I wrote this piece for the tumlbr Germancest Secret Santa, hence the holiday theme. It was written for petrolsocken, one of the most talented artists and sweetest people I know.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Or generic Happy Holidays.

Love,

LP

Traditions

Wet snowflakes stuck to the windows of the little town, blanketing the rooftops and swaddling the unmoving citizens in downy white. The gears in the clock tower slowly turned, the little wind-up wheel on the back lazily spinning. A soft chorus of 'Carol of the Bells' flooded the town, nestling in the cotton snowdrifts and echoing throughout the house. A line of wax from a candle slowly drifted down, forming little lakes on the oak server. Delicate fingerprints dotted the surface, two different patterns of waves and swirls overlapping. The smell of pine from the branches that outlined the town permeated the air, making it heavy and rich with the feeling of winter.

On several buildings, tiny doors and windows were opened, revealing numbers written in elegant gold script and little nails where tiny golden keys had once hung. They were scattered all over the town, hidden in quiet, shadowed places, waiting to be opened by excited, seeking hands. Underneath the town, hidden in the drawers of the server, were matching numbered boxes, each with their own lock. Some of the boxes were quite large, others small enough to only hold a few pieces of chocolate. Every box was open, save for the last two.

Gilbert stared at the boxes in the drawer, blowing fake snow out of his fringe. He leaned forward, staring at the small town and then slowly reached out to tip an ice skater over.

"I am your god. You will tell me where the last doors are."

The porcelain figures continued to go about their business, completely ignoring him.

Gilbert whined softly in the back of his throat and prodded the fallen figure on the mirror lake.

"I can be either a vengeful or a gracious god. Just tell me where the windows are and your first born will be saved."

The fake snow machine continued to blow tiny snowflakes about, covering Gilbert's hair.

With a little grumble he pulled away from the server, scrubbing at his hair to get the snow out. The flakes fell on the nice carpet and Gilbert viciously ground them into the fibers with his slipper. That would teach Ludwig to not have such a stupidly elaborate Advent calendar. The doors were hidden way too well and the prizes were so good that it was incredibly frustrating when he had to search for hours for the doors. The porcelain town was huge, and apparently Ludwig added to it every year, mimicking what he'd apparently determined to be the likely projected growth for a late nineteenth century municipality. Like the obsessive freak he was.

If Gilbert didn't love him so much the whole thing would have been smashed on the first day.

Love was frustrating.

Gilbert started a bit as warm arms wrapped around his waist and tugged him back, and with a little scowl he tilted his head to glare up at Ludwig.

"There aren't any more doors, are there. This is just some sort of sadistic game."

Ludwig shrugged, a small smile on his face.

"It's rather disheartening how cruel you think I am. What have I done to warrant such an awful opinion."

"You dragged out this fuckin' monstrosity!" Gilbert burst out, wiggling petulantly in Ludwig's grip. "I said 'hey you know what would be fun t' commemorate our first year livin' together an Advent calendar' an' when I said that I meant one of those ones with the chocolate that you get an' the doors are right there clearly labeled an' all you do is open it and instant gratification. Not this torture device."

Ludwig hummed and propped his chin atop Gilbert's head, staring at the village.

"I seem to recall getting rid of the torture expansion pack last year. The rack clashed with the cheerful Christmas vibe."

Gilbert slowly turned around to meet Ludwig's eyes.

"…You are so fuckin' creepy, you know that."

One blonde eyebrow raised.

"I was going for a level of authenticity."

"No one needs that much realism. And if you were really going for realism you would have included a cholera infested well or somethin'. Small children walkin' around with polio an' we're really gettin' off topic here!"

Gilbert prodded his boyfriend in his Christmas-sweater-clad vest with one pointy finger.

"Where. Are. The. Doors."

Ludwig just shrugged and crossed his finger over his lips.

Gilbert let out a strangled screech and grabbed Ludwig by the arms, shaking him furiously.

"Ludwig. I. Swear. To. God. You. Are. Never Gettin'. Laid. Again. If. I. Don't. Find. Those. Doors."

Each word was punctuated with a shake and a threatening growl.

It would have been much more effective if Ludwig hadn't started laughing.

Gilbert stopped shaking him, his expression morphing into something akin to a pout. Ludwig slowly calmed down and then glanced at his boyfriend, an unimpressed look on his face.

"You're entirely too old to get your way by doing that."

Gilbert's pout intensified.

Ludwig continued to stare and then slowly tugged off his Christmas sweater and gently laid it over Gilbert's face before turning around and walking away.

Gilbert yanked the sweater off his face with an indignant squawk.

"Ludwig! What the what stop actin' so weird!"

"You can keep looking or you can come help me set up the tree! It's up to you!"

Gilbert made a frustrated noise and stared at the sweater for a moment before tugging it on. It was still warm and smelled like Ludwig and if he spilled hot chocolate on it well then it was Ludwig's fault for trying to smother him. That, and he was a sucker for sweaters with-

Velociraptors. On them.

Gilbert shook his head and smoothed his hand down the front of the sweater, a puzzled look on his face. What a weirdo. Where had Ludwig even found this thing.

There was a little tag on the sleeve that said 'For: Gilbert.' Gilbert had to read it twice, but Ludwig's handwriting was unmistakable.

Tricky bastard.

Gilbert headed into the living room, watching Ludwig (who had already procured another dazzlingly ugly Christmas sweater from somewhere) hang ornaments.

"You are the sneakiest son of a bitch I've ever met. Your parents must have been driven mad by your Willy Wonka-like ways. Did you lure other children into your house for a magical tour and then off them one by one through a series of ironic twists."

Ludwig glanced over his shoulder and then moved to stand in front of Gilbert, fixing his collar.

"Augustus Gloop had it coming," he said dryly, "And sorry I stretched this out a bit, but I know how you either like things stupidly oversized or so tight that your organs show through the fabric." He leaned down to press a kiss to Gilbert's cheek. "And I figured you wouldn't mind an early present."

"Early presents are great. But I kinda feel like Santa's gettin' mad at us for cheatin'," Gilbert grumbled, tugging the sleeves of the sweater down to cover his fingers.

"I'll put in a good word," Ludwig said with a small smile, turning back around to continue working on the tree. After a bit Gilbert grudgingly joined him, picking up a colorful glass ornament out of its special cushioned compartment and hanging it on a branch. The tree was a massive thing, stretching up to the ceiling, but perfectly sized so that the star could still rest comfortably on top.

Ludwig's house was made for Christmas. It had a dedicated tree spot in the living room, the special oak server that was mostly ignored except for when it came time for it to serve its true purpose of holding the Advent town. Special garlands had been constructed to fit on the banisters on the porch, each bulb on the strands of lights was carefully checked and lovingly cared for. If, heaven forbid, one had burned out, it was replaced immediately, and the old one was discarded with a solemn air usually reserved for a presidential eulogy.

Gilbert had been mildly terrified when Ludwig had pulled him aside on the day before he had moved in and said he had something to tell him. Gilbert was sure he'd been dating a serial killer for the past few months and that Ludwig was about to say there were twenty human heads pickling in jars in the basement and the bodies were buried out back and if he could add extra garbage bags to the grocery list that would be great.

Instead Ludwig had blurted out in his deep, gruff voice that he had a problem with Christmas. Something about a traditional family and adhering to every little custom he'd grown up with.

It had been such a huge relief to find out his boyfriend wasn't the next H.H. Holmes that Gilbert had forgotten all about the odd confession. That was, until he'd woken up on the morning of December the first with a glass of mulled wine next to his head and three choices of stocking laid out next to him.

Things had escalated when Gilbert had gone downstairs to see the whole place covered in wreathes and lights and piles of decorations just waiting to be hung up. He'd been in a daze when Ludwig had showed him the tree stand, the supply of mulled wine, eggnog, cookies, gingerbread, the Advent calendar town, the stockings.

It was like Ludwig was preparing for some Christmas related apocalypse. The seriousness with which he dealt with double checking his cider stock supported this theory.

Gilbert had skirted his way around his boyfriend for a couple days, nervous that he would accidentally step on some crucial ornament and ruin Christmas completely, and along with it, his boyfriend's affections. But the lure of the Advent calendar had drawn him in. First with its sparkly lights and snow machine. Then with its tiny details. Last with the mystery of the boxes in the drawer.

Ludwig had caught him one night at four A.M. desperately hunting for the second door. Boxes and keys were littered around him, their contents carefully lined up on the dining room table. All Gilbert could remember saying was a desperate, "I keep findin' them out of order I have to find number two!" before all but passing out.

Ludwig had insisted on supervising the calendar after that, and Gilbert's panic about the holiday affairs had gradually subsided until it was a mild skirmish inside his head instead of an all-out war.

Gilbert frowned as a finger gently prodded the ornament he was trying to hang, and he turned to glance questioningly at his boyfriend. Ludwig had a bemused look on his face, to which Gilbert replied with a shaky, "W-What?"

"I asked if you wanted hot chocolate, but you clearly have more interest in admiring your bedazzled reflection in that thing," Ludwig said, gently pushing Gilbert's hand forward to assist him with placing the ornament.

"Ah-… er, sorry," Gilbert muttered, rubbing the back of his neck. "Just kinda spacin' out."

"Thinking about the keys?" Ludwig asked, his voice light with affected innocence.

The ornament in Gilbert's hand creaked alarmingly.

"…Maybe."

Ludwig patted Gilbert's shoulder and stood, heading into the kitchen. "Don't reflect on it too long. You still have time."

"I'd have a lot more time if you would just give me some fuckin' clues!" Gilbert howled, falling back on the floor in a little tantrum that stopped immediately when he remembered he didn't have an audience. He stared up at the ceiling before slowly dragging himself to his feet and heading back into the dining room. He grabbed a chair from the table and sat down in front of the village, his arms folded across his chest as he stared at the village.

The clock tower softly chimed, and Gilbert spared it a half-hearted glare.

"Do you mind?" he muttered, reaching out to flick one of the little bells. "I'm tryin' t' concentr-"

He froze, staring at the floor of the clock tower. Specifically the belfry, where underneath the small carillon of bells was a very, very tiny trap door.

With an excited burst of gibberish, Gilbert lifted the trap door, peering into the small opening.

"Ludwig! Ludwig get some tweezers!" he called out, trying to shove his fingers into the trap door to fish out the key he could barely see at the bottom. Heavy footsteps sounded outside the dining room and a moment later tweezers were in Gilbert's hand.

"One more," Ludwig murmured, pressing a kiss to Gilbert's temple, but Gilbert was too excited to fish out the key to even feel it. It took a bit of fiddling, but finally the key was in his grasp. He dropped to his knees, tugging the box out of the drawer and struggling with the lock. The box marked 24 was slightly bigger than the 25 one.

"Is it a PSP? An iPad? Somethin' else awesome? You already got me a DS so I'm just goin' down my list tryin' t' think of what else you could get me," Gilbert babbled excitedly, slowly turning the key. Ludwig crouched down next to Gilbert, his fingers toying with the soft hairs at the base of his boyfriend's neck.

"As long as you don't go on Facebook complaining that I didn't buy out the electronics store for you, you can keep guessing," Ludwig said, holding out his hand for the lock. Gilbert set it in Ludwig's hand and then slowly, slowly opened the box.

He peered inside, and then gave Ludwig a bland look before pulling out the dog collar inside. It was plain black leather, no tags or anything, and thankfully no spikes but-

Gilbert's cheeks slowly turned red despite his best efforts to keep himself from spazzing out.

Not exactly what he'd been expecting.

"Really?" he deadpanned. "I know you want to get into more… er… exploratory areas, but—"

He stared at the collar and then with a little sigh started putting it on, until a bemused voice stopped him.

"What the hell are you doing."

Gilbert started a bit and glanced at Ludwig, his fingers freezing on the buckle.

"I'm-…uh… I-… you… collar… thing," he stammered, the tips of his ears now a deep crimson. Ludwig didn't look much better off, his pale face red and his thin lips pressed in a line. He slowly reached out and tugged the collar away from Gilbert's neck.

"Gilbert. Not in front of the villagers," he muttered, blue eyes flicking up to glance at the Advent town. "Just… look for the next key," he said weakly, pushing himself to his feet. I'll be in the kitchen obsessively decorating cookies to distract myself." His lips quirked up into a smirk and he ruffled Gilbert's hair as he passed.

"Put those ideas on the back burner. After the party tonight."

Gilbert reached out and smacked Ludwig's calf with the collar, squawking angrily, "Lutz! You- jerk why didn't you stop me before I made an ass of myself?!"

"It's just me here. And I already know to what degree of an ass you are. Second date pretty much cinched it," Ludwig called out from the kitchen, laughing when Gilbert erupted into garbled nonsense syllables that at one point in their illustrious careers had been the most scathing of swears.

With an angry huff Gilbert stood back up, toying with the dog collar in his hands. He still wasn't sure if this was just a gigantic sado-masochistic prank or what. It wasn't like Ludwig to be this obtuse about things. Usually he'd give in at the first sight of a pout. This new, resilient Ludwig was a difficult beast.

Gilbert stared his long nose at the village and then set the collar aside, a determined look on his face. Last door. It was Christmas Eve, and Ludwig told him that he had to get them all today. He hadn't clarified what would happen should he fail.

The well. The library. The tiny snow drifts. Gilbert checked under the sleds, every cobblestone, every roof tile. He could smell the cookies baking in the kitchen, spice conjuring up winter and Christmas and quiet nights alone in front of the fireplace, crackling radio ringing in his ears to drown out the families arguing below his floor.

He fucking hated cinnamon.

With a quiet sigh Gilbert dragged a chair in front of the server and sat down, starting his search over again.

Tiles.

Well.

Library.

Cobblestones.

Snow.

Candles.

Gilbert tugged his knees up to his chest, propping his chin on them as his eyes slid halfway shut.

Tiles.

Well.

Library.

Cobblestones.

Snow.

Candles.

"After Christmas I swear to God you're all gettin' Godzilla'd," he muttered, prodding the side of the school house. He listened to the distant crackle of the fire coming from the living room, Ludwig's deep baritone rumbling through the house as he hummed. Gilbert's lips curled into a slight smile as he softly sang along, his voice off-key and strained as always, but Ludwig said he liked it. Caroling had been stressful, but it was tradition and Ludwig didn't budge on tradition. Gilbert knew he couldn't sing, had thrown a fit that he wasn't going, and Ludwig had listened patiently before telling him in no uncertain terms that it didn't matter. At all. That he could sound like a cat being dragged over hot coals and he would still sound like a cat being dragged over hot coals. But that Ludwig really didn't care.

And Gilbert remembered why he sang.

Gilbert's eyes slipped shut, his body slowly tilting to the side.

"Careful."

Strong hands pushed him upright again and rested a blanket around his shoulders, and a moment later Ludwig dragged a chair to sit next to him. Gilbert immediately pressed his face against Ludwig's shoulder, smelling flour and nutmeg and vanilla from the candle that was burning on the kitchen table.

"I ruined Christmas," he mumbled, scowling a bit when Ludwig just laughed quietly at him. He lightly swatted at his boyfriend's knee. "I'm serious! I've tried but I just can't find the damn thing and I'm gonna have t' go get my readin' glasses soon 'cause my eyes hurt like hell an' even then I probably still won't be able t' find it it's like the fuckin' entrance t' Narnia an' I'm not destined t' be the king of some magical land so there's no way I'm gonna find it an' that last box won't ever get opened an' the secret will just fester there like a rabbit with its leg caught in a trap where the eyeballs slowly turn t' goo an' maggots eat everythin' except the fur so then it sorta collapses in on itself an'-mmph."

He glowered up at Ludwig, licking the hand pressed against his lips, but Ludwig didn't budge.

"Gilbert."

Gilbert reluctantly ceased licking.

Ludwig slowly pulled his hand away, blue eyes catching Gilbert's before the smaller man looked away, staring fixedly at the wall.

"Gilbert, you could take a hammer to this village and after the initial rage subsided Christmas still wouldn't be ruined."

Gilbert pursed his lips, swallowing the geyser of protests threatening to erupt.

He could feel Ludwig raising an eyebrow at him.

"I'm serious," Ludwig said quietly, tucking a strand of hair behind Gilbert's ear and ignoring how Gilbert swatted at him like an angry tabby. "You know that tradition is important to me, to the point where I forced you on a veritable death march just to get a tree. You were sick for almost a week but you never seriously complained. You went caroling even though I know you loathe your voice. You tried eggnog after declaring you'd rather die than drink anything that, and I quote, 'pours like orc snot,' you helped me put the lights on the roof, baked cookies, dragged in firewood, wrapped presents… even if they look like a five year old wrapped them—"

"Cruel. Unnecessarily cruel," Gilbert muttered, pushing at Ludwig's arm. "That's where you get your reputation. And I know you're just stroking my ego for the inevitable marathon of door-searchin' that's about t' take place the moment you get back into the kitchen so you may as well have just said 'you're perfect in bed when you roleplay as Saint Nick' and have been done with it'."

Ludwig gently covered Gilbert's mouth with his hand again as he said firmly, "I told you that was a horrifying dream I had, not a real-life request."

"Still creepy," Gilbert muttered against Ludwig's palm.

Ludwig snorted quietly and then pulled his hand away before pressing a kiss to Gilbert's forehead.

"I know you're nervous about making sure that everything is perfect, but last night you were muttering in your sleep about organizing candy canes, and that's where I draw the line. It-"

Ludwig cleared his throat and pulled away just a bit, a slightly guilty look on his face.

"This… isn't just about what I want anymore," he said gruffly, hands folded in his lap. "It shouldn't just be about my traditions, so if you want to say 'fuck it' I'll give you the key right now and we can go in the living room and drink hot cocoa and relax and you… maybe you can tell me some of your traditions. Because I don't know any of them. I don't know what kind of cookies your family made or what songs you sang or listened to. If you opened a present on Christmas Eve or saved all of them for Christmas Day like sane and decent people do. I don't know any of that and it—mmph."

Ludwig was made silent, blue eyes slipping shut and hands moving to gently rest on Gilbert's hips as his boyfriend shifted to sit in his lap, lips softly moving against his own.

The quiet snow fell over the town and against the icing frost windows that looked out into the wide, wide woods. The fire crackled, the smell of cinnamon and reverent violin through the speakers gently smothered the quiet apartment on the other side of town where a sad, bitter man used to sit in front of the fireplace and listen to his neighbors live their days.

Gilbert slowly broke the kiss, his fingers untangling from the blonde locks they'd managed to capture. He bumped his nose against Ludwig's as he murmured softly, "Hikin' through some god-forsaken forest an' gettin' sick is my most sacred of traditions. As is singin' out of key an' eatin' raw gingerbread behind your back an' elecrocutin' myself on your roof an' drivin' myself crazy lookin' for sadistic keys that lead t' confusin' presents. An' before you tell me that you were bein' serious an' really want t' know, just let me say that this is all the tradition I want." He frowned. "…Even though most of those things could kill me. The pattern I'm startin' t' sense is mildly troublin'."

Ludwig stared at him for a moment, an unsure look on his normally stoic face.

"But-"

"Ah! Ahah- what the fuck did I just say?"

Gilbert lightly smacked Ludwig's shoulder, pale eyebrows narrowing.

"This is my tradition now. So get back in the kitchen an' leave me t' my temporary frustration." Gilbert's eyes shone and he prodded Ludwig's chest. "'Cause I'm gonna find that key. I'm gonna find the hell outta that key an' I'm goin' t' open the last box an' then we are goin' t' drink some goddamn hot chocolate an' we are goin' t' be the jolliest gay couple on this block so help me God. Got it?"

Ludwig nodded slowly, his smile one of relief.

"Got it," he said quietly, kissing the tip of Gilbert's pointy nose before standing. "I'll ready the ear plugs for your screams of either impotent rage or elation."

"Har dee har har. Go take the comedy routine elsewhere, Lutz. I've got a stupid door t' find," Gilbert said with a little sniff, swiveling to stare at the server again as Ludwig headed back into the kitchen. His eyes raked over the picturesque scene, his shoulders trembling with suppressed agitation. He finally fixed on the tiny skater on its side, face still frozen in an elated smile.

Gilbert deflated a bit, gently prodding the porcelain figure on the mirror pond.

"At least one of us isn't an over-confident asshole," he mumbled, staring at his reflection in the pond. "I mean I've looked everywhere for this door. I found the penultimate one by dumb luck. Which is t' be fair how I found all of them but somehow I thought over the course of this misadventure I'd pick up on some clues. Become like… a door detective extraordinaire. But I guess that was askin' too much of my limited psyche."

He fell silent, still pushing around the overturned skater.

"…I just wanna make him happy," he mumbled. "He's made me so stupidly happy an' playin' along with this Christmas thing was supposed t' be my way of returnin' the favor. An' I want it so… so fuckin' badly. Just for him t' say that it's perfect. I want it t' the point where I'm takin' advantage of the fact that you can't interrupt me or run away t' use you as my stand-in therapist. Herr Doktor Joker Face."

Gilbert scowled just a bit and prodded the figure harder.

"Seriously stop bein' so smiley. I'm barin' my soul here. Really fuckin' vulnerable right about now, what with the tragedy of my inability t' locate a fuckin' door that's become the symbol of my ability t' live up t' my boyfriend's expectations. Seriously if this metaphor gets any more blatant we may as well just slap mise en abyme on it an' call it a day. The least you could do is not stare at me like you're gettin' ready t' ask me if I wanna see a magic trick an' go kick the crap out of Christian Bale."

The figure just smiled back.

With a quiet sigh of defeat, Gilbert righted the figure, staring at its gesturing hand pointing to the mirrored surface of the lake.

He glumly studied his reflection in the mirror, prodding at his pale cheeks. Ludwig had made a joke the other day that if he fell in a snow drift he would be able to hide for weeks undetected.

Gilbert had hit him in the back of the head with a snowball.

They'd ended up waging war, which wasn't one of Ludwig's traditions, he later admitted, but that didn't make it any less valid of an activity.

Gilbert snorted quietly, remembering how panicked Ludwig had gotten when a snowball had caught Gilbert square in the face. He'd played it up, of course, basking in the attention he'd received on the way home and in front of the fireplace and in bed that evening.

Gilbert propped his chin in his hand, setting the other skaters back on the pond.

"Here," he said quietly. "No one really likes bein' alone on the ice. What if you fell an' broke somethin', huh. Ludwig hasn't bought the turn of the century hospital set yet. What would you do then, punk. Gangrene is what. Probably eventual amputation."

He carefully set the last figure down on the lake, sitting back to admire his handiwork. The lake looked complete. Snowdrifts and artfully placed trees and small fish painted underneath the semi-mirrored surface and each skater in its place.

Gilbert smiled in satisfaction. Well. He hadn't found the last door, but at least he hadn't smashed Ludwig's village or smashed the mirror. That would be bad luck and would also hurt the fish.

Weird that there were only two of them.

Gilbert's brow furrowed and he leaned in a bit closer, staring at the fish. They were kind of odd shapes. Gold. Really close together.

There was a moment's pause when everyone in the world made the connection a split second before him. The impact of revelation made Gilbert press his hands against his head as he stared at the tiny fish.

The fish bent into the unmistakable shapes of two and four.

Gilbert's fingers scrambled at the edge of the mirror lake, carefully lifting it and setting it aside. Underneath the glass of the lake was a flat door, with the last numbers elegantly inscribed. Gilbert stared at them for a moment before glancing at Herr Doktor, whose arm was still gesturing to the surface of the lake.

Smug asshole.

"Ludwig! Ludwig, I found it!" he yelled, exhaustion robbing some of his excited energy and making his voice crack. By the time Ludwig was by his side, Gilbert had the key in his hand and was reaching into the drawer for the last box.

"Congratulations," Ludwig said quietly, moving the lake back with a small smile on his face. "I was worried it was going to stay hidden with how often you enjoyed tipping the skaters over."

"Hush," Gilbert commanded, reverently unlocking the tiny, gold lock. "This is a glorious moment. I won't have it sullied with any unwarranted sarcasm."

Ludwig plucked the lock out of Gilbert's fingers, setting it aside. "Sorry," he said, his gruff voice shaking a bit. Gilbert gave him an odd look. Ludwig's expression was infuriatingly neutral, and after a moment Gilbert slowly turned back to the box. He shook it.

No rattle.

Too small for any new electronics.

Or the boots he wanted, considering the box could fit in his palm.

Gilbert continued to hold the box, for some reason unable to move to open it. He felt Ludwig rest his chin atop his head, but even so he didn't move.

"I don't want t' open it," he said quietly.

Ludwig hummed.

"Why not."

Gilbert's fingers tightened around the box.

"'Cause… then it'll be over," he mumbled. And finding those doors had given him a distraction. A reason to keep up with Ludwig's traditions, adopt them for himself. Enjoy them and the challenge they presented him every morning he managed to wrest himself from bed at his boyfriend's gentle encouragement. To not hibernate in silent despair like every winter before. Every season before he'd met him.

Ludwig made a quiet noise of understanding, his hand resting over Gilbert's, thumb brushing over the back of his boyfriend's hand.

"Considering you're the man who cried when we ran out of that limited edition hot chocolate, I'm not surprised ending things isn't something you relish," Ludwig said gently, wincing when Gilbert's pointy elbow connected with his ribs.

Gilbert huffed quietly, but urge for vengeance appeased, he fiddled with the latch of the box. Ludwig had him pegged, though. He didn't like ending things. Or seeing them end.

But if not, curiosity would eat him alive.

Gilbert pressed his lips together, a look of utmost determination on his face.

He lifted the lid.

The soundtrack to his life, which had been building to a beautiful crescendo, fell apart immediately.

The trumpeter dropped his horn. Contra bass strings snapped and the pianist threw up all over the instruments.

Inside the final box, was a piece of paper.

Gilbert stared at it, long fingers carefully reaching inside and pulling it out.

A folded piece of paper.

Gilbert turned it over.

"…This isn't an X-Box."

Ludwig laughed quietly, calloused fingers reaching out, tapping the front of the paper.

"Just read it."

Gilbert leaned back against Ludwig's chest, his weight supported by the arms around his waist. He carefully unfolded the simple piece of paper. He could feel Ludwig's heartbeat speed up. Captured jackrabbit.

Look in the laundry room.

Gilbert read the five words twice before turning the paper over, but that was all that was written. He tilted his head back, glancing up questioningly at Ludwig, who merely smiled weakly and said in a grave voice, "You should probably do what it says. I hear Advent Calendars don't fuck around."

Gilbert gave Ludwig an odd look but finally pushed himself up and slowly padded to the laundry room. He almost never went in there. That was Ludwig territory. That and the linen closet upstairs and the guest room and the study sometimes when Ludwig would get really cranky and tell him quietly that he had a lot of work to get done and would emerge a few hours later and go to the store and get them ice cream and a movie to make up for being a jerk.

The laundry room door was closed as always, and Gilbert gave Ludwig one last look, but his boyfriend merely smiled his enigmatic smile and gestured for him to go in.

Gilbert tucked the paper in his back pocket and slowly pushed open the door.

He peered inside.

It looked the same. Bottles of detergent and fabric softener organized by date of purchase on the shelves, laundry baskets holding pure white clothes and brilliant colors.

Gilbert frowned and took a little step inside, peering inside the machines. Nothing.

He was about to call the Advent calendar an asshole and go on a porcelain rampage when a small hint of black out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.

Next to the machines was a small, black cage.

Gilbert immediately crouched down, his heart pounding in his chest. He could hear Ludwig shifting neurotically behind him, switching center of weight every second on the second.

What an adorable freak.

Gilbert moved forward, peering through the bars of the cage at what looked like a small bundle of rags huddled in the corner. It had dark, glossy eyes, and a tiny pink tongue that looked like it stayed that way permanently, half poking out of its mouth.

Gilbert slowly tipped backward, leaning against the wall. He glanced up at Ludwig.

The man looked terrified, his arms crossed over his chest as though they were the only things keeping his organs in place. Gilbert reached out to poke him in the shin with his big toe.

"You got me a puppy."

Ludwig shifted left and right. One two.

"Even though you said you weren't ready to get another dog."

One two.

"…It has a Christmas sweater on, too. Where the hell did you find an ugly Christmas sweater for a dog. It flies in the face of all that is holy."

Ludwig cleared his throat and then finally sat down on the floor next to Gilbert, reaching out and undoing the latch on the cage door.

"He comes complete with tragic backstory I made up in the care on the way home from the vet's yesterday," Ludwig said quietly as the small bundle of fur toddled forward, tripping a bit over the lip of the cage door. "It involves a harrowing journey and a wise-cracking alley cat. I tried to illustrate it, but you'll have to dig through the kitchen trash to see the fruits of my wasted labor."

"A masterpiece ahead of its time, no doubt," Gilbert said quietly, afraid to move as the puppy slowly came closer. It sniffed Gilbert's toes, and Gilbert held his breath as the scruffy-looking thing waddled around in a pointless circle before suddenly pouncing on the hem of his sweater.

The sudden movement made Gilbert burst out laughing, and he quickly scooped up the dog and leaned against Ludwig's side while the puppy squirmed happily in his arms, letting out quiet chuffing noises.

Ludwig's arm settled around Gilbert's shoulder, and he bowed his head, pressing a his lips to Gilbert's hair.

"Better than an X-Box?"

"Tons," Gilbert said, letting the puppy nibble on his fingers, grinning like an idiot. "Missin' a collar, though."

Ludwig wordlessly pulled the discarded collar out of his pocket and held it out.

"I thought you'd want to pick the name, so his tags are blank."

Gilbert carefully lifted the puppy, which thankfully stilled the moment it sensed it was now several times its height off the ground. Gilbert studied the small black dog with its wiry coat and blunt nose and nerdy Christmas sweater.

"Ewok."

Gilbert ignored Ludwig's horrified laughter with the stoic grace and stiff upper lip of a British soldier during the Raj. He lowered Ewok from his Lion King pose and let the tiny dog rest in his lap before carefully buckling the collar around its neck.

"Looks a lot better on him," Ludwig commented, having calmed down. "Not that I haven't filed that idea away for later."

Gilbert wordlessly punched Ludwig in the arm again, too interested in watching the puppy roll around in his lap to care about the resurfacing embarrassment. He reached out and grabbed Ludwig's hand, threading their fingers together and watched the snow fall outside, blanketing the rooftops and swaddling the wind-shifting trees in downy white. The soft timbre of a carol echoed through the house, and in his lap the puppy grew still, its head tilted to the side.

Ludwig fell silent as well, his hand tightening slightly on Gilbert's shoulder.

"Was it worth it?" he finally asked, leaning forward, blue eyes searching Gilbert's face. "All the unnecessary pomp and circumstance just to get to here. Putting up with me, I mean. At the height of neurosis. I just…"

"I just wanted it to be perfect."

Gilbert gave Ludwig's hand a squeeze and leaned in close, eyes slipping shut as he pondered the sweet irony of perfection, his response buried under softly chiming bells while Ludwig's expression lost its worried lines, grew soft and kind around the edges.

He unceremoniously shut the door on the empty apartment.

On the lonely man in front of the fire, listening to the others around him live, while he sat alone with his quiet monsters.

Gilbert shut the door, and locked it with a small, golden key, hidden too well to ever be found again.