, the answer to that was a definite 'no'.

"Guess we'll have to kill two birds with one stone. Get your coat. We're going shopping."


Heero noticed that many of the mall shoppers were giving him concerned looks. He wasn't quite sure why--hadn't they ever seen someone carrying twenty shopping bags and three cardboard boxes before? All with a child strapped to their back, asleep?

"I think we have enough Christmas decorations to decorate every tree on our street," Relena mused, as they navigated the thick crowds of Christmastime shoppers.

"They're not all going on the tree," Heero remarked, as the crowd parted for him. "We have a whole house to decorate. Plus the outside... The porch, the windows, the lawn..."

The Toy Megatropolis was a newly erected store that arrived on the burnt remains of a long bankrupt specialty toy store. To say it was a 'megatropolis' did it no justice, if one asked Heero. The store took up an entire two floors of the mall itself. Amazon sunk some serious cash into it, and judging from how mobbed the place was, it paid off. Getting through the doors of the place took fifteen minutes, and once inside it was mass chaos. Children running around shrieking their heads off (which Millie, to Heero's surprise, slept right on through). Exasperated parents trying to find the Perfect Gift for their Darling Angel. Even more exasperated store employees, trying their best to please the aforementioned parents, but ultimately not always being able to accomplish that goal.

Heero noticed Relena's grip on his arm tightened, and focused on that to keep his senses from overloading completely.

"Holy fuckin' shite, will ya look at all this?"

That voice. It could only belong to one man.

"Thalia, hold the kid. I'm goin' in. Everyone move!"

Shouldering by him was, in fact, Duo. To be fair, he was hard to miss at six-two with his mass of hair shoved into the messiest 'man bun' Heero had ever seen, which meant that it wasn't Duo's idea to leave the house, and that he was given too little notice for him to get his hair done up properly. Right behind him was his wife Thalia, who kept close to his back and was completely eclipsed by him. In her arms was their almost two year old daughter, Helena.

"Duo?"

Duo froze before turning around.

"'Ro?!"

Thalia waved; Relena smiled back politely.

"The fuck did you do, buy out the whole mall? What's all that in your arms?" Duo shoved a mall patron out of his way in his haste to make it to his best friend. Heero chuckled a little at the finger that got flipped at him.

"Christmas decorations."

"You doin' it for the whole block?" Duo's eyes scanned the crowd. "Where's your kid?"

As if on cue, Millie reached out for Duo over Heero's shoulder.

"Hi, baby!" Duo's grin was face splitting as he took Millie from the baby sling. "How's my favourite niece?"

"I'm assuming you're buying something here for Helena," Heero said dryly.

"Not just for Hel, no. I gotta get gifts for this little lady too, you know. What kind of uncle would I be if I forgot a Christmas present for her? And for her first Christmas no less?" He tickled her a little, making her giggle.

"What's Helena into this year?" Heero refused to use the nickname Duo designated--calling a little girl who wasn't even two yet the name of the Norse goddess of the underworld was a bit much, in his opinion, but it also strangely fit at the same time.

"Well, she's been trying to eat my Lego sets, and I was told by Zechs that his son loved to chomp on Megabloks, but no parent who loves their children gets them Megabloks. So I was thinking of getting like, an Easy Bake or something where she can actually eat the things and I don't gotta worry about choking hazards and shit."

As they walked through the crowded store, Duo chattered away about all of the things Helena had gotten into lately ("She's a real artist, you know? Marker all over the walls. Thank Christ I got those Crayola washable ones.") before turning to work related things ("You know Rick, the new guy? He spilled an entire pot of coffee on his computer keyboard as a 'protest' to having to take a working lunch. Une's gonna fire his ass when she's back from vacation."). They made it to the back of the store, where there were more plushie toys than Heero had seen in his life. One that caught Millie's eye, as she wriggled in Duo's arms, was a teddy bear as tall as he was.

"Dada!"

Heero over at his wriggling eleven month old. "Yeah?"

"Teddy bear!"

"That thing is massive," Duo said in awe. "Probably weighs as much as I do."

"You want it?" Heero asked.

"Teddy!"

Duo laughed. "I'd say that's a yes."

Heero approached the display, which touted a placard with facts such as the filling content, what the outside was made of, and how tall and heavy it was.

"It only weighs about forty pounds," Heero said. "I think you have a one in front of the four."

"It's Thalia's cooking."

"Relena, can you put Millie back in the carrier?"

Duo pouted. "What, I can't hold her no more?"

"You're gonna help me carry this thing."

Duo didn't know he would be the only one carrying this stuffed monstrocity.


As Heero and Duo talked more about work matters ("Did Jenson ever pay for the microwave we had to replace after he cooked fish that exploded inside it?"), Thalia and Relena lagged a little behind them so they could catch up a little among themselves.

"So what are you gifting Heero for Christmas this year?"

Relena shrugged. "I have something in the works."

Thalia quirked an eyebrow. "Oh? Is it something juicy?"

Relena grinned sheepishly. "I've been watching some Youtube videos on how wives surprise their husbands for Christmas...with a baby."

Thalia's eyes widened. "You're...?"

Relena nodded.

"How far?"

"About four months. Luckily I haven't really begun to show all that much, so I don't think Heero suspects anything."

Thalia sighed and shook her head before saying in the most obvious of teasing tones, "You and Heero are going at it like rabbits, aren't you."

Relena's cheeks tinged pink. "Actually...we didn't plan this one. I made an error in tracking my cycle, thought I was on a safe week instead and...you know..."

Thalia laughed. "It happens. I don't even bother tracking, it's been so difficult to conceive, Duo and I have kind of...given up on it happening again. 'Lightning doesn't strike the same place twice', he said." She sighed. "We can always adopt, he's very open about wanting that, and I don't mind it at all, but..."

"There are other options if you want biological children," Relena said. "In vitro, artificial incubation, surrogacy..."

"On Duo's salary? We can't afford any of that, it's hundreds of thousands of dollars and no guarantees. Especially when it's a problem on his end, I would pretty much need a sperm donor. And how do you bring that up to your husband?"

"Duo works with a lot of orphans, doesn't he?"

"He's started a not-for-profit with your husband called 'Project Solo' that works with orphans to take them off the streets and make sure they've got all that they need. He was thinking of maybe fostering some of them to see, and then..."

"Maybe he'll surprise you one year for Christmas with a baby," Relena said gently.

"It would certainly be a two-for-one, a gift for me, and a gift for the lucky one he chooses." Thalia cleared her throat to signal a topic change. "So, exactly how are you planning on surprising Heero?"

It was in that moment that Relena realised just how lucky she and Heero were, as she discussed with Thalia all of the possibilities she had in mind for the Big Reveal.


It took Heero six hours, eight cups of coffee, and a granola bar to sort out all of the loot he bought. The ornaments were sorted out by colour in an ornament storage container. The lights were wound around an extension cord winder, because once they got tangled, it was nigh impossible to get them untangled. The garland lay in a heap on the floor as he tried to figure out a way to curl it around the lights.

"What are we doing first?" Relena asked from the doorway to the living room.

"I guess putting on the garland, then the lights?" He was examining the schematics he sketched out on the morning paper. "I think I'll wind the garland around the tree, and then the lights will go in an up and down kind of zig-zag pattern... Maybe." He scratched his head. "Unless I rig up something to pin the lights to the garland." He looked up at Relena. "Did Millie eat?"

"I gave her half a serving of diced potatoes. She mashed most of them on the top of her high chair." She sat down on the floor next to him. "She gets your appetite."

"Unfortunate," he said, making a modification to his design.

"She's hitting all her development stages, so I think it's fine."

Heero scooped up the garland and took it to the tree.

"Zechs said he's stopping by in a few minutes with Mill and Naina. I thought a playdate would be nice, and then maybe my brother can help you with this."

Heero gave her a look. "As if your brother knows how to properly decorate a tree."

"Apparently he used to help our father with it when he was a boy. Peacecraft men always did."

Heero had the garland secured to the tree when the doorbell rang, and Relena jumped up to answer it. He could faintly hear greetings exchanged in the vestibule before the sounds of small feet running in the hallway came closer and closer to his position.

"We're here, Uncle Heero!" Mill poked his very blond head into the living room. "The calgary's arrived!"

"I think you mean 'cavalry'," Zechs said, as he ruffled his son's hair. "Heero."

"Zechs."

Zechs took off his jacket and draped it over the arm of the couch before directing Mill to do the same.

"Are you gonna teach me how to help with the tree?" the five year old asked.

Oh god , Heero thought. I didn't think Relena was serious.

"You can watch from the couch," Zechs said. "Where's your sister?"

Mill flopped onto the couch and kicked his feet in excitement. "She's upstairs with Millie."

Zechs took one look at the floor and said, "It's probably a good thing I came when I did, this would take hours by yourself."

"I had no idea you were even coming." Heero plugged the first strand of lights into the power strip before starting to drape it on the tree branches.

"It was a little last minute--Noin's idea entirely."

Heero smirked. "After two kids and a hair over five years of marriage, you still call her 'Noin'?"

"When with other people, yes."

"We're not at work, Zechs. You can call her 'Luc'."

Stepping over the obstacles on the floor, Zechs approached the tree and gave it a once over.

"A bit on the short side, isn't it?" He was a little taller than the tree at its tallest point.

"It's a six footer."

"We got a seven foot one this year."

Heero chained the second strand to the first. "Do you get intimidated when you're taller than a Christmas tree, Zechs? Or do you need one taller than you to compensate for something?" The cocky little smirk he gave right after that bit caused Zechs to narrow his eyes.

Only Heero knew how to push Zechs' buttons. He called it 'brother-in-law intuition'.

"I see marrying my sister hasn't changed you one bit," Zechs retorted, as he unwound the third set of lights. "Still as cocky and arrogant and as big of a smart ass as always."

"As if you're not as cocky and arrogant yourself."

Zechs scoffed. "That's how I know."

"Dad, what does Uncle Heero mean by you compensating for something?"

Heero laughed as Zechs' face turned bright red.


"For your kids' stockings, do you have their full names on there--you know, Milliardo and Naina--or do you just have their nicknames?"

"Nicknames," Zechs answered. "Mill and Nana."

There Heero was, very meticulously using a tube of green glitter glue and an almost impossibly steady hand to write the names of everyone in his household on the white part of their respective Christmas stockings, right at the foot of the fully decorated and very plush Christmas tree.

"Why?"

"Because I don't know if I bought a stocking wide enough for 'Milliarda' to fit."

Zechs sipped at the wine he helped himself to as Mill scampered around upstairs with his sister and cousin.

"You call her 'Millie' though."

Heero looked up from his handiwork. " Everyone calls her that. She still has to learn to write the whole thing."

"Wait until she's in school for that," Zechs said, dismissing Heero with a wave of his hand. "They go over all of that in preschool. Just be thankful your children won't have a long last name to remember."

"'Merquise' isn't that bad. It could've been 'Peacecraft'."

Zechs scoffed into his wine glass. "Do you know how many people were salty over your daughter not having the Peacecraft name?"

"Relena doesn't use it, and it's not my fault she went the traditional route and took my last name. I left that up to her."

"I think the problem is it makes my sister seem so...ordinary."

Heero gestured to the roaring fireplace, the Christmas tree, the remaining decorations still at his feet on the floor, before stating, "She is ordinary. And she likes it that way."

"Honestly, normalcy suits her best," Zechs agreed. "Watching her be a wife and mother... That's when she shines her best. You bring out her best."

"Be careful, Zechs, you're turning old and sentimental."

"At 25 I certainly feel it."

Truth be told, they probably both were turning old and sentimental, as Heero finished the flourish he put on the 'a' in Relena's name.


"Watch your step."

"How can I watch my step if you have me blindfolded?"

Heero's grip tightened a little on his wife's shoulders, as he guided her down the steps. "Okay, I'll watch your twelve and your six. You've got one stair left and then you've hit floor."

After Relena made it down the stairs without incident, he led her through the foyer into the living room, where he walked behind her and undid the blindfold.

"You ready?"

"Yes."

The moment he removed the blindfold from her eyes, she let out a gasp, eyes widening at the grand scene before her.

The tree was completely decorated with bows, ornaments, garland and tinsel, lights, figurines, even unused coffee cups were hung on the branches with care. On the fireplace mantel were stockings held up by Command hooks, each of their names written in Heero's hand with glitter glue. Lights were strung along the window frames, and knickknacks decorated every usually blank and empty surface. In short, Christmas exploded in the living room, and from that came an organised chaos only Heero could dream up. Taking her hand, he led her outside and onto the pavement so she could admire the lights he had lining the porch roof and supports, along the railings and banisters. The wreath on the front door that looked dusted with snow and glitter, despite being almost too large to fit comfortably in the doorway, seemed 'just right'. On the lawn were Santa and his reindeer, though made of plastic, that were also glowing a soft white.

"Oh, Heero..."

"Is it what you imagined?" Heero asked.

"It's better." She threw her arms around his shoulders and kissed him, not caring that they may or may not be blocking the pavement from people trying to walk their dogs. "Let me get my phone," she said when she parted. "I want to take pictures for Instagram."

"Bring Millie with you," he called after her. "I want her to see too."

Millie was too young to appreciate her father's handiwork, but she thought the tinsel tasted okay, so it was a win in her book.