"Billy." A pause, while Billy roused slightly from sleep, slowly becoming conscious of a weight leaning on his chest. The voice came again, this time more insistent. "Billy."
Reluctantly, Billy opened one eye to see Bart sitting perched over him. So that was what that weight was. He barely registered, through the haze of sleep deprivation, the manic grin that was plastered across Bart's face. Bart reached out to rest a hand on Billy's cheek and, impossibly, grinned further. "Billy. Wake up. It's Midwinter morning. You have to be awake."
"Nnngh," Billy managed, and tried to sit up a little; he was stopped by the weight of Bart on his chest, and fell back. Bart was far too awake for this time of the morning. Night? The faintest hints of dawn were gracing the horizon, but that didn't mean that it was morning yet.
Bart, used to Billy in the morning, was undaunted as he bounced off the bed and whirled around, his eyes shining. "Come on. The kitchen should have coffee ready for you. We can't be late. Hurry up."
"Nnnngh," Billy managed again, and struggled up to a sitting position. It took at least fifteen minutes in the bathroom splashing water on his face before he could manage to summon coherent speech, and by the time he got back out, Bart was fully dressed in an outfit about as unlike his usual garb as it was possible to get: loose sand-colored trousers and a shirt that seemed to be more wrapped around him than actually sewn together.
Bart turned around as Billy entered, and held out a cup of coffee the same way that one might hold out a carrot to a horse. "They delivered the coffee," he said, and when Billy stumbled across the room to claim it, Bart caught him up in one arm into a fierce hug. "Love you," he said, softly.
"Love you too," Billy mumbled. "Love you more after coffee."
Bart smiled and rested his cheek against Billy's hair, breathing in the fresh sunrise scent of it. "I've got something for you," he said offhandedly. "You'll be included in the grand processional of royal favor later, of course; the King of Aveh has a present for the Archbishop of the Universal Church. But I've got a present for you, too, and I wanted to give it to you early."
Billy blinked a little. "Present?" he echoed, still trying to make his brain catch up with the fact that he was vertical. "I didn't get you anything. I didn't know we were supposed to give presents."
"What, they don't do that in Aquvy?" Bart ran a hand up Billy's spine, rubbing circles along Billy's back. "It's okay. I don't need anything. I just wanted to give this to you." He stepped back, crossed the room, and returned with a small wrapped box.
Billy took the box and looked at it for a second, balancing box in one hand and coffee in the other. He looked confused briefly, until Bart reached out and took the mug of coffee from him, giving Billy a gentle nudge to sit back down on the edge of the bed. "Go ahead and open it," Bart urged, practically bouncing with nervous anticipation.
Years of poverty had taught Billy to be frugal, and he slid one finger under the inexpertly-tied ribbon to carefully remove it from the box, then picked away the tape and undid the wrapping. Next to him, Bart sighed, dramatically. "Come on, Billy, that's not how you open a Midwinter gift. Don't you know that you're supposed to just tear into it and leave scraps of paper everywhere?"
"Not really," Billy replied, quietly. "It's not a Solarian holiday, and we never had the money to celebrate it at the orphanage."
Bart slumped a little, collapsing on the bed next to Billy, still watching him carefully. "Man. What a deprived childhood. Well, next year I'll shower you with presents. But come on, open this one."
Billy picked loose the last of the wrapping to reveal a plain white box, and turned it over in his hands. After a moment of inspection, he lifted the lid, to be confronted with a mop of grey fabric and badly-placed stuffing. Confused, he lifted it out, and the misshapen object proved to be a battered and obviously well-loved teddy bear.
Suddenly looking anywhere but at Billy, Bart said, quietly, "I carried that thing around for the first five years of my life. I didn't go anywhere without it. My mother used to joke that when I was eventually crowned king, they'd have to pry it out of my hands in order to paint the royal portrait." He rolled over and looked at the ceiling. "I thought that it was lost, afterwards. Grabbed onto a blanket instead, carried that around for a while. One of the cooks gave it back to me last week. She'd rescued it back -- back then, and held onto it for twelve damn years, because she said that she knew I'd be back. I wanted you to have it." He paused, and then chanced a look over at Billy, who was staring at the stuffed toy in his hands with a bit of a dazed expression. "All right, you're right, it's a dumb gift and I shouldn't have bothered, I'll take it back and get you something better --"
"No!" Billy burst out, and cradled the abused and battered bear to his chest protectively. "No, don't say that. Don't say that at all." He looked up and met Bart's gaze, and his eyes were shining a bit. "I think ... I think it's the most wonderful thing that you could have given me. I --" He broke off and flung himself down into Bart's arms, holding on tightly. "I just couldn't believe that you'd give it to me."
"Yeah, well," Bart muttered, into Billy's hair, but Billy could tell that he was pleased. "I love you, stupid. Of course I want you to have it." His voice held a telltale gruff note, and he held onto Billy for a little while longer than just a simple hug would indicate. "Come on. We're going to be late."
-- * --
The argument about the Midwinter festivities had been short but fierce. Bart had maintained that the old traditions needed to be kept, but he wasn't going to be the one to lead them. That was the job for the king, he'd insisted, and he was still hoping to duck that title. He'd been overruled by Maison and Margie -- Maison because he believed in traditions, particularly in this one, and Margie because her childhood memories had included Midwinter so prominently that she couldn't imagine being back in Bledavik and not celebrating the holiday. The nail in the coffin, though, had been Sigurd, who had quietly pointed out that after so many years of holding Midwinter wherever they'd been at the time, after years of stolen celebrations and cobbled-together imitations of the tradition, to be back in Bledavik and not celebrate would have been a betrayal of everything that they'd fought for.
The decision, when the royal family and assorted loved ones made their way out onto the steps of the palace, turned out to be the right one. Despite there having been no formal announcement, despite the years of secretive customs and repressed celebrations, Bart looked out over the sea of people looking back up at him expectantly and had to quickly blink back tears. The sheer faith that these people had in him humbled him. A year ago, he would have turned and ducked back into the palace, leaving someone else to deal with it. But somewhere along the line, the boy had found himself prepared to be the king.
They must have started gathering well before sunrise. Now, as the rays of dawn kissed the sky and turned rosy, the crowd had to number in the thousands. For half a second, Bart was a toddler again, clinging to his mother's legs and peering out over the crowd from a much lower vantage point, knowing little of what was going on but recognizing the gravity of the situation -- and then it passed, and he was nineteen years old and they were all waiting for him.
"Now are you glad we talked you into it?" Sigurd murmurred quietly, standing behind and one step to the right of Bart, in the traditional position for the Prime Minister. He, too, was dressed in the same desert garb that Bart was wearing, and Citan behind him as well, looking for all the world like he'd been born wearing it.
"Yeah," Bart muttered, and swallowed hard. "Fuck, Sig, the last time I was here like this, I was five. And Mom and Dad --"
Sigurd reached out a hand and rested it briefly on Bart's shoulder, squeezing lightly. "I know," he said, gently. "They'd be proud of you right now. Go ahead, Bart. Go bring the year back around."
Bart closed his eye for half a second and took a deep breath. "Yeah," he said, shakily, and then his voice firmed. "Yeah. Okay. Let's do it." He looked at Billy for support, and then turned around to face the crowds.
Learning how to make his voice carry had been a useful skill for a pirate leader; for a king, even a king standing in a courtyard that had been designed with acoustics in mind, it was vital. Bart pitched his voice to be heard even in the furthest reaches of the crowd, and knew that if he couldn't make it, his words would be relayed. "Citizens of Aveh," he started, using the old tongue, and winced at the sound of his own voice sounding so formal. "Today is the shortest day of the year. Today, we build the fire that will light our nation through the coming darkness, and warm our hearts as we face this day."
Bart bit his lip and departed from the words of the old ritual, the words which Maison had carefully coached him through year after year. But it needed to be said. "For twelve years, we've kept the old ways the only way we knew how. For twelve years, the only Midwinter fires that Bledavik has seen have been in secret and in shame. For twelve years, I woke up every Midwinter morning and lit this fire for a crew of less than fifty, some of whom gave their lives in the struggle to retake this country and in the greater struggle that followed it." His voice crackled across the crowd as he roared, "Never again!"
The cheers took a moment to die down, and Bart used that moment to close his eye and try to think of what came next in the rite. But when he opened his mouth, the words were there without him having to summon them. He could see the upturned faces looking back at him, lips moving along with the words that were older than the country itself. They were the only words of Old High Fatima that the common people knew. "Let this morning light shelter us and sustain us as we lift our hearts and our faces to the rays of life that protect us and light our footsteps."
Bart turned and held out his hand, and Margie stepped forward with the circular lens that had been passed down from generation to generation for as long as anyone could remember; it had not been recognized as a national treasure, and therefore spared the destruction that Shakahn had trailed behind him. Bart took it and knelt in front of the pile of twigs and branches that had been built on the rock slab on the steps of the palace; Margie took her place on the other side of the nascent bonfire. Her fingers joined his on the rim of the lens, preparing to hold it out -- and then Bart stopped.
"Sigurd." His voice was quiet, pitched for the ears of the people on the steps only. "We can't do this without you."
That seemed to shake Sigurd's complacency. "But I -- it's not traditional."
"Tradition be damned." Bart's voice might have been low, but it did not lack in intensity. "We both know damn well that if it weren't for an accident of birth, you might be the one standing here instead of me. We couldn't have done any of this without you, and you damn well know it, and if you don't get over here and help us hold this damn mirror I'm going to go over there and kick your ass in front of thousands of people." The gruffness, they both knew, concealed a deep and abiding love.
"He's right, Sigurd," Margie said, just as softly. "It's your right too."
It was Sigurd's turn to blink back tears, which he did fiercely; the whispers that had started when Bart paused in the ritual turned to satisfied "aaaah"s as Sigurd stepped forward to take a place on the third side, his tanned fingertips joining Bart's and Margie's on the mirror.
Three voices joined as one. "Light from light. Fire from fire. Everything comes from nothing, and to nothing it shall return, but while it is, let it burn fiercely in us and drive the darkness away."
And together, as the rays of the sun focused and the sticks of the bonfire began to smoulder, the last three Fatima children welcomed the rebirth of the sun.
All content copyright © 1997-2011. All rights reserved, all wrongs corrected, all lefts applauded.