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a round trip ticket to a blue planet

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When Todd wakes up, it's to some kind of knocking noise – definitely not his alarm. It takes him a solid ten seconds to realize that he's awake, not dreaming, and he struggles to a sitting position. Dirk is standing in his bedroom doorway, fist poised to knock a second time.

"What's going on?" he asks groggily. Dirk is in pajamas and fuzzy socks, and has two blankets wrapped around his shoulders. He's even wearing a black beanie, and it's plastering his bangs down across one side of his face.

Dirk gives him a flat look. "The heat's out," he says. "Didn't you notice?"

Todd blinks. He's shivering and his toes are cold, and he realizes that he can see a faint puff of vapor when he breathes out. "Oh," he says stupidly. "The heat is out."

"It happened a little after midnight," Dirk says. "But I had Mona in bed with me, so I didn't get up until she ran out of battery."

Mona has been turning into a Nintendo Switch for Dirk to play Animal Crossing when he can't sleep. Todd has no idea how she a) saves his game progress when she changes form, or b) runs out of battery, but he's learned that he can't question those kinds of things and get any satisfactory answer.

"Where is she now?" he asks instead, and Dirk gestures to his hat. "Hm," Todd says. Dirk is lingering in the doorway and Todd can't quite figure out what to say next, so he pats the bed next to him. Dirk bounds over, happily tucking himself under the covers, and pulls the two blankets from his shoulders around both of them.

Calling the building manager never really results in quick action, and it's not even eight am on a Sunday – there isn't much chance of the heat coming on any time soon. Farah's apartment is only a few blocks away, in the same building as the office, but she really appreciates having a day off from them every week, and Todd… can't really argue with that. They could go into the office, but then Todd would feel compelled to finish watching all of the security footage from the Harrison warehouse, and Dirk would more likely than not get dragged away by the universe on some lead.

"Hey!" he yelps, startled from his thoughts by the sudden press of cold hands to his back. "Dirk!"

"Sorry," Dirk says, unrepentant. "My hands are cold."

"Now my back is cold! Ugh, why are you such a jerk?" He bats Dirk's hands down and shoves him away (but not too far, as he's the only other source of heat in the room).

"I'm actually very considerate, Todd," Dirk says. "Once Mona recharges, I'd hate to play her with cold hands. I don't know if she can feel it, but I'd hate to give her a chill."

"Can't she just… turn into something warm?" Todd asks, not really expecting an answer, and then he freezes, and he looks at the top of Dirk's head with narrowed eyes. "Mona," he says slowly. "Can you turn into, like… a heater?" The hat turns orange, and Todd drops his gaze to Dirk's face. "What's that mean?"

"I can't even see what she's doing," Dirk says patiently.

"Right. Uh." Todd searches for words, not wanting to ask the wrong question. "Um. Mona, it's pretty, uh, pretty cold in here. I know you don't have enough energy to be battery powered – I think – but if you had a power cord, could you become a space heater? No pressure, of course. If you want to be a hat right now, that's totally, one hundred percent cool. Er, warm. Like, you do you. But if you were in the mood, could you help us out?" The hat turns red, and then yellow, and Todd's eyebrows draw together.

"What's she doing?"

"She's, um, changing colors? I hope that doesn't mean I hurt her feelings."

Dirk opens his mouth to say something, but before he does, the beanie lifts itself off of his head, leaving behind a staticky mess. It drifts across the room to the only open patch of floor by the closet, then hovers for a second and transforms into –

"– a heater!" Dirk exclaims. "Oh Mona, you are so clever!"

"That was literally my idea, Dirk" Todd says, but can't bring himself to argue any more than that. He's not the one capable of transforming into an actual space heater. He slides out of bed, stifling a whine when his bare feet touch the freezing floor, and kneels to plug Mona into the nearest outlet. He shoves aside some clothes and books, making sure she has a little more room, and pats the heater awkwardly before she heats up too much to touch. "Thanks so much, Mona. You're a real lifesaver." The little on light flashes brighter for a second, and Todd grins as he climbs back into the bed.

The heat is off for the next two days, and Mona flickers between a space heater, an electric blanket, and a Great Pyrenees who curls up in the middle of the couch and lets Dirk and Todd both shove their feet under her. She doesn't seem to mind, and Todd makes sure to give her lots of scratches and table scraps when she's a dog, which she accepts with great dignity.

Once the heat comes back on, she becomes a blue ceramic bowl in the cupboard, and stays that way for almost three weeks.

"What are you doing?" Dirk asks, when Todd pulls Mona down and opens a box of cereal. "That's Mona," he reminds Todd.

"I know," Todd says, and shrugs. "I just figured, if she wanted us to leave her alone, she'd turn into something, like, less useful."

"She's not just around to be useful," Dirk says, and his tone is waspish, protective.

"No, I know! I mean, like–" Todd trails off, and puts the box of cereal on the counter, drums his fingers contemplatively. "Sometimes she's a plant, or an old newspaper." That had been funny in retrospect, but was briefly terrifying when she split open the trash bag Todd was taking outside, and tumbled to the floor. "And we have no reason to interact with her then. And she stays that way for as long as she wants. But we only have a few bowls, and she decided to be a bowl, which makes me think that she doesn't mind if I have cereal in her."

"Hm," Dirk says, and takes a long moment to think through Todd's logic. He eventually nods though, and Todd carries forward with pouring the cereal and milk. The bowl fits perfectly in his hand when he tips it up to slurp out the last of the milk, and Todd feels pretty confident that he's right. He eats his cereal out of Mona every morning, and makes sure to never leave her in the sink with other dirty dishes.

The week after Thanksgiving, Mona turns into a person, very briefly. Todd discovers this because she creeps into his room when he's asleep and wakes him up.

"Todd," she whispers, and he opens his eyes to find her face about six inches from his. She's pale in the darkness, and her eyes reflect the streetlight coming in through the window. He makes a sound that might be called a shriek, if anyone else were making it, and she frowns. "Why are you shouting?" she asks, puzzled.

Todd tries to catch his breath and struggles to a seated position, gently pushing at Mona's shoulders to move her back. "I was, uh, really surprised," he tells her, once he's upright. "I didn't expect you to be on my bed when I woke up."

"That's silly," Mona says. "Why wouldn't you expect that?"

Todd takes a long moment to parse that, his brain still coming online, and then he snorts. "You're right," he admits. "I don't know why I wouldn't expect that, in this house."

Mona nods. There's a long silence, and then Todd asks her, "um, did you need anything?"

"Oh! Yes," she says. "That is why I woke you up." There's another beat, and then she says, "thank you."

"You're welcome," Todd says automatically. "Wait. What for?"

"For letting me be useful! I am not a very good detective, but I am a very good cereal bowl."

Todd smiles kindly. "Mona, you are an excellent cereal bowl."

Her smile widens and, without another word, she turns back into a bowl and drops onto the bed. After his instinctive gasp – even knowing Mona, it never stops being surprising – Todd laughs and laughs, and sets her on his night stand to put away the next morning.

On Tuesday, Mona is a big floppy sun hat with flowers tucked into the band. Todd wears her to the grocery store, perched on top of his earmuffs, and gets a laugh and a wave from the cashier.

On Wednesday, she's a coat rack, and Farah, Todd and Dirk carefully hang their coats and bags and scarves on her. "She likes the weight," Dirk explains. "It makes her feel more present." So Todd grabs the extra coats from the storage box under his bed, and covers her up. She stays there for two days, until Todd wakes up to find all of the coats in a pile on the floor. He snorts and shoves them all back into the box.

Farah drags Todd to the art museum over the weekend, and he jumps when he feels the tickle of tiny paws run across his neck. "You'd better stay hidden," he whispers when Mona reaches his shoulder, and loops his scarf a second time to give her a fold to hide in while they walk the galleries. She squeaks approvingly when Todd walks right up to each of the outdoor sculptures and leans in close.

"Mice have bad eyesight," he explains to Farah when she raises her eyebrows at him. "I don't know if she's ever seen sculptures before, and this one is pretty wild." He gestures at what looks like a set of mirrored picture frames hinging around a common point, and bends close enough for Mona to peek at her reflection. She scampers around his neck in excitement, and he stifles a particularly unmanly giggle at the sensation.

Farah snorts affectionately, and when they hit up a coffee shop on the way home, she buys an extra muffin and feeds it to Mona in pinches and crumbs.

Todd is lounging on the sofa, picking idly at his acoustic guitar, when Dirk looks up from his phone and shouts, "Todd!"

There's a discordant jangle from the strings and Todd jumps up, wildly looking around. "What? What?"

"Shouldn't you be lighting candles now?"

Todd frowns at Dirk, wracking his brain for any reason why that might be the case. "No?" he tries.

"But it's after sunset. Aren't you supposed to light some kind of candles? My phone says that it's the first night of Chanukkah," Dirk says, pronouncing it 'cha-NOO-kuh.'

Todd gapes at Dirk while his brain catches up with Dirk's words, and then he drops back down to the couch, cackling wildly. "Oh my god," he gasps, shaking with laughter. "Say it again. Say it just like you said it."

"Was that wrong?"

"Please, just say it again," Todd begs, and Dirk, frowning, obliges.

"Chanukkah," he says, mispronouncing it yet again, and Todd breaks into another fit of laughter. This one lasts until Dirk gets up and walks over to the couch, and kicks Todd's shin as sharply as he can in his bare feet. "Stop it," he says, dropping to the couch next to Todd. "Tell me how to say it right."

Todd takes a few breaths to get himself back under control, and wipes at his streaming eyes. "Holy shit," he says, wheezing out a last few giggles, then manages to calm himself. Mostly. "It's Chanukkah," he explains, carefully sounding out the phlegmy consonant and soft vowels. Dirk repeats after him a few times, and settles on 'almost there' as a measure of quality.

"Any way," Dirk says, once he's finished being cross with Todd. "Doesn't it begin tonight? Shouldn't you be doing something for it?"

"I have no idea," Todd admits, only slightly guilty. "We stopped celebrating Jewish holidays after Amanda's Bat Mitzvah, and I haven't really kept track. My dad's family all died, and he didn't seem to care, so we just did Christmas and stuff with my mom's family."

"That's sad," Mona says, suddenly turning from a homey afghan into a person, still draped over the back of the couch. Her right foot digs into Todd's back, and he shifts to give her more space. "Why did you stop celebrating a holiday? Aren't holidays fun?"

"Usually," Todd agrees. "I mean, some of them aren't fun, but most of them are, yeah. It just... stopped seeming important, I guess. I forgot the prayers, and no one seemed to know them to help me out. I went to the campus Hillel – Jewish student center – a few times after I went to college, but I never really had time after the band took off." And left unspoken was that he never made time for anything except Amanda, after the band ended. "We just did Christmas at home, and..." he trails off, and shrugs. "I didn't do the other stuff."

"You should do it now," Dirk declares, and before Todd can protest, Mona squeals in delight.

"Yes!" she shouts, throwing herself off the back of the couch. Todd and Dirk both jerk towards her in concern, but she pops to standing unharmed, hair a mess. "Please, Todd," she says earnestly.

"Uh, I can't," Todd says, genuinely regretful. "I don't have the right kind of candles. Or like, candle holder. I'm sorry."

"What do they look like?" Dirk asks, and Todd pulls up a picture on his phone.

"It's got to have nine candle holders, and one is higher than the rest, and there need to be different candles each night. You light them in a weird order," he adds thoughtfully. "I can't remember how it works."

Dirk and Mona exchange a look, and before Todd can figure out what's happening, Mona becomes a chanukkiah, each spot filled with a small green candle, and she floats over to the coffee table. Todd's eyes grow wide, and he glances over at Dirk. "Uh," he says, mouth suddenly dry. "I don't think I should, um. Light her on fire?"

"She wouldn't become something that would hurt her," Dirk says confidently, but Todd grimaces.

"I don't think I, um. Can light her on fire?" he says, and reaches a hand out to pat Mona. "I really appreciate you doing this, but I feel, uh. Uncomfortable? At the idea of, like, lighting your candles." She sags a bit, her metal form weirdly malleable, and Todd bites his lip. "I'll pick some candles up tomorrow," he says, suddenly inspired. "We can start a day late. There's a guy downtown who always asks people if they're Jewish. I'll bet he knows where I can get some." Mona perks back up, and the candles vanish to... wherever her extra mass goes when she becomes smaller.

"That's a wonderful idea, Todd," Dirk gushes. "I'm so excited to celebrate your holiday with you. Your – your Chanukkah." He sounds the syllables out carefully, and Todd smiles fondly at him.

"In the meantime," Todd says. "One thing I do remember is celebrating with fried food, so we should order something super greasy, and make ourselves sick."

"Perfect!" Dirk says, conspicuously not reminding Todd that he'd planned to make chicken with salads for dinner. He bounces to the kitchen to dig around in the take-out menu drawer -- Dirk likes talking on the phone enough that they don't bother with the aggregate apps -- and Todd reaches forward to skim a fond finger over Mona's brass branches.

"Thanks," he says softly. "I really am excited to light candles with you tomorrow. Once I, uh -- once I remember how." He makes a mental note to watch some YouTube videos later in the evening, to see if any of it rings a bell.

Mona doesn't move, but she shines in the glow from the lamps.

It's a week before Christmas, and everyone in the agency is feeling some kind of holiday cheer. Farah adds green highlights to her hair, and says "Merry Christmas" very pleasantly to a suspect they're chasing, before knocking him off his feet and kneeling on his back. Dirk comes into the office every day with a different kind of seasonal beverage from every coffee shop in a five block radius. He becomes obsessed with tracking down "the platonic ideal of a peppermint mocha," but hasn't found it by the 21st. Todd begrudgingly wears the red and green flannel that Amanda drops off for him while passing through town, but Dirk catches Todd smiling at himself in the mirror, and he lets Farah and Dirk drape tinsel over his hair on pizza-and-a-movie night (they watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians).

Dirk also starts to decorate the office, with secondary support from Todd and Farah. He drapes greenery over the doors and windows, strings lights around the unused reception desk, hangs ribbons from the ceiling lights, and makes Todd string garlands of popcorn and cranberries to swag every un-adorned surface.

Surprisingly, Farah is the one to initiate the tree hunt. She barges into the apartment while Dirk and Todd are still in their pajamas, and shouts, "up and out! We need to be the first ones at the farm today!"

Todd and Dirk blink sleepily at her, both having barely begun their respective coffee and tea. "Um. Why?" Todd finally ventures.

"I have an exact measurement of the corner that the tree will fit into, in the office. If we're going to find the perfect tree, we can't let anyone else get to it first."

"We've waited until a week before Christmas," Dirk says, in what he hopes will be received as a reasonable tone. "I think we're already behind most folks."

"You'd think so, but the tree farm we're going to opens a new grove every week, and I've been waiting for this one. We're going to get a Scotch Pine." Farah's eyes are gleaming and her teeth are bared, and Dirk and Todd exchange nervous glances.

"Sure thing, Farah," Todd says. "We'll be ready to go in like, half an hour."

"Make it twenty minutes," she instructs, and both men quickly drain their caffeinated beverages. Dirk gathers the mugs to take to the sink and Todd grabs his binder from where he'd flung it over the back of the couch the previous night, and they both retreat to their bedrooms to get dressed.

"Grab the door," Todd grits out, and Dirk passes them on the stairs in such a way that he manages to bump into Farah, the tree, Todd, and then the tree again before he finally makes it to the door at the top of the stairwell. Todd and Farah carry the tree past him, and he grimaces as the scratch of pine needles across his hand.

"Phew!" Dirk declares, once they're all assembled in front of the door to the office. "Five flights of stairs was no fun!"

"Dirk, you didn't do any of the carrying," Todd says, but it's with fondly rolled eyes. "Grab my key, let's get this thing inside."

Dirk fishes the key out of Todd's indicated pocket and unlocks the front door. They all crowd inside – Farah, Dirk, Todd, tree – and round the corner to find –

– a Christmas tree.

"Oh," says Dirk.

"What?" says Farah.

"Mona," says Todd.

She's a perfect green tree, already decked with garlands and lights and a star, and she's an exact fit in the corner that they'd intended the current tree to sit in.

"Welp," says Farah, and she has an expression of grim acceptance plastered on her face. "Guess we didn't need to get a tree."

"Mona is a perfect tree," Dirk says loyally. "Though I admit, it is a bit anti-climactic to have spent half the day fetching this one, only to not need it, Mona is of course welcome to be our tree."

Todd nudges the tree (and Farah) towards a corner, where he carefully props it against the wall, and he walks over to their perfectly decorated friend. "Hey," he says, and perches on the desk nearest to her. "You're a great looking tree, Mona. I love the shape of your branches." She rustles, pleased, and Todd laughs. "I just wanted to check in," he continues. "If you want to be our Christmas tree, that's awesome. You look fantastic, and we're lucky to have you. But if you're just a tree because you heard Dirk complaining that we didn't have one, then you can rest assured that the one we got makes all of us happy, too. You don't have to be a tree, just because we wanted one."

There's a long silence, Farah and Dirk holding their breaths, and then with a soft 'pop!', Mona is a perfect coil of string lights on the floor where her tree stand was.

"That's great too," Todd says encouragingly. "If you want to be lights, that's wonderful! I just want to make sure you're being what you want to be."

There's another long pause, but this time she stays as she is. Todd grins, and picks her up. "That's great," he says again. "I'm so excited that we get to light up our tree with you. Thank you." He sets her carefully on the desk with a fond pat, and steps back to their new tree.

"Wow," Dirk says, a glimmer of – something, Todd isn't sure what – in his eye. "Look at you. Todd Brotzman, shapeshifter-whisperer. Todd Brotzman, tree-transformer. Todd Brotzman, lights-acquirer. Er? Er."

"Nah," Todd says. "Just a friend-talker. Uh. Person who talks to friends? Ugh, no, friend-talker fits the format better."

"Friend-talker," Dirk says teasingly, dodging the elbow that Todd sends towards his side.

"Shut up and lift," Todd says, grabbing the base of the tree, as Farah goes to the closet to grab the plastic stand she'd picked up earlier in the week.

They get it upright with a moderate amount of effort and Todd winds their new string of lights around the branches, murmuring admiring words all the while.

"You're not fancy," Dirk scolds Todd as he walks into the agency party, bags of take-out in each hand. Todd is wearing a green flannel and jeans, and his undershirt is the one that he'd woken up in, Dirk is sure.

"Why should I be fancy?" Todd asks, and then Farah turns the corner. She's wearing a sharp grey blazer with matching trousers, and bright green heels. Todd looks back to Dirk and realizes that his tie has little gold baubles picked out in metallic thread, and that he's painted his nails to match. "Ah," Todd says. "I must have missed that memo."

"It's no matter," Dirk breezes. "It just means that Farah and I will be the stars in all of our selfies tonight."

"I'm beginning to regret letting you handle the agency Instagram," Farah says, but she's smiling. Dirk snaps a few of the forewarned group selfies, and then Farah pulls out the sparkling wine. It's a casual evening, just the three of them, but Dirk has a Christmas playlist going and Todd splurged on take-out from the fancy Italian place between the apartment and the office. They eat and exchange a few small gifts – saving the bigger ones for tomorrow – and then Dirk opens the second bottle of wine, popping the cork magnificently across the room.

"You're not supposed to do it that way, just because it's what they do in the movies" Todd says, and Dirk sneers at him, pouring a remarkably full glass before relinquishing his hold on the bottle. They all grow tipsier as the afternoon progresses, until Farah's kicked her heels off and Todd's accepted a sprig of tinsel wrapped around a bit of greenery tucked behind his right ear.

"We need to dance," Dirk declares, and fumbles his phone out of his pocket, jabs at the volume bar. The music briefly jumps to deafening before Dirk makes a face and hurriedly thumbs it down to a more reasonable level. "Come on, come on! Dance with me," he insists, and drags Farah and Todd by their wrists to the open space next to the table. They set their nearly empty glasses down and sway obligingly to the music, but it doesn't take more than a song or two before they're all bopping and moving with something resembling joyful and wild abandon.

Suddenly, there's a crash from behind the table, and they spin to see Mona, in human form, tangled around the lower branches of the Christmas tree. "Oops," she says, voice emanating from somewhere out of sight. "I did not think this through."

"Mona!" Dirk shouts, and dashes over to try and help sort her out. She's very stuck, and their efforts are unsuccessful for the first few moments. The tree creaks alarmingly; Farah grimaces.

"Hey, hey, wait," Todd says soothingly. "Everyone freeze, it's fine." He kneels next to Dirk and hip-checks him out of the way, and reaches into the thick greenery to put a hand on what he hopes is Mona's shoulder. "Mona, we can probably get you out like this, but it would be easier if you were, like, smaller or something. Can you turn into something smaller, just for a minute?"

"Oh!" she says, and suddenly there's a shiny red ornament in Todd's hand, and the branches spring back into shape.

"Thank you," Todd says. "That was great, this is great." He draws his hand back out of the tree and levers himself to standing. There's a moment where he's not quite sure what to do with the ornament, and then he places it carefully on the table.

"Why did she do that?" Farah wonders. "I thought she liked being the lights."

Todd shrugs. "We were all dancing. I think Mona likes dancing too." Dirk nods confirmation.

"Well, uh – let's keep dancing?" Farah says, and the playlist chooses that moment to click from a house remix of Jingle Bells to an upbeat swing tune. Dirk grins and grabs Todd's hand, tugs him into a quick partner shuffle. Todd hooks Farah's arm after a moment, pulls her in as well, and then they're back into the swing – ha – of things. It takes a few more songs before there's a silent rush of air, and then Mona is standing on the table in human form once more. She's wearing a white dress and matching shoes, and Todd hurries to stand below her, hands upraised in case she loses her balance. She teeters for half a moment, but then she's dancing as well, twirling and raising her arms in the air and swaying her hips.

Todd laughs with delight, not moving from his position as spotter, but claps his hands along with the beat. "Go Mona!" he says, and she squeaks with delight.

"Go me!" she shouts. "Go me!"

After a few seconds to make sure they aren't about to witness a disaster, Dirk and Farah grin and get back to dancing on the floor, and then everyone is moving and smiling and joyful.

Todd looks around him – at the decorated office, at the perfect tree, at his friends – and realizes that he's really, genuinely happy. It's a good feeling.

"Come down here, Mona," he says. "If you want to, I mean. Dance with me?" She crouches immediately and tips off the table, into Todd's arms, and then they're dancing together. She's light on her feet but wild in her movements, and Todd has his toes stepped on more than once.

"Thank you, Todd," Mona says earnestly, in a moment between songs.

"What for, Mona?"

"For letting me be useful and for helping me have fun." Her eyes are wide and unexpectedly serious, and Todd feels a rush of warmth fill his chest.

"Thank you, Mona," he says in response. "For being such a fun and caring friend. I’m really glad you're here."

"I am also glad that I am here," she confides, and he takes the opportunity to pull her into a spin. "Whee!"

They four of them dance until they collapse, and Mona tries a sip from Todd's glass of sparkling wine before deciding she likes it and pouring her own. They're splayed across desks and chairs and the floor, and Mona leans her head against Todd's shoulder. "Dirk?" she says, after a jaw-cracking yawn.

"Yes, Mona?" Dirk replies. He's flushed and giggling, and is nibbling the leftover crumbs from the box of Christmas cookies.

"Can we play more Animal Crossing tonight?"

Todd and Dirk and Farah all exchange fond looks, and Todd's eyes crinkle at the corners.

"Yes, Mona," Dirk says. "We absolutely can."

"Thank you," Mona says, and then her head droops and grows heavier on Todd's shoulder, and she's fast asleep.

"We have a good friend," Farah says.

"We really do," Todd agrees.