Niko heard the rummaging behind her, paused in decorating the tree, and turned in place on the ladder. "Shane, don't plow through the cookies like that." She had brought a huge bowl, almost a barrel, of handmade cookies: cinnamon stars, sweet vanilla biscuits shaped like tiny boots, half moons covered with sugar and candied orange pieces, or almonds, or chocolate... "Why are you excavating the bowl like that?"
She draped the silver foil garland she was carrying on the upper branches of the pine and descended carefully so as not to step on Possessor. The tiny cat sat at the foot of the ladder, staring at the still swinging garland. His whiskers stood on end, and the tip of his tail twitched. The cat put a daring paw on the first step of the ladder. "Don't you dare!" she laughed, and picked him up.
"I'm just looking for another cinnamon star." Shane kept digging. "Things taste great." He found one almost at the bottom, sniffed at it, and–
Niko put the cat down on a chair and slapped his fingers. The cookie fell back into the bowl. "They're for decoration!" He reached for the bowl again and she countered: "You don't want our tree to look bad because you ate all the decorations beforehand, do you?"
"Shane, please. Do it for me."
"Okay." He raised his hands, defeated.
A tiny grey-and-white furry snout appeared at the rim and sniffed at the bowl.
"Hell!" Niko snatched the cookie bowl away. "Your pet has exactly the same manners as you!" She shook her head, looking from the cat to Goose and back, and began to smile. "You and Poss... you two really match each other."
The ST narrowed his eyes. "You compare me with a cat?!" He looked offended – and then, amazed, he saw Possessor turn away with an equally offended expression and a just-as-clearly audible sniff of disgust as he jumped down and disappeared under the table.
"See?" Niko snickered.
Goose began to grin. "Forget it. – May I have another cookie if I find replacements for them as decoration?"
"No throwing stars this year!" she warned him.
"I can paint some hand grenades for you if you like," he teased her.
"I'm sure there are enough cookies left if you and Poss stop eating now," Niko assured him hastily, then looked around. "Where's Poss? – Did you see where he went, Zach?"
The captain was sitting at the main table, trying to wrap last-minute presents for his children, who would join them later in the day. Zach looked up and frowned. "No, I haven't seen him. But if I know that cat, you'd better find him soon before he can cause too much trouble." He returned to the brightly colored parcels that he wanted to decorate with golden ribbons. Again, the soft material slipped out of the knot he'd made. This is more difficult every year... He had to start again. Someone should invent 'instant ribbons' – put them on the boxes, add liquid, and it's done. He smiled silently at the weird idea and threw a glance over at his team. They're beginning to infect me.
Doc lay on the old sofa at the back wall of their office, sound asleep. None of them was angry about that, and none of them dared to wake him, either: he had spent almost all night the night before programming GV and ALMA to sing "Jingle Bells" in canon, and all of them were afraid he might do the same to "Silent Night," too. "Better not to risk it," was the unanimous opinion.
Niko was already searching under the desks. "He's not here, Shane..."
"POSS! OUTTA THERE!"
Niko came up just in time to see the ST leaping to catch the toppling tree as Possessor, wrapped in something silver, jumped, spitting, off the tree, crossed the whole room, and bumped against the door, which slid open immediately.
"What's up?" Doc on the couch blinked sleepily.
The cat was gone like a grey-and-silver streak of lightening.
Goose failed to catch the tree and it fell across the sofa. "HEY!" Doc yelled, fully awake now. "Doesn't someone have to shout 'timber' when a tree falls?" The hacker struggled to free himself, but the large pine pinned him to the sofa.
"Poss–" Goose turned to follow his cat.
Niko grabbed his arm. "First we have to free Doc," she said determinedly.
"Yes!" The voice out of the fallen Christmas tree sounded indignant. "You have to free Doc first. Since it was your cat that buried me!"
"Don't worry about Poss," Niko assured Goose. "Everyone in the mountain knows your cat. Nothing will happen to him."
"The cat has no problem, Goose," Doc specified. "I have problems..." The tree on the sofa shivered but didn't move.
"Don't be so whiny, Doc." Shane heaved the devastated Christmas tree off an almost as devastated Doc Hartford. "The one that buried me last year was much bigger." Goose looked around for a place where he could lean the tree against the wall, found none, and dropped it with a shrug onto the carpet.
"But you have to consider that I lack biodefenses to deal with it like you, my Goose man." Doc gathered himself up from the sofa.
"Oh sure!" the ST snorted. "And just because I don't spend three days in MedoStat afterwards, I'm supposed to enjoy it, eh?"
"Of course, my Goose–" Hartford began, grinning.
Zachary cleared his throat loudly to interrupt the dispute in the offing. "At least this year nobody's here to witness this–" The captain decided against choosing a description for the situation.
The door behind him slid aside and Cmdr. Walsh threw a curious look across the room.
"Welcome to our Christmas Chaos," Niko said dryly and swept the room with a short gesture.
"How did you know that we were partying, sir?" Doc asked, scrambling out of the remnants of the Christmas tree on the sofa. "We didn't announce it this time." Hartford managed to look almost innocent in spite of the dozens of pine needles and bits of tinsel in his hair and on his uniform.
Walsh entered the room, pulling a long, silver foil garland after him. Something seemed to pull furiously at the other end. "Well," the commander drawled as he pulled the garland close. "I had a slight hint in that direction."
Possessor slid, hissing, through the door, his extended claws scraping across the floor, his ears flattened, and his teeth sunk deeply into the garland.
Niko stared at the cat still pulling furiously at the garland, shrugged, and offered the bowl to the commander. "Some cookies, sir?"
"Do you have cinnamon stars?"
Niko put her hand to her temple and groaned. "Oh no, another one!"
Doc snickered helplessly. More tinsel rained down from him onto the carpet.
"Goose ate them all, sir," Zachary explained.
The ST had successfully freed the garland from his cat and was now stroking Possessor's throat. "There's at least one still left."
Walsh searched and found it. "I really like your unit's Christmas parties, Fox. Things are always happening here."