Author's Note: What, you weren't paying attention last time? Still not mine! I just enjoy playing with them from time to time ... well, come on, who wouldn't?!

This one's for the Ronacher gang, because I love you all to bits!

And for The Muse, mein Freund, as always.

:Theilian:

1: Merry Little Christmas

For Christmas:

Roger gave Leo a stress ball. He suspected, from the not-quite-convincing-enough look of surprise on Leo's face, that he'd probably been given other, similar gifts already (to be honest, it was fairly likely for Leo to have been given stress balls by anyone who had ever met him); but it was at least a luxury stress ball, and Leo was nothing if not a sweetie, and he'd smiled nicely and said thankyou, and Max had assured Roger that Leo had been rather touched by the gesture. Even if he had seemed a little like a seven-year-old saying thankyou to an elderly auntie for a revolting hand-knitted sweater he would rather die than wear.

Leo gave Ulla a beautiful mink coat. She somehow managed to get even more high-pitched and unintelligible than she usually was, and hadn't taken the coat off all day (much to Shirley's disappointment), despite the fact that they all stayed indoors and didn't venture out once. But then, she was Swedish, which had to account for at least some of the goofiness. Perhaps in Sweden they wore outdoor coats indoors all the time. Apparently it got pretty chilly there in winter.

Ulla gave Roger a wonderful pair of earrings, enormous and glittering like a pair of miniature comets, which would go perfectly with the outfit he was planning on dazzling everyone with at the next Choreographer's Ball. He'd found a painting in a book, of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, from way back when, and had been inspired; she had wonderful long dark hair in which she was wearing diamond pins shaped like stars, and a huge white dress covered in stars to match, and Roger had decided that even if nobody knew who on earth he was meant to be, he would look so stunning that it simply wouldn't matter.

Carmen gave Roger a little portrait, drawn from the director's favourite photo of himself, one that had been taken at the opening night party for Prisoners of Love. Apparently one of Carmen's friends, who worked in the box office at the theatre, was a pretty good artist in her spare time, and Carmen had persuaded her to copy the photo for him. It was simple, black-and-white, almost just a sketch; but Roger had never seen anything so lovely. In the photograph he was standing beside a flushed and beaming Carmen, surrounded by colleagues and admirers, glass of champagne in one hand, laughing unreservedly at something just out of shot. Roger had always loved the photo because for once, he wasn't posing or preening; he was simply loving being Roger DeBris, loving that night and those people and that life. Carmen's friend had ignored most of the background and concentrated solely on Roger's face, the light in his eyes, the way one unruly curl of hair was flopping down over his forehead. "It's you, Roger," Carmen had said, softly, as Roger unwrapped the portrait and turned, speechless for once, to stare at his lover in disbelief. Carmen grinned. "No, I mean, obviously it's you, I mean ... that's ... that's my you, that picture. That's the you that I know."

Roger gave Carmen the shock of his life barely a week later, when the younger man returned earlier than expected from a rehearsal and, bouncing into the bedroom, found Roger and his latest pet actor - who was supposed to have been at the theatre, but who had called in sick earlier that morning - engaged in something that was definitely not a dance rehearsal, by any stretch of the imagination.

Carmen gave Roger a long, sad look, turned around and left.

There was no shrieking, no dramatic declaration of broken hearts and intolerable hurt; when Roger finally came cringing downstairs to beg forgiveness there was simply a note, propped up against the portrait, which had been given pride of place on the mantelpiece. But by the time he had spotted it, by the time he had picked it up in a shaking hand and opened its elaborate origami folds (in some things Carmen would never change, it seemed; he was no more capable of leaving a note folded in the ordinary way than he was able to fly), Roger already knew.

This time Carmen had gone.

It wasn't so much the silence in the apartment that told him what had happened; it was the quality of that silence. That strange, absolute kind of silence when you can tell, without even having to check each room, that you're completely alone. The vases of luxuriant flowers on the tables, the spotlessness of the place, the way his footsteps sounded so muffled on the new, extravagantly thick carpet; everything spoke of Carmen. Everything was as it should be, exactly as Carmen had ordered it; yet at the same time it was all horribly wrong, for now, suddenly, Carmen's things were speaking of his absence.

Roger mine, the note said, in Carmen's beautiful ornate handwriting, I wish you well. Truly I do. But this has happened so many times before, and I would be a fool to believe you when you tell me, as you are bound to do, that it will never happen again. Because of course it will happen again. I don't think it's personal, I don't think you ever mean to hurt me, but I simply don't believe you know how to resist temptation. I think that little actor of yours (Are you sure about him? He is terribly vanilla, Roger darling, have you noticed?) ought to be made aware of this, by the way - you may not have realised it but he is utterly besotted with you, and it isn't fair. None of this is fair.

I love you, Roger, and that is the most not-fair thing of all.

Always,

your Carmen.

A shuffling sort of sound from the stairs made Roger jump; he had forgotten, in the shock of Carmen's note, that he was not entirely alone after all. He turned to stare at the young man standing there, awkward and embarrassed, clutching his coat to his chest like one of Leo's damn security blankets. Roger looked hard at him, seeing him properly for perhaps the first time, and realised with a sinking feeling that Carmen had been right. He was vanilla. From the top of his head with its mop of floppy blond hair, down through his cream shirt, slightly darker cream pants, and oh, for crying out loud, even the coat was a sort of pale camel color - he really was vanilla. Roger found that he couldn't even remember the boy's name.

What a contrast, what a horrible sick contrast to Carmen - okay, fair enough, it was true that Carmen rarely wore anything that wasn't black, but at least it didn't make him look as though he was trying to blend into the wallpaper. And generally speaking it did tend to be black with sparkles, or sequins, or spangles ...

"Should I go?" little vanilla thingy asked, nervously, and Roger nodded, not really trusting himself to speak. He reached out blindly with one hand, trying to find something - anything - with which to distract himself from the awfulness of the situation; his fingers touched the soft velvety petals of one of the flowers in the nearest vase, and he stroked it gently, over and over and over. Maybe, if he tried hard enough, if he concentrated hard enough on the flower and not on anything else, maybe when he looked up again Vanilla would be gone, and he could start trying to fix things with Carmen.

Again.

Touching the petal was like touching beautiful soft skin.

Like stroking Carmen's cheek.

After a few minutes of standing there with Roger's silence weighing heavily on his shoulders, the boy seemed to sag in the middle; a person-shaped balloon slowly deflating. He opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it again without uttering a single sound. He clamped his lips together tightly, in a huge effort not to say anything else, anything he might regret; or perhaps he was trying not to cry.

Roger carried on concentrating hard on his flower.

He felt the slight movement of air in the room as Vanilla moved from the stairs across to the door; sensed the boy turning to look at him just once; then there was a blast of icy New York winter, the catch closed with a snick and Vanilla was gone.

Roger felt all the breath whoosh out of him. He hadn't even realised he'd been holding it. He only just made it as far as the couch before his legs gave out, and he sat down hard on the cushions and pillows - Carmen's ridiculous pink pillows - and dropped his head into his hands.

He never noticed the flower as it fell unheeded from his fingers, landing silently on the floor. Never noticed it, hours later, when he finally dragged himself, exhausted, to his feet, crushing the petals into the carpet as he staggered toward the stairs. It wasn't until he came back down the following morning, bleary-eyed and wretched, and saw it lying there, crumpled and broken and ruined, that he realised what he'd done, carelessly destroying something that only moments before he had found so beautiful. And not even noticing.

Just like he'd done to Carmen.

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