Disclaimer: As much as I'd like him, Erik-the Phantom of the Opera-isn't mine. Gaston Leroux originally invented him, and so I give the man that credit. The Erik of my imagination, however, is mostly based on the perception of Susan Kay, who wrote a book called Phantom that simply MUST be read by all fans of the original book and/or the musical. The character Joppe isn't mine, either. She belongs to one Elin J., and I thank her many, many times for allowing me to borrow Joppe.

Author's Note: This is largely the result of role-plays between Elin and myself. The premise to it all is that Erik was "adopted" by Jenni just before he would have died and now lives in her home. Joppe is a good friend of both. Jenni in this world is 24 years old; Joppe is about the same age. Just so you know, if you haven't read Phantom you may find yourself occasionally confused, because I make references to the book a few times. However, this is not to say that you won't understand the story. The story itself should be taken as is. Don't try to rationalize it. Just enjoy, or not. It's your choice.

Premier Noël

When Joppe answered the door early one morning in December, clad in her dark blue-with-pink-duckies robe, she wasn't sure what to expect. It certainly wasn't Jennifer Robinson! She rarely came over at all, let alone this early in the morning. The slightly manic gleam in her friend's green eyes, and the conspicuous absence of the third of the usual trio they and another comprised, told Joppe that something was definitely up. Any complaints she might have had about how early it was left her mind without a trace.

"You're plotting something!" she grinned. "Come in and share it; I'll make tea."

Any idea from Jenni Robinson generally meant mischief of some sort. The Pillow Incident in particular was something that wouldn't be forgotten for a long time to come! Joppe was brimming with curiosity as she indicated when Jenni could hang up her winter coat and sit while she went to the kitchen to heat some water.

Jenni sat on the couch and looked appraisingly around the room. She absently rubbed her hands together while whatever was going through her mind caused the smile on her face to slowly spread into a satisfied smirk. She was quite content to wait and savor the feeling of a newly hatched idea for a few minutes.

"So come on, tell me!" Joppe said when she came back in holding a steaming mug in each hand, teabag strings draped over the sides. She handed one to Jenni and sat beside her.

"Oh, you know me better than that," Jenni said as she accepted it. "You know I'm not just going to tell you. That would be too easy!"

Joppe groaned, her smile fading. "It's too early for guessing games. Give me a hint!"

"I heard there's supposed to be lots of snow for Christmas," she replied in an infuriatingly vague tone. She lifted the mug to her mouth to mask her amused grin.

"Huh? Yeah, I'd heard that, too." She paused, thinking about it. "No, I can't guess it. Another hint, please!"

"All right..." Jenni paused to think. "What do you think I'm doing up this early—aside from driving you crazy with this game, I mean."

Joppe blinked. "I dunno... spreading peace and goodwill to all mankind?"

"Something like that," Jenni said with a snicker. "No; really I'm out Christmas shopping, you know, to beat the lines."

"Oh really?" Joppe's eyebrows rose high. "Argh! I can't take this; it's too early! Just tell me!"

"All right, all right!" Jenni laughed joyfully. "This is too... I dunno what, but I have to get you in on this. Actually, it's rather serious...." She paused to collect herself while Joppe leaned forward eagerly.

"Okay, think about this," Jenni continued. "Christmas is coming. Why is this Christmas going to be extra-special?"

The only response was the return of the glazed it's-too-early-to-be-awake look to Joppe's eyes (one green, the other blue).

"Let me rephrase that: Why does this Christmas HAVE to be extra-special? Who do we know...?" she let it hang. She didn't need to go on.

"Who do we... Oh, my god!" Joppe exclaimed, sitting bolt upright. "Erik! It's gonna be... it's his... Oh my GOD! We gotta... we must... what are we going to GET him?"

"I-haven't the slightest idea," Jenni confessed. "I've been awake since 4:30 in the morning thinking about this and all I have are questions. Like, WHERE are we going to do this? Your place? Mine? I mean, how can we possibly cover up what we're doing to make it a surprise? How do you hide something from the Phantom of the Opera if he has a mind to discover it?"

"Umm... stick him in an apron and incarcerate him in the kitchen while one of us does all the work?" Joppe volunteered.

Jenni, who had been just about to take another sip of tea, 'snerffed' into her mug and pulled it back from her face. "An apron... really!" Then, without warning, she burst out laughing. "OOHOO! Add a pink feather duster and one of those little caps to the picture!" She somehow managed not to spill the tea or fall off the couch as she visualized this.

Joppe, too, burst out in whole-hearted laughter that only left her air enough to squeak "pink!" and "cap!" Some tea did slosh out of her mug, causing her to yelp and start.

"Okay...!" Jenni said through her giggles. "All right... this... is very... unproductive!" She took a deep breath, but couldn't quite settle down. "How is it that we always end up doing this? Even when we TRY to be serious?"

"'Cause we... A) Lose focus? B) Have too much fun losing focus? Or C) All of the above?" She grinned.

"Something like that," Jenni agreed. "Seriously, though, we should decide where to be. My place? Yours? And who will distract Erik? What will we eat? Shall we set up tree and presents and stuff while he's sleeping... oh, yeah... then we have to get him to sleep..." she sighed. "This IS gonna be hard. Let's start with food; that's easy enough. I was thinking traditional, but I don't know exactly what that is." She gave her friend a questioning look.

Joppe's eyes rolled heavenward as she thought out loud. "Well, we must have a Christmas ham, there's no more traditional food than that, and of course we'll need, uh... what's it called... gingerbread cookies? I have my mom's recipe for those... OH! And SAFFRONBUNS! One absolutely, positively can NOT have a Christmas without saffronbuns! And those little sausages... but let's skip the herring. Hmm...." she shrugged and looked back at Jenni. "Well, those are the Swedish Christmas foods I can come up with that I also enjoy eating. You wanna fill in some American ones?"

"Okay.... Well, there's the whole thing with leaving milk and cookies out for "Santa," and I can get my hands on TONS of cookie recipes, including gingerbread. We don't have to use all of 'em, but they're lots of fun just to make!"

"I couldn't agree more!"

"I guess Yorkshire pudding is an English thing, but close enough. I dunno.... It just varies so much between people-'melting pot' and all that-but DEFINITELY skip the herring! I think we ought to throw in some French stuff, while we're at it. Wow..." Jenni shook her head. "I am in awe of the sheer scope of this!"

The conversation went on like this until Jenni noticed the wintry sunlight coming in through the windows, and it was decided that the great surprise would be thrown in Jenni's home. It would mean more, Joppe had said, if it happened in that place which had become Erik's home, too. They would work on how to keep it all from him later, because Jenni really had to get back to avoid arousing his suspicions this early in the game.

"Right," Jenni said as she slid back into her coat. "I'll come by again if I have any brilliant ideas. If I have any!"

"You will," Joppe assured her, smiling. "And I'll drop by if I think of anything."

"Good," Jenni nodded. "Well. The first test of the integrity of this plan will be explaining my prolonged absence this morning. See you later." And she stepped out.

"Tell Erik I say 'hi' if it fits with your 'explanation,'" Joppe called. She closed the door and leaned against it, thinking of what was to come. She tried not to imagine what could go wrong—too much, full stop!—and eventually shook herself back to the present. Breakfast was definitely in order. She had been out of bed before sunrise to talk. She must really love this!

~*~

Jenni was having similar thoughts as she walked back home. Only, she did think of all that could spoil her gem of a plan. Her primary fear was that Erik would find out what they were up to before they were ready. She didn't quite trust him not to snoop, and she knew that she wouldn't know about it if he did. She could only hope that he would decide he didn't care.

The other thing nagging at her was how to make it absolutely perfect. She knew it would demand all her time and lots of money. Jenni's chosen career as a freelance artist of several mediums brought in plenty to support two people and she saved carefully—who knew when a creative "drought" would hit—but she planned to spare no expense. She would get what she wanted. No compromise.

Jennifer Robinson smiled then, thinking of what it was that she wanted. The tree had to be tall and full. The only electric lights would be the brightly colored strings delicately hung over its branches. Candles carefully placed would set the mood; a Yule log would burn upon the hearth. Her own ornaments would do nicely; she wouldn't require new ones.

She was imagining how nice the holly sprigs would look against the red interior of her living room when she realized that she had just walked past her house. Being in high spirits, she laughed out loud at herself before turning back and prancing lightly up the front walk. She turned for a last look at the outside. It had snowed lightly that night, and the ice crystals reflected the morning sun with a fresh, clean sparkle. Jenni's spirits soared higher and she went inside feeling as if she were a sunbeam herself.

'Tis winter now; the fallen snow
Has left the heavens all coldly clear!

She sang joyfully. It was a good song for her mezzo range and the "clear" rang through the house just as she had intended.

Through leafless boughs the sharp winds blow
And all the earth lies dead and drear.

The answer came from upstairs. Jenni felt a thrill run through her. This was a rare treat! Erik rarely sang in her hearing. But she had forgotten about that last line. She couldn't leave it at that! "Dead and drear," indeed. She started the second verse as she shucked her heavy coat.

And though abroad the sharp winds blow
And skies are chill and frosts are keen
Home closer draws her circle now
And warmer glows her light within!

How it will glow in here, she thought, and smiled at Erik. He was leaning in the kitchen doorway, regarding her with that part amused, part critical, and part indifferent look. How he managed the combination Jenni didn't know, but it was Erik all over.

"Isn't it a bit too early for you to be in such a cheery mood?" he asked.

"Early? Is it early?" she babbled a little too brightly. "Well, if you find this odd I'm sure you're just dying to know what I was doing out, and you're going to be so frustrated when I don't tell you." Her smile stayed plastered on, but inside she was berating herself for the botched cover-up—or rather, the lack thereof.

One of Erik's eyebrows rose, perceptible only by the subtle shifting of the skin just below his hairline. "But you ARE going to tell me."

"I don't suppose you've eaten anything," she evaded. It was a rhetorical statement. Erik seldom ate unless she badgered him about it.

He didn't bother answering and she went ahead into the kitchen. With eyes now narrowed in a suspicious glare, he followed her and watched her for a short moment as she worked.

"Very well. Don't tell me. I'll simply find out on my own." He stalked away.

Jenni, who had expected to be interrogated, felt that confused feeling that people get when something they anticipated fails to happen at all.

"Hey! Where're you going? I had all these wonderful elusive comebacks prepared and you're not going to play?"

"If I didn't surprise you every now and then, how much fun would I have?" he asked from directly behind her, causing the hair on the back of her neck to rise with surprise.

Once her brain came to the conclusion that there was no threat—it was just Erik!—she smiled and turned around. "I still can't figure out how you do that... Right then." She looked into his mismatched eyes with an expression that said "I dare ya" as clearly as she could have spoken it if so inclined.

"Where did you say you went just now?" He kept both hands leisurely behind his back, looking for all the world as though he were just making a polite inquiry.

Jenni was quite satisfied.

"I didn't say, but I'll tell you. I, being the wonderfully clever person that I am, was out early to get ahead of everyone on the deals of the season. For some reason, people like to buy stuff in December."

"I wonder why...." He seemed to smile strangely. "Did you find anything?"

She suppressed any reaction that would blow the whole thing. Damn him, playing on her heartstrings like that! "Yeah, I saw some stuff... I think. Do you know most people aren't awake at five in the morning? Odd, isn't it?" Never mind that I'm hardly ever up before nine if I can help it, she thought.

"Mm, yes, odd... Another odd thing is that you went out, at this hour, to go shopping..." With a flourish, what he had held behind his back appeared in his hand before her; "without your wallet. It was on the arm of the couch." He gave her a serious look. "So, where were you, really?"

Jenni cursed inwardly. How had she been so blind as to leave it in plain sight? "Well... it isn't really any of your business," she hedged. "Although, now that I think of it, it's nice to know that you care about my whereabouts."

"Hmph," said Erik. "I was merely puzzled by your newfound early habits. And I know you are up to something, probably no good..."

She stepped up to him and snatched the wallet, well aware that she was blushing guiltily. "You should be careful about meddling in affairs which may or may not be any of your concern," she told him hotly. "You might find something out you didn't really want to know."

Angry with herself and certain that she would regret the entire conversation later, she turned away and went back to making breakfast. There was no more talk of anything. After both were finished and the dishes washed and put away, Jenni retreated upstairs to her room. After discovering that she wasn't getting anything accomplished up there, she holed up in the basement. There were her studio and drafting table, as well as a storage room that she had been meaning to clear out for quite some time but never got around to.

Sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper for time that she lost track of, Jennifer Robinson related strongly to Charlotte, the gray barn spider from E. B. White's book: Hanging head down in the center of her web, waiting for ideas to come to her.

~*~

"Ooh: Here, how about—" Joppe cut off what she was saying and flipped the page of the catalog she and Jenni were browsing through. Both women donned their "innocent" look as Erik entered the main room of Jenni's home, silverware in hand.

It was several days in the future from that first one, and the two had coerced Erik into cooking dinner for them—not without much flattery and pleading—so that they could talk. They were mostly certain about what they were going to do for the special day they were preparing, but there still remained the question of a gift. Jenni had an idea, but she wanted to be absolutely certain of it before she did anything. So, much of the time either she was over at Joppe's (and had to have details of what they had done ready for Erik when she got back) or Joppe was at her place. The going was interesting. It took sharp senses and constant vigilance on their part to keep from being overheard saying anything significant, especially at a time like this when Erik found a reason to walk into the main room.

"How's it coming?" Jenni asked him. He had paused just past the kitchen entrance and was giving Jenni and Joppe a very suspicious look.

"Both of you have been entirely too well-behaved this evening. I suspect that you're up to something," he reiterated.

"We could just as easily misbehave if it would make you feel better," Jenni offered, moving as if to stand up. Joppe covered her mouth and tried not to laugh at the deadpan serious expression on her friend's face.

"No, that's quite all right," Erik said quickly, wryly, getting back to setting the table. "But be aware that I will be attuned to any signs of trouble, however minuscule."

Jenni sat back down and looked at Joppe, and both of them dissolved into helpless giggles.

"Us, make trouble? Never!" chortled Joppe.

"Perfect angels, we are," Jenni agreed. Joppe nodded and they managed to keep straight faces for about two seconds before they made the mistake of glancing at each other again.

"You are incorrigible!" Erik pointed a long finger at them from behind the oval table.

"We do try to be good," Jenni reassured, attempting to get control of herself.

Erik looked dubious, and she suddenly felt guilty. The ends don't always justify the means, she reminded herself.

"All right, all right, all right!" She swallowed her mirth and pushed up from the couch, walked to the table and put her palms down on the smooth varnished surface in a gesture of frankness.

"We will prove to you that we have only the best intentions by helping you do this," she indicated the un-set table. Joppe nodded eagerly behind her. "Okay?"

Everything about tonight struck Erik as highly irregular. He assented—as much to keep an eye or two on them as anything else. What was going on? And why did the sincerity behind Jennifer's forest green eyes make him feel so unsettled? He watched her and Joppe carefully as they all worked together, but they chatted and made small talk like any other of the evenings they had spent like this. However, Jenni caught one of his looks over the meal. She tilted her head at his expression—or, as much as she could make of it through the mask—and spoke as if quoting:

"'That which doesn't kill me will only make me frightened.'"

"'Stronger,'" Erik and Joppe both corrected automatically.

Jenni smiled.

"I know," she said. "I heard that somewhere awhile ago and it just came to me. I wonder why...."

But she knew why, and whether he would admit to it or not, so did Erik. Jenni sensed that Erik was worried about what he knew beyond doubt they were hiding, that enigmatic something that he couldn't guess at or suss out. The word 'worry' led to the word 'fear' in Jenni's mind, and the word 'fear' led to one of the psychological tidbits of knowledge that she had stored away. People only allow themselves to be afraid if they felt vulnerable, either through weakness or trust, she thought. Some people even saw trust as a weakness. Erik was one of them.

Jenni thought again of the ever-nearer Christmas Day, but this time with apprehension. How would Erik, whom she cared very deeply for indeed, react to such a gesture as the one she and Joppe were planning? He could go one of two ways, and both stemmed from the same question. Could people care as Jenni and Joppe did for the man who was once the notorious Phantom of the Opera? Jenni hoped beyond hope that he would accept the idea and embrace it, but she now realized that there was a great danger of him regressing into the old memories and rejecting it as impossible. There would follow suspicion of them and their purposes, and all they worked for would be undone in the blink of an eye. Oh, god, could she take that risk?

She felt a warm hand covering her own and looked up into Joppe's concerned eyes. She noticed that she, Jenni, was biting her lip and released the vise of her teeth, glancing around guiltily, and saw Erik looking conflicted. He was duly concerned himself, but didn't know how to say so. He feigned indifference.

"Jenni? Are you okay? What's wrong?" Joppe asked.

"Hmm." Jenni shook herself. "Nothing. I'm fine; just sort of drifted off there." She smiled weakly, but gave Joppe the kind of look that only women share—a look that conveyed the need to talk privately later. Joppe blinked, once in confusion and again in acknowledgment.

"Now, what was that all about?" she asked when they had an opportunity to slip upstairs under the pretense that Jenni wanted her friend's opinion on something she was writing.

"I don't know if we can do this," Jenni said breathlessly and told her of her thoughts at the table.

"Oh." Joppe's face fell. "I had not thought of that."

"Neither had I. We were both very optimistic about this thing. But Christmas is coming, sooner than it feels like. How much we have to do and the risk we're taking; it just hit me." She was pacing back and forth in front of the big window that looked overlooked the snow-covered street below, lit only by a lamp several feet away. It caught the snowflakes in its wide beam as they drifted and spun on their journey to the earth's surface. Suddenly she halted, turning to look Joppe in the face. "D'you ever get the feeling that we're messing with the Powers That Be? Like we're meddling with forces we do not comprehend, or whatever?"

"Do you?" She was somewhat alarmed by the sudden change in Jenni's attitude, which was usually so... so "glass half-full." She couldn't really be thinking of quitting—could she?

Well, Joppe wasn't. She knew a good thing when she saw one, and what they were doing was good. There was no way she could give in at the first major check and feel right about it, and she said so.

"You and I have never let ourselves be scared off before. We shouldn't start now," she placated. "This is a good thing we're doing. We can't turn back. We mustn't turn back."

Jenni looked down at the floor and sighed heavily. Then she smiled and the spark came back into her eyes.

"This is the Point of No Return, isn't it? You're right." She composed herself once more and stood straight. "I don't know what's wrong with me. Of course we'll go on!"

Joppe smiled back. "That's good to hear! You had me worried."

"It'd be a shame to waste the preparations we've made already, wouldn't it? And after all, nothing great was ever achieved without risk," Jenni reinforced her resolve to go forward. "See, Joppe, this is why I need you. You always talk sense!"

"Oh really? Since when?" Joppe asked, grinning. "But never mind. Come on; let's go back downstairs. We've left poor Erik all alone!"

Jenni nodded emphatically and they went. They didn't do any more planning that night, but spent a peaceful winter's evening by the fire as any trio of friends would.

~*~

Things went by quickly after that night. Joppe placed all the orders they had to make from her home, and picked up the things that wouldn't be delivered. There wasn't really all that much stuff—the decorative things would probably fit into one or two average-sized cardboard boxes—but what counted was quality, not quantity. This was about symbolism, and Joppe's place was overflowing with it.

All the live things they needed would be collected a day or two before The Day: The tree especially and certain other winter/Christmas foliage such as holly, poinsettia plants; and Jenni couldn't resist the contrast of white mistletoe berries with the red and green of everything else. She remembered about mistletoe, certainly, and she debated long and hard with herself before deciding that its aesthetic value overruled any concerns she might have about its symbolism. Just—if you find yourself standing under any—use common sense, she admonished herself.

Jenni spent all the time she could spare working on the special gift. She was pleased with the design she and Joppe had finally settled on, but after several false starts on the thing itself she was beginning to think she would have to go to someone who did this sort of thing for a living. Designing, drawing she could do, but she was not experienced in three-dimensional work. She shopped around, made connections, copyrighted her design, and shipped the copies off. Then prayed to the Powers That Be that it would get done in time.

Erik could have found out any number of times what was happening around him. Despite the care the two young women took about what they said and where and when they said it, nothing could have been kept from a determined Erik, and they all knew it. But, even with his curiosity increasing exponentially, he had determined to wait it out. That same old niggling fear warned him that he didn't want to know, and though Jenni hadn't really meant what she had said those weeks ago on the first day of it all, her words had significance. The fear was something he recognized but didn't quite understand. He had felt it only a very few times before, and he refused to dwell on... on then. His world was contained within these walls now, his subconscious said, and he was willing enough to believe that. So he waited.

Waited until Jenni approached him as he came downstairs one night with the information that they were going to stay with Joppe for a day or two.

His eyes narrowed. He hadn't seen this coming at all. "Why?"

Jenni flinched as if she had been slapped, and he felt a little wash of guilt. He hadn't meant to sound so suspicious.

"Well?" he asked more gently.

She smiled in such a way that he knew she understood. She always seemed to.

"There're going to be some people coming to do some work on the... ah... plumbing. Yeah. In, out, all around; otherwise it wouldn't be a problem. You know." She waved her hand about vaguely—a sure sign that she was either nervous or excited.

Erik nodded. He knew, all right. He had no wish to be discovered, and she had no wish to explain him. However, he didn't buy it.

"Is there some reason you're informing me of all this at the last minute?" This was again highly irregular, and he didn't appreciate it at all.

"Because they only confirmed it with me at the last minute," she returned. Erik, please, cooperate with me just this once! You won't regret it, I promise you won't regret it, she begged in her mind.

He studied her face carefully for a minute or so. She managed to keep her expression neutral except for her eyes. The plea behind those forest green eyes persuaded him better than anything she could have said.

"I'll collect my things." He turned and fluidly ascended the spiral stairs.

Jenni heaved a sigh of relief and rolled over the arm of the couch, flopping very ungracefully onto the cushion. Stressed? She? No! She rolled her eyes at herself. That had been a close shave indeed! If her life were a novel, she mused, events would surely be building to a climax now.

Joppe crouched outside, waiting for them to leave. She stayed close to the wall, absorbing what heat radiated through from the fire inside. She wasn't particularly uncomfortable, but she worried about snow soaking through the cardboard boxes around her. And she felt very strange hiding out like this at night. Thank goodness for yew bushes, she thought again.

The front door banged shut, and she jumped. She could hear Jenni chattering away about freezing water pipes, or something. Two shadowed figures walked past Joppe's post, and she was about to breathe a sigh of relief at not being seen when the shorter of the two involuntarily glanced back at her. She ducked and froze as Erik also looked. For a short eternity she felt as if a searchlight beam was panning over her. Then she distinctly heard the word "squirrel" followed by Jenni's laughter, and she was safe!

Right, then. It had begun! Joppe waited a while longer before starting to move things into the house, and starting the countdown in her head. Seven days. They had seven days more to wait!

~*~

Seven long, hectic, chaotic and stressful days of pulling a constant double blind. Jenni hadn't realized how much work this was going to be! She and Joppe were hard-pressed to come up with enough viable excuses and alibis for all the running about they had to take turns doing. More than once she fell to wondering what had become of Nadir, the Persian, Erik's friend. How they could use an extra person, an extra pair of hands, an extra mind! But she had to stay focused. As predicted, Erik's curiosity was at last getting the better of him.

"I demand to know what is going on!" he declared.

They were on Day Three of the countdown. It was mid-afternoon and the sky was heavily overcast, casting the world in monochromatic hues of gray and white. The clouds looked as though they might burst with snow.

Jenni went through several emotions in rapid fire before reacting with a wide grin. All concerns aside, it was three days before The Day and she was psyched!

"What makes you think I'm going to tell you anything?"

"Because I will find out, one way or another," he threatened. But she laughed and captured the skeletal finger he was shaking under her nose and held the hand it was attached to with her other.

"Yes, you will," she agreed. "But in due time, and not through me. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have dinner to tend to." She released his hand and briskly disappeared into Joppe's kitchen. Jenni had insisted on sharing such tasks as cooking while they were there.

Joppe, who had been listening close at hand, made a break for the front door, but Erik stopped her.

"Out with it now. I know you two are up to something!"

"We're plotting to get you into a baby blue tux." She smiled sweetly up at him.

Erik's eyebrows jumped in alarm.

"You're joking."

"Of course I am, dear. Bye-bye now; things to do, you know!" She skipped out the door.

Erik growled and threw his arms up in exasperation!

He was sullen and didn't speak much for the rest of the day, but Jenni (and Joppe, when she got back from her "errands") smiled at him and thought of the wonderful surprise in store.

~*~

Two days Before. Jenni began to fret that the gift hadn't been sent back to her by now. Joppe caught Erik listening in on a conversation she and Jenni were having about trees. They were able to bluff their way out of trouble that time, but they kept their sense on hyper-alert afterwards.

Preparations at Jennifer Robinson's place were coming along beautifully. Jenni secured and had brought in the tallest, fullest tree that would fit in her living room and waited impatiently for it to settle. Meanwhile, she planned and organized everything to be set up the next day. Joppe had all she could do to keep Erik occupied.

~*~

The Day Before. Christmas Eve Day. Finally a good excuse to keep Erik in the kitchen: Joppe needed help preparing foodstuff for "a party she was going to." Jenni was gone all day "on business." A good deal of her time was spent on the tree, placing everything with the utmost care. It had to be perfect—and it was when she was done, save for one bare spot just above her eye level. When was the mail going to get here?! Well, she would waste no time waiting for it! There were candles to be placed and other presents to wrap yet.

At one point Jenni discovered that she had the "Tomorrow" song from Annie stuck in her head and sang loudly to release some energy.

A few very minor cooking "accidents" befell Joppe, but each was resolved successfully. However, when a large lump of cookie dough happened to "fall" into a pile of flour—right next to where Joppe was mixing icing—chaos ensued. It might as well have been snowing in the kitchen for all the white that ended up all over everything. When Erik informed her that she resembled a snow-person, she responded that he should be a snow-angel and get the mop!

Apparently a large drift of snow had decided to pile up in front of the post office, so mail was to be delayed "until further notice." Needless to say, Jenni was incensed. She stormed over straight away and very pointedly informed the woman at the front desk that SHE was "further notice," and if her things weren't in her hands post haste the snow would be the least of their worries!

This was around four o'clock in the afternoon. She got back to Joppe's a little after seven and was immediately drafted into helping to finish with the food for the next day. She laughed when Joppe told her about what had happened and complained cheerfully about not being there to see it-and participate. But she was worried that they wouldn't be completely ready by morning. She mentally prepared herself for an all-nighter.

It was late night when Jenni and Joppe stealthily crept out the door. They dared not check to see if Erik was asleep, and they looked back often to make sure that he wasn't following them. Of course, they knew they wouldn't see him even if he was, so they made sure to lock all the doors and windows of Jenni's house once they got there. Fortunately, this turned out to be an unnecessary precaution.

The two friends worked busily into the small hours of the morning, but they didn't feel rushed. There was an air about them, the house, the time, what they were doing. Jenni called it a Christmas miracle. Whatever it was, they were ready before the sun even considered rising.

~*~

"Erik."

A soft voice, woven gently through the fabric of sleep.

"Erik."

Who was that? Who spoke his name in the way they would handle a delicate glass sculpture?

"Wake up, my friend. Father Christmas has been here, and he's left something special just for you."

This must be a dream....

~*~

"You two... when am I going to be allowed to open my eyes?" Will I wake up when I do?

"It's just a bit further, Erik," Joppe answered. "Just a bit longer."

Jenni squeezed the hand she was holding reassuringly. Each woman held one of Erik's, and thus they led him. It had snowed again, but the clouds had hurried away and the moon shone brightly from the black velvet sky, which was studded with billions of diamond-like stars made all the more bright by the clear winter air. Moonlight and starlight caught the tiny facets in each fresh snowflake on the earth far below and lit the landscape, turning it into an awe-inspiring visage of crystal and glass. There was no sound but for the crunching of their boots on the walk, and each step added to the excitement they felt. This was it.

Up the front steps and through the door. They stopped.

"Now."

"Now!"

Erik's eyes snapped open.

He wasn't sure where he was for a moment. Wasn't convinced that what he beheld was real and not some marvelous hallucination. Wasn't positive that he was even awake.

Jenni's familiar living room had been completely transformed. The fire burning on the hearth was of a different quality—warmer, brighter, more lively. Candles—two whites in chalice-bowls, one in each front window, flanking the door—augmented its natural glow. On the long shelf above the couch was centered a tall pine-green; on either side a shorter cinnamon-scented red. The mantle of the fireplace displayed the same arrangement. The centerpiece on the table was truly a work of art. It was comprised of six tall, thin white candles that made a circle around a glass bowl that held a clear gel. In the gel was set a wick and metallic silver glitter that twinkled like the stars outside in the light. Sprigs of holly and pine were arranged around all the candles, along with the occasional branch of mistletoe. True to tradition, a few of these had also been cunningly hung over doorways. Potted poinsettias had been selectively placed about the room-in a corner there, on the end table here. And there was the tree.

Erik had never seen its like before. Perhaps... perhaps in his days at the Paris Opera there had been a great pine in the Grand Foyer each winter, hung with all manner of glitz and gilded baubles, but this was something else entirely. He moved forward in a kind of fascinated daze to examine it, to touch its branches and inhale its fragrance. It was decorated, yes. There were the glowing strings of colored lights. A silver garland had been carefully draped around it, and there were ornaments, but of a homely quality. Each one had character, almost as if they could each tell many tales of the things they had witnessed, if one took the time to listen. And they were arranged with such obvious care... but what was this bare place?

He turned to face the two women, intending... something very forgettable. They stood close to one another, smiling. He knew that they had predicted this moment. Then the small box Jenni was holding caught his eye. It was wrapped in paper of a red rose pattern and tied with an ivory ribbon. He could see there was a tag with a simple design in pencil and four letters.

Suddenly, at last, he understood what was happening. All the secrecy, all the... Blood rushed to his head as his heart leapt into his throat. He felt shaky, weak, and hardly dared to look her in the eyes.

But with slow, painful determination, he did. And it was all Jenni could do not to rush to his side. There was such pain in his mismatched eyes of blue and brown, such fear of the answer to the question that was there also. She approached him slowly, as one would a lost puppy.

"This one's for you," she said tenderly. Behind her, Joppe nodded her head. "Go on."

Erik couldn't move. His muscles weren't responding and his head swam with memories. There had been other days, long, long ago, when there had been presents. But he had never gotten what he had really wanted. What did he want? Those words echoed in his mind. What do you want? These two had never asked. This couldn't be....

Then, Jenni's warm hands were on his own, moving them, curling them around the package until he held it with both hands.

"Go on," she urged him again.

"May I?" Erik breathed, having nothing else to say but needing desperately to speak. The picture on the tag... why, it was a nightingale. And there, his name.

Jenni nodded and watched as he undid the bow with agonizing slowness. It drifted to the floor, white curls standing out against the deep red carpet. The paper followed, and the top of the box itself.

He lifted out a glass disc, about three inches in diameter. It twirled slowly as it hung by its velvety red ribbon, glinting in the firelight. On one side was etched a perfect rose with exquisite detail. Every individual petal was distinct from the others. The leaves had veins. He could feel them as he caressed it with his thumb.

The other side held an inscription in French.

"'Your past is behind you and the future lies before you,'" he murmured, a tone of increasing awe in his voice. "'Whatever you make of it, always remember that you have friends. Happy First Christmas. Love, Jenni and Joppe.'" The last phrase was whispered.

Joppe had moved to stand beside Jenni again and he looked up briefly to meet their eyes. Jenni quivered.

"Do you... do you mean that?"

"Of course we do...." Jenni said.

"We wouldn't say it if we didn't mean it," Joppe affirmed.

That was too much for Erik. A little cry escaped his lips as his knees gave out and he sank to the floor, clutching his ornament as if it were a lifeline.

"Erik!" The two women spoke and moved as one, kneeling on either side of him, supporting him.

"Erik," Jenni repeated, not knowing what else to say. She stroked his hair and the fabric of the 'cursed mask, which was dampening with silent tears. "Oh, Erik... don't." She wrapped her left arm around him and rested her head on his shoulder. "This is Christmas. You're supposed to be happy," she told him lamely.

Something that might have been a laugh or a sob, or some combination, shook his lean frame. Jenni hugged him tighter. Thinking it might be a good idea to try to change the atmosphere in the room, Joppe got up to put on the music they had selected.

"At least come to the couch and don't sit there, on the floor," she implored. She felt as though she might cry herself, and that wouldn't be good!

Jenni looked up at her gratefully and nodded, then physically lifted their friend to his feet. Joppe hurried to assist and together they went the short distance across the room.

Erik didn't have the will to protest or resist the manhandling of himself. He knew he couldn't have moved by himself. All strength had drained away from him in a few brief moments. As Jenni and Joppe carefully lowered him to a sitting position, he entertained the notion that perhaps he would die now, as he had not the past times he had felt certain of it. But the thought was dismissed as quickly as it had entered his mind. As a ray of light, a new idea broke into his consciousness. As the two women nestled against his sides, he thought how wonderful it felt to have two warm, human bodies pressed against his, completely of their own free will. He remembered that it had been Jennifer Robinson who had come to him when he was sure his life was over. She had saved him. And he didn't want to die.

All the sensory input he had been blocking came flooding back. He smelled the pine scent from the tree and cinnamon from the candles, and other aromas drifted in from the kitchen. He heard the music that was playing and delighted in it. He could feel the heat from the fire, and every color seemed to stand out as never before. It was as if he had been deprived of his senses all these years and, suddenly, there they were. It was a shock, but an utterly delightful one.

Once again he wasn't sure if it was all real. Discovering that the glass ornament had been placed on the oval table, he groped for Jenni's hand on his right and Joppe's on his left. He clasped them both and held them close to him to be absolutely certain that they were there, real, living and breathing.

Erik sensed more than saw the pleased and astonished expressions on the women's faces. The tears he shed were those of joy now, and the sound that escaped his throat was more laugh than cry. He touched his head to each of theirs in turn, a caress they readily returned.

No words were spoken. They were unnecessary.

~*~

"Well, that leaves just one more thing to do," Joppe said later that morning.

The two women knelt at the base of the tree, where they had exchanged their gifts for each other. Erik had sat quietly on the couch, still digesting the day's events, commenting only when prompted.

"Only one?" Jenni responded dubiously, thinking of all the wrappings strewn about on the floor and the dinner yet to be eaten.

"Yep." Joppe pointed.

Jenni looked. "Oh, that's right." She put her hands down decisively on her knees and stood up, then tilted her head and smiled at Erik. "C'mon, you; up!"

"What?" Whatever he had been thinking left his mind in a hurry as she grasped his hands and pulled him to his feet.

"There's still a bare spot on the tree," said Joppe, who has also risen. "And it just so happens that you're the one with the means to fill it, my dear." She picked up and presented Erik with his glass ornament.

"Ah yes. I am, aren't I?"

He lifted the disc from her palm and stepped toward the tree, and stood a moment determining exactly where it should go. With the thumb and forefinger of his right hand he spread the red velvety loop, sliding it carefully over the prickly needles while holding the ornament with his left. He paused then, wondering why this felt so significant, then let go.

The branch bobbed up and down under the weight of the disc. It spun around, refracting the light from the colored bulbs in a lovely way.

Jenni smiled up at Erik. In some ways, he was very much like a small child. One that she adored unconditionally.

"Happy First Christmas, Erik," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. He turned slightly to face her directly.

"Yes, happy First Christmas!" Joppe chimed in. She had quietly inched, unnoticed by the others, in the direction of the kitchen doorway, where she quietly reached for something.

"I... I think it was," Erik said, peering intently at Jenni's face. "Could I... possibly ask you something?"

"Anything."

"Well... next time—there will be a next time?"

"Of course." A puzzled frown furrowed her brows.

"Ah." Erik looked relieved, yet still worried. There was something he needed to express, something that bothered him, but struggled to get it out. "Then... I wondered... are you going to be... will you... ask...."

He trailed off, shaking his head, but Jenni understood. She always seemed to. Her heart did a flip-flop as she nodded and opened her mouth to answer, but then she sensed a movement behind her.

Joppe had understood, too, and even anticipated. Jenni and Erik both looked to see her standing on a chair and grinning, holding a green and white mistletoe bunch over their heads.

Jenni looked up into Erik's eyes. He looked down into hers.

~Fin~

November 15, 2002