Before the Morning Light

by llamajoy

"Ssh!" Bart, snow dripping from his hair and finger held to his lips, eagerly pantomimed silence.

He needn't have worried, he realized, for Primera giggled noiselessly, and let him step inside. The perfect accomplice, thought Bart, appreciative. Not a word wasted with that one.

"Prim? Who was it at the door?" Billy, his head bent over the book in his lap, didn't bother to look up; as such, he didn't see Bart sidling into the corner of the room, trying to shake the slush off his boots without making a clatter, and nominally succeeding.

Prim-- scuffing her own small feet to muffle any noise-- moved to sit again at Billy's feet by the fireplace, her cushion still warm. "Sister Hilda from the Cathedral," she said placidly, arranging her skirts to cover her feet. "Wishing us a happy midwinter."

"Hm. Happy." Billy shivered lightly, his shoulders moving in his cape. Bart, packages balanced in one arm and his soggy jacket held in his teeth as he tried to get it off, rolled his eyes. "Good thing you closed the door. it's started to snow again."

His sister rested her head against his knee, smiling brightly-- looking directly at Bart, if Billy had been paying attention. "What, not happy?"

Billy Black sighed, closing the book he had been reading to her, the pages coming to with a snap. "Maybe a little more like a holiday if it weren't just the two of us, you know. The orphans all set up in New Aphel, and dad spending the week on Siggy's ship, everyone else in Bledavik...." He trailed off, staring listlessly into the fire. "I just though I'd be able to help out here, through the winter. But maybe I should have accepted the invitation to the castle," he admitted quietly to his hands.

Primera quivered with suppressed laughter.

And Bart, with the added pride that he'd managed not to botch the timing somehow, strode into the firelight. "Yeah, you should have." He grinned at the look on Billy's face, the book falling to the floor with a papery splash of pages, Prim's radiant smile. "But then this wouldn't have been nearly as much fun."

"Bart!" Billy stood up too fast and made himself dizzy. He took in the brightly-wrapped packages, the snow-caked boots by the door, the beatific smile of the King of Aveh-- but still couldn't swallow it. "W-what are you doing here?"

"Coming to see you," Bart said simply, crossing the distance between them and folding his arms around him. "...Obviously," he added, into Billy's hair, "since you wouldn't come see me."

Primera was clapping, and Billy, humbled and wondering how Bart could manage to be so warm, leaned into him gratefully. "Stupid," he murmured, but he was smiling. "Coming all this way?"

Bart chuckled. "Good thing your house here in Nisan is pretty big, though."

Billy narrowed his eyes, though he didn't let go. "...Wait. What do you mean?"

Outside, not too far off, was the distinctive sound of someone slipping on the ice, swearing loudly, and someone else trying to convince him not to kill the offending pavement.

Prim's eyes widened, her breath catching. "Papa!"

Billy tried to shrink away, but Bart's hands were pleasantly warm at the small of his back, and unyielding, and truth be told he didn't struggle too hard. "Oh no you don't, kid." Bart grinned. "I worked hard to carry this off. Happy midwinter, Billy Lee."

Bart had drifted off to sleep by the fire, his head falling back onto Billy's armchair, blond braid snaking across the seat. Primera was curled by his side, her head in his lap and his fingers resting in her hair, both of them sound asleep. Billy sighed, drawing a blanket over the two of them. So much for Bart getting Primera to bed. Clearly, he'd been a little more effective than he'd intended.

His chair thus appropriated, Billy stood by the window, his arms crossed and his lips pursed. The little room was only dimly lit, with the fire's embers glowing valiantly orange against the lateness of the hour. Beyond his faint reflection in the chill glass, the clear sky was dark and infinite and achingly cold. Something about the stillness made his head hurt, the weight of the longest night of the year settling into the shadowy corners of the room, into the hushed and waiting silence, into his very marrow.

He shivered.

"Hey, Billy Lee."

The voice made him startle, and he turned to see a familiar figure silhouetted in the doorway: soft denim blues and a well-worn red bandanna, unmistakeable even in the scant light.

"Whisper, will you?" Billy shook his head, watching Jessie tiptoeing carefully over Bart and Prim, silent without his boots on. "They're sleeping."

"Like somebody else oughtta be," Jessie said, more quietly now, but still smiling. He joined Billy at the window, flanking the other side of the windowframe like two sentinels guarding the house against the winter night. "Festival tomorrow, what are you waiting up for?"

Billy watched the wind stir the bare branches of a nearby tree, scattering snowdrifts against the neighboring houses. His father smelled of alcohol, but gently so-- no more than Bart had, or Citan, all of them clinking glasses to this midwinter's celebration. There was a gunpowder scent on him, too, and something like washed cotton or maybe aftershave, familiar more than anything. Billy felt his throat go tight. "Not in any rush," he said, still not meeting his eyes. Instead he looked at Primera, pale lashes fluttering as she dreamed behind her eyelids; and at Bart, whose cheek was resting now against the seatcushion of Billy's favorite chair, his mouth curved in a drowsy, fast-asleep smile. "Tomorrow will get here soon enough."

"And ain't that the truth." Jessie made a sound in his throat, almost a laugh, and when Billy finally glanced at his face he saw his father's head cocked to one side, watching him. "But if you keep this up there'll be circles under your eyes in the morning."

Crossing his arms more tightly across his chest, Billy tried to shrug. "Someone has to stay up with the fire," he said, primly. He thought belatedly of his cloak, hung by the door on its peg, and how its weight would have been welcome warmth on his shoulders. Cold air seemed to seep in through the closed window, heedless of the glass. "I wouldn't want to burn the house down."

"Well then watch the fire, kiddo, and quit moping out the window." Jessie grinned, stepping behind his son and steering him towards the fireside-- overruling Billy's wordless protests by virtue of his greater height and stronger hands. "It'll be warmer that way."

And despite Billy's indignation, it was warmer, here within the room. Settling crosslegged on the rug, Jessie made a great show of dragging Billy closer to the hearth, until Billy could feel the radiating heat that emanated from the still-glowing coals. He drew his knees up to his chest, his lips moving in a reluctant smile. "All right, all right. You've made your point, dad."

Jessie gave him an old-style military nod, all at attention, even so sloppily dressed and sitting unceremoniously in the middle of the floor. "Damn straight."

Sitting side by side, for a time they watched the fire without speaking. Billy had every intention of waiting out the fire, until the last ember dissipated to ash, but Jessie seemed determined to match him in his vigil-- and the quiet was not, as Billy was learning, a difficult thing. Primera stirred once in her sleep, and father and son turned at the same time, to see her curling closer to the hearth, firelight on her restful face.

When Billy slowly realized that his toes were pleasantly warm, he knew that he was going to fall asleep; the heaviness of the night was drawing close around him at last, lulling him into slumber. "'m so sleepy," he said, needlessly, as if it were not written plainly on his face, as if he weren't struggling to keep his head up. "'s your fault."

"So sleep, Billy Lee," Jessie said, laying a hand on Billy's head. "Nothing so hard about that."

The extra weight was all it took. "Mm," was all Billy said, before he succumbed, eyes shutting and head falling against Jessie's shoulder.

And Jessie, with a smile no one was awake to see, watched the faces of his children by the last remains of the midwinter fire.


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