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Dorian smiled around the room with a deep sense of satisfaction. Small, white lights ringed the ceiling and windows - no easy task that, enough stockings to supply a small army hung above the fireplace in *several* rows, and under the towering, ornament bedecked tree, presents poured forth as if from a fountain. All around the room his gang of pretty boys stood, sat, or lounged, cups of rum and cider in hand, chatting like a flock of starlings and enjoying the warmth from the fire. It was, all in all, the perfect Christmas set up, complete with tasteful, instrumental renditions of all the traditional carols playing in the background.

//I love Christmas.// The blond Earl decided for the three hundredth time (He reached this conclusion at *least* once a year, often four or five times, normally after deciding that he *hated* Christmas as he dashed around looking for presents). //The castle looks spectacular, I *really* managed to out do myself with the gifts this year, for the most part, and everyone's completely happy...//

"Don't drink so much of that cider! It's expensive you know!" The high, firm voice cut easily through the gentle murmur of conversation, striking a remarkable discord with the music. "Why don't you have some water, it's a lot cheaper!"

//...Except, of course, for James.// Dorian sighed silently, lifting one hand to rub gently at his temples. His accountant had been at it all day - first complaining that they were going to use the fine china for dinner ("What if someone drops a piece?"), then protesting when Dorian turned all the lights on about three in the afternoon ("You're wasting electricity! We shouldn't turn them on until *right* before we open presents!"), and finally driving even Bonham to distraction at the lighting of the fire ("Don't use so much wood! That's money!"). After being bodily thrown into the kitchen so the cooks could put him to work he had remained quiet - at least to the knowledge of the *rest* of the household - for several hours, but apparently the cooks had finally kicked him out. As Dorian watched a wave of exasperated grumbles and rolled eyes run through the rest of the ballroom. //He's going to ruin *everyone's* mood!// Since that simply wouldn't do, Dorian fixed his most winning smile on his face and paced over to where James stood by the snack table, eyeing everything critically.

"Why do we need so many kind of cake?" The little accountant groused, frowning at the three cheese cakes, two pound cakes, one black forest cake, one cake shaped like a Christmas tree, and (worst of all!) one German chocolate cake spread out over the table, all missing judicious slices. "What was wrong with the lovely fruit cake I got? Why couldn't we just use it?"

//Because it was older than Methuselah and would probably have given us food poisoning?// Dorian had to bite the inside of his cheek, literally, to keep from voicing that sentiment. Instead he just smiled all the brighter, reaching out to lightly lay a hand on the accountant's shoulder. "Jamesie?" He purred, voice full of slightly strained cheer. "We're going to start opening presents soon. Didn't you say earlier that you had one you were leaving in your room?"

"Oh!" James brightened instantly, smiling up at Dorian, blue eyes sparkling as much as all the lights in the room. "That's right, your present! I really think you're going to like it this year. I'll go get it!" Cakes forgotten, he turned and vanished through the door and up the stairs at a truly impressive speed.

A sigh of relief went through the room at his departure, along with a few snickers. "Hope he takes his time fetching it, eh?" A random voice asked of no one in particular.

"Right, more peace and quiet for us!"

"Should we start opening presents now, M'Lord?" Bonham asked with a discreet wink.

"Now, now, everyone be nice." Dorian chided gently, a smile playing on his lips nonetheless. "We'll wait for Jamesie to come back...then start opening presents *quickly* before he finds anything else to fuss over." He followed the sentence with a conspiratorial wink, which was answered by a round of laughter.

James was actually missing for quite some time, much longer than it should have taken for him to run up to his room, grab a gift and return. Dorian was starting to grow impatient, indeed *seriously* thinking about starting without the man!, by the time James re-appeared, ringing his hands in a frantic manner.

"There you are!" The Earl exclaimed, torn between a smile of welcome and a glare for holding up the proceedings so badly. "What took you?"

"It's missing!" James half wailed, eyes threatening tears. "I looked all over my room and it's not there! I can't think of where it could have gotten to, I looked positively *everywhere*!"

"Finally got something old enough it sprouted legs and walked away, did you?" Someone snickered.

"Maybe someone accidentally tossed it out with the trash!" Another voice suggested. "Had it started to smell?"

Jones snorted and shook his head. "Really, it couldn't have been thrown out! Everyone knows not to toss anything wrapped in old newspaper this close to Christmas!"

"It's not like that at all!" James stamped one foot, growing obviously angry. "You're all mean! Just because I'm thrifty doesn't mean..."

"Oh calm down Jamesie," Dorian cut in, smiling, attempting to soothe the accountant, "I'm certain my present will turn up eventually. Besides, whatever type of old cake you've gotten me is as likely to make me sick in a few hours as it is now, so it shouldn't matter too much."

The blond earl regretted those words instantly as James's blue eyes misted up again, narrowing at the same time, his mouth drawing down in a severe bow that meant he was undoubtedly going to get very *loud* shortly. Amazingly enough, his first words were quite soft, a barely audible hiss. "I hate you." The little accountant's eyes scanned the entire room as he took a few, slow paces backwards, volume building as he went. "All of you! I wish I hadn't gotten any of you anything at all! *Especially* you!" Tears were starting to course down his cheeks as he turned that burning glare on Dorian. "I hate you more than anyone! You're mean and you don't *care* about me in the least and if I *do* find your present, I'm keeping it for myself and never letting you see it!" Shrieking the last words like a curse, despite the fact his crying rather ruined the effect, he turned and ran from the room, slamming the door behind him.

Dorian sighed heavily, running his fingers absently through his wealth of curls. "Well, that was unpleasant."

"Ah, ignore him M'Lord." Sean, one of the few redheads in Dorian's band, drawled. "After all, if he gives hi'self a case of food poisoning, who else k'n he blame? Certainly not your fault."

"Here, here." Bonham agreed, Jones nodding behind him. "Let's just get on with the present opening." A general chorus of agreement went up around the room.

Not willing to sacrifice the general air of good cheer for the sake of one man, Dorian nodded. "We'll just set James's gifts off to one side and I'll take them up to him later. For now, let's enjoy ourselves! It's gift time!"

In the loud cheering and the excited shredding of paper that followed as all of the men mobbed the tree like small children, James was quickly forgotten.

"Bonham, they're wonderful!" Dorian all but cooed as he lifted one delicate ruby earring out of its box. Its mate lay sparkling against a bed of Christmas tissue paper. The first time he'd seen them had been at an obligatory party the month before, set against the ears of an up-and-coming diva. He'd had *exactly* enough time to point them out to Bonham before their owner had latched onto his arm in a most unpleasant manner - bust first. "However did you manage to get them away from that horrid woman?"

"Very carefully, M'Lord," the other thief chuckled, "Very carefully. I was afraid she'd miss them before the end of the evening, or else that you would! Don't worry, I had them sanitized."

"They're perfect, thank you." Setting the earring back in his box, he carefully set them atop the small mountain of presents surrounding him.

"Hey Bonham!" Jones called, pulling himself out from under the tree. He'd been appointed to play Santa Claus after the main rush. "Here's your present from Scrooge!" A package wrapped in newspaper went flying through the air, landing neatly in Bonham's lap. Suddenly half the gang was peering curiously over his shoulder.

With exaggerated care, Bonham separated the tape from the paper, pulling out a box that had originally come from a department store and was probably on its tenth Christmas. Inside, nestled on torn, taped tissue paper, was a sweater. Bonham pulled it out, confusion written across his face. "It's...my favorite sweater."

"He gave you something you already had?" A random voice scoffed. "Now *that's* beyond cheap."

"Hey, wait a minute." Ash, one of Dorian's newest employees, frowned at the sweater. "Didn't you say that had gotten a hole in the back a few missions ago?"

"Yeah." Bonham nodded. "Caught it on a fence-post. Why?"

Ash pointed. "It's gone, take a look."

Blinking, Bonham turned the sweater around. Sure enough, the rather gaping hole that had been in the back was nowhere to be seen, the place it had been visible only because the wool was a slightly different shade. "Blimey! He must have got it mended! That must have cost a pretty penny..."

"Presuming he didn't do it himself." Sean offered, looking up from his own present from James. They'd all been surprised when the little, news print wrapped package had turned out to be a penny whistle, only slightly battered. Given that James made no attempt to hide the fact he *despised* Sean more than just about anyone else in the gang (this was probably due to the fact that Sean picked on him more and had a true Irish temper), there had been bets going on whether he'd give the redhead a dead rat or moldy cake. The penny whistle - something Sean had actually *asked* for - caused no little bit of consternation. In fact, if any of them had stopped to contemplate it - which they didn't - they'd have realized that the resident miser was being...quite generous that year.

"Naw," Jones laughed, reaching under the tree again without looking, "James doesn't darn things, he patches them. If *he'd* done it, it would look like a rag bi...OW!" With a yelp of pain, the man yanked his hand back out from under the tree. "What the devil...?" After sucking briefly on the back of his hand to relieve the pain, he pulled it away, frowning in confusion.

"What's wrong Jones?" Dorian moved over to hover next to his fellow thief, peering at his hand worriedly.

"Something scratched me!" Was the hissed response as Jones held out his hand for examination. Sure enough, there were three, fairly shallow scores across the back of his hand, not quite oozing blood, but threatening too.

"Maybe one of the balls broke?" Bonham hazarded, poking at the wound and getting smacked by Jones for the action.

"No..." Ash frowned, getting down on his hands and knees to peer under the tree. "If that happened the shards would be on the ground, not hanging above. It might have been some loose twigs though..."

"Bloody sharp twigs!" Jones grumbled, shaking his hand as if he could shake the last of the pain out.

"They can be." Ash nodded absently, still peering under the tree. Suddenly he froze, an odd sort of smile crawling across his face. "Hello there...what have we here? Hey, someone pass me a fire poker, will you?"

Someone handed over the fire poker and the rest of the room watched curiously as Ash tied a bit of ribbon around the blunt end and started waving it back and forth just at the edge of the tree. Dorian frowned slightly, wondering if the boy had had just a bit too much to drink. From the whispers of "what's he up to" and "has he gone daft?" floating around, he wasn't the only one confused by this behavior. Ash didn't seem at all perturbed, however. He simply continued waving the little bit of ribbon back and forth, now dropping it down to skid along the floor, now raising it up so that it was on level with some of the lower branches.

After several minutes - enough time for people to start growing bored - Dorian cleared his throat. "Ash, my *dear* boy, whatever are you...oh!"

It was at that moment that a small, black, white socked *paw* darted out from under the tree to bat wildly at the ribbon. Ash grinned, sitting back on his heels, conveniently moving the ribbon back from the tree in the process. The paw vanished for a few seconds but, enticed by the never faltering *swish, swish* of the ribbon, quickly reappeared. However, it soon proved to be attached to a rather short little leg, incapable of reaching the full distance between the tree and the ribbon. Slowly, a little black nose with a white patch just beneath it appeared from under the tree, followed by a short face, two bright green eyes, and a pair of perked black ears.

"Oh he's adorable!" Dorian purred, sitting down next to Ash and watching the little black and white kitten slowly emerge all the way from under the tree. It proved to be a very rotund thing, with stubby little legs and an equally stubby little tail that looked like it had been shut in a door at some point. Rolling over to bat at the ribbon from its back, it looked like a beached killer whale. "He? She?"

"I bet it says on that tag there." Bonham pointed to a little piece of paper hanging from the red ribbon carefully tied around the kitten's neck. "Wonder if we could pick 'im up without getting our hands shredded...?"

"Sure thing, gimee a second." Ash grinned, gingerly reaching toward the little ball of fur sprawled out in front of him. It took a bit more than a second, and the man nearly got his hand swiped twice ("Ah, ah! I'm not a toy!") but he finally managed to scoop the kitten up and free the card with a quick tug. "Un, he's a heavy little thing!"

"He's precious." Dorian repeated, as if that made up for every fault in the world. Lightly, he scratched behind the kitten's ears, receiving a purr as a reward. "Now then, let's see who you belong to, shall we?"

The room held its collective breath as Dorian flipped open the card. Slowly, the smile on his face faded, settling into an almost depressed line - an expression rarely seen on the blond Earl's face and *never* on Christmas!

"I...Is something wrong, M'Lord?" Bonham frowned, absently reaching out to scratch the purring kitten between its shoulder blades.

Instead of responding, Dorian cleared his throat and read the card in his hand out loud.

Dear Lord Gloria,

I know, kittens cost money to take care of, but the girl in front of the bank said she'd found him abandoned and her parents wouldn't let her keep him so she'd give him free to a good home, and he was so cute I couldn't resist. Besides I know you like cats and I wanted to get you something really *nice* this year, not more old cake. The girl said his name's Maddy. I hope you like him.

Love, James

"Oof." Ash winced.

"Ouch." Jones added in agreement.

"Well, don't we all feel like a bunch o' creeps?" Sean eyed the card with a grimace, then looked down at his new, used penny whistle.

Dorian sighed, but otherwise remained silent for several minutes. He didn't even say anything when he reached out and retrieved the kitten from Ash's arms.

Resolutely, he stood and headed toward the door to the ballroom. "Keep the party going," he finally ordered, on the threshold, "I'll be back. There's something I have to do."

And with that, he was gone, leaving his men to slowly try and work themselves back into some semblance of Christmas cheer. It didn't work very well.

By the time Dorian reached the attic stairs, the kitten was squirming quite insistently in his arms. He tried to quiet the little creature and when that didn't work, settled for tightening his grip on its makeshift collar, hoping it wouldn't claw the red, green and gold velvet of his vest too terribly.

//It's not fair.// Dorian sighed, tightening his grip on the kitten with his left hand so that he could knock on the attic door with his right. //It's Christmas. I shouldn't feel like this much of a...a...a bloody *git* on Christmas!// The situation wasn't helped much by the very audible, yet clearly muffled, sobs coming from the other side of the door.

The sobs broke long enough for a strangled "Go away!" to seep through the door.

"Jamesie?" Dorian asked hesitantly, wincing as the kitten's claws found purchase on his shoulder. "Jamesie, it's me. May I come in?"

"No!" Came the response, more anguished than angry, although there was still a good dose of heat to it. "No, I hate you and I *never* want to see you again so just go *away*!"

Wincing again, this time at the harsh words being thrown at him, Dorian considered his options. He could retreat for now and return when the other man was, hopefully, in a more forgiving mood, *or* he could barge in uninvited and apologize right then, despite the abuse being hurled at him. There was a strong temptation to go with the first plan, since James could be patently *nasty* when upset. //But the longer I let this go, the more time he'll have to stew and the harder it will be to make it up to him.//

Mind made up, he carefully eased the door open, silently promising the kitten he'd be put down soon if he'd just stop clawing! Once through, he let the door fall shut, then stood a moment letting his eyes adjust to the dim light coming in through the window. He really wasn't surprised that the lights were out - even distraught, James would never waste electricity by leaving the lights when not *absolutely* necessary - it cost too much.

Even before his eyes had fully adjusted, it wasn't hard to make out James's form, curled forlornly on the little cot in one corner of the room. If he listened carefully, Dorian could even make out the choked mantra of "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you" over the sound of his boots as he moved carefully toward the bed.

"You don't really hate me Jamesie." The blond smiled, albeit a little sadly, into the darkness.

"Yes I do!" James denied, sniffing, although the denial lacked strength.

"No you don't." Dorian repeated, stopping at the edge of the bed and gently trying to de-tangle the kitten's claws from his clothes and skin. "I know you don't."

"How do you know?"

"Simple." Dorian's smile grew a little and he gently dropped the squirming bundle of black and white fur in his arms onto the bed, trying not to hit James in the process. "If you hated me, I'd have gotten moldy bread for Christmas, instead of this adorable little thing." There was no answer, outside of a soft little mew from Maddy. Gingerly, Dorian perched on the edge of the cot, reaching out one hand to James's shoulder. "I'm sorry about earlier. I shouldn't have said what I did, and I shouldn't have let the others say that sort of thing either, but you've been driving us all to distraction dear heart! And you *always* get people old cake, so why should we have expected any different this year?"

James pulled away a little, but not very far or with much force. "You always get me the same thing, don't you? A new Casio-mini and some half-rotten fruit. I never complain though, do I? No, I say thank you very much and set about enjoying them." The little man curled in on himself some more. "And I always feel so *bad* getting you the same thing every year! Especially since you never like it and I can *tell* you don't like it, but I can never think of anything else that's *cheap* and oh you *know* I can't bear to spend money! But this year...this year..." He'd started crying in earnest again, barely coherent at all. "This year I wanted to get you something specially, something you'd actually *like*...I even bought a litter box and litter and a bag of cheap cat food!"

"He's wonderful, Jamesie." Dorian soothed, pulling the accountant up into his lap, resting the other man's curly brown head on his kitten-clawed shoulder. "The best present I got from anyone this year, thank you. It was very noble of you to take him in like that too, poor thing! No creature should be without a home for Christmas."

After a brief pause where Dorian's words gave out, James lifted his head slightly. "You really like him?"

"He's *precious,* Darling." Dorian assured, feeling the kitten in question trying to crawl into his lap, obviously confounded by James's presence there. "I'll tell you what, I need to go downstairs and let everyone else know that everything's all right. While I'm down there, I'll get a little milk in a saucer, and your presents, and I'll bring them up here and we can open them together by candle light. Hell, if you still have some of that ages old fruit cake you bought, we can eat some of it too, how does that sound?" Dorian curled his fingers at the nape of James's neck, kissing the top of the little accountant's head and *trying* not to think about what he was promising too hard.

"Really?" The timid hope in James's voice brought whole knew levels to the meaning of 'pathetic'. "Will...will you stay the night?"

"Up here?" Dorian nearly swallowed his tongue at the very thought. Despite the fact that the chimney ran through the middle of the room, and the heat from the rest of the house rose, it was nearly as cold inside the little attic windows as it was outside. //We'd both be snowmen by morning!// Trying frantically to find a way to deny the request without re-hurting James's feelings, he stalled. "I don't know Jamesie...this cot's *awfully* small, I don't think we'd both fit." He could feel the other man's fingers tightening on the front of his vest and was about to start panicking when inspiration saved his ass. "I know, why don't we sleep in my room tonight? It's got a bigger bed, not to mention being warmer."

"All right!" Abandoning the grip on Dorian's vest, James threw his arms around the blond's middle, squeezing tightly. They sat there for a couple of minutes, Dorian petting James's hair, before the little accountant pulled back. "And you're right, I don't hate you. I love you, Lord Gloria."

"I love you too, Jamesie." Dorian smiled fondly, ruffling the other man's hair. "Merry Christmas."

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