The mingled scents of baking aromas and heavy pine still hung in the air as Will Stanton rose in the early hours of Christmas Day. He looked out the frost-fogged window and whistled, low and soft. The dark branches just beyond the windows were weighted down with a load of snow, fresh and powder-glittering, seeming to glow outside from the feeble light cast from the house.
"Crikey," he said, tone hushed by habit, "a white Christmas after all." The past weeks had been too wet and altogether warm to bear snow and this came as the most delightful of surprises. He regretted, almost, his early-rising ways for he wished to share this with the rest of the Drews.
Will puttered about in the kitchen, familiar with its ins and outs. He had been accepted unselfconsciously into the bosom of the Drew family over the years as one of their own, and now enjoyed privileges akin to that of a son. Or son-in-law.
He sipped a mug of fresh-brewed coffee in the reflective, homey quiet of the Drew kitchen, thinking the morning could only be better with the addition of some holiday carols perhaps. Or rather, the waking of a certain someone. He made a face; Mrs Drew had bought the Christmas Season blend again. He preferred his coffee black and strong, brewed before additives or flavoring.
Barney would still be sleeping, he thought, but not for long.
It had taken him by surprise, those years ago. Of all the Drews he might have thought himself drawn to -- and he hadn't thought of it, truly -- it would have been Jane he'd put a guess on. Yet there were shared bits of magic in his life with Barney that, simply put, made the essential difference.
Barney didn't remember any of the actual magic, of course. At least...Will was fairly certain he didn't. There was sometimes a hint of knowing in the tilt of his head as he merely looked or he would acquire a touch of chatter as they skirted subjects so close to Arthurian legend and grails and quests. None of that knowing was necessary to the relationship, of course; it was enough for Barney to be Barney.
Still he wondered.
How long had it been since he had left home, since he had gone away to college? Nearly four Christmases. He had, in school, focused on technology and current events, for the rest of the curriculum was review to one like Will. It was four Christmases since he had rediscovered Barney, long-limbed but still a bit moony about the face.
Four Christmases since leaving home and acquiring a flatmate, and no regrets.
He adjourned with coffee-cup and thoughts to the window, stopping short of pressing against the glass, thinking of wandering out, if just for a moment, to enjoy the fresh crispness of the air, the newness of the snow in the pre-dawn black. Then he decided he rather liked the look of the pure snow; it would be churned soon enough by footsteps and a shoveling Simon on the way to the woodshed.
Will didn't think it odd that a family such as the Drews had taken him in as if he were kin to their own. They were generous and good-hearted, as evidenced by their easy relationships with their brood. It was odd that they'd taken to someone like him -- but he was grateful for it.
"Bit of an odd duck," as Simon would say, "but a good chap..." Upon introductions no-one ever quite seemed to know what to do or say around Will.
It came, Barney told him frequently, of his air of mystique. "You act like an observer," Barney had commented thoughtfully during one early leavetaking from a college outing. "As if you're not quite in the thick of things; rather watching instead of participating."
There lay the rub. He could not tell Barney the reasons behind the difference, but of course Barney seemed never to care.
"Up early again..." The softly-uttered whisper that reached him in the quiet kitchen sounded utterly delighted, like a little boy's.
Will considered it Barney's 'Christmas morning' whisper and he heard it so seldom. It was reserved for the wonder of a gift suddenly unwrapped, a grail stumbled upon, a rare bookstore unearthed.
"As usual, on Christmas morning," Barney continued, gliding into the kitchen on slippered feet. He had the look of a young man who would, if he could, wear footie pajamas -- at least this one day out of the year. Will thought it occasionally odd that he could find his flatmate so adorable and yet fancy him the way he did. "I'd hoped you would still be in bed when I woke up, at least for a morning nibble..."
"Not with your parents down the hall," Will said drily, draining the dregs and making a face at the hazelnutty taste of the coffee. Chocolate, too, if he was tasting right.
"Oh, come now, they hardly think we're using bunk beds, now do they?" Barney said, pouring himself coffee of his own. "And Jane knows, and Simon pretends he doesn't -- and always will."
"There is a difference between knowing all that, and waking up in your parents' home to a tousled adorable Barney that I can't resist, and shagging him fully aware that his sister may be listening, and his parents are light sleepers," Will said with a laugh.
"Hmm, you take all the fun out of it."
Barney moved to pass him, cup in hand, heading for the sparkle of the Christmas lights in the dim living room beyond. They performed an impromptu dance, each swapping one way for the other, and ended up wedged in the doorframe together. "Smashing," Barney murmured, and kissed him.
Will found he liked the hazelnutty taste a great deal more on Barney than as it came from the cup. His breath was faintly minty yet coffee-black.
"Happy Christmas," Barney told him with a brilliant smile, continuing his pass for the living room.
"What's that for?" Will said, but he was smiling in return.
Barney feigned astonishment. "Well, the mistletoe of course." He pointed.
"Ah, so there is..." Will regarded the sprig above his head with bemusement; the Drews, he'd thought, were neither traditional nor of that peculiarly whimsical bent to employ such a custom. The Drews surprised him on occasion. "It's a pretext, you know."
"Of course!" Barney replied, grinning over at him, unable to look sly -- only cheerful.
They stood before the soft sparkling lights of the tree side by side. On Will's part he remembered Christmases past amidst a welter of siblings and long slow wet winters and then, in one wild sweep, the Dark and the Light had entered the picture. During the winter of the Hunt the meaning of the Christmas season had forever changed.
"Fancy Simon getting married," Barney said, as if it had been part of a continuing conversation.
"Yeah," Will said amiably, wishing for a second cup but he dared not risk the Christmas Blend again. He darted a look at Barney. "You don't fancy getting married, do you?"
"Perish the thought!" Barney laughed off the suggestion. "No, Will, I'm not progressive enough for that."
Will ducked his head and studied the carpet. "That would be something, wouldn't it." He rubbed the back of his neck. It was an odd topic to touch on; people like Simon and Jane grew up and got married, people like Will and Barney grew up and stayed flatmates forever.
"Do you miss Merriman?" Barney said suddenly.
Will kept his shaggy head lowered, tugging at one ear. His hair was untidy and in want of a cut, no doubt; Jane had already volunteered. This was one of the moments where he was wrapped in the powerful certainty that Barney knew, that he was merely waiting for Will to fill in the gaps between then and now. "Of course I miss him," he replied. "He was like a...an uncle to me."
It was only natural that he'd come up every now and again, Will reasoned. Merriman had been their only link at the start.
"Really?" Barney said, leaning against him. "Seemed more of a teacher to me."
Yet Barney had a way of picking his moments to remember that.
He would not snap at Barney to drink his coffee, no matter how terribly it tempted. It was simply, he told himself, the familiarity of someone who had a history of conforming to his passing moods. There was a definite pensiveness about him now, not entirely for absent family and friends long gone. It was not any existing bits of memory on Barney's part that brought him to these promptings, could not be, for if that were the case he'd be bound to chase down those bits and erase them.
Will did not want to do that, therefore Barney remembered nothing.
Instead, Will answered gently, "He taught me many things." And Will missed him sorely, being now the sole bastion of the Light.
Some mornings, he thought, were worth the price as he turned to meet a Barney with a coffee-sticky mouth, breath sweet from the endless teaspoons of sugar he heaped into it, to share a more thorough good-morning kiss. The discovery that he, Will, last Ancient One and youngest Stanton, was gay had been an awkward thing. Discovering Barney anew had been delightfully natural.
He still remembered the moonish, oddly familiar face of a youth sprouted much taller than he recalled and that spasm of recognition as Barney said with elation, "Is that Will, then?"
Four Christmases ago.
"Scandalous," a feminine voice asserted. "And there isn't any mistletoe to justify it. I expected it of Barney...Will, you should be ashamed. I thought you the more decorous."
"I am the more decorous," Will replied, letting go though Barney wanted to keep an arm 'round his neck. "You're lucky. He attacked me, you know."
"There was mistletoe!" Barney declared.
Jane laughed at both of them as she left the hall doorway, eyes on her brother, then the tree. "Coffee?" she said hopefully.
"Will made some."
"Ah, good for Will. Will, I'd swap you for Barney any day."
This bit of banter led them back into the kitchen, for while the tree beckoned with its soft lights and the lure of presents nestled beneath low-lying branches, the parlor was chilly and the kitchen filled with warmth as well as ingrained scents of baking. Will was reminded, once again, that he would have to phone later or be accused of thoughtless cruelty.
"Happy Christmas," Jane said with a girlish smile. Her eyes were bright and she held her coffee in both hands, cradling the warmth.
"Happy Christmas," the two chorused. Barney elbowed him. Will elbowed him back, suffused with a peaceful sort of awareness. He was family here. He was not simply an observer, not merely a watcher.
"Oh!" Will exclaimed, remembering the morning's surprise. "Look out the window, you two...we've got a white Christmas after all!"
"No!" Jane cried, hurrying at once to the kitchen door, where she promptly pressed her nose to the glass.
Barney grinned at him, then followed. "A white Christmas...wonder how long it's been in these parts," he said, and put an arm round his sister as he joined her at the door.
Perhaps thirteen Christmases ago, Will reflected. He joined them at the window and Barney's arm went round him, as well.
In the distance on the azure horizon, a single bright star hung low. "Happy Christmas," Will repeated, and considered it the best.