Turkish Delight: Pas de Trois
disclaimer & author's general waffling: square owns the world; none of these guys are mine (though i often wish). yaoi implications, of course, though nothing explicit. if you're wondering why they are where they are, or why certain people are alive who are commonly presumed dead, read the rest of our story arc. this little (ha!) number is a holiday fic, in two acts. (*bows to UC* or, why i still believe in "christmas fic": think of it as solstice, or yule, or new year, or some other winter festival. i just needed a holiday to bring them together at the end of the year.) further notes at the end of the fic, for those hardy souls who make it that far. ^_#
(for my long-suffering angel, without whom this would still be a dream)
warm in a circle of friends
how have you all been?
we'd never die
just go through hell
and regroup again
so button it down
so the wind won't blow it all away
and pass it around
like champagne on a holiday
She woke up to snow.
Rolling over to look out the broad-ledged window by the bed, Elena could feel the wash of light over her face before she could see it-- that sort of suffused brightness of a cold morning through layers and layers of clouds.
And was there ever snow! Snow, falling in great gusting silver-white handfuls, and already the gables of the floor beneath were lost under a generous covering of white.
Shivering, she drew the blankets to her chin, belatedly realizing that she was alone. No wonder they still bunked in pairs, even after the threat of rampant ghosties had been lifted. Noticeably warmer with two. Idly she wondered if she were the last one still sleeping, if the rest of the Turks had already risen for the Eve preparations. The old ShinRa mansion always seemed to her to be murmuring, half-heard echoes and expectations-- sometimes gloomy in the rain, sometimes wistful under a mountain-clear sky. Today, ah, today it seemed eager, whispering of yuletide promises and the soft bustle of friends preparing good cheer.
With three coverlets and a quilt hiked up to her ears, sitting in bed watching the holiday snow coming down, Elena felt like a much younger girl.
Nothing to keep her asleep, certainly. She kicked off the sheets and clambered out of the oversized bed. The room wasn't as chill as it could have been; there were the remains of a fire still smoldering in the fireplace, and her bathrobe was carefully hung up on the grating beside it. Grateful for that, indeed, she shimmied into the toasty-warm robe and made a mental note to thank her roommate.
And if she was the last one up, she'd have the bathroom to herself--
Padding down the drafty wide corridor to the second floor's only functional bathroom, she could hear the strains of an old-fashioned carol, over the din of rushing showerwater.
--No such luck.
Worse, there was a line.
"Mornin', 'Lena," Reno drawled, leaning on the doorjamb in only his boxers and a pair of well-loved socks, toothbrush stuck behind his ear, hair a mess. Nothing out of the ordinary.
She inclined her head at the door. "Rufus?"
"Mmhm," he nodded affirmative. As if either of them could have mistaken the pleasant tenor of his voice, or the slightly off-color version of the song he chose to regale them with. "Been in there a good half hour, too. I'm just here to bang on the door every now and then, y'see."
"Hogging the shower," she sighed.
"Using up all the hot water," they said at the same time. It was like a ritual. Normally, at that point, she would have insisted that Reno must have been cold, standing in the wide-open hallway like that, and he would respond with a waggle of his red eyebrows: he didn't feel the cold, and shouldn't she know that by now?
But today Elena smiled-- maybe it was the snow, or the fire-heat still lingering in the fluffy folds of her bathrobe. "Where's everybody else?"
Reno scratched his head, studied the pattern of waterstains on the ceiling. "Rude got out of bed fuckin' early, I dunno. I think he 'n' Reeve have gone to meet up with some of his pals, y'know, AVALANCHE? They'd better be back in time for the party, though-- I think they're bringing the food."
Blessedly, this morning it didn't ache quite so much, so she asked with an easy heart, "And Tseng?"
Reno smirked. "Your darling Tseng?" Of course he knew; Reno had teased her mercilessly about it from the beginning. Date a guy once and he suddenly claims rights to your personal life-- gleeful to supply any mortifying tidbits of information about Tseng. But on the other hand, date a guy once and it no longer seems quite so strange to stand around in your bathrobe with him, discussing current events. She raised an eyebrow patiently, and Reno, lounging casually against the wall, jabbed one finger at the bathroom door.
"Tseng-- He's-- but he's not--" To her humiliation, she felt herself blushing.
"What, he's too quiet to be in there? You think Tseng would actually sing? Listen, rookie, I've known 'im longer than you have. Not even today could make--"
Baritone laughter, utterly impeccable timing. And something like the harmony to the raunchy carol Rufus had started four rounds ago.
Elena giggled into her hands, and even Reno had to chuckle. "Okay, so I'm wrong. Just this once!" he amended, parrying her accusatory fist. "The cat ran Tseng out of their room, I'm sure--"
"Hush!" she said, reflexively putting a hand over his mouth. She had to stand on tiptoe to do it. "It's got to be a surprise! If Reeve heard you--"
Reno looked exaggeratedly around him, speaking against her palm. "Reeve isn't EVEN HERE," he said, too loud. "How's he gonna--"
"How's he gonna what?" Reeve asked, maneuvering backwards down the corridor, he and Rude on either end of something-- large and clunky. They were both still in their coats and gloves and scarves, and Elena could feel the cold air sluicing off of them, the sticky snow tracked on the floor. He swiveled his head towards them, face bright with the cold, dark eyes narrowed in friendly suspicion.
"Reeve!" Elena said, moving too quickly to back away from Reno, but he'd snaked an arm around her waist, without even the grace to look guilty.
"Don' mind us," he said, smiling, impervious to her squirming. "Just the spirit of the season, y'know?"
Reeve rolled his eyes. Rude, unreadable behind his dark glasses on the best of days, was utterly inscrutable in a long scarf and cap that muffled his features. As they passed, he said flatly, "Hang the mistletoe first, Reno. Might get you further."
"Love you too, Rude," Reno batted his eyelashes before flipping his best friend the finger.
That momentary action gave Elena her chance to escape, which she did, wrestling free and not without giving him a nice knee in the gut. "What was that for?" she hmphed, straightening her bathrobe.
He coughed a little, not giving her the satisfaction of a yelp. "Geez, 'Lena, cut a guy some slack, okay?"
Not till her turn in the bathroom, enjoying the sweet silence of her own shower-- with what slim trickle of hot water was left-- did Elena think to wonder about what Reeve and Rude had been transporting down the hallway. Nor did she think too much of it then, too busy trying to wash her hair before she froze, too residually embarrassed by Reno's unexpected embrace. Jenova, they'd already dumped each other a dozen times, how many hints was it going to take? Men.
Maybe Reeve slipped in the slush, carrying a bag of food that was too heavy and losing his balance, landing him against an unsuspecting Rufus. Maybe Rude jarred a treebranch, closing the door to the helicopter, shaking loose its snowy burden onto an unprepared Reno. Whatever the reason, the four of them suddenly found the party fare forgotten on the kitchen path, and themselves grappling hand-to-hand with more ferocity and determination than any time in recent memory.
"Snowball fight!" Reno declared, already drenched with the stuff, scarf dripping off his neck and earmuffs askew.
"Must you always," Rude said conversationally, dodging a well-thrown missile from Rufus, "state the obvious?"
"Yeah, Reno," Rufus teased, fresh-faced in the wintry air, blond hair like fallen sunshine against the whiteness of the Nibelheim landscape. "Say something we don't expect, for a change."
Reno made a face, scooping up an unnecessarily large handful of ammunition. "Come a little closer and say that, punk."
"That's Punk-sama to you," Reeve could hardly speak for laughing, mittened hands on his knees. "Show your superiors some respect!"
"Oh Reeve, I didn't know you cared," Rufus crooned, his snowball finding an opening to hit a blushing Reeve right in the knees. The former Secretary of Urban Development lost his balance and fell in the snow, still laughing.
Somebody cleared a throat, and the four of them froze, mid-combat. Surreptitiously, Reno tried to toss aside the giant snowball in his hands.
Elena, standing on the kitchen porch, hands on hips, scowled down at them. "Hiding the evidence, Reno?" She looked with despair at all the bags of food peeking out from the scattered snow. "You're behaving like children," she admonished. "We'll never get it done at this rate. Who started this?"
"He did," they said, to a man, each pointing at someone else.
Elena sighed, casting her eyes melodramatically to the heavens. "When Tseng finds you--"
*piff!* Reno's discarded snowball found its target. Right into her hair, too, sending little snowy rivulets down into her scarf.
Reno tried not to snicker into his gloves. "Not sure I'd've done that," he murmured, appreciative. "Nice shot, Mr. Secretary, sir."
Reeve, a little breathless, nodded satisfaction. "Thanks."
"Ooooh, you--" Elena descended the porchstairs in a blur of blond fury, but Rufus was ready for her, catching her by the coat so Reno and Rude could flank her, either side, with a volley of well-placed snow.
"Comrades in arms unite!" Reno crowed, delightedly vicious.
"All right, all right!" she surrendered almost instantly, laughing so hard she couldn't see. The three pairs of hands flinging snow at her didn't help. "Whatever happened to defending-- oof-- the lady's honor?" she wailed.
It was Rude who turned to her with a smile, sunlight winking off his glasses. "Only fair," he said, and bodily hoisted a struggling Reeve to deposit him in a snowbank. His half-hearted protests fell on deaf ears, and Rufus and Reno had to sit, propped against each other, to catch their breath from laughing.
Rude shrugged. "All in a day's work."
Reeve poked his head from the snowdrift, his beard and eyebrows comically white beneath his hat. "I guess I deserved that."
Elena, still laughing, dodged the white blur that was Rufus' half-hearted snowball. "What do you think," she panted, scooping up another handful, "you're doing?" But the snowball she threw was at Reno, for the suggestive leer in her direction.
"'ey! No fair!" Hoisting himself up-- and leaving Rufus off-balance, from where they had leaned on one another-- Reno sidled through the snow toward her. "'Lena..."
And though she knew what was coming she couldn't avoid it, his lanky arms around her too suddenly to react. She squeaked involuntarily, feet not touching the ground. Reno twirling her around by the waist, Elena remembered how much she hated it when people picked her up. "Reno--!"
*piff!* Reno groaned as another well-tossed missile from an unexpected quarter splattered wetly between his shoulderblades. He dropped her, spinning to face the offender.
Reeve grinned back, shrugging innocently.
"Interference!" Reno yelled. "What IS it with you?"
But by then Elena had a gloveful of snow trained on his head. "One wrong move," she said, dropping her voice ominously, "and you're history."
Reno rolled his eyes, lifting his gloved hands to the sky. "Geez, I surrender already," he murmured. "You PMSing or something?"
Elena rewarded him with a tight little smile, juggling the snowball with malicious slowness. "You won't get off that easy, prettyboy." Trusting her aim, she winked and threw.
Reno, swift with long-trained reflexes, dropped at the last second, and Elena's snowball, deprived of its target, went an extra two yards...
To hit Tseng directly in the chest.
He didn't flinch-- much. Reno was cracking up, on his belly in the snow, and the others made noncommittal sounds of apology and sympathy.
Elena was silently mortified. Torn between wanting to grovel or brush the snow from his double-breasted coat, she began, "Sorry, sir--"
Tseng shook his head, the only one of them still unruffled, scarf tightly wrapped, hair still flawless in the cold. "I am reminded," he said, offhandedly, dusting himself off with one leather glove, "of the firing range where we recruited you, Elena. Marvelous aim."
She flushed with more than the chill air, resisting the urge to giggle. "Th-thank you, sir. It was only an acc--"
"If I'm not mistaken," Tseng went on as if she hadn't spoken, "you four were out here to bring in the supplies that AVALANCHE brought us?"
The hillside was awfully quiet for a minute, as they looked with varying degrees of guilt at the snow-sopping provisions.
"Cid specifically said that we should keep the ham refrigerated," Reeve said, the corners of his mouth wobbling.
Tseng laughed, and then they all were laughing again, hoisting crates and heading for the kitchen. The northern midwinter afternoon was already growing thin, the clouds deepening their grey above them, promising an even thicker blanket of snow by the evening.
"Aw, it was nice of you to leave the light on for us, Rude," Reno beamed, the two of them lifting the ham between them. "Makes the place seem-- kinda homey."
Rude's mouth twitched in a fractional smile. Eventually, he said, "I didn't."
"Oh," Reno said, dismayed, shivering in his coat. Elena, clutching a damp package of tubers to keep it from spilling open, empathized in spite of herself. The redheaded Turk looked small, bravado momentarily fallen away from him like a scattering of snowflakes, huddled there against Rude's shoulder. "You coulda at least SAID you had, y'know?"
Still, for a moment the old ShinRa mansion seemed almost benevolent, the antique-fashioned face of it looking curiously down at them, door open wide, candles winking owlishly in the windows.
"Let's get inside," Rufus said, his voice quiet into the hush of snow, and no one disagreed.
Ham in the oven, check. Nutbread and rolls cooling on racks on the counter, check. Wassail bubbling on the stovetop, with just enough sliced apples and an orange, lavished with clove and cinnamon and ginger to perfection and just enough of that good hard stuff snuck in from Wutai that Tseng wasn't supposed to have known about, check.
Jenova, but everything smelled so good-- but where was Reno? He'd said he'd be cooking.
Elena had her head stuck practically in the pot, reveling in the fantastic smell that was Reno's holiday punch, when she heard it, out of nowhere.
She had the ladle in hand, classic defensive stance, before her heart could skip a beat.
*clang* "Aw, fuck it!" *twong!* Reno's voice, coming from down the long back hallway.
Half-snickering and half-relieved, she lowered the drippy spoon back into the wassail. Oops. She might be high-strung for the rest of her natural life, living here. Poking her head into the parlor, sure enough she found Reno, on his back underneath the piano.
*CLANG* The redhead emerged, rubbing his head ruefully. "Geez, 'Lena, don't sneak up on me like that." He poked experimentally at a few keys before ducking back under the instrument again.
"What on earth are you doing?"
"Hush!" he hissed, in the process of making quite a bit of noise himself. "Don' tell the whole world! Remember, this is a surprise."
Elena neglected to tell him that no, she did not remember, no one had informed her that loud piano-banging was on the schedule for their party preparations. "Doesn't sound like a surprise," she pointed out snidely.
Reno slid out from under the piano on the other side, looking up at her quizzically. "Don't you have somewhere you're supposed to be, or something? Is Tseng's gift all wrapped and everything?"
"Yes," she said with no little satisfaction, "It's perfect. I just wanted to see how cooking was going, but you'd gone missing, and I came here to see what you were doing."
"I'm tuning this piano," he said, with exaggerated slowness.
"Oh, I see," she said amiably to his upside-down face, noting inanely that his hair clashed with the rich wine-red of the thick carpeting she'd had installed. "Is this piano out of tune? I had no idea."
Reno ran a hand through his bangs. "Fuck, if you must know, Rude likes to play. So I'm tuning it for him. He's upstairs with Reeve in the-- He's upstairs, so he won't hear me fixing up his present, see?"
Her chest tightened, inexplicably envious. She hid it under a layer of sarcasm. "So you waited till today to--"
*TWANG* His head vanished underneath once again. "What was that, Elena? Can't hear you."
By late afternoon the sun was dipping behind the mountains, the wind picking up considerably, a dim thunder against the mansion walls. But the old building stood firmer than perhaps any of them had expected it to, creaking a little in its foundations, shaking a little plaster loose from the ceiling, but stoutly defying the rushing cry of the wind beyond its doors.
Inside was certainly cheerier than any of them had anticipated. With two stately Nibelheim firs decorated with ribbon and lights, Reno's gourmet offerings on the stove, and pine boughs hung on the balustrade, the place had an air of woodsmoke and clove-- and general holiday ridiculousness.
And they were certainly glad to get back inside, the last of the garland hung on the porches and doors, the house seeming content under its layer of seasonal trim. They had gotten good at working together, the six of them, after these months of self-inflicted renovations-- so much so that they barely noticed the comfortable choreography of their movements, filing into the kitchen door en masse and stomping the snow from their boots.
Not even all the way out of his coat, Reno's head came up, his green eyes bright like fresh holly. "You smell that?"
Reeve paused in the act of helping Elena out of her coat. "Smell what?"
Elena couldn't help giggling, and Tseng and Rufus exchanged knowing glances.
"You people are no help." Crowing victorious, Reno found the Mideel roast bubbling demurely in the coffeepot. "Hot damn! This stuff is impossible to find these days. Where'd you get it?"
Of course no one would admit to getting it, but Rude-- quiet as a rule-- practically resonated with silence when Reno confronted him.
Blissfully disregarding Rude's protests, Reno hugged him. "Aw, fuck, man, thanks."
Rude, impervious as always, shrugged. "It's not much."
Adjusting his ponytail, Reno looked almost shy. Almost. "Well, y'know, it's the thought that counts. 'Specially now, when the world's all blown up and all... so you wanna see your present now, or what?"
Unable to keep it to himself any longer, Reno led Rude down the back hallway to the parlor and stood triumphantly in the door. "What do you see?"
Rude inclined his head, politely scanning the room. "A tree," he said, simply. "A couch, two loveseats, Elena's nice new carpet--"
"Don't be difficult," Reno rolled his eyes. "Geez."
"A piano?" Rude guessed, humoring him.
"Yeah yeah," Reno grinned, and herded a bemused Rude to the piano bench. "But not just any kind of piano."
A slight smile started on Rude's face, undisguised as he sat, spreading his hands over the keys. It was La Vitesse reincarnate, the warm scent of coffee in the air and the sound of familiar music spilling from Rude's fingers. His voice was gentle where his face did not change. "I didn't know you could tune pianos, Reno."
"He can't," Elena said, sotto voce, and Reeve and Rufus snickered.
"You're welcome, man," Reno said, and seemed to catch himself before saying something else. "No problem."
"So does this mean that we're going to exchange gifts now?" Elena said, mostly to dispel the silence--perhaps out of envy, knowing that they were remembering things, the Turks were, nostalgia for a time she had never known.
Reno made a face, though he did look away from those piano playing hands. "What do you think, rookie?"
Elena lifted a hand, but Tseng moved evenly between them, with a well-placed step. "I have a gift for Rufus," he said, as if no one knew it. "If I may?"
"You needn't ask, you know." But for all Rufus' cool exterior, his winter-blue eyes belied his calm. "Of course you may."
"It is not new," Tseng said, dismissively, "your gift. But I give it whole-heartedly."
Reno was busy scoping him unsubtly, clearly wondering where on his person Tseng could be hiding a wrapped package.
Rufus smiled slightly, the two of them oblivious to Reno's antics. His smile turned into something else, though, when Tseng unstrapped the Turks watch from around his own wrist and motioned for Rufus' arm.
"I know that your watch was damaged in the explosion, Rufus-sama," Tseng said, lips at Rufus' ear, as if that were all the explanation needed. Reeve made the tiniest noise, of disbelief or understanding, no one could tell.
"Tseng," Rufus murmured, standing too close, head tilted into the hollow of Tseng's shoulder. "It's still warm," he breathed, and they pretended not to hear him.
The back of Elena's throat stinging with unshed tears, she looked quickly away. She couldn't think too closely about it, couldn't watch as Tseng's arms slid around Rufus' waist and the younger man lifted his head to kiss him, thanks all unspoken on his lips--
It was Rufus who noticed her, when they broke apart, his eyes flashing with understanding. "Say," he mused, waving a hand. "Did anyone remember to get Elena anything?" He winked at her.
Rude, catching on quickly, lifted one broad shoulder in a shrug. "Who?"
"Sorry, 'Lena," Reno played along with a grin. "We forgot all about you. Better luck next year."
Tseng's hand still on the small of Rufus' back, the dark-haired Turk graced her with a genuine smile. "I thought there was something..."
Reeve was trying not to laugh. "Well, it's upstairs. But it's really kind of--" he motioned with two fingers, "...small."
"Why on earth did you put it in the second bathroom?" she wondered aloud, walking the long hallway, stomping her feet to keep them warm. The others followed her, suspiciously silent. "The heat's not reached that room for weeks and even the plumbing is barely working..."
Opening the bathroom door-- so intent was she on finding something tiny-- she almost tripped over her present.
Behind her, Rufus flipped on the light, and they all peered in after her.
The little room was surprisingly bright, but the brightest thing by far was the deep, full-length, claw-footed metal bathtub, polished to a shine. Her hands came up to her mouth, surprised into a little "oh!" Then, she noticed the little space-heater on the floor in the corner, and the red red ribbon tied into a fancy bow around the pipes.
"For me?" was all she managed, incredulous.
"No more mornings waiting pour moi to get out of the shower," Reno waggled his eyebrow at her, and she was too delighted to even kick him.
"Closer to the bedroom this way-- no more walking down the hallway in the cold. We fixed the plumbing, too, and installed another hot-water heater." To her happiness-blurred vision, Reeve looked awfully smug.
"Is that what you were doing today?" she spun on her heel, turning on him. "I just thought you wanted to get out of hanging garland!"
Rude inclined his head, pantomiming chewing on a cigarette. "Though I dunno what you need a &!@#$ bathtub for, Cat," he muttered.
Reeve turned pink, running his hand through his hair. "Ah, Cid did wonder what we were up to. But we just told him it was for renovations--"
Rude somehow maintained the impression of a cigarette through his grin. "Cat finally got himself a ladyfriend, need some cleaning up?"
Reeve turned, if possible, even pinker. "Oh, hush, 'Cid,'" his scowl faltered in the wake of a laugh. "And don't call me that."
Elena-- managing not to stumble on the tub this time, on the way out the door-- threw her arms around Rude, who was closest. "It's wonderful," she breathed into his chest. "Perfect. Thank you so much."
Rude shook his head, as close to sheepish as he could get. "Lady deserves her own bathroom, in a house full of men. Besides, it wasn't my idea." He nodded meaningfully at Reeve, who chuckled.
Disentangling herself, she hugged him, too. He was much shorter than Rude; her chin came up to his shoulder. She hid her giggle in his collar. "Thanks, Cat."
Downstairs once more, they sat in the parlor, ringed around the comfortable fire, and the lights on the fir tree made the room seem smaller, touched with brightness.
Rude sat at the piano, playing carols now, nothing touched with such memory as the old songs from La Vitesse.
Still, Reeve was looking with ill-disguised wistfulness out the window. "It's getting colder out there," he murmured, mostly to himself. "Rough night to be outside."
"But you're not outside," Rufus said, not unkindly. "We've made this place as warm as it will get."
Reno, coffee mug in hand, exchanged glances with Rufus, whose lips moved in the tiniest smile.
Unaware of this exchange, Reeve shook himself, stepping closer to the fire. His eyes were still slightly sad, but he tossed a grateful smile to Rufus and said, "Guess you're right."
Rude, catching on, looked at Elena wordlessly, and his glasses caught the shine of the holiday lights, his not-quite-smile seeming to twinkle.
Elena suppressed a smile, nodded fractionally. Reeve's turn. "I'll be right back," she said, her mind failing to volunteer any feasible excuses.
"Don't be long," Rude said, ordinarily. "Sun's gone down; the other rooms are getting cold."
"I will," she assured him, and had to turn her back on all of them before she giggled. Behind her, she could hear Reno announcing that dinner should be almost done, and Rufus suggesting that they should sit around the fire in the parlor to eat.
She hustled up the stairs without looking back.
"Hello?" she whispered experimentally, opening the door a crack and peering into the dim bedroom. Voted the most likely place that Reeve would never look, as he tended to give the ex-President a wide berth these days, Rufus and Tseng's bedroom was hiding Reeve's surprise gift. Even Tseng had agreed that a few days of discomfort would be well worth the surprise on Reeve's face.
"Hello, Mr. Cat?" she tried again, cajoling, her eyes growing accustomed to the darkness. "You in here?" Slowly she realized that she was, in fact, being watched; that there were two luminous eyes watching her indifferently from the bed.
"Oh, hello there," she said, wondering how best to go about this. The cat did not move from his perch on Rufus' pillow, the very picture of suspicion. "Good tidings, Cait," she tried for formality, realizing she didn't even really know its name. Rufus just called it Cait, and it seemed to like Rufus, so she thought she'd try that. "We're having a celebration downstairs, if you'd like to join us?"
It licked one white-socked paw.
She bit her lip. "I realize this bed is a warm and splendid place to be," she said, not thinking too hard about that, "but Mr. Reeve will be awfully glad to see you, don't you think?" and she might have been mistaken, but at the mention of Reeve's name, the pointed feline head twitched just a little. One lazy stretch and the cat deigned to walk her way.
She nabbed him-- gently-- and nuzzled his head with her chin. "Attaboy, Cait. Don't get angry with me till it's all over, 'kay?"
Scratches on her arms would have been hard to explain, but for the moment, the cat seemed willing enough to be carried. At the foot of the stairs, she surreptitiously set it down, and dusted herself carefully of any stray cat hair. Then, trying not to seem as if anything were amiss, she rejoined them in the parlor. Compared to the bedroom, the room was cozy and shining, treelit and comfortable-- and delicious.
"Mm, that ham smells scrumptious," she cooed, sitting lightly on the loveseat beside Reeve, bent over the platter on the coffee table.
"It is," Reeve affirmed, deft with the cutting knife. "I had no idea Reno was such a good cook."
Reno rolled his eyes, he and Rude covertly glancing around the room. "Thanks. I'll take that as a compliment."
Elena winked at them, nodding subtly at the door. "I'll believe it when I taste it."
"Sure! Here, have a bit--" with two fingers Reeve lifted a thin slice of ham, offered it to her--
--and dropped it promptly on the floor.
"Cait!" he cried, dropping to one knee, knife standing forgotten in the ham. The cat in question was too busy scarfing up the ham that he'd dropped to wind round his ankles any more. "Damn, Cait, that is you! You're all right!"
Elena was laughing so hard that her eyes were watering, leaning back in the loveseat, gleeful. "Jenova, Reeve, you should have seen your face--"
He colored. "Oh hush," he said, but none of them missed the look of absolute gratitude on his face, the sheen in his dark eyes.
Rufus looked self-satisfied. "You're welcome, Reeve," he said, and Elena wondered at the depth of the sincerity in his voice, at the odd expression on his face as they exchanged glances. "Happy holiday."
One joyous Reeve, cross-legged on the floor with an armful of affectionate cat, looked up at them wonderingly. "Where did you FIND him?"
"Your office, actually," Reno waved a hand. "We were scouting around for supplies coupla weeks ago, and there he was-- under what was left of your desk."
"Geez," Reeve whistled, one hand unconsciously scratching Cait's chin as the cat languished under the familiar affection. "How'm I supposed to thank you?"
Tseng bowed his head, hair moving in a graceful curtain along his shoulders. "For all you've done for us, Reeve-san, we are indebted to you. But... save us some of that ham, all right?"
Cait Sith, pausing in the act of stalking the ham, licked his lips. Reeve laughed, bodily scooting a stubborn Cait further from the coffee table. "Right."
And so Tseng came last.
"I can't imagine what you would have gotten me," Tseng was saying, his voice casual, but something in his stance belying his words. Sitting on the couch beside Rufus, he seemed younger than he had a few days ago, and those thinnest creases around his eyes no longer spoke of age or grief or pain.
"It's something we found when we were scouting out the ShinRa building, that last time," Reno drawled, deliberately prolonging the anticipation. He draped an arm across the back of the loveseat, grinned conspiratorially at Rude, next to him. "When we found Cait, as a matter of fact. Little critter led us to it."
As if aware of the attention, Cait Sith paused in the act of batting the hollyboughs off the mantel. He bared his teeth at them in a feline yawn. You're most welcome.
Rufus was holding the rather small package on his knees, failing in the attempt to look nonchalant. "It was my idea to fix it up to give to you; since I knew what it should look like; but Reno and Rude were the ones who went all the way to Wutai to--"
Elena interrupted, to keep Rufus from saying too much. "I thought that punch tasted spiked." She cleared her throat.
Reno feigned innocence from across the room. "Huh?"
"Reeve," Rufus went on, ignoring Reeve's protestations, "did most of the work, since he's good at that kind of thing."
"And I helped, too," Elena interjected, trying not to bounce the seatcushions in her excitement. Feeling a part of a larger whole, she watched Tseng's curiosity and the varying expressions on the faces of her fellow schemers. "And I wrapped it, since I've never met a man who can wrap presents properly."
Next to her, Reeve made a face. "What, would you have had us wrap the whole bathtub?"
Rude chuckled, startling them. "That's a lot of ribbon."
Elena blushed. "That's not what I meant," she began, but Rufus had handed Tseng his package, and a hush fell over the parlor.
The box was no bigger than Cait Sith, and it was short work for Tseng to unwrap it, his hands, as always, nothing if not neat and efficient.
It was a doll.
A Wutai New Year's celebration doll, a miniature warrior-youth whose obsidian eyes flashed with reflected fire. He wore the golden earrings of a warrior, and the double-tied sash of a prince. Though the tiny face was well-worn, the fierce expression was freshly painted, the traditional-style clothing new and unfrayed. All his joints moved smoothly, his miniscule fingers carved in delicate fists.
Tseng, for a long moment, could say nothing at all, turning it over in his hands, wonderingly touching the heavy silk of the neatly stitched robe, the ornate red-rope knots of the belt and boots. The little topknot was lacquered and shining, blue-black in the firelight like Tseng's own hair.
Embroidered on his chest in fine metallic thread was a New Year's dragon, spiraling resplendent.
All of them had held that doll in their hands, marveling each over Reeve's craftsmanship, or Reno's color choice, or Elena's skill with the paintbrush, or Rude's eye for detail. They had prepared it for him together, had wondered what he would say. But not a one of them had expected such a weight of joy to settle on Tseng's face, his eyes too bright.
"This cannot be my doll," he said at last, and his voice was rich with thanks. "Mine was never so well-dressed."
Reeve was apologetic. "Well, he was missing a vital limb or two when they found him. I hope I was able to fix him up-- a bit of reconstructive surgery, you know. No harm done."
Reno was proud. "Rude 'n' me hunted up some dollmakers in Wutai; they helped us find his little clothes."
Elena was moved. "Is it true what Rufus said, that you've had him since you were little?" In that instant, warmth on his face and his resurrected heritage resting carefully in his hands, she could maybe believe that he had been young once, young with a treasured toy kept well-loved and pristine on his shelf.
And Tseng and Rufus both-- each watching his lover's face in the firelight, phoenix bright-- were speechless.
these dreams go on when i close my eyes
every second of the night, i live another life
these dreams that sleep when it's cold outside...
the sweetest song is silence that i've ever heard
funny how your feet in dreams never touch the earth
in a wood full of princes, freedom is a kiss
but the prince hides his face... from dreams in the mist
It was late, and still snowing.
Rufus and Tseng had retired to their bedroom, after one last cup of cheer, one last moment at the parlor fireside. Reno had climbed onto the piano bench beside Rude, two pairs of hands coaxing a halting melody out of the instrument, stuttering and silly.
...and more than a little poignant, Elena thought, shaking her head. She'd only ever heard Rude play once before, her one evening at La Vitesse, after becoming a Turk. He was good, his broad hands as nimble on the ivories as on the trigger of any gun. Now, hearing year's-end songs under his well-trained hands, played before an antique shadowed hearth, Elena felt it was almost too much to bear.
Or it might have been the playful intertwining of hands on the keys, Reno's erratic gleeful fingers weaving with Rude's stoic unflappable calm-- how comfortable the two seemed, leaning against one another's shoulders, pleasantly drunk.
Or watching Tseng help a sleepy well-wassailed Rufus out of the couch-- how the pair of them had paused before the broad stairway, indulging in the mistletoe hanging by the main door, one man golden and the other ebony, well-matched in the softly lit grandeur of the foyer.
Or Reeve sitting in front of the fire with his cat asleep on his knees, looking out the window at the snow.
Someone for everyone.
So here she was beneath the massive fir tree in the main hall, after a hastily mumbled excuse about checking on the candles and heading to bed. She knew the tapers, burning in their sconces in the wide gothic windows, needed little supervision; she knew that the bed would be cold, no wood in the bedroom fireplace yet.
But if she heard someone make the comment that it would be warmer with two, she thought she just might crack.
With a little sigh, she sank to the floor, cross-legged in the thick-piled rug at the foot of the tree. Even standing, the tree dwarfed her; now she felt like a much younger girl, blinking awed up at the candy-lit height of it. Its girth was remarkable; sitting beneath it, her back was practically against the wall. Each light caught and magnified the shimmering shadows in the corners of the hall, sumptuous in its age and magnificence.
Holiday or no, the place was kind of creepy. But hadn't they been living here a while, eking out their home? Something like a truce.
Still, she started roughly when something touched her arm. However, before she could shout, it dawned on her that spooks-- for the most part-- don't have claws.
"Hello, Cait," she rolled her eyes at her own jumpiness, inhaling raggedly. "What'd you do that for?" He blinked slowly at her, and promptly clambered into her lap. She couldn't quite laugh, in that shivery silence, as Cait Sith circled on her knees, till his warm purring weight settled against her belly.
"Well, Mr. Cait, have I met with approval?" she raised an eyebrow, and it didn't occur to her that she should feel odd for speaking to the newest member of their household. The cat flexed a paw, showing tiny sharp clawpoints. "Okay," she smiled wanly. "I get the picture. I'll be on my best behavior. So... did you tire of Mr. Reeve's lap?"
The cat did not deign to give her a response, head resting demurely on his paws, asleep with a quiet thrumming purr.
Truth be told, she was glad for the company. The strains of some haunting winter's tune crept out of the parlor after her, echoing around her and up the grand front staircase. She thought she could hear whispers of it dancing along the banister like rambunctious children. Grandfather clock beginning to toll midnight in eerie counterpoint to the music, sleepily she watched the winterfrost flickering in the windows, the snow outside still falling.
They weren't the first, were they? The first to ring in the new year in this mansion, to hang tinsel from the mantel or brighten the antique windows with candles. Such a place must have a history, naturally, it was to be expected-- how had the others spent their winter festivals, before this place was old?
Those who came before.
Without any preamble, he walked in through the main door-- without a gust of freezing air, without the swirl of snow around his boots. Unsettling in his brightness, his keen eyes seemed painted on all wrong, a doll with a harlequin grin on his hawknosed face. His hands were long and pale and soft, and the beginnings of wrinkles about his temples did not seem to be merry ones. He squinted around the hall as if displeased, scuffed his shoes.
Elena wondered, without any active curiosity, if she were dreaming. She knew she had seen this man before, but she could not place him. Beyond the half-shuttered windows, the lamp-thrown light on the fallen snow was hard-edged, crystalline, and the cold was a shrill brightness in the clear midnight sky.
A woman followed the man inside, graceful, sad. Snowflakes melted in her cinnamon colored hair, and she shivered.
Another man entered behind her, his silence like a cloak around his shoulders. His eyes were shadowed by a fringe of dark hair, his hands were tense and elegant and deadly. With those dangerous hands he helped the woman out of her coat, and there was an ache of gentleness to his touch.
She looked at neither man, her mysterious half-smile for herself alone.
The first man gestured impatiently to the kitchen, eyes bird-bright in his eagerness. The second man's head came up, his eyes flashed-- red-- red like blade-tipped greenhouse flowers, red like summon materia, red like jeweled blood. The woman, hands in her pockets, looked away.
Elena shuddered, forgetting to breathe. The mathematical concision of the first man, the beady eyes that already had seen too much of science. Hojo.
And those eyes, that grief-- the Turk she had never known, Valentine-san.
And the woman who danced ever between them, balanced en pointe with a shine so sharp as to slice their defenses away. Lucretia.
Those who came before, indeed.
The Turk lifted a box from the mantel, wrapped in silver and blue. The woman met his eyes when he handed it to her, and his face shone with the reflected glory of her smile. The scientist chewed on his lip, but grudgingly admired the gift, once revealed--
A doll, a little warrior doll with an embroidered dragon coiling on his tunic. From his stay in Wutai, he said, from a woman who had been kind to him. To celebrate the New Year, to cheer the winter months.
Elena knew she must be dreaming-- not for the people long-gone wandering the halls of her home, not for the impossibility of what she witnessed-- but when the doll in Lucretia's hand suddenly manifested a tiny precise black dot between his eyebrows.
Her heart tightened. Tseng?
The three of them followed each other out of the room, circling like birds caught in the same updraft, effortless and uneasy. The little warrior-doll was left forgotten on the mantel, his legs dangling wearily over the edge.
Carefully, afraid even to whisper, Elena crept to him, held him two-handed before her. It was indeed Tseng's doll, only the paint was not old, the original clothes untattered.
From the depths of the basement she heard laughter. With a sick chill she recognized it-- this was not her first dream of Sephiroth, in this haunted place, the echoes of a nightmare familiar enough. Maybe now she thought she understood, though, a baby born to be his father's revenge, to spread his arms around the world, sweet fatal embrace.
The weight in her hands was comforting, the doll nearly warm to the touch.
She barely noticed the change, grass at her feet, summertime sunlight hot through her splayed fingers. Kneeling, hands trembling, before the unyielding face of the Temple of the Ancients. Praying silently for a change-- any change-- from her nightmare, she held the doll to her chest. How long before the inevitable? Surely she had dreamed this before: the temple, the wound, the loss.
Until the doll blinked his eyes, meticulously carved mouth moving in a very slight smile. So utterly Tseng, down to the tiny frown between his eyebrows, that a little noise like laughter escaped her lips. This was not familiar, this sheer sweetness singing in the air. She could not say when the doll was no longer a doll, when the Wutai warrior stood in front of her with the blue sheen in his black hair, and the fire of victory in his eyes.
For the first time, she knew that he would not be harmed, and her heart was stinging with gratitude.
In this confrontation, both men were armed and well-ready, and their battle was nothing but beautiful. Like the death of a star or the beginning of a song, they moved together in a lilting dance too balanced to be called warfare. Twin arcs of dark hair and silver, shadow and moonlight, midnight and morning--
Watching wonderingly, she forgot to be frightened.
With neither a scream nor a drop of blood, the antagonist was gone, disappeared into the sky as if he had never been, and the green green grass was laughing.
And then the two of them were alone together, as if the end of the world had never been.
The girl who had spent lonely Midgar nights dreaming of her boss was someone else, far away. But, surreal adolescent fantasies aside, she felt better than she had in a long time.
And so she was dreaming of only Tseng, her Tseng, Tseng standing in the courtyard of La Vitesse, black roses blooming darkly around his face. The air smelled of rain and mako and his spicy cigarettes, and the flagstones were bright with garden moisture. The spill of time slowed, every motion intensified tenfold. Not quite smiling, Tseng opened the inner door for her, held out his hand.
She paused, turning around and wondering why she felt as if she'd left something behind her.
And in her moment of hesitation, she realized, with that dissolving sort of dismay that comes of shattered dreams, that La Vitesse was gone, that Midgar was gone, that all of those black roses were gone, scattered to the wind.
One dream ruined, she thought blackly.
But she was still asleep, and dammit she wouldn't let it end this way. Not allowing herself to weep, she moved to him, put her hands in his. His eyes were too deep to be real. Within them, she could see tangled jungle, a cascade of Lifestream swirling, and she thought she might lose herself--
Finding her hands, steady and calm in her dreaming, she folded them into the richness of Tseng's hair and drew him close enough to kiss him.
His lips were cinnamon dangerous, and the silk feel of his hair was like a cool waterfall over her greedy hands. Sweeter than she'd imagined, so very fine.
And now she could feel the dream unraveling, nothing she could do to stop it, the courtyard blowing away with just a last scatter of petals. For a moment they were hovering in space, twirl of galaxies ancient slow around them, and one last shooting star of a kiss. She clung to his chest, desperate for the spice of his scent and the touch of his unbound hair, holding dearly to the edges of the dream-- and wondering dimly why his double-breasted Turk suit felt as if it were made out of-- flannel--
Too suddenly she woke up, universe and all evaporating into the chilly air. She was in Nibelheim, in a creepy old mansion, her arms wrapped around herself, huddled as she was in her bathrobe.
And Tseng was there, real Tseng, professional even in black pajamas.
"Elena," he said gently, and she could only stare, foundering to find herself. "I didn't think you'd want to spend the whole night under the tree." He was apologizing for waking her up, she realized, disoriented.
She swallowed, feeling like a little girl. "Thank you," she managed. "I don't know when I fell asleep." She shook her head, hair shielding her eyes as she tried to regain her composure. Cait Sith, she realized, was gone; her lap was cold.
He glanced up, at the star atop the tree, and for a moment his ebony eyes were the eyes of a dream-- or a dreamer-- and abruptly she wondered just what he had dreamed, alone in the wilderness with only the Lifestream for company.
"It's been a wonderful day, Elena," he said softly, breaking her reverie. "I thank you." She couldn't help holding her breath, Tseng leaning down and kissing her cheek, lips as warm and cinnamon as she had ever imagined... And then he walked away.
She couldn't go to bed. Not with the ordinary world waiting for her tomorrow, not for all the unopened presents in the world could she face that plain bed and its sleeping occupant.
Walking to the front windows, she looked out at the falling snow. The silence in the room-- that renovated room with the opulent darkness still settling in the corners, with the whispers at the windows and the eddies of snow that breathed against the panes-- the silence was growing heavier. Time seemed to break over her, till she wanted to hang her head under the mad weight of it, of things undreamed, to bury her face in her knees and forget, never to wake again.
She heard the faintest hint of music, like the sound of someone humming far away. The wash of aching notes fell around her, striking her ears softly as the silvery snowflakes hit the windowpane. For a moment, the snowflakes were alive, each of them pirouetting in a frozen spin beyond the window, and her heart was a wild swirling wind, blowing snow-ghosts across the faces of the watching mountains. The world was glistening, and the whole broad window was chill and full of sky, beckoning her to join the dance--
The soft song stopped as quietly as it had begun, leaving the mansion empty and touched with silence, leaving her alone.
...Was that coffee she smelled?
She shook herself, and the last vestiges of dreaming fell away. How long had she been sitting there? Yes, that was the aroma of Mideel's finest roast, most distinctive. Someone was still up-- Reno? Tseng?
Too curious now to be reluctant, she blew out the candles, turned from the window, and headed up the stairs.
Tiptoeing into her bedroom, she found the culprit-- Reeve awake, sitting in the broad-ledged window in just his pajamas, steaming mug of coffee resting on the sill beside him. He did not notice her coming in, his head tilting down to the landscape below, his fingers tracing snowflakes in the fog on the glass.
And he was humming to himself.
Not unfamiliar, she tried to tell herself, how many ordinary mornings had she heard him singing absent-mindedly as he headed for the shower?
But a shiver crept up her spine. That had been the tune she had heard, just now, all the way down the stairs. A New Year's tune, she recognized it now, one that Rude said he would not play, saying it wasn't suited to a cheerful gathering. And at the chilly windowside downstairs, it had not sounded much like Reeve's voice at all. A female voice, perhaps, sweeter, sadder, the edges of the song graced with--
Cait Sith was resting atop the bed, stretched as languidly as only a happy cat can stretch. He blinked luminously at her, yawned, and she couldn't shake the feeling that he was watching her.
She cleared her throat, determined to shake the eerie feeling settling in her stomach. "Does he follow you everywhere?"
Reeve started just a little, song forgotten, but his fingers were steady on the snowfairy he was doodling. "Yeah, I guess so," he said after a minute. "I'd forgotten what it was like to be tailed by a rambunctious kitten." His eyes flicked up to the sleek well-fed feline reposing between them. "Did I say kitten? Fat cat."
Cait Sith yawned again, tucked his face beneath a paw. I shan't be bothered with you silly humans, not tonight.
Elena couldn't help but laugh, lingering sheepishly in the doorway with her hand on the knob. "What are you... doing up?"
He dipped his head, and she was fascinated by the play of his fingers, the sure cascade of them pale across the snow-chilled windowpane. "Couldn't sleep, I guess. Darn room is chilly by yourself." He shrugged, didn't meet her eyes. "And... it's the eve of the solstice. I'm up listening to the snow. ...Or something."
"No," she heard herself saying. "No, I understand. I guess that's why I fell asleep under the tree." She smiled awkwardly, feeling self-conscious.
But Reeve grinned. "Yeah, so I saw. I didn't want to bug you. You looked like you were dreaming."
"I was dreaming," she said, not knowing why, perhaps to alleviate the shivering ache underneath her heart. "Of the doll, Tseng's gift?" Speaking of it was not as difficult as she thought. "He was-- alive, the doll was, and magnificent."
He seemed to consider this, smile turned serious. "Isn't the animation of toys normally my job?" he said lightly, though she got the impression that he'd wanted to say something else.
She bit her lip. "Hadn't thought of that," she admitted, her whole dream slanting a little, tilted to a new perspective. She almost meant it when she asked, "Do you do dreams, as well?"
But he chuckled. "Not that I know of." He absently picked up his coffee, put it down again. "But I could make you a doll, if you wanted? I know how much you liked it."
The back of her throat stung, and she had to blink twice. Maybe her mind was still fuzzy with sleep, but she heard more than he was saying, undercurrents to his offering. To her own surprise, she was shaking her head, and the words spilled out of her. "No, no, thank you. I-- don't need one." She shoved her hands in her pockets and bit her tongue, cautious of saying too much.
That was when she realized that the bathrobe she was wearing... was not her own. The pockets were bigger, unfamiliar-- Her own robe, she saw, was still damp, hanging on the grate by their small hearth, illuminated by the flickering fire nestled there. The grey flannel around her shoulders--
She swallowed and tried not to do anything foolish, as if she could make a wrong move and wake to find herself sleeping somewhere else undignified and lonely. "Is-- is there more of that--"
"Of course," he interjected quickly, seeing her glance at his coffee. "I brewed a whole pot just in case, you know." He didn't say just in case of what, and she didn't ask. "I... didn't think Reno would mind."
She half-smiled. "He doesn't have to know. Our secret."
"Yeah." The two of them watched the steam rise from the rich stream of coffee poured from pot to mug, neither speaking.
"Um," She motioned tentatively to the wide ledge of the window, where he sat. "Is there room for me--"
"There's room here, if you'd like--" he said at the same instant, sidling over a bit.
With warm cup cradled in her hands, ensconced in the windowseat-- toe to toe with the former Secretary of Urban Development-- Elena was almost afraid she was still dreaming, warm and marvelously lost. The rose-bright gleam of their fire reflected dancing in the windowglass, the steady snow outside falling like a hundred crystalline secrets to the mountains below.
The silence was maddening.
Finally, she nudged his slippered foot with her own. "Thank you," she said, honestly, grateful for the sound of her own voice.
His smile was a little lopsided, his eyes still on the hillside beyond. "You should thank Reno, 's his coffee."
"No, I mean--" Half a dozen things flitted through her mind-- thank you for the bathtub, for the company, for letting your cat sit on my lap, for the offer of a doll, for lending me your bathrobe, for not waking me-- "I mean, I never got to thank you for the fire this morning. It was nice to wake up in a cozy warm bedroom."
He did look at her, then. "Well, you're welcome," he said. His nutmeg eyes turned mischievous. "And I thought maybe the warmth would keep you asleep longer, so I'd have more time to move that bathtub in without you suspecting."
"The truth comes out," she scolded. It must have been the coffee that made her feel so warm, face flushing.
He dipped his head, not quite guilty. "Well, you try surprising someone with something that big," he said, defensive.
"Oh, I was surprised," she reassured him. "I look forward to taking a nice long soaky bath tomorrow morning," and as she said it she was surprised to find that she meant it. Tomorrow morning was looking brighter all the time.
Reeve looked out the window again. "It's almost morning already," he raised an eyebrow, and she thought his voice was too quiet. His hair was only loosely tied, and coming unbound around his eyes, and Elena found herself wondering what it would feel like, untied and spreading over her hands. Would it be warm and thick like Reno's, or smoothly cool like Tseng's? And would the short ends tickle her upturned face if she were to--
"What was that... song you were humming?" she asked, to keep herself from doing something foolish.
Chagrin moved briefly over his face. "You heard that?"
Elena chuckled. "As if that's the first time I heard you sing," she teased. "Aren't you the one who likes to sing jazz in the shower?"
The shadow left his brow. "No secrets left," he moaned. "Dangerous, living here, you learn too much about people." They laughed a little, and she thought maybe he would not answer her original question. But after a minute he said, "I don't really know-- the song, that is. It was just stuck in my head, though Jenova only knows why. Seems I've heard it somewhere. Maybe I've always known it."
She nodded carefully, acutely conscious of the house around them-- not murmuring tonight, but listening.
Unexpectedly, he reached over and squeezed her hand. "Bedtime?" he suggested, not quite neutrally. "You look out of it."
"Yeah," she said, voice steady where her hands were not. "It's been a long day." His chuckle was lost into a yawn, as together they pulled back the quilts.
And Cait Sith would not be budged, not for all their cajoling pleas, not for the offers of all the ham on the planet.
So the laughter was a little nervous as they climbed into the bed, a cat's-length closer to one another than they had ever been. But oh was it warm, delightfully so, in the wake of a dissipating dream-- and neither complained.
"Sleep well," Reeve said, yawning again. Nearer than usual, his breath tickled her ear, and she couldn't help giggling, just a little. No more coffee before bedtime, she swore, feeling giddy, light-headed. In the drowsy warmth of that bed, her rational mind tried valiantly to calculate the significance and ramifications of dreaming in the Secretary of Urban Development's armpit.
She told it, in no uncertain terms, to shut the hell up. She'd think about it in the morning.
Daring, she tilted her head up and whispered in his ear. "Sweet dreams."
when the snow it was falling
the dream, it was calling
and in case you should wonder,
in case you should care--
why we're on our own
never went home
on that night of all nights
we were already there
author's postcript: "pas de trois" means "dance for three," a bit of a ballet term. (it refers to the recurring triangular theme of these guys' relationships.) and if bits of this felt familiar... it's because i've kinda borrowed and adapted the plot of The Nutcracker. (apologies to E.T.A Hoffmann and Baryshnikov and darling symphonic Tchaikovsky.) the doll, the prince, the dream-- you recognize it now, don't you. why, you ask? ...because i am a hopeless romantic, that's why! and i've always had a thing for uncle drosselmeyer. happy holidays, minna-- may visions of sugarplums dance through your heads. ^_#