“This is nuts,” complained Wheeler, grabbing a bottle of water. “One minute we’re cleaning up after floods and tornados, and the next we’re fighting fires and dying of heat stroke.” He took several grateful gulps before dumping the remainder of the water over his head.
“At least it’s all in the same time zone,” sighed Gi, wiping her face wearily. She glanced towards Kwame, who was shaking hands with the chief firefighter.
“I am glad we were at least able to help,” said Linka, holding the cool bottle of water against her neck. “Even if we did not get much rest in between. Thankfully we did not have to travel far between states.”
Kwame walked towards them, sweat gleaming on his skin. “We should go get some rest. They have asked us to stick around for a few days, to help contain the remaining fires and assist with the cleanup.” He glanced backward towards the charred landscape. “Many people still lost their homes,” he admitted, sadly.
“But we helped save a heap,” smiled Wheeler, clapping a hand to the Earth Planeteer’s shoulder. “And Ma-Ti was able to save loads of wildlife and livestock.” he added, jerking his thumb to where the boy crouched nearby, offering water to a dehydrated koala. Kwame nodded, smiling, the American’s optimism contagious.
“I am looking forward to having a shower, and some rest,” admitted Linka, stretching her stiff limbs. “It will be strange to have Christmas in Australia.”
Wheeler suddenly looked crestfallen. “Oh no. I forgot it’s almost Christmas.” He slumped against the side of the Geocruiser. “It ain’t right for it to be this hot at Christmas.”
“Oh Wheeler, it’s warm on Hope Island too, you know,” Gi chided lightly.
“Yeah, that ain’t right either. But this feels like we’ve stepped into Hell. Hope Island never gets this hot. I’m sweating in places I didn’t know I could sweat.” Gi and Linka grimaced.
“I will go grab Ma-Ti so we can get going. There are a few motels in the nearby town I have been told,” Kwame said after a moment, before striding towards the Heart Planeteer.
“I hope they have air-conditioning,” muttered Wheeler. He heaved himself off the side of the Geocruiser and began loading their stuff into the vehicle.
Linka exhaled a breath and fanned her shirt, to no avail. The heat was dry and roasting, and relentless. The small breeze carried no relief, only more heat and the strong whiff of smoke. She too hoped the motel had air-conditioning. She glanced towards the American as he clambered into the Geocruiser, dropped heavily into a seat and looked miserably out the window. His nose and cheeks were sunburnt and his hair managed to simultaneously be plastered to his head and stick up messily. She suspected her own face was as flushed and burnt.
Linka frowned as Wheeler slid down in his seat and crossed his arms. She had noticed, lately, small moments when the normally jovial Planeteer dropped his pretense and become somber and sullen. The heat made them both irritable (and she was envious of how well Kwame seemed to adapt to sticky humidity one day and the stifling summer the next), and they had bickered more than usual, but there was something sitting beneath the surface, something that was on Wheeler’s mind that Linka couldn’t quite figure out.
“Coming, Linka?” came Gi’s voice, breaking her reverie. Linka gave a small smile and nod and followed her friend onto the Geocruiser. Wheeler’s gaze was still fixed to an invisible point outside his window as she passed him, and Gi swept her up into a conversation about their plans for the following day as she wearily slid into a seat and stretched her long, tired legs.
They’d checked into a plainly decorated but tidy little motel. The days of working to contain the brutal storms and horrendous fires, and the arduous cleanup that followed, were beginning to take their toll on the team. As they shuffled to their rooms Wheeler had made a half-hearted quip about sharing the queen bed, and Linka had quickly retaliated with the suggestion that perhaps he should invite Kwame. Wheeler had simply shrugged with a tired look of feigned hurt, and followed Ma-Ti into their room. Linka saw him plop onto a bed before the door swung shut and Gi opened the door to their own room.
“I dibs first shower!” called the Water Planeteer, already kicking off her shoes and socks. “I promise I won’t be long. I just can’t stand reeking of all this smoke and sweat…” Her voice became muffled as she moved into the adjoining bathroom.
True to her word, Gi had emerged a short time later, wrapped in a towel and looking refreshed. Linka gratefully headed for the bathroom. She watched the soot and dirt wash down the drain, and the smell of the fires lifted from her skin and hair and wafted into the billowing steam. She felt the strains of the day wash away.
After they were dressed they knocked on the boys’ door. Kwame greeted them with a warm smile and let them in. The sun was only beginning to sink, bathing the room in a diffused red-orange glow. The girls sank onto one of the beds, and the African quietly announced that he had received a call alerting them that there were more bushfires spreading across the state. They would rise early and fly west to assist with evacuating the towns and farms, and try to cut off the fires from spreading further. Ma-Ti looked drained, but he was determined to get as many animals to safety in the forthcoming days. The Earth and Water Planeteers shared and discussed ideas for how they might be able to quash the fires, and considered when they might have to rely on Captain Planet’s help if it became too much for them to handle. Linka listened on, offering suggestions every once in a while, but feeling tired and distracted.
Wheeler emerged from the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his waist and his hair tousled. He grinned when he caught Linka staring at his bared chest and scoffed at her insistence that he just happened to walk into her vacant line of sight. He seemed back to his usual self, though Linka noticed his grin hitch as he glimpsed the small wreath on the back of the door and the little Happy Holidays sign adorning it.
He stretched out on his bed, still clothed in just the towel, and clasped his hands behind his head. He listened quietly as Kwame, Ma-Ti and Gi resumed their discussion, before suggesting that he, Linka and Ma-Ti go into the towns to evacuate; with the intensity of the fires the Fire and Wind rings would only make the situation worse, and Ma-Ti would be invaluable for spreading word and maintaining calm.
The conversation turned to idle chatter and Wheeler switched on the TV. Die Hard was playing and his mood brightened. “Now it’s feeling more like Christmas. Yipee ki yay mother-“
“Chyort voz'mi, look at the time! We should go find somewhere to have dinner before it gets any later.”
Wheeler groaned. “I’m not even hungry.” Everyone gaped at him. “It’s too hot to eat,” he explained.
“Da, I am not feeling very hungry either,” Linka agreed. “But we should be eating something, even if it is just something small. You will regret it later if you do not,” she added.
The American sighed. “Yeah, I guess. S’pose I better go change.” He heaved himself off the bed, grabbed some clothes and headed to the bathroom.
“I think I saw a pub down the road,” said Gi.
They had ambled outside – groaning as the heat hit them with full force as they exited the room – and found the pub Gi had spotted earlier. They had hastily ordered before the kitchen closed, and ate in exhausted silence. As their plates were cleared away Kwame had sensibly instructed that they should try to get an early night; the following day would be long and strenuous. They had sauntered back to their motel rooms and collapsed into bed.
The following couple of days passed in a blur. They had managed to evacuate the areas at risk. Ma-Ti had worked tirelessly to ensure all the pets, wildlife and livestock were out of harm’s way. It was only at the gentle insistence from Linka and Wheeler that he take a break, fearing the boy would collapse, that he took his leave and found a quiet spot to meditate and rest. For Gi and Kwame, the fires had threatened to jump their containments. As embers rained down dangerously and the raging heat spread ahead of the front they had decided it was time to summon Captain Planet. Cap had managed to put out most of the fires, though warned that with the continuing hot conditions, and the likelihood of still-smouldering fuel and embers they all needed to be wary and on guard.
It was Christmas Eve as the Planeteers sat around the little table in the boys’ room, sharing a meal, the TV murmuring in the background. Wheeler had only become more subdued and sullen as the days wore on. Linka suddenly made the revelation that Christmas was only a few hours away after catching a glimpse of a news segment on the television, smiling faces of children jittering with excitement flashing across the screen. The Russian sent a smile to the American, expecting him to be excited. The two were the only Planeteers to celebrate Christmas, and ordinarily Wheeler was like an excited child when it came to festivities. Her smile quickly vanished when she saw his morose face.
“What is wrong?”
He simply shrugged his shoulders and pushed food around on his plate.
“Come now, Yankee, you are not still sulking because you are having a summertime Christmas are you?” she chided, a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth.
“Lay off, Linka,” Wheeler replied gruffly. He scooted his chair back and stormed out of the room. Linka watched on horrified.
The others exchanged concerned glances. Linka stood to follow the American, but Kwame laid a hand on her arm. “Give him a moment.”
“I was only joking,” she tried to explain. The others nodded in understanding.
Trying to dispel the tension, Kwame asked, “Linka, will you be calling your brother and grandmother for Christmas? I am sure they will be happy to hear from you.”
She nodded, casting a glance towards the door. “Da. I am looking forward to talking with them. In Russia we celebrate Christmas in January though, so I will call them in a few days’ time. Mishka will probably begin celebrating tomorrow, but our family usually gathers together for the Russian Orthodox celebrations.” She smiled as she fondly recalled her childhood memories, when her father was still alive.
“That sounds lovely, Linka,” said Gi. The Russian smiled sadly, wishing she could have shared her Planeteer adventures with her father.
She cleared her throat and muttered an excuse to leave the table. She was anxious to apologise to Wheeler.
She found him outside, leaning over the railing and staring out at the smoke-hazed horizon. The air was still uncomfortably warm and sweat began to bead on her skin. He cast her a sideways glance and opened his mouth to argue, before closing it again and remaining silent. He let out a sigh instead.
“I am sorry, Wheeler.” She leaned on the railing beside him, clasping her hands together. “I was only meaning to be joking.”
He took a moment to reply. “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry too.” He watched a millipede scuttle across the railing. “Christmas sucks,” he added.
Linka watched him. She saw the muscles in his jaw flex and noticed him wrestle with whatever was on his mind. When he remained silent she said, quietly, “I have mixed feelings about Christmas. It makes me both happy and sad.” Wheeler turned his head to look at her. “When I was a child,” she explained, “it was wonderful. Even though we were poor, we would get so excited for Christmas. My father did not have to work in the mines, and we would enjoy spending time as a family and eating delicious traditional foods, and opening our little gifts.” She smiled at the memory. “After my father passed away it became a reminder of all I had lost. I do not remember much of my mother, but our home began to feel empty, as if some of the happiness died with my parents.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, absently. “Babushka was always so caring and supportive of us, and she did whatever she could to make us happy, and to make Christmas enjoyable. It must have been difficult for her to raise two children and losing her son… I am reminded that soon it will just be Mishka and I left.” Her voice hitched and Wheeler realized with alarm that Linka was crying.
“Come here, babe.” After only a moment of hesitation he pulled her into his arms. “I think your grandmushka is going to be kicking around for a little while yet.”
He felt her arms against his chest, and was a little disappointed when she finally pushed away, wiping her face with a sniffle. She gave him a watery smile.
He leaned his shoulder against the post and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I guess Christmas just reminds me of how shitty my dad always was, I don’t know,” he shrugged. “And being out here,” he waved his hand, “it’s just so hot and it makes me cranky, and I’m sunburnt, and I’ve got like fifty mosquito bites. And even though I know we helped heaps, people still lost their homes.” He sighed and crossed his arms, and stared at the ground in front of his feet. “I can’t even remember a Christmas when my dad wasn’t already drunk by lunchtime,” he added quietly. He frowned, trying to explain why he was in such a funk over Christmas. Linka waited patiently, watching the play of emotions over his face as he tried to elaborate.
It wasn’t that he hated Christmas. It was just that it brought to the surface a lot of issues that he was normally able to bury; sealing them behind a door and pretending they didn’t exist. Being away from anything familiar added to his feeling of isolation, and while he felt guilty for admitting it – especially given what all the locals had faced in the passing days – it sometimes kinda sucked not getting holidays off when you were a Planeteer. It just didn’t feel like Christmas, and seeing people getting so wrapped up in the festivities and sharing time with their families just made it worse. It also reminded him of how very single he was…
He sighed and scrubbed a hand through his hair. “I guess I’m just a Christmas Grinch. I should probably call Ma tomorrow – or whatever time will be Christmas in New York. She’ll probably worry if I don’t.” Wheeler looked at Linka after a moment and nudged her with his foot. “Hey, sorry I’ve been such a grouch.”
“You do not need to apologise, Wheeler. I understand why this time of year would be difficult for you. And da, this heat does feel very unnatural for Christmas.” She studied the globe insignia on his shirt. “But Yankee, do not feel like you are alone. You have us, da?” She lifted her eyes to look up at him. Her face was flushed, and he suddenly wondered how much was sunburn. She took a cautious step towards him and he held his breath.
“Merry Christmas, Yankee,” she whispered, stepping closer and grasping one of his fingers. He closed his hand around hers in response and felt himself leaning toward her. She placed her free hand against his chest. His shirt was slightly damp with sweat, and her hand rose with his steady breathes as he waited for her to close the distance.
She leaned in to kiss him... and then heard the door open and hastily pushed herself away from him as Gi appeared. The Water Planeteer passed her eyes across the pair – not missing the scowl Wheeler was sending her - and with a hint of a smirk, announced that she was heading to bed, and wished them both a happy Christmas.
Wheeler watched with mild amusement as the blonde became flustered. He reached for her hand, and was heartened when she allowed it, and tugged her back towards him.
“You know, unless Kwame is going to sneak in after Gi, then we shouldn’t have any more interruptions.” He raised an eyebrow with a grin. He watched as she chewed her lip and glance towards the door. “If you prefer we can go someplace quieter,” he added. She gave him a look and he shrugged with cheeky innocence.
He studied her face and tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, his expression becoming serious. “Thanks for making me feel better, babe. I guess I’m just in a funk, and needed reminding that I have some of the best family a guy could ask for.” He grinned, and Linka’s heart fluttered at the way his eyes sparkled.
She shrugged and smiled up at him. “Anytime, Yankee.” He wrapped her arms around his waist and she suddenly grimaced. “You are all sweaty!”
“Hey, so are you, but you don’t hear me complainin’,” he replied with a chuckle. He rested his own hands on her hips, and noticed that she hadn’t removed hers from where he had placed them, despite her protestations. He knew he toed a fine line with Linka, and if he overstepped it there was a risk he’d end up with an elbow to the ribs and a bruised ego if he weren’t careful.
He dared to brush his lips against her forehead, and felt her arms tighten around his waist. Feeling encouraged he dipped his head to graze his nose alongside hers. She rose to meet his lips. He hummed pleasantly against her mouth and her body tingled in response. He gently backed her against the railing and felt her hands slide up his back. Her mouth was warm and soft and her tongue teased against his own. A cool breeze suddenly picked up, sweeping over the pair.
She pulled away gently, her eyes fluttering open, and his kissed the end of her nose with a smile. “Merry Christmas, babe. Best Christmas present ever.”