[A short holiday fantasy romance for
“And that’s the bunting up!” Elisia stepped back, hands on hips, to proudly examine the results of a good ten minutes’ hard work.
A heavy form thudded into her back; a deep purr rattled through to her bones.
“Not that kind of bunting.” She pushed back with one hand, and grinned as she encountered one soft, perky ear and, for an instant, a gentle nuzzle. “Stop it and examine my handiwork, damnit.”
A grumble mixed in with the purr, but Tistyn stood upright and stepped back, mirroring Elisia’s pose as he squinted up at the festive garlands, reddish-brown ears tilted curiously forward. “You missed a bit.”
“What?! How could I—” She hadn’t. She saw it immediately, but his serious tone always made her believe the lying little beast. Elisia dug an elbow into his ribs and Tistyn stumbled sideways, laughing. “You’re just cruel.”
“And you’re too easy to tease.” He slung an arm over her shoulder and pulled her close, nuzzling up against her cheek. When Elisia laughed and scratched behind his ears in just the way he liked, the catboy began purring again, loud and helplessly; when he spoke, it sounded like a struggle: “that’s not fair.”
“Really? And what did you just do to me? Shush and go and get the rest of the decorations.”
With another grumble from deep inside his throat Tistyn complied, but only after smearing his cheek over Elisia’s.
She sighed. Really, it was much easier to own a cat instead of dating a catboy… but, she had to admit, much less fun. And at least with Tistyn otherwise occupied she could check the garlands properly. And she really hadn’t messed up, despite his distractions: they hung evenly around the little bar room, glossy green leaves and meaty flowers hanging down and cheering up the stone walls more than Elisia had believed when Tistyn first suggested it.
He dropped the last box on the table beside them and grinned up at her, fangs flashing. “You didn’t believe me, did you?”
“Of course I did,” she lied.
He snorted. “You lot and your weird burning of undecorated trees. Why can’t you get some enjoyment out of it before your torch it?”
Elisia opened her mouth to answer but Tistyn already had his pointed ears in the box, digging out the last of the decorations he’d ordered from his hometown, so it didn’t seem worth the breath. And when he resurfaced, dangling a selection of bells from one long-nailed finger, his huge grin set aside the last of her objections. “What’re you planning on doing with those? Wearing them from your ears?”
His wink sent sparks flaring along her skin. “Maybe later, with nothing else.” When he turned away, it left a little heat banked in the pit of her stomach. “For now, they’re going over here.”
Over here turned out to be over the doorway to the bar, to Elisia’s great skepticism — and one that Tistyn clearly knew her too well not to pre-empt. “When you open the door,” he demonstrated, to a musical jingle quite unlike the usual sounds of a tavern door, “it makes people feel festive. And festive people like to drink.”
Elisia couldn’t keep the wry smile from her face. “And there was me thinking you were doing it in the spirit of the festival.”
Another broad grin; he had no right looking so pretty when he flashed it. “Festive spirits lead to profits. I mean, vodka’s a spirit, right?”
She couldn’t hold back a laugh. “I’ll make a barman of you yet.”
“I can’t pull a pint to save my life,” he said smugly, sidling back over to headbutt her shoulder. “I work very hard not to, I don’t want to be behind your bar. But decorating the place? I can do that.”
Elisia looked around the little space, from the tables with winter flowers poking from little vases, to the garlands and holly adorning the walls, and finally over to the tree. The local woodsman had been bemused as to why she wanted a whole fir tree, not one cut into neat sections for burning at winter celebrations, but he’d obliged and the handsome tree stood proudly in the corner by the back room door, decorated with paper chains and glass baubles that reflected every light of the little bar.
Previous holiday celebrations had never seemed so sparse. She wrapped her arm around Tistyn’s shoulder and pulled him close, kissing the top of his head so hard his ears twitched. “It looks beautiful.”
He ducked his head, but his purr was unmistakable.
“And now,” she added reluctantly, “we have to open up.”
A few moments passed, until Tistyn’s purr became a laugh. “And you’ll do that, when…?”
“When you stop being so warm and cuddly.”
He grinned, then reached up and tugged one of her long ears. When she huffed and finally released him, his grin widened. “Warm and cuddly eats profits.”
“Why do you sound like me?” Elisia grumbled, but stepped over to the tavern door regardless. One slide of the panel set into the door and the little place was officially open — and the first customer appeared so quickly she barely had the time to get out of the way before the door hit her. Customers, she corrected herself, stepping aside with a smile as a couple stumbled in from the frigid outdoors, eyes only for each other and so clearly in love it warmed her heart more than the roaring fire behind her ever could.
One of the pair, a handsome silver-skinned man with long white hair so glossy Elisia briefly considered asking how he maintained it, flashed her a charming smile. “Two drinks of something warm, please.”
She bowed quickly and ducked behind the bar. From the clatter in the next room, Tistyn was already in the kitchen preparing the next batch of hot spiced punch, another of his festive traditions. He was convinced it’d be popular; Elisia wasn’t so sure. People here could be set in their ways, but… She shrugged, ladled the contents of the first warm batch into glass tankards and delivered them to the table.
That even the pretty… elven? half-elven? lady who had seemed unimpressed and watchful ever since she’d arrived looked startled, then slowly pleased, by the taste of it warmed Elisia’s heart. Tistyn had his uses beyond his warm cuddles and obsession with draping himself over her at the most random times; this was one of them. She’d not tasted anything so warming and delicious in years, and he was more than happy to create batches for the snowy season. He was rightly proud of his skills, even while he preferred to hide in the kitchen rather than face the customers.
Elisia tried not to grin. “I hope you enjoy your drinks,” she said, bowed again, and backed politely away, leaving them to talk animatedly between themselves and savour Tistyn’s concoction. Besides, the door had just swung open again, throwing in another icy blast along with a stumbling customer, and from the red highlights in their cheeks and nose and the snow dusting their hair, they were even more in need of a warm drink than the couple.
Another clatter of the door, another burst of chatter, this time of a group with flushed faces just visible through their raised, snow-dusted hoods, raised Elisia’s eyebrows. At this rate, it’d be a busy afternoon, never mind the evening. Rapping twice on the door separating bar and kitchen to let Tistyn know he needed to work twice as quickly to keep up with demand, she plastered on her best barmaid smile and set to work serving her clientele.
* * *
The moon was already past its zenith when Elisia slumped against Tistyn at the corner table. The customers had been gone for an hour, but it had taken that long to finish clearing up after them and their wintertide celebrations. Whichever person had thought to bring glittering confetti, whilst clearly very talented, had also had the particular talent to ensure they weren’t there once it needed cleaning. Something told Elisia she’d be finding it hiding in corners for weeks.
“That was tiring,” the catboy declared, pushing one stray square of confetti across the table, watching it sparkled in the lamplight with one ear curiously forward, the other tilted slightly towards her.
Elisia thought about reminding him he’d spent the entire time in the kitchen… then decided against it. He’d been on his feet just as long; just because he hadn’t spent it fetching and carrying glasses and food, smiling at customers and batting away wandering hands, didn’t mean it was any easier; even if he had worked in the bar proper, with his pretty face he’d have suffered the wandering hands too. Happy, drunk people would pinch any backside available.
She put her arm around him instead, and smiled as he snuggled closer. “And it’s the last day before the festival too.”
“It’s probably Wintertide now,” he murmured, fiddling with the little square. It flashed between his fingers. “It’s past midnight, isn’t it?”
She pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Merry Wintertide.”
With a deft flick of his fingers, Tistyn tossed the confetti into the air to flutter back down onto Elisia’s nose, grinning as she twitched it until it fell back onto the table. “Do you feel festive yet?”
“Mostly I think I feel tired.” Elisia stretched her legs out under the table, then bumped her food companionably against Tistyn’s. “But happy.”
“Happy we’re alone?” He grinned, flashing a pointed fang.
This time it was more of a kick. “You’re a cat in every sense of things. Too tired for that, but…” Tistyn’s golden eyes widened as Elisia’s hand dipped into the pocket of her apron, usually stuffed with cutlery to be deposited in the sink, and pulled out a thin shape wrapped in brightly-coloured tissue. “Not too tired for a little gifting.”
“Thank you,” he breathed, turning the little package over and over in his hands until Elisia was suddenly worried he’d forget to actually open it. When he tore into the paper, she grinned, and when he pulled a slender strip of golden leather free. When he opened it up to its full length, complete with buckle at the end… well, she’d thought his eyes were wide before, but they almost turned into saucers. “Is that a…?”
Had she misjudged it? She’d made discreet enquiries about how the Felidians expressed commitment, but it was always hard to separate actual knowledge from terrible jokes. What if she’d just insulted him? The idea of the tiny tavern without her overly-affectionate partner bounding around or laying at full stretch over her whenever possible seemed suddenly awful—
“Do — do you mean it?” Tistyn’s eyes were still wide, but now they shone with the glow of tears. “Do you mean I — I belong here? With you?”
Elisia didn’t realise she’d been holding her breath until it suddenly escaped her in a sudden rush. “Yes, you pointy-eared idiot, of course I do. I couldn’t imagine life without you.”
Tistyn flung his arms around her and buried his face in the crook of her neck. She knew how short he was in comparison to her spare elven frame, relatively speaking, but now he simultaneously seemed tiny and widely sprawling as he clung to her. She hugged him back, petting his hair in the way he liked best and grinning as his tail flicked back and forth with joy.
“Who’re you calling pointy-eared anyway?” He mumbled into her neck, then slowly released her and wiped his eyes with the back of his arm. “Thank you. I never — I never thought…”
She ruffled his hair, grinning at the way his ears twitched. “Why didn’t you?”
“I don’t know.” Tistyn wiped his eyes again, then thrust the collar at her. “Put it on me?”
She obliged, grinning at his dorky smile. It was an odd custom, but who was she to argue if it made him smile so widely? And considering she’d found him, shaking and tattered, in the doorway to the tavern one wet morning only a couple of years ago, maybe belonging was all he’d wanted.
Tistyn preened with his collar, fingers constantly moving up to touch it, then away, then back; Elisia had to admit she’d chosen the right colour. She’d certainly agonised enough. But it suited his reddish-brown hair and golden-tan skin, and he knew it without needing anything as basic as a reflection to prove it.
“I suppose,” she said, her hand dropping to her pocket again, “that you might be needing this too, if you want it…?”
Tistyn’s ears perked again. “‘This’?”
Elisia pulled out a small golden shape, with a jewel set below an eye at one end, leading along a barrel to a rectangular shape at the end; his eyes widened again, almost like he’d never seen a key before. It was small, delicate and shone as brightly in the low light as the confetti Tistyn had been playing with. The sight of it visibly captivated him. “I mean, perhaps you might not want it…?”
He was itching to steal it straight from her hand, she could see it in the twitching of his fingers and just how wide his pupils had blown. But he managed to behave himself, fidgeting slightly beside her as his stare never once left the key. “Is that…?”
“The key to this place?” She grinned at him, and it was just as wide for knowing he didn’t see it. “Yep, it is. That is, if you want it?”
“I’ve been living here for two years,” Tistyn murmured, fingers inching up to his collar again. “You’ve always let me come and go as I want.”
She couldn’t help it: she reached up and skritched behind his ear, laughing as for a moment he melted against her touch. “The collar means something to you. Well, the key means something to me. It’s the freedom to come and go at any time, whether I’m there or not. It’s… it’s a symbol of freedom.”
For a moment his brilliant golden stare moved from the key to her, wide and suddenly filled with comprehension, then he pecked a kiss to her cheek that for all its sweetness made her blush. “Thank you.”
“And,” she said, trying to sound businesslike and knowing from his smile she failed, “because it means something to you, I’ll attach it here.” She hooked it through the ring in his collar, so it lay against the well of his neck. “So it means something to both of us.”
His fingers toyed with the smooth surface, returning more than once to the amber gem set into the metal. When his touch returned to her face, it was to angle her face for a sweeter kiss: one on the lips, teasingly soft and deliciously light. “Thank you.”
She smiled, feeling his lips mirror hers. “You already said that.”
“And I still mean it.” He kissed her again. “And I…” He broke away, fumbling in a pocket for a small box that he held out towards her, cheeks suddenly flushed deep red in the flickering orange light. “This is for you.”
Elisia raised her eyebrows. The box was light, velvet-covered and opened at a hinge joint: inside sat a twining vine ring, large enough to cover a whole bone of her little finger. And this time she knew her own eyes widened, because she heard Tistyn’s quiet laugh. Her historic clan symbol. She’d heard him muttering sometimes with people who’d come near the kitchen door, but they’d always wandered away again before she caught the jist of their conversations. “You found this out? For me?”
If anything, his blush deepened. “I wanted to get you something meaningful. To say thank you.”
She’d been away from her homeland for so long now she’d almost forgotten herself what the symbol was like. This ring, with its tiny green gems set in the leaves — she slid it onto her little finger, where it fit perfectly. This time she caught his face and kissed him, enjoying his little mew of surprise. “You didn’t need to.”
“I did,” Tistyn said with conviction. “Like you didn’t need to, but you did.” He touched the collar again. “Because it’s Wintertide, and gifts should mean something.”
Elisia touched his face, marvelling at his pretty features, soft hair and ever-alert ears. A twist of fate had brought him to her door, and now she couldn’t imagine life without him. “It should, and it does. And,” she added, rising and holding out her hand to him, “it’s late. Are you going to sit there all night?”
Tistyn took her hand and rose too. “Where you go, I go.”
“Good, because I’m off to bed.” She flashed him a grin. “And it’ll be a lot colder if you’re not in it with me.”
He grinned too, another of the wide ones that showed off both his fangs and his cattish charm, and followed her obediently towards the stairs.
Wintertide was for surprises, yes. But as far as Elisia was concerned, it was for love too.