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Merry Christmas

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Dec. 24th, 1822

Richard smiled to himself as Arrandene came into view. The sun hung low in the sky, and though he couldn’t see light in the windows, he could picture the blazing fires that would be warming the rooms. David sat next to him in the carriage, the cold weather providing the perfect excuse to have him inside instead of out with the coachman.

He and David had returned to England that spring, and had been kept busy for some months sorting out trouble with one of Phillip’s estates. It had not been strictly necessary to spend all those months in the country. It was not so far from town and he could have arranged much of it by letter. But Richard had been reluctant to wade back into the scrutiny of London society, and had found himself ready for any excuse to keep a small household of mainly himself and his valet. After their pleasant, anonymous travels on the continent, Phillip’s steward embezzling funds was a convenient excuse to stay away from the ton.

This year had kept many of the Ricardians apart from each other for one reason or another. Francis it seemed had also had business taking him away from town, something with the looms needing to be overseen personally. Harry had spent several months with his cousin Mrs. Rawlins and his godson. Dominic was the living proof that the only thanks for hard work was being made to work harder. What with one thing and another, as the year drew to a close Richard thought the Ricardians as a group had only seen each other in passing since he’d left the year before.

As the Little Season started and Richard was pulled into social obligations by family and the ever hopeful society Mamas, he found himself wishing for a few nights with his closest friends, and nothing to do besides enjoy each others company. There were no formal invitations but he mentioned to one and then the other that he was considering decamping to the country before the New Year. Everyone save Absalom, who was planning to retreat to his own hunting box, presumably with his young lover, responded with enthusiasm and promised to be there. As usual Richard was happy to open his home to his friends - and when he was unavoidably detained in town by a request for his presence from Eustasia he entreated them to go ahead without him. Now, the day before Christmas, all of them should be at Arrandene already, and Richard was looking forward to seeing them.

~*~
(Dec. 16th, 1822)

Julius was the first to leave London for the joys of the country. He went alone knowing Harry would be arriving a few days later after a brief stay with Mrs. Rawlins. Julius thought to the empty house that awaited them and shivered thinking of how closely it would resemble their first time together. Or maybe he was shivering with cold. The sun was bright and the sky clear, but it was colder outside than Julius could remember seeing in recent years. Even with his heavy wool greatcoat and a box of hot coals at his feet he was freezing in his carriage.

Once at Arrandene Julius sat in front of the fire in the room he’d been given and considered never leaving. He could ring for food - no sense in going downstairs anyway with only himself to feed. He was just starting to feel warm again all the way through when there was a knock at the door.

“Yes,” Julius said, then with surprised delight, “Harry!”

The young man in question slipped into the room, shutting and locking the door behind him, then threw himself into Julius’s arms.

“I thought you weren’t due until the day after tomorrow,” Julius said, once they’d come up for air.

“Yes, well, Verona was in Town as it turns out, so I saw her yesterday and left right after.” He kissed Julius carefully, hands groping between them over layers of wool and linen.

“I was thinking of you this morning,” Julius said.

“Mm?” Harry asked, his fingers still moving. “Anything good?”

“I was thinking of the first time we stayed here together,” Julius said, and felt Harry harden against his thigh.

“I was too,” Harry said. “Do you think it would be warm enough to get naked if we stay right in front of the fire?”

“Let’s find out,” said Julius, already struggling out of his coat.

~*~

(Dec. 24th, 1822)

Richard handed his heavy greatcoat to a footman and stamped his feet, trying to drive warmth back into his limbs. He glanced at David, who felt the cold much more than he did, and saw him chaffing and blowing on his hands.

“Why don’t you go warm up?” he said. “I won’t need to change for dinner I don’t think, so take your own time.”

David hesitated, clearly disapproving of this proposal of embarrassingly lax standards. Richard would normally agree, but he was dressed perfectly well to dine en famille, merely a bit creased from travel. He cared more for David’s comfort than the line of his coat.

“I insist,” Richard said, and gave David a smile. “Should the rest of the party object I will of course come to you at once to remedy my dress.”

“Of course, my lord,” David said. As always, on his tongue the courtesy became an endearment, and Richard felt the care in his voice.

When Richard asked he was told the rest of the guests were in the dining room, evidently preparing something for Christmas. When he entered the room he saw everyone - even Silas - gathered around the table. The air was fragrant with pine and spices, and boughs of holly and ivy had been laid down the center of the long table.

“Richard!” Harry called when he saw his cousin. “Come in, we’re making orange pomanders and Silas, Dom, and Francis are writing papers for charades later. Do have an orange - here -” Richard found himself pulled into a seat beside his young cousin and handed a small orange. There was a bowl of cloves in the center of the table, which Harry pulled closer to him.

“Here,” Harry said. “You must have done this before.”

“If I have it was a very long time ago I dare say,” Richard replied, feeling a bit run over. He supposed he may have done this as a very small child. Perhaps a nurse had sat with him once, pressing cloves through the orange peel until the room was bright with notes of spice and citrus. He worked in a neat spiral pattern noticing that Harry, who had finished his orange, was tying a wide silk ribbon into a bow around it.

The fire was high and crackling merrily. Ash, a few seats down the table, was holding an orange that looked as if it had lost a fight with a fragrant hedgehog, while Julius was peeling and eating his while he watched Harry work. Those preparing for charades were a quiet background murmur and the skritch of nibs on scraps of paper. Presently Ash grew distracted and left his orange with Harry, moving to stand behind Francis’s chair and make suggestions. Harry gave the haphazard pomander to Julius, warning him not to eat this one, and started afresh on a second for himself.

It was a pleasant scene, and Richard was enjoying the evening, but one thing was missing. He looked briefly at the door, and caught Julius’s eyes on him when he brought his gaze back to the table.

“You should send for him,” Julius said. “You two deserve to be together as much as any of us.”

“It wouldn’t be . . .” Richard sighed.

“Proper?” Julius laughed. “My dear Richard, nothing we do here is proper. If the servants were going to talk I’m sure your Cyprian wouldn’t have hired them in the first place.”

“Oh do ask him down,” said Harry. “It’s silly pretending he’s only your valet when it’s just us here.”

Out voted and secretly glad to have been so, Richard sent a footman to find Cyprian, and went back to the table.

David appeared in the doorway a few minutes later.

“You asked for me, my lord?” he said. His hair looked brighter than ever, highlighted as it was by the fire and contrasting with the dark browns and greens Richard favored at Arrandene.

Richard held up an orange, and realized he was smiling. “Harry has deputized us,” he said. “We must make pomanders.”

“Very good,” said David, but he hesitated, only just stepping inside the doorway. Dominic cleared his throat and Julius hastened to pull a chair out for him.

“I’m sure you’d be welcome to stay with us for dinner as well, Mr. Cyprian,” Dominic said very graciously. “We are such a familiar set, and it is Christmas. It seems a bit rude to stand on ceremony.”

“Thank you,” David said. He looked at Richard, who nodded in agreement, and then around the table. Richards heart warmed, seeing him here as if - no, because he belonged here.

“Merry Christmas, Cyprian,” he said.

“Merry Christmas, my lord,” David replied, and smiled.