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With Whipped Cream and a Cherry on Top

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If Cath would always remember Freshman Year as the year of Levi and coffee and the year that things fell apart, Sophomore Year was the year of Yuletide and hot chocolate and things coming together again.

It was Wren who suggested that they sign up for Yuletide. Wren, who hadn't written a word in years, not since she'd stopped writing with Cath. Nothing that she'd shown Cath anyway.

Cath had resisted at first. She hadn't written a word herself since she'd finished Carry On, Simon three months before. The praise being heaped on her assignment for Professor Piper hadn't helped. She still felt like a fraud, even if she knew deep down she wasn't. It certainly wasn't the sort of writing she intended to make a career of, but it had been cathartic.

She didn't want to write Simon & Baz either, and this bewildered her. It was as if finishing Carry On, Simon had been enough. She couldn't think of anything else she wanted to say, and every time she tried, she produced trite sentences and openings that went nowhere. She didn't think she'd outgrown them, she just felt drained, as though she'd said everything she had to say.

And then, a month after the term had started, Wren announced "We should do Yuletide."

Cath fell off the bed laughing, causing Reagan to stare at them both as if they were mad. Not that there was anything unusual about Reagan giving them that stare - Cath had grown very familiar with it since Wren had moved in to their floor and started hanging around. She finally caught her breath and shoving over Wren's legs, reclaimed her perch. "Are we using the royal we? And by that do you mean me? Don't worry, she doesn't mean you," she added absently to Reagan. Cath suddenly realized that Reagan had no idea what Wren was referring to. "Yuletide is a multi-fandom fic exchange for rare fandoms." Wren had never shown any interest in it before.

Reagan rolled her eyes. "Whatever floats your boat."

Cath might have explained further, but decided it wasn't worth it. Confirming it was fanfic-related and thus out of Reagan's sphere of interest had been enough.

"I meant both of us," Wren said finally. "You and me. Knock us out of our rut. I miss writing fanfic."

"We wouldn't be able to write together, you know."

"But you'd beta for me, right?" Wren wheedled.

Cath sighed. "Of course."

Wren was different this year. Much more relaxed and less crazy-determined to party. Cath was sure that Jandro had something to do with it, and that Wren's new roommate (Belinda, a premed student with a steady girlfriend) was also a more steadying influence than Courtney had been. Cath liked the new Wren (and not just because she was around more) and if writing for Yuletide was what she wanted to do, Cath would do it.

Despite her initial interest, Cath dithered before signing up. It had been so long since she'd written anything she liked that she'd almost lost faith in her own abilities. But in the end she realized that whatever she wrote for this exchange wouldn't be compared to Carry On, Simon or to the story she'd written for Professor Piper. This would just be her. After all her struggles last year, 1000 words of Winnie-the-Pooh or Little Women fic would be easy. She kept telling herself that, so that maybe she'd start believing it. After all, she'd managed the fic for Professor Piper, despite all her fears and reservations.

When the time came to create her AO3 account, she even considered choosing a new name. But in the end her fingers typed in MagiCath and she pressed enter. Cath had a moment of regret. So much for the clean break. She wondered what her fans would think if they found her here. Perhaps someday, after Yuletide was over, she'd post her Simon and Baz fics here - she had no intention of deserting FanFixx but she wasn't ready to cross the streams just yet. But MagiCath was who she was, who she had been almost since she'd discovered the internet.

No, what was done, was done. Some people would follow her to new fandoms, some would ask why she wasn't writing more Simon & Baz, and they would just have to deal. She opened up her FanFixx page and left a quick comment in the forum, "Playing in a new pond, just for fun. Come join me." She added a short explanation of what Yuletide was and a link to sign-up and another to Archive of Our Own. There was no point in being coy about it.

When she got home from class and a date with Levi, Cath was too tired to turn on her computer. The next morning, she logged on and found an excited discussion of Yuletide going on in the comments of her last post. She grinned, noted the AO3 names of some of her favorite FanFixx writers and closed the tab without commenting. Maybe Wren was right and this would be good for her.

She and Wren had ended up in Cath and Reagan's room again when it came time to sign up, Wren reading off fandoms, and Cath making lists for the both of them. For a little while it almost felt like it had before Freshman Year.

At least until Levi had shown up with four hot chocolates (extra whipped cream, peppermint and cinnamon) and sprawled on the bed to listen. At least until Reagan banged the door open a few minutes later and started making snide comments. At least until Belinda came in, looking for Wren. That's when Cath found out that the reason Wren had wanted to do Yuletide was because Belinda had done it for years. Then suddenly they were back at college, with Levi insisting they start from the beginning and Reagan making snide comments, and it might be different, but it was a good different.

Wren was perfectly happy to play along, sipping her hot chocolate, and drawing in her legs to give Levi space. Belinda curled up on the floor, saying she preferred it and Reagan sprawled on her own bed. After a moment's quibbling, they skipped the Anime & Manga - none of them knew any of the fandoms well except Wren and she already had a half a dozen on her list - and started on the Books & Literature.

This went much slower than when Cath and Wren were doing it alone. Some of the fandoms were skipped with a shrug or a roll of the eyes, but some had to be discussed in detail. Reagan confined herself to snark for the most part, but Levi was curious. What sort of prompts would a book generate? Which characters had been nominated? He had a surprising number of opinions about shipping and whose stories he he would want to read. Belinda filled in the details where Cath and Wren fell short and didn't let Reagan get to her, which cemented Cath's opinion of her.

In retrospect, Cath shouldn't have been surprised when he announced that he wanted to play too, right after Wren hit All Creatures, Great and Small.

"Don't play into the stereotypes," Reagan advised him. "Don't you get enough of that sort of thing in class?"

"No," Levi replied firmly.

Cath started a list for him.

It was three days later, right before the sign-up deadline, when she caught Reagan with her computer open to the Yuletide sign-up page.

"Not a word," Reagan snapped.

Cath decided not to play, no matter how much she wondered which fandom had pushed Reagan over the edge. Instead she made a mental note of the user name, dumped her books on her desk and opened her own computer. She still had to make her own final decisions. Unlike Wren, who seemed to be offering every fandom she had ever heard of, Cath was determined to be cautious. She didn't want to struggle like she had on the last assignment for Professor Piper. Once had been enough. She grabbed her list and opened up the tabs with the sign-up page and list of fandoms. After listening to Reagan grumbling for a few minutes without saying anything about which fandoms she was signing up to write or request, Cath dug out her headphones and shoved them in her ears.

It took some hunting but she finally came up with four request for stories she really wanted to read. She chose books she'd adored, where she'd wondered what if or what next since she was a kid, but had never come up with a clear answer in her own head. Perhaps someone else would be able to fill the gaps she had failed to fill with her own imagination.

The same went for her offers, except she added a TV show or two, much beloved. All fandoms she'd made up stories for before she knew fanfic existed. All books she'd read to tatters and could easily reclaim for fact checking the next time she went home. Taking a deep breath, she pressed the submit button.

A tap on her shoulder startled her and she pulled out the earphones. "The guys and Wren will be here soon," Reagan said, handing Cath her bowling shirt. Cath still wasn't sure how Levi and Jandro had turned bowling once a week into joining a league of (mostly) senior citizens, complete with team shirts, but they had. Even Wren seemed to enjoy it.

They made a custom of stopping at the Starbucks where Levi worked after their games, where he'd slip behind the counter and make them hot chocolate or coffee (gingerbread or pumpkin or peppermint or some odd combination that Levi concocted that always tasted better than Cath expected).

Assignments came and each reacted as per their nature.

Reagan had grumbled a bit, unrevealingly, and ignored it in favor of classes and work and going out at night. Cath watched her sometimes, trying to catch her doing canon review or writing, but never could.

Levi got All Creatures Great and Small after all, and Cath found herself listening to the audiobooks with him. They weren't her usual thing, but she found herself enjoying them. Cath promised that she'd beta for him and even type his story up if he needed her to.

Wren had periodic hysterics about whether she could even write the fandom or the relationship and why she had ever offered it in the first place, but spent whatever time she had that wasn't in class glued to some anime site reviewing canon.

Belinda didn't say, but Cath ran into her in the children's section of the local public library three days later and they carefully avoided looking at the books in each other's arms.

And Cath - well, Cath also alternated between panic and joy. Joy because she had indeed gotten a fandom of her heart and panic because she wasn't sure she could do it justice. Or whether she could even write something that wasn't Simon and Baz. But she felt braver this year, maybe because she had Wren back, but also because Reagan and Levi had a way of making her believe she was stronger than her fears.

She wasn't sure why she logged on to the IRC channel in the first place. Perhaps she was feeling at loose ends - the adoration on FanFixx was lovely, but so much of it was one-sided. Perhaps she was missing the old Snowflake forums. Either way, one night when Levi and Reagan were both working and Wren was out on a date with Jandro, Cath downloaded an IRC client and followed the directions on the Yuletide comm. A few people recognized her screen name, but she made a joke about Simon Snow not being allowed, and the talk drifted back to bears and coy hints about assignments, liberally mixed with digressions and fannish chatter. She was a little wary when the program beeped loudly about 15 minutes later. She poked at the tab that popped up and discovered that someone named BeloftheBall was saying hi. She panicked for a minute, wondering what was going on, but then another message popped up "*is Belinda*" then "Your sister's roommate." Cath giggled, relieved, and typed a reply. Of course Belinda would recognize this handle.

Cath just left the window open, entering the conversation if she was interested, leaving it to scroll past if she wasn't. It was company when there was no one else around, without the pressure of the FanFixx comments.

By the time December rolled around she felt like an old hand, taking her turn with the HippoHat, participating in word wars, and twice offering to beta fics for other exchanges. She was even able to connect with a couple of former Snowflakes, Icycle and Bethy, who'd drifted away from the fandom and she and Belinda would occasionally use pms to discuss Wren or plan to meet up somewhere after class.

She even found herself signing up for Snow and Ice, the Simon & Baz Secret Santa exchange when she found out other people in chat were doing it, despite having planned to skip it for the first time in years. Cath was glad she did, because when she got her assignment, she actually felt excited to be writing Simon Snow fic again. Her recipient was one of the Snowflakes who hung out in chat, and now she had the fun of being coy and elusive.

Cath tried not to analyze it too much and just go with the flow, but when she did think about it, she realized it was the sense of community she missed. When she'd become a Simon Snow BNF, she'd lost that and she'd forgotten just how much fun it could be.

Her assignment was done and posted two weeks before the deadline, along with two pinch hits she'd picked up along the way and treats for Levi, Wren, Belinda and her girlfriend. She still hadn't figured out what to write for Reagan, but she was eyeing the "Other Media" fandoms. Belinda had mentioned that towards the end of the exchange all the prompts would be revealed, so maybe she'd figure something out then. She still didn't know what Reagan had requested, and she wasn't sure she wanted to know.

Wren would go down to the wire, she knew, so she expected to do a SPAG beta at the last minute to fix Wren's run-on sentences and point out where she needed more exposition. She had been hinting that Wren should really find a canon beta, but wasn't sure Wren would follow through.

Levi also had her beta, after he borrowed her computer to type it up. Cath could see his range management experience coming through clearly and she hoped his recipient appreciated it. He had a good ear for language and most of her corrections turned out to be grammatical. She read it back to him one evening when Reagan was out, and he made verbal corrections which she transcribed. That night's hot chocolate involved cinnamon and cayenne and Levi licking whipped cream off her nose.

Two weeks before deadline, just before Christmas break, she got an email from Reagan that said only "Beta these." Cath glanced at Reagan, who had shut her computer down and started throwing stuff in her suitcase, and very cautiously opened the generically named documents. Reagan had helpfully included the prompts and Cath had to suppress a burst of laughter. Of all the fandoms on the list, Carly Rae Jepson's Call Me, Maybe music video was one of the last things Cath would have expected Reagan to write. The other was for Twisted Princesses, which fit a bit better with Cath's impressions of Reagan. It did explain why she'd never caught Reagan doing canon review.

The fics were good, if a bit rushed, and Reagan's commas wandered and Cath did laugh out loud a few times as she edited. She didn't mean to, but she thought she saw Reagan's back relax, so she didn't try to stop herself the next time something struck her as funny. She should have known Reagan would be good at crackfic.

Somehow it didn't hit Cath that the four of them wouldn't be together for Yuletide reveal until their father showed up to pick them up. Levi had offered to drive them home, but their Dad insisted on coming, and Cath suspected he was proving to the three of them, himself included, that he was doing better this year.

Wren was off somewhere saying goodbye to Belinda, when Cath finally got Levi alone for a few minutes. "I wish I could be there to read fic to you." What if they hate my fic? What if it's not good enough? Cath pushed down those worries. Other authors had changed series or genres and come out of it. She could too.

"You'll have to do it over the phone." He grinned and kissed the top of her head. "It's okay. I'll slip out Christmas day if I can, or if not, on the 26th and Reagan promised to read me my gift without too much sarcasm."

Cath laughed at this as Levi had intended. "We'll get together when we get back and I'll read you all the fics she won't."

"I'll hold you to that."

Their father was holding it together. There wasn't even any laundry for Cath to do, and she might have felt at loose ends if Wren hadn't been around. Sometimes they both went out, sometimes Wren went out and Cath stayed in, but this Christmas was so much more relaxed than the previous one that Cath didn't fret about it.

To Cath's surprise, Wren gave her the fic three days before deadline. "I'm trying to be more responsible," she said with a rueful smile.

As expected, Cath was able to check spelling and grammar but had no idea about the canon. Chat had been her thing - something that Wren wasn't a part of - but it was clear that Wren really needed a canon beta. That night instead of going out, Cath walked Wren through getting into chat.

She couldn't resist throwing out a "Hey, look what the Cath dragged in," when Wrenegade came into the room. It wasn't like Icycle and Bethy hadn't asked about her, and of course, Cath and Bel had referred to her occasionally. Bel and Icycle were both in chat and acted thrilled to see her, and Cath relaxed when Wren started complaining to Icycle about her roommate and her sister ganging up on her. She hadn't thought of it that way, but in a way she knew Wren's roommate better than Wren did.

By the time Wren finally requested a beta from a hippo, following Cath's instructions, over an hour had passed and Wren had refused two invitations to go out. Once Wren had sorted out her beta, and seemed content to sit at her own computer, chatting and getting into the spirit of things. Cath took over hippoing and settled down to the treat she was writing, grinning a little. This was going to be a much better Christmas than last year.

Reagan showed up in chat on the last day, her usual sarcastic self. "Should have known you guys would be there." Okay, maybe she was toning it down a little. "Levi's stuck with family, but I'm avoiding mine."

Cath typed a "LOL" at her and wasn't too surprised when she got a ping a few minutes later. There was only one reason Reagan would have ventured into chat. Cath immediately thought of a second implausible reason, then was glad that Reagan wasn't the sort of person to follow Cath in to chat just to make fun of her afterwards.

"I got a last minute pinch hit. So how do I do this beta thing?" It turned out to be for a movie that Cath hadn't seen, so she took great delight in giving her hippodance a few extra Reaganesque flourishes and matching Reagan with a beta who did.

To her surprise, not only did Reagan thank her, she added, "I guess it isn't all nerdy introverts and boys kissing. This was sort of fun. The writing, I mean."

Cath didn't think she'd find Reagan on the FanFixx boards any time soon, but suspected her roommate might sign up for Yuletide next year. She didn't want to think that far ahead though and she had another chatter wanting a beta, so she turned her attention to that.

She was surprised when Reagan stuck around though. But Reagan repeated the comment about avoiding family to someone else in the chatroom, and Cath realized it did make sense. She and Wren had an understanding father (who was currently in the other room scribbling notes for a work project), but there were plenty of people who were using their computers/Yuletide/chat to avoid holiday gatherings or talking to people. Why shouldn't Reagan do the same? Perhaps Cath wasn't the only one who was changing.

It wasn't long before one of the mods made the announcement. Cath heard a very audible squee from her sister and looked up grinning.

"I got the best fic ever. And two treats."

"No, I did," Cath said, even though she hadn't even looked yet. She did, and yes, it was the best fic ever. Funny and touching and just the right amount of crack. She glanced at chat and saw Reagan directing everyone to read her fic about Michael Bublé Being Stalked By A Velociraptor, so Cath did. From there it was just a matter of bouncing around and reading fics in fandoms she knew. She found Levi's gift and knew he would adore it and made a point of leaving comments on the fics she'd betaed and the ones she loved. She wished Levi was here to share it with her, but knew she'd call him tomorrow to talk about fic and there was so much fic to read and it felt just like Christmas. Which it was. She glanced at Wren who kept making excited squeaks. They could compare lists tomorrow.

For now there was Young Wizards fic about Carmela, who'd always been her favorite, and she might even make some hot chocolate, even if it wouldn't be as good as Levi. "Best Christmas ever."

She didn't even realize she'd spoken aloud until Wren replied, "Yes, yes it is."