"Hey! Boys, that's rude, calm down!"
"Hehehe...don't worry yourself, daughter~"
Peter looked away. His grandparents lived at the edge of a little woodside town, despite their son and daughter-in-law's insistence that they would be happy and well cared for in a proper retirement home ("There's one not a stone's throw from our place! We'd visit ALL the time!"). And so, when the latest generation of the Tsarevik family had piled into the minivan, the drive out of the bustling city for their christmas destination had been long.
For Peter, the eldest of the five boys, too long. It was bad enough that it had started well before sunrise, his parents determined to get there by morning. The plaintive whining of his young siblings at being separated from computers and TV had been sharpened by their early reveille, and kept HIM from catching up on sleep into the bargain.
But their complaints turned to giddy glee when they got there. It was as if they had never SEEN snow before, Peter mused, even if the huge white drifts that greeted them were like something out of a fairytale. He had to smile. A little.
The truth was that he shared some of his brothers' initial misgivings. Plans made with friends for holiday get-togethers had to cancelled when the Tsarevik Family Trip was so abruptly announced. And he itched to check his e-mail...but no, he would make the most of it. Earning a few brownie points for good behaviour couldn't hurt.
And, he remembered as his bent old Nana hugged him with her usual ferocity, he really did miss his grandparents. There was something about them that you just couldn't help but love, and it wasn't just Nana's cookies. Oh Lordy, he could smell them now, cookies and cider and hot chocolate~
"Ah, Papa, were we ever so young and eager?"
"Ah, Nana, that is not a story for the ears of youth~"
Papa Tsarevik, his stooped stance belying his strength, had lumbered in right on queue. And he was toting a huge pile of beautifully wrapped gifts. The boys were stunned into awed silence.
"Oh, no Dad, no!" Peter's father desperately indicated the bags his wife was shepherding. They contained every gift Mom and Dad had brought for the entire family, Nana and Papa included. Papa's armload was easily double the size of the bags together, and knowing them that was just for the kids!
"Not a word, son!" Nana admonished him. "It is the season for giving!"
"Yeah, Dad, don't be rude!" The children broke into laughter, oblivious to their mother's withering glare.
"But it is true, my love." Papa set the presents down and mimed wiping his brow. "There are many gifts here, and more to come."
"Then, I suppose," Nana went on, paying no mind to her son's distress, "that it would be best to reduce the number now, to leave more room under the tree tomorrow morning~"
Their parents' cry of dismay was entirely lost as the little boys roared in joy and surged forward, clamouring around their Papa.
Peter straddled a sofa arm with studied insouciance, watching Papa made a show of dithering before handing out boxes. After several years with him the only child, his parents had apparently decided that the Tsarevik homestead needed some livening up. They hadn't anticipated that his younger brothers would be as exuberant as he was reserved.
Nana had brought his parents mugs of cider. Cider fortified with something stronger, if his nose was any judge. He was also pretty sure that his mother had hoped for at least one girl, but after sons #4 and #5 - twins, no less! - well, that was clearly that.
"Oh my GAAAAAAAAAAW~!"
Peter's jaw almost dropped. He'd heard tell that other kids dreaded presents from their grandparents. But the sight that confronted the Tsarevik boys under all that festive wrapping was one of expensive technology. They shrieked and held the super-deluxe collector editions of the latest online shooters over their heads. The twins danced around a factory-new bleeding-edge game console - complete with extra controllers, of course. He'd never even seen his grandparents with so much as a desktop or modem. How did they DO it?
"Alright boys, calm down. Let's just put these in the car..." They howled in dismay. Never mind that their freshly unwrapped gaming delights were useless until they went home, it was the principle! But their protests went unheeded as Peter's Mom shuttled the precious treasures to the minivan.
"Now, Peter my great big prince, what about you?" Nana was suddenly beside him, another gift in her hands. The boys looked on glumly as he accepted it from her. It was hefty...whatever was inside was a bit heavier than it looked. Slipping back onto the counch proper, Peter undid the bow and began to tear the paper.
He told himself he was the mature one as he revealed the non-descript box inside. He was going to show his parents and everyone that he wasn't a little kid, he was grown-up, he was oh who was he kidding? With a guffaw, he popped the lid and reached inside.
The house went completely silent.
Peter Tsarevik found himself holding a doll. A beautiful antique doll of the most exquisite workmanship. Under a fur-trimmed cloak of festive green and red, it was dressed in a white gown with gold embroidery. Blonde hair with a crimson gloss fell down past the small of its back, and the face looked placidly into Peter's own with a demure smile.
He glanced up. Nana and Papa smiled indulgently. Dad was looking from one to the other, trying to divine the punchline. The faces of his little brothers twisted in barely-suppressed glee - they had been handed enough teasing fodder to last them until senility, and they hardly knew where to start.
The silence was abruptly broken with a slam. Mom staggered back in and finally started to strip off her winter gear. "What are you doing with that silly doll, Peter?"
"Why, it's his present!" Papa beamed.
"Isn't she lovely? Her name is Celesta. A beautiful name for a beautiful princess, isn't that so, Papa?"
"Just as you say, Nana."
Without a word, she finished kicking off her boots, returned to her mug and sank the remaining contents in one gulp. "Well, Peter?" Evidently she had given up on reining in Nana and Papa's indulgences, but enforcing basic manners was a perogative she was clearly not going to surrender. Not even if her eldest son had just been given a pretty dolly for some reason.
Peter swallowed hard. "...thanks, Nana, Papa. She's...very pretty. I'm...very, uh...very...grateful."
"Yeah, Nana~ He's REALLY grateful!"
"Now he can finally play with dolls like he ALWAYS wanted!"
He wasn't listening. Listlessly, he stood, sending the empty box tumbling, and began meandering in the direction of the kitchen. To do what, he wasn't sure. His focus was entirely on his doll. Celesta, Nana said? It really was well made. Especially that face. It seemed so pink and soft and fresh. If he didn't know better...
Then one of the twins hopped up, grabbing at it. "Does she have shoes and a purse? Huh? Do you wanna accessorize her, huh huh?"
Mom's frosty warning was entirely disregarded. "I bet you wanna have a slumnber party with her and talk about boys and do your haaaaaaaaaair and..."
As the little snot cackled on, grabby fingers found purchase on Celesta's hair, threatening to yank it from Peter's grasp onto the floor.
When Nana had called him 'her great big prince', she wasn't just being a grandmother. Peter was a big, beefy young man. His disinterest in team sports was the lamentation of the coaches and captains of the football and wrestling teams at school. So when he reacted by bodily grabbing the younger boy and hurling him across the room with a roar of fury, only the heavily stuffed nature of the sofa with which the latter collided prevented non-trivial injury.
Again, silence. The realization of what he'd done, even as he combed his fingers through Celesta's hair and clutched her protectively to himself, shocked him as much as it did his apparently dumbstruck family.
"Ah! The cookies are ready!"
Nana's declaration utterly punctured the tension. With another cheer, the little Tsareviks stampeded into the kitchen. Celesta's would-be aggressor simply hopped to his feet and ran off, potential bruises and booboos totally forgotten. Papa rested a hand on Dad's shoulder, nodding with paternal sympathy.
"Merry Christmas, my boy."
"...Merry Christmas, Papa." The younger man murmured back, evidently accepting that there was no more to say on this or any matter.
Peter allowed himself to relax as his parents trundled after their children. Papa turned his attention to his eldest grandson.
"Very brave, not-so-little prince." He said with every sign of approval. "You must be gallant to deserve your place as her protector, remember."
"Right." Peter mumbled weakly. He stroked Celesta's hair again. It was ever so soft.
The rest of Christmas Eve passed in a blur. Papa led the boys outside for a day of snowmen, snowball fights, sledding and general yuletide horseplay. Mom and Dad - mostly Mom - had attempted to assist Nana's dinner preparations, but she was adamant that guests were guests and that was that. And so they'd sat on either side of him on the couch, watching the children outside, neither of them saying a thing about Celesta, who remained in Peter's hands.
The only time she left his sight was before dinner. As the table was set and hands were washed, the all-important business of working out sleeping arrangements was seen to behind parental backs. The rustic cottage of the elder Tsareviks sported a pair of guest rooms, and enough room in the attic for everyone else to camp out in some comfort. Peter asserted that, as the eldest, the guest room not earmarked for Mom and Dad was his by right. The boys had asked 'him and what army', threats of dire noogies, atomic wedgies and the potential for swirlies on return to the city eventually carrying the day in his favour.
And so he left her propped up on his pillow when he went downstairs and proceeded to fill his belly and, thanks to some grandparental sleight-of-hand, indulge in some of the 'fortified' drinks Mom and Dad nursed. It was a loagy, slightly giddy, curiously content young man that hung up his stocking with the other boys, sang along with them in off-key christmas medleys for Nana's enjoyment, and finally trudged back upstairs even as his siblings forcefully insisted they were fit to stay up Just A Little Bit Longer.
She was still there, which gave him an odd sensation of visceral relief. Stripping down to his boxers, the young man shut off the light and crawled under the covers. He had started to shiver even as he hit the light switch. It was COLD.
Cold. Would she be cold too? He reached over and delicately tucked the doll in beside him.
"...sleep well, Celesta." He rolled his eyes, this was RIDICULOUS... Then he gave her a light kiss on the cheek, squirmed sideways to leave a suitably gentlemanly space between the tiny lady and himself, and shut his eyes.
The smile that stole across his boyishly handsome features as he fell asleep mimicked the gentle contentment on Celesta's beautiful face.