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Even Atheists Celebrate Christmas

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CHRISTMAS AT BRIDESHEAD

"Merry Christmas, Seb." Charles whispered into Sebastian's ear early that morning, to no avail as he remained deep in his slumber. Charles had written to Sebastian asking to stay in Brideshead after a falling out with his father and, partly out of charity and partly due to Sebastian's insistence, he'd been hurried in early Christmas Eve and designated a guest room near enough to Sebastian's for their mutual liking. The room was darkened by heavy curtains, which Charles assumed were to lessen the blow of Sebastian's inevitable hangover.

"Sebastian?" he repeated, once again in vain. He sighed and made a beeline for the aforementioned curtains, "I didn't want to do this, but you leave me no choice, dear Sebastian."

A vigorous pull of the thick velvety material unleashed a blast of daylight, that harsh winter sun Britain so often gets on her driest, coldest days. It had the desired effect, with Sebastian's arm jerking up to shield his eyes, almost unconsciously.

"Huh? Wh-oh," Sebastian squinted at Charles, Aloysius flopping over his arm, "What time is it?"

"Nice to see you, too, Sebastian. It is exactly 9am - or, rather it was when I began trying to stir you, which was about as difficult as I anticipated."

Sebastian yawned, Charles following suit, and stretched his arms above his head. Charles couldn't help but notice how different he looked - not a single man on Earth is an epicene beauty upon awaking, especially when copious amounts of liquor was consumed the previous night - yet seeing him with bedclothes as tousled as his hair and dark circles underneath his puffy eyes didn't lessen his charm at all.

"Merry Christmas, dear Sebastian!"

There was a momentary delay in his response.

"Hmm? Oh goodness, Merry Christmas, dear Charles! I do apologise for my state this morning. I thought you were the maid when I first woke up," Sebastian bit his lip, "I must say, I was very curious to discover how she could have made it in through several locks. I wasn't sure whether to be upset or intrigued, and then I realised it was you, so I could be happy instead."

"Are you going to get dressed soon?" Charles inquired, perching himself on the end of the bed.

"In a minute. Not just me, mind, Aloysius too. I have special Christmas clothes, you know. I rather like them a lot, so it's a bit disappointing they only get to see the light of day - well, the light of Brideshead - once a year. I'm sure you'll agree they're quite charming."

"Let's see, then," Charles lay back on the bed as Sebastian slid out from under the covers and stepped onto the polished wooden floor.

"Oh, I wish you could - I suppose you would like me to put on a little show - but I have no idea where the outfit is, I'm afraid. I'll have to call a servant and ask her to check one of my boxes upstairs, so you'll have to leave the room for now. I'll come out and see you when we," he said, gesturing to Aloysius, "are ready."

Charles laughed at the image of some poor maid having to fish Sebastian's preposterous festive fashion out of an overfull wardrobe, and then having to find the tiny bear sized equivalent as well, "Whatever you say, Sebastian."


***
"So - what do you think?" Sebastian span around in a dramatic fashion and, overestimating both his rhythm and his sense of balance, ended up having to grab ahold of the neighbouring wall. He was clad almost entirely in dark red - red jacket, trousers, and tie - except for his cream and gold buttoned waistcoat, white shirt, shoes and gloves, and a small sprig of holly was pinned to his jacket lapel. The getup would have looked truly ridiculous on anyone, Sebastian included - but he wore the silly outfit with such vivacity that one couldn't laugh at him, only with him.

"You look a positive dandy, Sebastian," Charles glanced at Aloysius who, not one to be left out of the festivities, was clad in a suitably sized replica of Sebastian's outfit, with a tiny sprig of holly tied around his paw.

"He looks dashing, doesn't he? I daresay he suits the outfit more than I do!" said Sebastian upon noticing Charles' interest, with mock jealousy in his voice. He glared at the bear before patting him on the head absentmindedly as though to apologise for any perceived insult.

Charles laughed and shook his head, "You are certainly one-of-a-kind, Seb."

"Oh, no. I'm frightfully boring really." He placed his hands over the bear's ears. "It's Aloysius who is the real charmer, although we must not let him know, or he will grow more frightfully arrogant than I am boring!" Sebastian said in a stage-whisper and such a grave expression on his face that for a split-second Charles considered the possibility he was being totally serious, until Sebastian burst into peals of laughter.

***

There was a bough of mistletoe weaved with holly and other seasonal plants hanging from a length of twine in the corner of Sebastian's room, no doubt having been placed there with an agenda. Sebastian shut the door promptly and grabbed Charles' sleeve-jacket, pulling him so that they stood underneath it, perched himself on a small cabinet that stood there and placed a hand on each of Charles' shoulders.

"It's not too on-the-nose, is it?" Sebastian inquired, scrunching his nose, "I thought it would be a nice touch. Mummy doesn't like the whole mistletoe tradition, and once I overheard Cordelia asking her about it and she responded 'Why, who on earth are you going to be kissing?'! And of course silly Cordelia is much too young to have anyone to kiss, yet she still got quite upset at Mummy for her remark. I knew then that I would have to be sneaky about getting it in my room, for if she saw it she'd be ever so suspicious, and so I made it myself, and it was quite the toil indeed but it came out quite lovely didn't it? I would have hung it myself too, but it was rather too high and I would have caused more of a bother trying and failing and causing myself some grievous injury than if I asked a solitary servant to do it. So I asked one of the new maids, lovely old Sheila, to hang it for me and you know, Mum's the word, and I promised to kiss her on the cheek if she did and she was quite charmed about it all."

Charles stood and listened to every word of Sebastian's frankly rather inane rambling with nowt but a soft smile of admiration on his lips. His dear Sebastian could be a little inane at times, his topics of conversation lacking in any real substance, but he was damned if he wasn't delightful.

Sebastian stopped his blathering quite abruptly, took a deep breath and moved his hands up to Charles' chin, leaning in to bridge the distance between them. He closed his eyes and pressed his mouth against Charles', who had been waiting since he started his diatribe and now was eager to kiss him back. Charles opened his mouth and slid his tongue inside Sebastian's mouth, and Sebastian responded by wrapping his legs around Charles' hips. They kissed for several minutes underneath the mistletoe, and after pulling apart for a few seconds Charles began to slide his finger in between the buttons on Sebastian's shirt.

His hand was batted away, "Oh, my dear Charles, we mustn't." His imploring tone concerned Charles.

"I haven't upset you, have I, Sebastian?"

Sebastian laughed and rubbed his own hands across Charles' back, "No, you haven't. But in this house, presents aren't given until after dinner I'm afraid," he replied matter-of-factly as he hopped down from his perched position on the cabinet and fixed his tie. He gestured to the bear who lay on his bed, glassy little eyes fixed right on them, "Besides, although you know I'm fond of carting old Aloysius about with me, I do believe this would be crossing the line."

"It will be a torturous wait," Charles replied, kissing Sebastian on his cheek and helping him with his jacket.

"It will give you a present to look forward to, though. I'm afraid Mummy's not very good at gifts, Cordelia will likely give you a bit of religious tat, Bridey will offer a brisk handshake and Julia - well, don't expect even that much from her."

"What do you suppose you'll tell them you're giving me?"

"Oh, Charles! I have gotten you another present, you know," he laughed, slapping him on the hand, "I'm not a complete-hmm, what's the word..."

"A complete tart?"

Sebastian fixed his hair with a flourish of his hand, "Well, I would be inclined to agree with you there, but it would surely be more sinful to deny it. Satan is the father of lies, after all."

***

"There you go, Charles!" Cordelia almost-shouted, giddy with excitement as she handed over a clumsily wrapped box about the size of a Gideon Bible. He half expected it to be a Gideon Bible, but it was not; it was a small printed prayer card in a little black box, decently painted with an image of a contorted young man whose lithe torso was pierced with arrows. Delicate care had been given to his barely clothed body, and his face appeared to be expressing a mixture of ecstasy and suffering. He flipped the card over and read, "ST SEBASTIAN".

"Oh." Charles did not want to appear ungrateful, but felt somewhat surprised by the gift from the young girl. The family crowded around.

"Oh, it's Saint Me!"

"Oh dear, Cordelia, you do know he is an- not Catholic..."

Bridey stood looking indifferent, whilst Julia raised one delicately plucked eyebrow and said nothing.

"I know he's an atheist, Mummy, but that could always change. Besides, one has a duty to try and draw others to devotion, and one does not need to be religious to appreciate religious art, especially an artist like Charles. Right, Charles?"

"He's the patron saint of athletes, you know," exclaimed Bridey, patting Charles on the shoulder so briskly he jumped at the touch.

"Pity I can barely walk without injuring something," Sebastian sighed, "What do you think, Charles?"

With Cordelia looking mighty proud beside him, and a desire to make the odd little child feel appreciated, Charles smiled and placed the small card back in its box, "I think it's beautifully painted, and you really shouldn't have wasted its beauty on me."

"Oh, nonsense! Beauty can't be wasted on an artist, Charles," Sebastian clucked his tongue before leaning in to grab a small box, though fairly larger than the previous offering and rather more elegantly wrapped, from underneath the tree, "Speaking of which, I'm afraid I seem to have painted, excuse the pun, a rather one dimensional image of you to my family. They seem to picture - once again, forgive me- you as a man constantly bent over the canvas, delirious from the fumes! And I'm further afraid that my own offering may do nothing to discount this image, my dear Charles."

The red ribbon was carefully untied and the paper peeled back delicately, as though it was itself a present. Inside Charles found a plain leather box with his name engraved across the front in gilt lettering, and upon opening this he saw the most lovely ivory handled paint brushes he had ever seen, soft fine hairs pluming from their tapered tops. From Sebastian was engraved in very small writing along the handle.

"Do you like them, Charles?" Sebastian seemed as though he was going to elaborate, but instead stopped in his tracks, chewing his lips in either light anxiety or excitability or both.

"I suppose I should have gotten Laura more than a rouge this year," remarked Julia in her usual dry tone. It was the first thing she had said all night.

"I-I mean of course! I love them Sebastian, but they must have cost a bloody fortune."

Sebastian shook his hand dismissively, "No, no. Don't speak of that, Charles. I have more money than sense, perhaps - though as Julia would say, that doesn't amount to much - but any money spent on my friend is money well spent."

"What are you giving him, Charles?" Julia asked, turning to him with her wonderful eyebrow raised once more, "I daresay that present is tough to match."

Of course Charles had been desperately hard up recently, and the unexpected nature of his visit had left him no time to prepare a gift - at least not one that could be told to Julia. Charles stood there, mouth agape as Julia watched him intently, side of her painted lips twitching in suppressed laughter.

"Oh, Charles has already given me my present," Sebastian swooped in, placing his arm on Julia's shoulder, "and my silly sister isn't going to get the pleasure of knowing!" He pecked her on the lips and swiftly moved over to Charles, who was relieved that Sebastian wasn't leaving him to flounder.

***

In the soft daylight of the early winter morning Sebastian and Charles' lay together in his - no, their - bed, and tried to breathe as quietly as they could. Charles' had slept with Sebastian in his arms that night, and here he still was, head of tousled hair resting heavily on his chest and the slow beat of his heart calming him. They had been lucky to get to spend the night together, something they normally would not have risked, but with many of the family members retiring early, spending the night out or, in Lady Marchmain's case, in the chapel, they felt fairly secure as long as they were quiet and discreet and the door was firmly locked.

And quiet they were then, and quiet they remained. Sebastian lifted his head so that he faced Charles and smiled, his eyelids falling and rising with the same languor that seemed to wander through his entire body, sometimes giving way to bursts of zest but always present and ready to resume the gentle lull.

Charles' arms embraced Sebastian, but Sebastian's arms embraced nothing but air between them, "You know, Charles, this is the first night in years that I've slept without Aloysius."

He paused for a moment, mouth open slightly and intent in thought, as though he was about to say something deeply profound. But instead he placed one hand either side of Charles and rolled up, hovering over his torso, "He must have been awfully lonely, and on Christmas night!"

His voice sounded as though it was being forced out, like the notes of a poor flute player, with an anxiety unusual in his ramblings about Aloysius. Charles understood, or he thought he understood. He had given up trying to be sure about Sebastian not long after meeting him, when he realised that he was a man - a boy - of glimmers followed by blackouts and bold exclamations ended with full stops.

Instead of mourning the lost confession, Charles grinned instead, and kissed him on the lips, still able to taste the rum and eggnog and what-not, the seasonal intoxication. Instead of letting his growing anxiety about Sebastian's drinking spur him into action, he sprung out of bed and made a show of pouring Aloysius an apology drink.

"Happy Christmas, Charles!" Sebastian sang, swiping the apology drink out of Aloysius' paw and downing it himself.

"It's not Christmas anymore."

"Oh, bah humbug! The Twelve Days of Christmas begin on Christmas, dear Charles. It's Christmas for a while yet," he responded, pouring more of the tipple into the small glass. Charles tried to take the bottle in a way that seemed non-confrontational, and seemed to succeed as Sebastian glanced at his hand but took the matter no further.

"Well, in that case, Happy Christmas! I don't suppose you give presents on each of the twelve days in Brideshead, do you?"

Sebastian cackled, slamming his glass down on the table next to Aloysius, "Don't push your luck, Charles! I'm sure you're desperate for more prayer cards - especially ones with Saint Me on them - and ivory brushes-"

"Hmmm, you're getting warmer..."

"Oh, Charles," Sebastian sighed, in mock affront, "Whatever will I give you next year?"