Oh, The Places You'll Go

The Nutcracker

Notes: This is pure Christmas crack. Written for lordessrenegade because she is who she is and I love her for it. Beta'd by jamethiel_bane whose mind goes places no one's should go. Thanks, girl!


Light. There is light everywhere. In the dark the house looks like a fairy castle, ropes of bulbs strung from the gables creating their own starlight. Golden light spills from huge windows, beckoning. The pine-wreath decorated door swings open, yet more light chasing away the dark. Inviting warmth pours out too, the air infused with scents of honeyed spice. The house itself is welcoming us, ready to share its secrets. Follow the light inside.

***

It was Christmas Eve and the party was in full swing. The house was filled with music and laughter. The tree stood fifteen feet tall, strung with tiny, sparkling white lights and hung with delicate, spun-glass balls, iridescent and so fragile. Ray thought he had never seen anything so beautiful in his whole life, all twelve years of it. He'd always known his mom had taste, but she'd always had to make do and mend in the past. Popcorn and paper-chains; that was the usual way of things. But with the Lotto win, all that changed. The two-bedroom apartment had become a four-bathroomed mansion, his father's long days at the meat-packing plant exchanged for long days playing golf, his mother's home-made cooking now a pale imitation produced by a chef.

It was mostly good; Ray had all the toys he had ever wanted, his own room, his own maid to pick up after him even but sometimes he felt lonely. Everyone in the prep school he now attended looked down on him, everyone except Stella, but her parents were old money and wouldn't let her have anything to do with Ray. He missed the neighborhood like a dear friend just out of reach, but tonight, looking at that tree, Ray could feel a buzz of excitement beginning low in his belly. Something was coming.

He wandered down the stairs, tapping his hand on the banister to the mazurka beat.

"Stanley! Come, you must dance!" cried his father, spotting Ray hovering at the edge of the party and raising his shot-glass so high that the colorless liquid slopped over the top.

"Ray," muttered Ray through clenched teeth, managing to smile brightly. "Aw, Pop," he said. "Quit embarrassing me."

"Nonsense!" yelled Damian, who appeared to have lost all volume control. "You show these people how it's really done."

Ray rolled his eyes.

"Yeah, yeah. OK."

He scanned the room, flicking over the available partners with appraising eyes. Ah! he thought. That's the one. He walked over and held out a hand, putting on his most winning smile.

"Aunt Clara, may I have this dance?"

Aunt Clara, who was not a real aunt and was eighty if she was a day, giggled like a schoolgirl and took his hand. Damian shouted a few commands and the lively rhythm of the mazurka was replaced by a slower polonaise. A space cleared in the center of the room.

Ray danced Aunt Clara around the room, paying no attention to the eyes on him, just lost in the dance. That was how he didn't notice the chiming of the door bell and the excited whispers that ran around the room. The music wound down and Ray bowed to his partner.

"Stanley, you're an angel come to earth," Aunt Clara said.

"Ray," Ray muttered as he wrapped her in a brief hug.

There was applause which brought Ray back to the present. He pushed back a strand of dirty blond hair that had fallen into his eyes and turned to get himself a drink. He didn't get far because in front of him was a tall, craggy-faced man with a smile which stretched from ear to ear.

"Mort!" Ray barreled into his godfather's chest. Mort held on tight.

"Good to see you too, Ray," he said.

"St—" started Ray and then stopped, grinning.

Mort held Ray away from him, studying him with piercing eyes.

"Well," he said. "You've grown some, that's to be thankful for. But I don't think this money has changed you. This is good. This is very good."

"I don't get what you mean, Mort."

"No," said Mort, drawing out the word. "But you will." He let go of Ray's arms. "Now!" he called, his voice filling the room. "Now for this year's surprise!" He gestured towards the front door. Everyone turned and stared. Mort was the most skilled toymaker in all of Chicago — his Christmas inventions were known throughout the city. An excited hush fell over the crowd as the door began to open.

In came two people, a man and a woman. The man was very tall, wearing a comically serious expression, his rosy cheeks in combination with his checked shirt and jeans giving him a farm-boy look. The woman was slender, curly brown hair waving over her shoulders, wearing a city-girl twin-set, high heels and bright pink lipstick. They looked almost real, thought Ray. In fact, if their movements hadn't been just so slightly jerky, if they had blinked, it would have been impossible to tell that here were two dolls. Big, though. Bigger than his cousin Laura's stupid Sunshine Family (and wouldn't it be greatness to never have to have those shoved in his face again?), but dolls all the same. Ray's mouth dropped open with amazement. The whole room could have been mistaken for an aquarium.

People fell back as the dolls advanced towards Ray and Mort. They stopped a few feet away, the man-doll cocking his head to one side with a quizzical expression and the girl-doll fluttering her eyelashes.

Mort nodded at them once.

"Renfield, Francesca, show them what you can do. Damian. Music, please."

In just a few seconds a brisk polka filled the air. The two dolls turned to each other, bowed — missing knocking each other's heads by a hair's breadth — and then the Renfield-doll slung his arm around the waist of the Francesca-doll and they were off, dancing around the room, to whoops and hollers and rapturous applause. Ray could barely believe his eyes.

"Mort," he whispered, clutching at his godfather's arm. "How do you do it?"

Mort smiled. Never taking his eyes off the dancing pair he murmured, "Christmas magic, my dear boy." He hummed along to the tune, toe tapping.

The dolls were the hit of the party and Mort was surrounded by many admirers all wanting to know his secrets. Every now and then he would catch Ray's eye across the room and wink. Eventually Mort was free and he beckoned Ray to come over. Ray, who had been stuck talking to the boring kid from next door, Louis, was delighted to have been rescued. Except it didn't quite work that way as Louis tagged along behind him. Ray rolled his eyes. It was his current favorite expression.

"Ray, I have a gift for you," said Mort, drawing a long package from inside his coat.

"Wow," said Louis. "It's like a TARDIS in there."

"It is?" asked Mort, clearly confused.

Ray could see Louis gearing up for a long diatribe on time and relative dimensions in space, probably detouring by Gallifrey and taking in the Daleks, the Doctor and the desire to be a Companion. Louis had spent way too much time in Canada. Having just been subjected to it himself, he had no wish to repeat the experience. He headed him off at the pass.

"Thanks, Mort," he said, taking the gift. "What is it?"

"My suggestion would be that if you opened it you would find out."

Ray had always been a careless unwrapper, the layers between him and his presents seen as a hindrance. But for some reason he found himself handling this gift with special care, easing the sticky tape from the paper, sliding the folds apart gently. He caught a glimpse of red. What could it be? Reaching in to the parcel he took hold of the gift and shook it lightly, the paper floating to the floor. Ray found that in his hand he held a wooden man. Not just any wooden man. A nutcracker with red jacket, black trousers and a Stetson hat. A Mountie. Ray had seen them on TV. He had a Mountie nutcracker. Weird. But cool. Ray studied it. Its features were finely chiseled, painted blue eyes still seeming to twinkle kindly, dark hair around delicately carved ears. Its legs and arms were jointed. Ray tried bending one arm — stiff, but movable. He made the nutcracker salute. Not just cool. Beautiful. Ray loved it. He couldn't stop staring at it, opening and closing its mouth, putting his finger in to feel the strength of the jaws. This Mountie could crack the hardest nut in the world, thought Ray.

A heavy hand landed on his shoulder. Ray tore his gaze away from the nutcracker.

"What do you say, Ray?" Damian prompted.

"Thank you, Mort! Thank you! It's so cool." He beamed.

"It is beautiful," said his mother, coming over for a look. "Can I?" Ray was reluctant to let it go, but how could he explain that to his mom? Answer: he couldn't. He handed it over. Before Ray knew it the nutcracker was being passed around the party, everyone exclaiming at how life-like it looked, how amazing, how wonderful. Ray was relieved when it seemed to be heading back his way. He put out his hand, but the Mountie was intercepted by Louis. Louis turned it this way and that.

"'S nothing special," he said. "Simple mechanics really." He handed it off to Ray. Ray was never sure afterwards if it was an accident or not, but Louis missed Ray's hand and the nutcracker crashed to the floor with a crack that was not the sound of a nutshell being broken. There was a second when everything seemed to hang in mid air and then Ray was on his knees, gathering up his precious gift. Blinking back the fierce sting of tears, Ray traced the fissure that had split the Mountie's face in two, the jaw mechanism hanging loose. He held it up to Mort, mute.

"It is just a little thing, it will mend." Mort's voice was reassuring but Ray could not bring himself to believe it. It was strange how much this mattered, he'd barely owned the nutcracker more than five minutes and now to think that all it was fit for was the garbage. It shouldn't hurt. But it did.

"It will mend," repeated Mort, taking the toy from Ray's outstretched hands. He hummed a little to himself as he drew a huge, red handkerchief out of yet another pocket. At least, Ray thought it must have been a pocket — it couldn't possibly have been conjured from thin air, could it? The humming changed to singing as Mort passed the handkerchief over the broken nutcracker. Ray watched, fascinated. Mort made two more passes, switched back to humming and then stopped.

"There," he said. "Good as new."

And it was. Just how much Christmas magic did Mort have anyway?

*

"Leave the nutcracker under the tree with the other gifts," his pop had said. "It'll still be there in the morning."

But would it? Ray lay in bed, the covers pulled up tight under his chin. He hadn't moved since he'd gotten in and that was not like him at all. But he was worried. The nutcracker had been broken once already today and now Mort was gone there was no one that could fix him if something happened. And something was going to happen, Ray was sure. What, he did not know or why he felt so certain. All he knew was that he had to protect his Mountie.

Ray made up his mind. He slung back the covers and got out of bed, throwing a sweater over his pajamas and shoving his feet into his slippers. Opening his door, he made his way as quietly as he could down to the Christmas tree. His nutcracker was there, safe, lying on top of a pile of presents, moonlight picking out the red tunic. Ray breathed in relief at seeing him in one piece. He sat down and picked up the Mountie, smiling at his kind face. I'll just stay here a little while, thought Ray. Make sure everything is OK. He settled with his back to the sofa and the nutcracker in his arms. Five minutes later there was no sound in the room except the steady breathing of a boy asleep.

The first indication that all was not as it should be was when, through the edge of sleep, Ray heard the clock strike midnight. The last guest hadn't left before one and it had been a good half-hour after that before Ray was tucked up in bed. So there were three choices: he'd slept the day through (slept through Christmas Day? Yeah, right!), time was going backwards, or he was dreaming. Ray chose the latter and opened his eyes. Oooookay. Definitely dreaming, because everything in the room was getting bigger and bigger. The tree towered above him, like a redwood in the forest, the nutcracker was growing in his arms, at his back the sofa shot upwards and Ray fell backwards into the expanding gap between sofa and floor, the nutcracker falling heavy onto his chest.

Ray's breath was knocked out of him and he lay there panting, wide-eyed.

"I'm terribly sorry," said the nutcracker and scrambled to his feet, knocking his head on the underside of the sofa in the process. The Stetson skewed across his head and Ray had to stifle a giggle as the Mountie seemed to be in a dilemma as to whether he should set the hat straight, which would require knee bending, or attempt to keep himself perfectly upright.

"It might be easier if you get out from under the sofa," he said.

"Ah," replied the nutcracker and shuffled out backwards, one hand clutching the precariously placed Stetson. Ray scrambled to his feet and followed. What met his eyes froze him in his tracks. Toys. Everywhere. Doing stuff. Like the authentic Civil War replica tin soldiers on maneuver over by the fireplace. Like GI Joe, Evil Knievel and the Six Million Dollar Man playing what looked like poker under the tree. Like the Hot Wheels El Rey Special zooming in and out of the furniture legs. Ray pinched himself but he didn't wake up and all he'd achieved was a red mark on his arm that was definitely going to bruise. Oh well, thought Ray, his English teacher was always on at him to work on his imagination. He was just getting a head start for next semester was all.

He looked up at the nutcracker who had somehow managed to clasp his hands behind his back and stood rocking slightly, surveying the scene with what appeared to Ray to be abnormal calm. Mind you, there was nothing normal about this whole situation so who was Ray to say what was weird and what was not.

"Er," said Ray.

The nutcracker turned swiftly towards him.

"Yes?" he asked, and Ray could make out a faint clack as the parts of his wooden jaw came together.

"I'm, er, I'm Ray."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Ray." The nutcracker stuck out his hand. Ray took it. It was cool and hard but smooth as glass. "I'm ... Oh, dear. It would appear that I do not have a name at this particular juncture."

Ray wasn't sure how something with a painted expression managed to look downcast, but the nutcracker did. He was about to say something to cheer him up, but then the nutcracker straightened up and visibly brightened.

"But I do believe that I am a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. What might be termed a Mountie. That's something, isn't it, Ray?"

"Sure," replied Ray. "We'll work on a name later. Mountie's a good start. Pop always says 'a man's gotta know his place in this world'. Well, you know yours."

"That's right!" The Mountie's blue eyes seemed to see right inside Ray. "It's being an officer of the law, here, with you."

With him. Maybe it was a little crazy, but this wooden toy made Ray feel safe, made the strangeness somehow more acceptable.

"So," said Ray, sweeping outwards with his hand, "you got any clues to what's happening?"

"I believe that those figures are playing a game known as poker, Ray."

"Yeah, I get that. I mean, you know, the wider thing here, Mountie. Either I'm little or you're big and whichever way you're kinda alive, and so are they, and that's ... not right. That's not right, Mountie. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's cool and all, but it's wrong. You got any ideas?"

"I'm afraid I can't be much help, Ray," the nutcracker said. "I remember very little. I know I should know something, but I don't know what it is that I should know. It's very frustrating."

It's very confusing, thought Ray, trying to sort all those knows and shoulds and don'ts into the right places. As he was trying to fit the Mountie's words into something that made sense a shadow flitted across the corner of his sight. Ray turned his head sharply — there was nothing there. But there it was again, coming from the other direction, then more and more, shadows creeping along the walls. Ray gripped the nutcracker's solid arm.

"D'you see them?" he whispered, urgent.

"Yes, I can. And I'm sorry to say that I don't like the look of this. Not at all."

"What do you mean?" Ray found himself drawing closer to the Mountie, sheltering in the protection offered by his wide shoulders.

"It's ... Ah, yes ... It's coming back to me. A little anyhow. I very much fear that we are seeing the arrival of the Mouse King and his army. If I'm not mistaken they are coming to kill me."

"Kill you!" How could the Mountie be so calm?

"That's correct, Ray. For reasons that currently escape me I seem to recall that the Mouse King and I are sworn enemies. Mortal ones, in point of fact."

"Mortal enemies!" Ray didn't seem to be able to do anything beyond repeating the nutcracker's words as the shadows resolved into menacing figures of huge mice, sword belts around their matted fur, noses twitching as they scented their quarry. Ray cast about wildly. What could they do? The soldiers! Ray yanked at the Mountie.

"Run!" he yelled and set off for the fireplace, the nutcracker clacking across the wooden floor behind him.

The soldiers had seen the mice and were already in battle formation as Ray reached them.

"You gotta ..." he forced out, leaning forward, hands on his knees, chest heaving. It didn't used to be this hard to get across the room, Ray thought. It was the rug that did for him, the thick pile making it like running through a field of uncut grass.

"Men," said the Mountie, his voice steady and calm, as if he hadn't had to move an inch. "Men, I place our lives in your hands. Alone, we cannot defeat the Mouse King and his army, but together we are strong. I remember a story of an Inuit boy—"

Ray, now recovered, shook the Mountie.

"I'm sure that's a great story," he said. "But I don't think now is the best time for it." He indicated the advancing mice, their tails lashing like whips. "We'll maybe concentrate on the not dying. OK?"

"Yes, Ray. Not dying would be preferable."

Ray could have sworn he saw a twinkle in the Mountie's painted eye. He watched as the nutcracker held his arm aloft and saw a sword come sailing towards him. The Mountie caught it by its hilt and swished it this way and that, the silver blade glinting in the light. Then the nutcracker turned on his heel, pointed the sword towards the encroaching army and shouted,

"Charge!"

All Ray felt was a wuff of air as the tin soldiers streamed past him. Belatedly he tried to move, but found himself held by a one-legged soldier.

"Oh no you don't, son," said the soldier. "Battles like this aren't for children or the sick. Let the professionals at it."

"I'm not a child," insisted Ray. But as sword clashed against sword and bloody battle was joined, Ray's pounding heart admitted the terror that he could not, and he was glad to be out of the way. In the mêlée he could not decide whether the Mountie's red coat was a blessing or a curse. The bright color made it easier for Ray to follow his progress, but it also made it easier for his enemies to pick him out and it wasn't long before the Mouse King had fought his way through to the nutcracker and with thrusts and parries and jabs and lunges had isolated him in a corner. The nutcracker was friendless and alone.

Ray flinched with every clash of blade on blade, forced himself to keep his eyes open as the nutcracker was overwhelmed by the brutality of the Mouse King. As all around him the mouse army was running rampant over the tin soldiers. He kept believing that it was going to be alright, that the Mountie would recover and lead the tin soldiers in a counter charge. But then the Mouse King was resting his sword point against the nutcracker's neck and Ray heard the clang of metal on wood and it was all over. The mouse army began to round up their prisoners as the Mouse King stood, victorious, paw clamped tight on the Mountie's shoulder.

No! They were not going to take his nutcracker. Losing him once in one day was enough. Was more than enough. Ray felt frustration and anger boiling up inside him. Wrenching free from the one-legged soldier he hopped forward, pulling off one of his slippers, hefting it in his hand. Ray sent up a swift prayer and hoped that all those hours in the yard perfecting his curve ball had been well spent. He dropped his shoulder, bent his leg and aimed.

The slipper tumbled through the air with speed and accuracy. With a dull thud, it hit the Mouse King square between the eyes and he dropped like a stone to the ground. Immediately the mouse army began to panic at the sight of their lifeless leader. Scurrying around they appeared to forget their captives, thinking only of getting away, far away. Ray saw several of the mice tying their tails together, creating a strange stretcher for the Mouse King and then he was borne away, the mice were gone and everything was quiet. Ray's heart was almost beating out of his chest. He looked at the nutcracker, who nodded and called,

"Thank you kindly, Ray!"

Thank you kindly! And once again Ray found himself repeating the nutcracker's words. He laughed, feeling shaky and weak from the excitement and fear. The last thing he noticed was the action figures still playing poker under the tree as if nothing had happened. He had a second to be amused by this and then the world went black.

*

"Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray!" The nutcracker's voice penetrated the dark, subtly different, but it was too much of an effort for Ray to open his eyes. They seemed heavier, somehow.

"Ray." The word was whispered this time and Ray felt a light, warm touch on his forehead.

He forced open his eyes to find a face, familiar yet not, hovering above his, lips drawn in a tight line that morphed into a beaming smile as Ray showed signs of life.

"Ray! I'm so glad you're awake. I was beginning to get worried." The face withdrew and Ray followed it, struggling up on to his elbows.

He took in the dark hair, slightly ruffled, the finely shaped features, the red uniform, the hat lying forlorn on the floor. It wasn't? It couldn't be? Ray's eyes widened. He'd never thought he'd be battling a Mouse King with a slipper either, this next step into the extraordinary — it was nothing. Walk in the park.

"Hey, Mountie," he jerked his head in acknowledgement.

"Hey, yourself, Ray." The Mountie continued to beam.

"How long was I, er, out?"

The once and no longer nutcracker did not answer immediately. His smile faded a little and he rubbed his eyebrow with his thumb.

"A ... A little while, Ray."

"Uhuh. And you? Blue Fairy come and visit while I was sleeping?" Ray was proud he'd paid attention in Mrs Caldwell's second grade class.

"No," another grin flashed across the Mountie's face. "Though I admit that would have been an interesting spectacle. My transformation was far more mundane. I was under a spell, which was broken by the Mouse King's defeat. You set me free, Ray. For that I thank you most sincerely."

Mundane? thought Ray. Means amazing right? Because what it sounded like it meant? Nu-uh. Nu-uh-uh.

"Hey, I just got lucky. Threw that slipper, hit that Mouse. Lucky." Ray's voice sounded gruff in his ears. He cleared his throat.

"No, Ray, not lucky." The Mountie extended a hand towards Ray; he grasped it, warm, soft but still smooth, and let himself be pulled to his feet. The room was back to normal. If anything it seemed smaller, but Ray put this down to his sight over-compensating and a knock on the head.

"You got a name? Because I can't call you the Mountie, it feels wrong, right?" And something else was off too, but Ray couldn't quite put his finger on it. The Mountie wasn't as tall as he'd expected — maybe that was what it was.

"My name is Prince Fraser. I first came to Chicago on the trail of the Princess Pirlipat and, for reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture, I have remained, ensorcelled and placed under a spell to live forever as a nutcracker. That is, unless the spell was broken by, as afore-mentioned, the defeat of the Mouse King."

"Fraser," Ray turned the name over on his tongue. He liked it. "Good name. What're you going to do now the spell's broken, Fraser?" A cold hand clutched at Ray's stomach, the realization dawning that he had lost his nutcracker after all, that this man was real and not a toy. That he was going to go away.

"I would like you to come with me to the Land of Snow. That is—" Fraser rubbed at his eyebrow again, "that is if you want to come."

Did he want to come? Go on an adventure with a real live Mountie? His Mountie? Ray's grin split his face from ear to ear — a sudden flash of sun — and then was gone the next second as common sense reasserted itself.

"I can't come," he said. "I'm twelve."

"Are you, Ray?"

"Of course I am. I'm ..."

Words fell unspoken from Ray's tongue as things fell into place. Fraser wasn't short, he was tall. The room wasn't smaller, he'd grown. His voice wasn't gruff, it was deep. He whirled round and in two strides was standing before the mirror that hung over the fireplace. He'd barely been tall enough to see the top of his head in it before, now his face and chest were reflected back at him. He was different, he was old, he was ... kinda good-looking. And his hair? Was cool. All spiky and random.

There was a squeezing pain in Ray's head. Screwing up his eyes he put his hands to his temples. It felt as if things were shifting around in his brain, memories he couldn't possibly have had were bubbling up and bursting open. Him and Stella at the Prom. Mikey Nicchol on his knees in front of Ray under the bleachers. God! Hours, days, weeks spent under the bonnet of a sleek black car. Yelling at Pop that he was going to be a cop no matter what. Stella again. There and then not. A life lived without living life. Ray didn't know what to think. Except maybe that he wasn't in Kansas any more.

He opened his eyes, looked at Fraser reflected behind him in the glass.

"Am I dreaming?"

"Do you want to be?"

"I don't know. I don't know, Fraser." Ray rubbed one hand over his cheek, the sand-papery stubble at once familiar and a surprise. He shook his head.

"I hit my head, right? This is a concussion."

"Well, technically you did hit your head, yes. But it's not a concussion."

"And you're a doctor as well as a Mountie?"

"That's just silly, Ray. But it's still not a concussion." There was such an air of authority about Fraser's tone that Ray could not help but believe him. But if it wasn't a dream or a concussion, what then?

"I don't understand, Fraser. I was twelve and now I'm ... not. How could this happen? Where did my life go? How come there's all this stuff I can remember that hasn't happened? What's going on?" Ray could see panic flaring in his eyes. He turned away from the mirror and reached out his hand.

"You gotta help me. This is messed-up. You gotta help me, Frase."

Before he had even finished speaking, Fraser had closed the gap between them and was gently grasping Ray's upper arms.

"Ray, magic is not something that can easily be understood. You must accept your transformation as I have accepted mine. Then understanding may be sought."

Maybe there was magic in Prince Fraser's fingertips because Ray calmed, dropped his head for the space of several heartbeats then lifted it and looked straight into Fraser's eyes.

"Accept? I gotta accept what I am now. OK. I can do that. I am all about acceptance." He flashed a smile. "So I guess now I can do that seeking understanding thing."

"Yes, Ray." Fraser released Ray's arms and took a step back. "I wonder if you would care to do that whilst accompanying me to the Land of Snow."

"Jeez, Frase, you don't take no for an answer, do you?" Ray scrubbed his hand through his hair, grinning.

"Is that a yes?"

"Yes, it's a yes. You want me to write a sign? Let's go to this Snowland of yours. I'm ready, I'm psyched, I'm—" Ray looked down at the faded T-shirt and shorts he was wearing in place of the pajamas of a few minutes, hours, twenty-some years ago. "—Gonna be cold," he finished.

Fraser smiled. "You're quite right. We need more appropriate attire. Let's see." He wrinkled his nose and sneezed.

"Gezundheit," commiserated Ray, then stared in incredulity.

Fraser's red uniform had vanished, replace by furs that swelled him to twice his size and left only his face visible. Framed by grey-white fur, Fraser's eyes appeared brighter, his lips more red. Ray shivered. Or he would have done if he wasn't so hot. Ray looked down and realized he was dressed in the same manner as Fraser.

"That's some sneeze you got there, Frase."

"Thank you kindly, Ray."

"No. See. I thought I phrased that as a question. We'll try again. That's some sneeze you got there, Frase?"

"Ah, yes. You pronounced the question mark quite beautifully. I must have misheard. It's quite simple, Ray. It's magic."

"OK then," replied Ray brightly, muttering "simple ... magic ... sneeze ... my ass," under his breath.

"And we'll need transport." Fraser ignored the muttering, shuffling Ray and sneezed again.

Ray blinked fast because a large, white animal ran through the window at full speed, the glass melting around him as if it did not exist. He just had time to see the look of utter delight on Prince Fraser's face before it was obscured from view in a flurry of white fur and pink tongue. Fraser's muffled voice punctuated the joyful barking.

"Diefenbaker!"

"Yes, it's good to see you too."

"Far too long."

"I know, I know."

"Diefenbaker, we have company."

"Now, now. Politeness costs us nothing."

The animal dropped to all fours and turned to regard Ray. Ray would usually have been perturbed by the thought that the animal was appraising him, but given the strange turns events had taken since the arrival of the nutcracker, he let it pass.

"Nice doggie?" Ray said and could have sworn the dog raised its eyebrows.

"Half-wolf, actually," said Fraser. "Deaf half-wolf to be precise. His name is Diefenbaker." Fraser addressed the dog. "Diefenbaker, this is Ray. He is a friend and should be treated as such." The dog looked at Ray and barked once, wagging his tail. Ray knew that he was saying hello. A deaf, half-wolf that apparently understood English. Quite a revelation. But Ray was revelationed out; he took it all in his stride.

"HI, DIEFENBAKER," he enunciated loudly and slowly. "GOOD TO MEET YOU."

"Actually, Ray, it's better if you keep up a more naturalistic flow of conversation. Shouting and over-enunciating tends to distort lip patterns and obscure other means of information carrying such as pitch, rhythm and intonation."

"Oh," said Ray. "Great. Whatever. Well one deaf half-wolf isn't going to get us to this Land of Snow you keep talking about."

"Quite right. Diefenbaker, call them in."

Diefenbaker turned to face the window. Sitting back on his haunches he lifted his muzzle and let out a triumphant howl. It shook the baubles on the Christmas tree. Ray winced. There was a rush of wind and as the room began to dissolve until it was a shadow of its real self, Ray could see a team of dogs harnessed to each other and to a sled beginning to materialize in the spot where the Christmas tree had stood. On seeing Fraser the dogs went wild and Ray was grateful to the thick fur of his hood for keeping the noise down. Fraser greeted each dog in turn and they soon calmed and stood to attention, ready for the off. Diefenbaker trotted to the head of the line and Fraser harnessed him in place. He turned to Ray.

"Are you ready?"

Ray nodded, mute. In just a couple of minutes Ray was settled in the sleigh, more fur piled over his legs. Fraser stood behind, hands gripping the rail behind Ray's head. He let out a shout and the dogs took off through the shadowy walls and straight up into the air.

"Whoa!" Ray felt a rush of adrenaline as the sled tipped side-to-side while the dogs found their rhythm. "I guess this makes Diefenbaker, Rudolph."

"I beg your pardon, Ray!" yelled Fraser. "I'm afraid I can't hear you."

The cold bit at Ray's cheeks as the air rushed past. No wonder Fraser couldn't hear anything, thought Ray and snuggled down into the furs, ready to enjoy the ride.

Soon the houses began to thin out, fields replacing yards, trees replacing shrubs. As the dogs ran through the clear night sky Ray noticed the trees getting denser, firs clustering together, small islands joining to make large continents. Then the darkness below gave way to light as snow began to dust the branches. The further they flew, the thicker the snow grew, until the land shone blue like the sea under the bright moonlight, the trees rising like waves. The colors began to change as the sun began to rise, casting its pink and orange glow across the snow. Ray was mesmerized.

He was shocked out of his reverie by a loud shout from Fraser and the answering baying of the dogs. They began a steep descent. Ray's stomach felt like it was left hovering in the air some thirty feet above his head. He hoped like hell it would catch up. They were heading right for the trees, they were going to crash! Ray squeezed his eyes shut and prepared for a rough landing.

It never came. The sled set down in a large clearing in the middle of the forest, the landing as gentle as the snow that began to fall on Ray's upturned face. Ray opened his eyes and breathed out, his stomach dropping back into place. He laughed with relief. Shoving the furs off he scrambled out of the sleigh and turned to say something to Fraser. He stopped short. Fraser had pushed his hood back, his hair stuck up in all directions, his cheeks glowed and his eyes sparkled as he grinned at Ray.

An overwhelming urge swept over Ray and he launched himself at Fraser, tipping them both over. He grabbed Fraser's hands, holding them out as far as they would go he swept Fraser's arms up and down in the soft snow. Keeping hold, his face about an inch from Fraser's, Ray whispered,

"Snow angel."

He felt his insides lurch and wondered if he should move. He didn't want to. Not with Fraser looking at him like that.

"Ahem."

No, Fraser's lips hadn't moved. That meant —. Ray leapt to his feet and whirled round. Another Mountie. Two, in fact. Ray cast a wild look at Fraser who had sat up and was brushing non-existent snow from his sleeves.

"Hello, Dad," said Fraser. Ray stared.

"Hello, son. Glad you're not made of wood anymore."

"As am I." Fraser nodded at the second of the men. "Hello, Buck. Good to see you."

"Fraser," Buck acknowledged the Prince with a loud fart.

"I see nothing has changed around here," said Fraser. Ray continued to stare at the old Mounties. There was something strange about Fraser's father, something he couldn't quite figure out.

"Oh, where are my manners?" asked Fraser, standing up and cricking his neck. "Ray, this is my father, King Bob, and his friend and steward Buck Frobisher. Dad, Buck, this is Ray — he broke the spell."

If King Bob's eyebrows had risen any higher they would have disappeared into his fur-lined hat.

"Fraser? The prophecy? This is the one? That's ... an interesting development, son. We may need to have a little chat about the rules of accession. Precedent, you know."

"Prophecy?" asked Ray. "What prophecy?" But he was roundly ignored.

"Accession?" snorted Fraser. "You're being unreasonable. Ray being ... Ray ... should have no bearing on the accession at all. Besides, it's not like you're ever giving up the crown — you're still ruling the kingdom and you're dead for heaven's sake!"

"Dead!" echoed Ray. He stared hard at King Bob. Man didn't look like a zombie. Must be a ghost. Ray checked his memory bank — nope, he didn't believe in ghosts. That may cause a problem.

Fraser turned to Ray.

"Yes, he's dead. He was shot by the same evil witch that ensorcelled me. But as you can see, he hasn't let it slow him down."

"What? Let a little thing like death get in my way? Not likely when there was a kingdom to run. You were no use, son, getting yourself turned into a nutcracker like that."

"It's not like I did it on purpose. I was tricked." Fraser was moving from foot to foot. Ray could feel the agitation coming off him in waves.

"Tricked! Aha! I would never have fallen for such a —"

"You were shot, Dad. I would say that trumps being turned into wood."

Buck was waggling his eyebrows furiously at Ray, which Ray took as an attempt to communicate that Fraser and his father were always like this and one being dead and the other made of wood hadn't helped matters much and it could go on all day and weren't there better things to do and did Ray have any ideas? Very communicative eyebrows, Ray decided. He tried to shrug but it was difficult with all the layers he was wearing. He settled for scrunching up his eyes instead — Buck seemed to get the message.

"Bob," he interrupted.

"What?" snapped Bob.

"The, er, the Dance of Jubilee?"

"The Dance of Jubilee?" King Bob's face was blank. "Buck, I've warned you about picking mushrooms in the forest if you refuse to wear your glasses."

"Listen, you senile old fool, we've been practicing the goddamned Dance of Jubilee since Prince Fraser turned into an over-sized Christmas tree ornament. He's back now, the boys are very excited, and we know what happens when they get excited, so if you don't mind postponing your bickering —"

"What do you mean bickering?" started Bob, only to be met by a steely stare from Buck. "Very well," he raised his voice, "let the Dance of Jubilee begin!"

And from behind every tree edging the clearing appeared a bright-faced, red-uniformed Mountie, stepping almost in time to the strains of music that now hung in the air. Ray watched in horrified amazement as the dancing Mounties tripped over their snowshoes, accidentally kicked each other in the shins, knocked off their partners' Stetsons and missed the beat time after time, all the while smiling with what seemed like genuine pleasure. The only delicate thing about these Mounties was the snow that continued to fall upon them as they danced.

Eventually the music came to an end and, mostly, so did the dancers, although one had to be grabbed by a colleague and forced to stop. Fraser and Ray clapped politely. Or rather, Fraser clapped politely while Ray tried to drum up any response that didn't involve laughing his socks off. The Mounties bowed and did their best to melt away into the trees. They were almost successful — only two of the company bounced off trunks before disappearing behind them.

"Right, er, well, that was the Dance of Jubilee. So. Yes. Perhaps a little more work on the middle section would have been wise."

"Thank you, Buck," said Fraser. "I shall treasure the memory always."

"Treasure the memory," muttered Ray, "Scrub my brain with bleach more likely."

"So, son, I must be off, there are matters of state to attend to, you know. Can't dilly dally in the snow all day. Will I see you at the palace later?"

"He calls it a palace," Buck whispered behind his hand to Ray. "It's a cabin with indoor plumbing. I don't know what the attraction is myself. Far more bracing to roll naked in the snow." Ray took a step closer to Fraser.

"Yes. I shall be there."

King Bob nodded at his son, then at Ray. He pinched his nose, blew out his cheeks and grabbed Buck's hand; they both bent at the knees, jumped and were gone.

"Oookay," said Ray. "So your pop's a dead king who does magic and is also a Mountie."

"Yes, Ray."

"Right." Ray filed this immediately in the growing drawer marked 'Later'. "And the dancing Mounties?"

"Ah. Well, yes. They were rather —"

"Sucky?"

"Under rehearsed, Ray. But they are Mounties — they fare much better on horses. I've heard wonderful things about the Musical Ride."

There was a low rumble which Ray pinpointed to his stomach.

"Fraser?"

"Yes, Ray."

"I'm hungry."

"Why didn't you say something?"

"I just did."

"Your wish is my command, Ray. Let me take you to the Land of Sweets."

"Land of Sweets?"

"Actually, the title is rather self-aggrandizing, it's not so much a Land as a state within a state, rather like the Vatican. Except without the inherent scandal and distractions over dogma.

"Of course, my father was delighted to accede to its request for self-governance as it reduced the tooth decay statistics in the Land of Snow by ninety-seven percent. Made the Tooth Fairy very happy."

"Um," said Ray. "Food?"

The journey to the Land of Sweets was swift and easy, trees parting before the sled to create a stately avenue. Soon they drew to a halt.

"The Land of Sweets!" Fraser declared.

"It's a gingerbread house."

"Indeed."

"Surrounded by barbed wire."

"They're very protective of their borders."

"You mean the house is the Land of Sweets?"

"Yes, Ray."

"It's not exactly big, is it?"

"I never said anything about size, Ray. And it really is a fine restaurant, er, Land. Shall we?"

Ray levered himself out of the sled and waited as Fraser unharnessed Diefenbaker. Fraser sneezed once and a bowl of kibble appeared by each member of the team. Diefenbaker bounded over to the gate and stood barking alternately at it and at the men behind him.

"I apologize for Diefenbaker," said Fraser. "He has an incurable sweet tooth. Gingerbread is a particular favorite."

To Diefenbaker he added,

"No eating the house, Diefenbaker. Try to remember the time when you compromised its structural integrity. You nearly caused an insurrection. We're lucky they ever allowed us to return."

Diefenbaker barked three times.

"I should hope so," said Fraser, pulling on a candy cane at the gate which swung open revealing a crazy-paving pathway that looked as if it was made from peanut brittle. It was lined on either side by a licorice fence. The gingerbread house itself had a large, sloping roof which overhung the walls. Cotton candy was puffing out of the chimney.

"Wow," said Ray.

"It is rather spectacular," agreed Fraser as they headed up the path. "You know, you can eat anything you want here."

"Pizza?" Ray sounded hopeful.

"Well, no. This is a fantasy house. No one fantasizes pizza."

"I do."

"No pizza, Ray. But beware, there may be more dancing."

"Not more Mounties?" Ray was horrified.

"Not more Mounties," Fraser soothed. "But dancing nonetheless."

The door swung open and there stood a tall, worn-looking man, wearing a green smock, red trousers and an oddly purple, round hat.

"Prince Fraser," said the man, stepping back to allow Fraser and Ray to pass. "Your spell has been broken. I imagine this pleases me."

"Thank you kindly, Harding." The gingerbread house was one big room filled with small tables. It was lit by candles lining the walls, lending everything a soft glow and causing the smells of ginger, cinnamon and cloves to waft through the air. A few tables were occupied by people who looked human enough, though Ray had seen enough in the past few hours to take nothing for granted. Fraser indicated a table to Ray. They sat, Diefenbaker curling up at Fraser's feet and surreptitiously flicking his tongue out to lick the table leg.

"Who's your friend, Fraser?" asked Harding.

"This is Ray Kowalski. Ray, this is Sugar Plum Fairy Harding."

Ray was so busy feeling a squeeze of pleasure at being called Fraser's friend that he almost let that one pass. Almost, but not quite.

"He's a fairy?" Not like any fairy Ray had imagined — although it wasn't as if he'd spent a lot of time building any kind of mental picture, so maybe what did he know?

"Yeah," said Harding, eyes narrowing. "Wanna make something of it, Kowalski?" So, not the fluffy bunny kind of fairy then.

"Er, no," said Ray with a conciliatory smile.

"Do try the hot chocolate, Ray," Fraser steered the conversation back to safe waters. "It's excellent."

Whilst waiting for their order to arrive Harding asked Fraser to tell him how the spell had been broken. He seemed very impressed on hearing about the battle with the mouse army and insisted on rewarding them with a celebration of dances, despite fervent protestations. Food arrived and then with a wave of Harding's hand several tables disappeared and music began; a syncopated rhythm. Two of the clientele rose and made their way to the cleared space, their clothes transforming into flamenco dress as they walked. The dance began and Harding and his customers threw themselves into clapping and yelling encouragement with gusto. Fraser and Ray took the opportunity to talk.

"Fraser, back at the house you said I had to accept, you know, stuff and then seek understanding. I think I've accepted a lot. I'm OK with being old, I'm OK with magic and a dead king and I can even accept this tendency everyone round here seems to have of breaking out the dancing at the drop of a tap shoe — those guys are good, by the way. I could never get the hang of flamenco. Do a mean tango, though." He dragged himself back from his tangent.

"But understanding? I got nothing. You gotta help me, Fraser. Do you know what's going on?"

"I believe I do."

"Then tell me before my head explodes with all of this."

The music slowed and the strains of an oboe filled the air. The flamenco dancers whirled away to be replaced by several women in gauzy veils and silken gowns and men wearing only colorful wide-legged trousers gathered at the ankle and dangerously pointed shoes. Fraser laced his fingers together and took a deep breath. Ray found himself unaccountably scared. He gripped his mug of hot chocolate until his knuckles whitened.

"As you know, Ray, I was under a spell. It was powerful magic — old magic, the strongest of all. To break such a spell — there are always repercussions. My transformation released a ball of magical energy which hit you.

"It split you in half, Ray. A twelve year old Ray still sleeps in your bed, ready to wake up on Christmas morning. I'm afraid he will miss his nutcracker."

"And me?" Ray's voice was a whisper.

"You." Fraser's fingers fluttered, and his eyes softened. "You. You were propelled into your own future. The memories you have, they're all real. They are the life you will live. That is, that the twelve year old will live. You have already lived it — but you feel that, don't you?"

Ray nodded. He felt every year, every moment of heart-stopping happiness, every instance of unbearable pain and everything in between. He was shaped by these memories, it didn't matter that it was by magical means. He was who he was.

"You were supposed to be a girl," said Fraser, his eyes drifting away from Ray's face, his cheeks flushing. "She — you — were destined to be part of my transformation. I was supposed to be rewarded for my trials with a, with a mate." Fraser was studying his hands now.

"Mort knew my, ah, proclivities. He knew what he was doing when he gave me to you."

A cheerful violin hummed and soared as the Arabian dancers gave way to Russian ones. Ray did not notice, he had eyes only for Fraser.

"Oh," he said. Then, worried that he hadn't been encouraging enough, "Oh?"

"As I understand it, you have two choices. You can return to your twelve year old self and be rejoined with him, or—" Fraser rubbed at his eyebrow and shifted in his seat.

"Or?" prompted Ray.

"Or you can stay with me. Here. Forever."

"Here?"

"Yes."

"Forever?"

"Yes." There was obviously something interesting about the table that Ray just wasn't noticing because Fraser's eyes were trying their best to bore a hole through it. Ray fought the impulse to reach out and grab Fraser's chin, make those eyes look at him.

"You want me?" he asked.

"Yes." And now Fraser did look at Ray and his eyes shone and the color in his cheeks had nothing to do with the hot furs he was still wearing.

"Yes, I do, Ray. Stay with me. My kingdom is your kingdom."

Ray grinned. He gestured at the latest group of dancers resplendent in Chinese costume.

"You wanna get out of here?"

Fraser's answering smile was more brilliant than a thousand candles. He stood.

"Hey!" called Harding after them as they headed out of the door. "We're not done. You'll miss the Mirlitons."

"No one knows what Mirlitons are, Harding," replied Fraser. "Besides, my father is expecting us at the palace. Thank you kindly everyone. It has been most — geographically instructive."

As Ray and Fraser walked up the path, still grinning at each other, Diefenbaker yapped several times.

"Oh," said Fraser. "That's what Mirlitons are, I always wondered."

"To the palace?" asked Ray, reaching the sled.

"To the palace," affirmed Fraser.

The snow had stopped falling now and the temperature had dropped even further. Ray shivered as he arranged himself under the furs.

"Ready?" asked Fraser, behind him.

"Yeah," said Ray leaning his head back to get another look at Fraser. "Mush there, Mountie."

Fraser leaned forward and brushed his lips gently across Ray's. He straightened up.

"Mush!" he yelled.

And as the dog sled rose once more into the air, Ray touched his fingers to his lips, still feeling Fraser's warmth on them and thought that this was the best magic of all.


Contact Cat

Or comment at my LJ