I wanted to write a Christmas story this year, and get it done on time. And we were baking gingerbread. This is what happened. You have been warned.
December 20. It was snowing gently when Reno arrived, loudly and dragging Tseng by one arm. Tseng tripped on the doorstep and nearly fell, giving Reno ample time to haul him the rest of the way inside and close the door.
"So what are we doing?" he asked, trying to get his jacket and his boots off at the same time. Tseng took his own off, then sidled around a couple of people and joined Vincent in a vacant corner.
"You got dragged into this too?" he asked.
"I live here. I had no choice."
"What's going on, exactly?"
"Mass cookie production."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Apparently, when Tifa and Cloud were children, it was custom to invite friends and family to join in an evening of baking and decorating cookies. One or possibly both of them missed it, and they decided to invite everyone they knew to join in. I wasn't aware of your presence on the guest list, though. What happened?"
"Yes. I accidentally let him know that I planned on spending the holidays alone with a couple of good books and a bottle of wine. He's decided that he has to get me involved in every holiday event he can."
"This will be easy," Tseng assured him. "If I can get through drunken shenanigans at a strip club, I can handle cookies."
"You've obviously not been paying attention to the way these people operate. Nothing they do can simply be 'handled'."
"Mr. Valentine!" Marlene appeared between them, tugging at Vincent's cape.
"Come cut out gingerbread with me! You can come too, Mr. Turk."
Tseng smiled thinly and tried to talk his way out of it. Vincent nudged him in the ribs.
"If I can do this, so can you. And you never turn down a child's invitation."
Marlene led them over to the slightly lower bit of counter that she and Denzel were working on. The whole area was covered in flour, rolled out and balled up dough, and cookie cutters of various shapes and sizes. Denzel was carefully working a reindeer out of the cutter and grinned when Vincent arrived.
"I bet you can make really cool ones without using a cutter!"
"Yeah!" Marlene enthused.
"This isn't a cooking tool, Denzel, and I don't think-"
"Fine. Let me go hang my cloak up."
Tseng found himself suddenly alone with two children. They looked up at him, unsure what to do with him, then conferred in whispers. Marlene picked up a handful of cutters and offered them to him.
"What do you want to make?"
Resigned to his task, Tseng picked through the offered tools and selected a few simple ones: a five-pointed star, a round with scalloped edges, and a Christmas tree.
"These will do."
"Okay. You can use this spot. There's dough in the bowl, and here's a rolling pin. Tifa says not to make them too thin, of they'll get all hard and nobody'll wanna eat them."
"How thin is too thin?"
"If it's less than a quarter inch, it's too thin," Tifa informed him, breezing past with a tray of cookies. "Try to err on the thick side. Chewy cookies are always good."
Tseng turned back to the counter, eyed the dark brown mass in the bowl, and sighed. He rolled his sleeves up and collected a double handful of dough, then looked for an open bit of counter space. He found one to Denzel's left, already dusted with flour- like everything within four or five feet of the children- and free of debris. Marlene handed him a rolling pin, and he got to work.
Elsewhere in the kitchen, Reno was merrily cutting shapes out of sugar cookie dough, chattering away with Yuffie as he worked. Cloud was stationed at the kitchen island, rolling snowballs. Cid lurked in the corners, waiting for another chance to scoot out and snitch an uncooked cookie from a tray. Tifa presided over the whole mess, carrying trays of cookies to and from the oven, distributing drinks, and beating Cid with a wooden spoon whenever she got the chance.
"Okay! I need someone to roll the snowballs in sugar, please!"
"I'll do it!" Yuffie offered, squeezing between Reno and Cloud to join Tifa at a different stretch of counter. "What do I do?"
"Just drop these into the sugar and roll them until they're white," Tifa said, demonstrating with a single snowball. She dropped it into a deep tray of powdered sugar and rolled it around with a fork until it was covered. "Then just pull it out and put it on a rack to cool."
"Be careful, though, or the sugar will go- wait! Not so many at once!"
Powdered sugar flew everywhere. Anyone within nearly six feet of Yuffie received a liberal dusting. Directly at ground zero, Yuffie was turned completely white, coated from the top down in the fine powder. She licked sugar off her lips and grinned.
"Damn, girl, can you do anything without letting us all know what you're up to?" Barret demanded. He was stationed at the stove, out of the way of the worst of the chaos while he worked diligently at the fudge Tifa had put him in charge of.
"Cannot," Cloud muttered, shaking sugar out of his hair.
Over at the gingerbread counter, a competition of sorts had broken out.
It had begun when Vincent returned, without his cloak and with a carefully washed set of claws. Marlene helpfully rolled out a stretch of dough, and Vincent attacked it with a will, tracing shapes in it that no cookie cutter could match.
"They're so pretty!" Marlene cooed, picking up a remarkably detailed angel shape and showing it to Denzel. "Can you do stuff like this, Mr. Turk?"
Tseng shook his head, nodding at his modest collection of stars, trees, and wreaths- made by stealing a bottle cap and cutting circles out of the center of his scalloped rounds.
"I'm afraid I don't have any practice at this kind of thing."
"I bet you can," Denzel murmured, taking the angel from Marlene and putting it on a tray. "You're a Turk, and so was he. And Reno's doing all kinds of things over there."
He pointed to where Reno had gotten his hands on miniature cutters and was cutting shapes out of the center of his larger cookies.
"You should see who can do a prettier one!" Marlene squealed, excited.
"I don't-" Vincent started.
"But this isn't-" Tseng tried.
Two pairs of bright, expectant eyes turned on the men. Tseng, who had no practice at resisting them, caved in seconds. Vincent followed suit after holding out for nearly a full minute.
"Fine," they said together.
Marlene ran to get Tifa, who came over with a couple of small paring knives for Tseng to use in place of the claws he didn't have.
"Want me to judge?" she asked, smiling when Denzel explained what was going on.
"We can do it," Marlene promised.
"Have fun, then."
Denzel and Marlene each rolled out a new stretch of dough. Vincent dipped his claws in flour. Tseng tested the knives and did the same.
After successfully producing six trays of sugar cookies, Reno had moved to a new project- spritz cookies. They were entirely new to him, but he was wildly enthusiastic as soon as he was told that the production of said cookies involved a gun.
"You just squeeze the trigger, like this," Tifa explained, showing him. "Not too much, or it won't look like anything."
"You've really never seen these before?"
"Gingerbread was about the extent of our Christmas cooking, yo. Not too much time or money for anything fancier, living under the Plate."
"Oh, right. Sorry, I-"
"Don't be. I didn't know any better, so I had fun. And I still have fun."
"Thanks for bringing Tseng along. It looks like he's actually enjoying himself."
Reno looked over to the gingerbread counter, where Tseng and Vincent were cutting busily, cheered on by Marlene and Denzel.
"Yeah. Christmas isn't really his thing, y'know? They didn't celebrate it in Wutai like we do here, not when he was a kid, and it's about family and friends, so when he moved here…..he didn't have anyone to celebrate with. I've been taking him to every party I can, see if I can show him why I like it so much."
Tifa's smile softened.
"That's really sweet."
"Just doin' what I do best, yo."
"And that is?"
"Making people see the sunny side, whether they like it or not."
Tseng and Vincent finished within seconds of each other. Marlene cleared away scraps of dough, leaving the finished creations in the open to be judged.
On Tseng's side of the counter, he'd gone with what he knew and had traced out Wutain characters for joy, love, hope, celebration, family, and friends. If they hadn't been made of cookie dough, the graceful characters could have come from a display of fine calligraphy.
Vincent had made a small blizzard of lacy snowflakes, each one different. Each cookie was large enough to fill his palm, but the dough they were made of was far less- the neat holes and shapes cut out of it left slender strips of dough connecting everything.
Moments after Marlene had declared the start of the contest, Tseng had looked over at Vincent. The gunslinger was surveying his dough, tracing ideas out with light touches. He paused and turned to meet Tseng's gaze. He looked from the blank dough on the counter to the knives in Tseng's hands, then up to Tseng's face. The corners of his mouth quirked up in a challenging smirk.
Try and beat me, he mouthed.
Tseng raised an eyebrow. Vincent shrugged and turned back to his dough. Tseng looked around the room, trying to draw inspiration from the other guests. Nothing was coming from him, until he saw Tifa leaning over Cloud's shoulder and watching him turn out snowballs. Cloud stopped for a minute and smiled at Tifa, offering her a ball of the sweet, nutty dough. Tifa laughed and let him feed it to her.
He looked again. Barret was talking construction with Cid while he worked on the fudge. Cid had his hands full of something soft and white that he refused to name but which smelled strongly of peppermint. He'd promised that, whatever it was, he'd grown up having it for Christmas and that it was edible, so don't worry. A small pile of stolen cookies cooled by his elbow. Yuffie chopped nuts for nut brittle, eating nearly as many nuts as she was chopping. Over everything, a CD of Christmas carols played, telling of the wonders of snow and friends and winter. The kitchen was warm and full of good smells. Outside, darkness fell, softening the edges of crusty snowdrifts and icicles.
Tseng smiled and turned back to his dough.
"What are you making?" Barret asked, trying to peer over Cid's shoulder at whatever the pilot was making. He received a shoulder in the jaw and no glimpse of the creation.
"Can't tell you. Gitoutta my face."
"I wanna know what you're planning on feeding my little girl!"
"It didn't kill me when I was a kid, did it? It'll be fine, so stop peekin'!"
Barret huffed but pulled away, leaving Cid hunched over a tray in the breakfast nook, fiddling with the unnamed white stuff, a variety of small candies, and several small bowls of icing.
"I think it's a tie," Marlene said doubtfully, looking from snowflakes to characters and back again. "I can't pick. They're all so pretty."
"I didn't even know you could do stuff like this with cookie dough," Denzel agreed.
"You both win," Marlene informed Vincent and Tseng. "Can we help decorate these, after they get baked?"
"Of course," Vincent murmured. Tseng smirked at him, pleased that that he had at least tied with the formidable gunslinger. Let that be a lesson that today's Turks were just as versatile as those of thirty years ago!
Tseng looked down. Marlene was right next to him, fidgeting a little.
"Can you make my name, like you made those other words?"
"As a cookie?"
"I suppose. You'll have to spell it for me, so I can make the characters properly."
Marlene beamed at him and set to rolling out a new lump of dough.
"Okay. Thank you, Mr. Turk!"
"My name is Tseng."
When the last batch of cookies had been pulled from the oven and set out to cool, Tifa herded everyone into the bar for dinner. Once everyone was settled- and Cid had been chased away from the cooling racks- she carried in homemade pizza pockets, salad, and breadsticks.
Somewhere in the midst of the happy, tomato-and-garlic-scented quiet, Cid casually asked how much time off Rufus had given his Turks.
"A week," Reno mumbled around a mouthful of bread. "And a couple of days around New Years. He knows I'm gonna go out and get drunk anyway, so he might as well plan for the hangovers in advance."
"Does he do anything for Christmas?" Yuffie asked. "I mean, he doesn't have any family to celebrate with, but does he go out or something?"
Everyone looked to Tseng.
"You know more about him than the rest of us, yo."
"And you assume that I know what he plans to do with his free time?"
"As far as I know, he plans on spending the holidays in his quarters, taking care of some paperwork and making plans for the coming year."
"That's no fun!" Yuffie said, sounding almost sympathetic.
"Somebody should go get him!" Marlene suggested.
"I'll do it," Tseng offered.
"Oh, no you don't," Reno growled, brandishing a pizza pocket at him in them most threatening manner he could. "You're not going anywhere."
"I'll get him," Cloud said, getting up. "I'm done eating anyway."
"You'll need codes to get in," Tseng sighed. "Find me something to write on and I'll give them to you."
Dishes were being washed, frostings were being made, and decorations were being set out when Cloud returned. Rufus hurried in after him in a flurry of snow.
"You really need to find more practical transport than a motorcycle," Rufus muttered, shivering. He brushed snow out of his hair and shrugged his rather wet trench coat off. "Particularly in weather like this."
"You need to get a better winter coat," Cloud retorted. Marlene ran up to greet him. "Guess what, Marlene? It's snowing again."
"Really?" Marlene ran to the door and pulled it open again, admitting a gust of cold wind and a small blizzard. "It is! It's snowing!"
"And it's freezing out there." Rufus left his boots in the muddle by the door and moved closer to the kitchen door, still shivering.
"Come in!" Tifa called. "Have you eaten?"
Before Rufus could finish, Tifa had shoved a mug of hot chocolate into his hands and was bustling around, getting a plate together so Rufus could eat before the decorating started.
"Here. Just find somewhere that isn't covered in flour and sugar to sit. No, you'd better come into the kitchen, you look frozen. There's some space in the breakfast nook, over by Cid. You can sit there."
"That's not necess-"
Tifa ignored Rufus' protests and herded him over to the breakfast nook. She pushed him gently onto the seat, put the plate down in front of him, and brushed some melted snow out of his hair.
"Eat quick, so we don't start without you."
Rufus opened his mouth to object, then changed his mind and turned his attention to the food.
The decorating half of the evening was more organized than the baking half. Bowls of frosting and shakers of sprinkles were spaced along both counters, alternated with trays of gingerbread. The entire kitchen island was hidden under waxed paper, a designated drying area for finished cookies.
Rufus found himself standing between Reno and Cloud, wearing an apron that Tifa had found somewhere. "You don't come to cook wearing clothes as nice as these," she had sighed, tying the strings behind him before he could get away from her.
"What are we doing, exactly?"
"Decorating cookies," Cloud said shortly, reaching for a cookie and the bowl of white icing.
Rufus looked to Reno for a more detailed explanation.
"Works like this," Reno said, picking up a cookie shaped like a candy cane. "You pick a cookie. Then you decide what you want it to look like." He reached across Rufus to steal the white icing from Cloud.
"I'm teaching him, yo. Hang on a sec. Once you know what it's gonna look like, you make it look that way. Like this." He spread white over the cookie, handed the bowl back to Cloud, and picked up a pastry bag of red icing. A few carefully placed stripes later, he turned around to place the cookie, now decorated in the classic candy cane style, on the island to set. "See? Easy. You can use any color, and put anything that you want. It's edible art."
Rufus frowned, then selected a circle and reached for another bowl of icing.
Yuffie picked through the nearest tray of cookies, searching for one worthy of her ninja decorating skills.
"Hey! Who made the joy character?" She pawed through the pile, sorting out more of the unusual cookies. "And the others? Hope, and family, and…..Marlene?"
"Me," Tseng said quietly.
"What did he do?" Cloud asked.
"These!" Yuffie waved the joy cookie. "Aren't they cool? I've never seen cookies like these before!"
Tseng spent several minutes in a knot of admirers, asking how he'd done them and what the characters meant.
"Vincent made some very intricate ones as well," he said, trying to lead them all off on another track. "Snowflakes. Haven't you seen them?"
That sent half of the gathered decorators searching for the snowflakes. Tseng breathed a sigh of relief and picked up another wreath.
"Not used to being the center of attention?" Vincent chuckled, carefully placing edible silver balls on a small tree.
"No. Are you?"
"Somewhat. I can handle it without wanting to reach for the nearest potential weapon, at least."
"Heeeeyyyy! Tifa! Is there any gingerbread dough left?"
"Mmhm," Tifa murmured, more concerned with the scarf and mittens she was drawing on a gingerbread man. "Why?"
Yuffie put her cookie down and bounced over to Tseng, grinning impishly at him.
"Can I help you?"
"Uh-huh. If I roll the dough out, will you make name cookies for everyone?"
Tseng stared at her.
"Because they're cool! I've seen cookies with names written on them before, but never cookies that are cut into the shape of names! And never, ever in Wutain! Please? Pleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease?"
To the surprise of everyone present, Tseng blushed deeply and ducked his head, not meeting anyone's eye.
"I suppose I could."
"Cool! Do me first?"
Cid took a break from his pepperminty project and came over to help decorate. Leaning around Vincent, he took a snowflake and held it up to the light, marveling at the intricate design.
"Gotta hand it to you, Vin, these are really neat."
"Thank you. Are you actually going to decorate that, or eat it?"
"Both. Decorate first. Hand me the white?"
Vincent pushed the white icing over to where Cid could reach it. Cid picked up the knife and carefully spread a thin layer of white over the entire thing, leaving all the lacy openings clear. Then he shuffled the shakers of sprinklers around until he found the clear decorating sugar, popped the top off, and shook glittering sugar over the icing, pressing gently to make it stick. Finished, he showed the cookie to Vincent. It sparkled and shone like a real snowflake.
"That's…..I'm impressed, HighWind. You never struck me as an artist."
"'m no artist," Cid shrugged. "That's what snowflakes look like, 'cept not so big."
"And it doesn't last much longer than a real one, either," Vincent laughed as Cid took a bite out of the creation.
"Yeah, well, someone said that 'the best things in life are fleeting', right? That goes for snowflakes and cookies."
"I haven't seen you eat one yet. Are ya gonna?"
"When we're finished."
"Aww, that's no fun! You gotta get 'em when they're so fresh they're practically breathing!"
Vincent made a face.
"Thank you for that appetizing mental image."
"You're welcome. Here, I'll even do one for you."
Despite Vincent's protests, Cid picked a wreath, covered it in spiky little streaks of green icing, traced a red icing bow on the bottom, and sprinkled sugar snow over it. Then he offered it to Vincent.
"Here. Eat it, don't admire it."
Vincent took it, gave it a quick, appreciative look, and bit in. Cid watched, making sure he was eating it, and gave a small hmph of satisfaction.
"There. You need to eat more cookies; you're too skinny."
"I've been too skinny for more than thirty years, and it's never been a problem."
"It's always a good time to change."
"Let's make a deal, then. I'll put on a little weight, and you quit smoking."
"Cid! Language!" Tifa hollered.
"Sorry!" he yelled back, and glared at Vincent.
"You did that on purpose."
The name cookies were left until last, by unanimous vote. When they had all cooled, they were distributed to their respective owners to be decorated as they saw fit.
"We should make this a tradition," Rufus commented, outlining his name in blue. He had turned out a respectable number of circles, all decorated to look like Christmas tree ornaments, and a handful of ornate trees. "I'll host, next year."
"Especially the names!" Yuffie added. Her 'ninja baking skills' had resulted in a number of creations, most notably the stars decorated to look like shuriken.
"Only if Tseng wants to," Tifa reminded her. She brushed at some small, round sprinkles that were resolutely clinging to her arm. She'd focused on sugar cookies, using Cid's trick of thin icing and a layer of glittering dyed sugar or whimsical sprinkles.
"I don't mind," Tseng mumbled, not looking up from the polka-dots and zigzags he was making on his name. He'd stuck to abstract art for his decorating.
"And we can have a contest next time!" Denzel enthused. His section of the drying area was heavily populated with brightly colored animal cookies.
"It could be a potluck," Cloud suggested. His collection was simple, mostly outlined shapes with small dots of icing within.
"I can't cook!" Reno announced, squeezing a dollop of icing into Marlene's mouth when Tifa wasn't looking. She giggled and ran off, her cookie already done, but not before stealing one of Reno's varicolored candy canes from the island.
"We know," Vincent snorted, sticking cinnamon dots to his name. He'd kept mostly to large sprinkles and candies for his cookies.
"I'm not making the fudge next time," Barret added, nodding at the fridge, where two pans of cooling fudge were hidden. He let Marlene drag a stool over and help decorate his name, as she'd helped with most of his share of the other cookies.
"That'd be really fun!" she giggled, spreading bright orange icing over the first character in Barrett's name. Her preferences tended to the eye-burning shades, and she'd managed to talk Tifa into making several small bowls of icing with extra dye in them specifically for her use.
"I call this a success," Cid declared. His meager arrangement of completed cookies were all decorated in as realistic a fashion as possible.
Clean-up was taken care of as quickly as ten pairs of hands could do it, and everyone moved into the living room. Tifa distributed egg nog- alcoholic for anyone over 18 who wanted it, and non-alcoholic for everyone else- and Marlene came running in with a selection of Christmas movies. She carried them over to Tseng to let him choose which one they would watch. Somewhat surprised by her sudden desire to include him, Tseng picked one that didn't look overly cute and let her run off to start it.
"She's taken a liking to you," Vincent murmured behind him. Tseng jumped.
"What?" he whispered, turning to face Vincent.
"Marlene. She likes you."
"Any child will start to like you when you pay attention to their wants and likes, Tseng. And Marlene is very generous with her affection. Congratulations: you're her current favorite person."
"Is that a good thing?"
"It is always a good thing."
"Okay, everybody sit down!" Marlene scrambled for the couch, holding the remote.
"Is this mandatory?" Tseng asked quietly.
"Very," Cloud whispered back, making for the rocking chair.
Tseng nodded and looked for a seat. He managed to dodge around Reno and steal the coveted armchair seat. Looking wounded, Reno slunk over and squeezed onto the couch between Vincent and Rufus. Marlene got up from where she was sitting and ran over to climb into Tseng's lap. He tensed, not sure what to do with himself, then forced himself to relax as the opening of the movie rolled and Marlene snuggled into him.
Denzel and Marlene were yawning when the movie finished. Barret was snoring softly at his end of the couch. Reno, pleasantly buzzed, lay across Vincent and Cloud's laps. Everyone started to get up, slowly, until Yuffie remembered one key detail.
"You never showed us what you were making."
"Oh yeah, right. Stay here, all o' yeh." He hurried out of the room, leaving the remaining guests to mill around and wonder what the peppermint creation really was.
Tseng, holding Marlene, moved over to the window and pushed the curtain aside. "Look," he whispered to her.
Marlene rubbed her eyes and looked out the window. She squealed with delight, hugged Tseng's neck, and planted a kiss on his cheek.
"It's so pretty! Look, Tifa! It stopped snowing!"
Tifa joined them at the window and looked out. Sure enough, the snow had stopped falling, leaving big, soft drifts everywhere. Clouds moved across the sky, passing over a brilliant half-moon.
Cid marched back in and set his tray on the coffee table. Everyone crowded around, eager to see the project Cid had been hiding all evening.
The tray was covered in snowmen. Most of them were little more than an inch high, wearing tiny hats and scarves made of candy and icing, with miniscule eyes and smiles done in food coloring. But ten of them were different.
"It's me!" Reno exclaimed, plucking one of the snowmen off the tray and examining it. Sure enough, the three or four inch tall snowman had red licorice hair and a little peppermint mag-rod.
"He did all of us!" Denzel corrected, leaning over to look at his.
"Go on and take it," Cid urged. "Supposed to be good luck in the New Year if you eat the one that looks like you."
Each of them took a snowman. Vincent examined the tiny gun stuck to his, carved out of chocolate, not sure if he should be impressed or disturbed.
"Merry Christmas!" Yuffie crowed, and bit the head off of hers.
"Cannibal," Cloud laughed, and followed suit.
Rufus and Tseng left together, herding Reno before them and loaded down with cookies for home and the office- there were two more working days left, Tifa reminded them, and they ought to share with Elena and Rude. Cid made his way back to the HighWind, where he would spend just enough time to shower and sleep before he returned to build snow forts and even up the sides for the morning's snowball fight. Barret carried Marlene and Denzel to bed. Downstairs, Tifa washed and put away egg nog glasses. Cloud helped.
"See?" Tifa said softly, drying the last glass. "I told you it would work out."
"You did," Cloud admitted.
"And you had fun."
"So I win."
"Yes, you win."
Tifa grinned and went over to stand in the doorway, under a sprig of greenery that had gone unnoticed during the party. Cloud grinned and followed her.
"How did you convince Marlene to leave off with the mistletoe while everyone was here?"
"I told her that she'd have to kiss Denzel."
Cloud snorted. While Marlene happily gave hugs and kisses to all her adult friends, she was wildly opposed to kissing Denzel.
"Are you going to talk to me all night, or are you going to get on with it?"
Cloud kissed Tifa quickly, dancing back like a shy boy at a school Christmas party. Tifa put her hands on her hips and glared at him.
"That was not part of the deal," she complained. Cloud grinned and stepped back to her, cupping her face in his hands and kissing her soundly.
"There," he said smugly. "You won the bet, and you've got your prize. I'm going to bed. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas," Tifa echoed.
On the roof, Vincent smiled.
"And to all a good night," he whispered.