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Trinitas - EDM Secret Santa 2017 Entry (for finex09)

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There is in Paris a street called Boulevard Saint-Germain, lit up with silvery blues and bright shimmering golds late into the night as yet another Christmas dawns upon this high city. Not much is open at this hour – if business still needs doing, the Champs-Élysées is nearby for that purpose, its parallel glory laid out just across the Seine – but the street lies fresh-faced and cheery for all those who wish to walk along it. Never mind that most would prefer the home and hearth tonight. Some things in life are best appreciated at the fringes of it, ideally with a partner in crime at hand.

Sebastian Akchoté is undergoing one such experience tonight. His new scarf is snug around his throat and his cheeks are pink. He exhales white smoke into the air with one breath and inhales the grey of nicotine with the other. He is not alone.
No one walks the streets for the streets during the daytime hours. In the chaotic bustle of daily life, it is easy to miss the structural beauty of this city, where avenues broaden into leisurely stretches and narrow winding paths lead to small-time pleasures. But the shops and bars are closed now, the street itself is there for the taking; for Christmas its whole length has been decorated thrice over, lamp-posts wound with speckles of golden light and themed artwork dotted along the pavement. There is no rush here, no demand, only decorations and the serene glimmer of the Seine ahead to excite the heart and for the eye to be delighted at.

“Isn’t it beautiful,” he murmurs. His companion reacts with surprise, unspoken but with his head visibly tilting in wonder. Sebastian is seldom this straightforward about anything. “you reckon this makes up for the family somewhat, Vinco?”

Vincent Belorgey barks out a laugh, the first in a good long while. Sebastian grins back and they hurry on their way.
Call it an improvisation, what they decided to do tonight. Vincent was originally planning to host his entire family for Christmas, disappearing for up to a week as he likes to do in order to eat and drink and be merry, but his plans have fallen through spectacularly this year. His brother’s away in a different country altogether, held up by checks and delays. His sister apparently has a ‘headcold’ of such extent that their mother has gone to look after her for the holidays, and of course all of them live away from Paris. Vincent hasn’t had the news long enough to work out a way to be with any of them, so he’ll have to do without, a fact that struck him hard: “For all my numerous faults, I’m a family man, and especially so for the holidays!” He’d lamented, several times, while his friend puffed nonchalantly away at his cigarette in the background. “They all know that. All that food in the fridge, what the hell am I going to do with it?”

“Can’t it wait until the New Year?”

“Some of it, yes, but the other stuff’s – ugh – themed,” Vincent wrung his hands briefly, but then straightened up again, keeping precarious balance between concerned and overblown. “but forget the food, I wouldn’t be this worried if I could make my way to somebody.”

Sebastian tapped away the ash. “Any news from your brother?”

“He’s fine. In a hotel the last time I checked. Comped. Everyone’s all right, I just don’t remember the last time we were apart.”

Sebastian finds that hard to believe. He has no such tale to tell, as the twenty-fifth of December is not as meaningful to him as it might be for others; Christmas takes place then if he’s in France, but if he doesn’t want to make a fuss about it, he’s got another coming up on the seventh of January. His plane tickets are booked for the New Year, anyway, that means more to him than either of those Christmases put together. This year he decided to pass on most of the festivities because he was – ‘get this’ – working, more interested in echoes and melodies and birdlike sips of muscatel wine than anybody else. Anybody else, but Vincent.

Not that he means anything deep by it. Probably not.
Vincent’s a friend. No reason Sebastian can’t spare a few hours to keep him company. He provided initial sympathy while Vincent mourned his situation and didn’t shoot it down when he proposed they go for a midnight walk. At first he was unsure, but two hours in, this is shaping up to be the most relaxed Christmas he’s ever known. Yes, they have no destination, and the weather might be so cold that his phone battery straight up died on him. But Vincent lent him his phone to keep, he’s good company, and he just likes it when the older man smiles and sweeps back his silver windmussed hair as if to restore order into his world. It’s better if Sebastian’s the only one who can see it, and even more so if he’s the one to inspire such gestures. Vincent’s gladness has come to correlate directly with Sebastian’s level of satisfaction with life.

“What time is it, Seb?”

“Eleven forty-three. Do you think we might run across someone we know?”

It’s not that far-fetched a question. Vincent considers it seriously. “I doubt it. Even if we did, it’d have to be later, wouldn’t it?” His phone chimes; a new email. Sebastian takes a peek first and snickers out loud. “Providing no one else’s plans fell apart, I can’t think of what they’d be – you’re laughing. I never see you laugh. What is it?”

Sebastian holds out Vincent’s phone, not to hand over, but only to look. “Here. Check this out.”

“Eh?”

He’s not even trying to hold back his smirk. “It’s the adopted son.”

A flash of sheer terror and confusion passes over Vincent’s face before he gets it. “Oh, what does he want,” he grumbles, but it’s in high spirits; he’s more chastising Sebastian for the reference, and playfully at that. “he and Louis went abroad for the holidays, no? What are they doing sending emails at this hour?”

“Well-wishes. Are you complaining?”

“Hell no. What does he say?”

Sebastian scrolls down. (His breath catches in his throat, registering that Gesaffelstein has worked his name into the email header as well as Vincent’s, but he doesn’t mention this fact.) “… It’s not just the two of them, but the whole Bromance crew, he says. According to him, they’re just glad they planned ahead to make plenty of time for themselves. ("Clever,” Vincent nods, looking oddly envious.) They’re all at a party now. There’s a photo. Louis seems drunk. I don’t know where Mike’s undershirt has gone, and I doubt he knows, either. There’s a cat. Hell. That’s right. A cat. No word on whose it is. Merry Christmas and a most wonderful New Year to you, he says.“

"Beautiful. What colour is the cat?”

“Mackerel tabby.”

Vincent is delighted. He leans over to peer at the photo, smiling down at the happy pair and the cat that looks very much like his own. “He’s a rascal, that Mike; really, both of them are. But I’m glad someone’s remembered me at this hour. Where are they now exactly, did he mention the place?”

They’re walking past a particularly well-lit sculpture. Sebastian shields the phone screen with a hand. “Bernkastel-Kues.”

Gesundheit. Where?”

“I just said.” Vincent offers a cheeky grin. If Sebastian is in any way charmed, he’s still too deadpan to let on. “He must be living it up there, Germany’s lovely in winter.”

Then, without warning: the warm touch of Vincent’s hand upon his, followed by the linking of their fingers. Sebastian looks up and comes face to face with a knowing smile. “Shall we go together next year?” Vincent offers softly, tracing his thumb over Sebastian’s own.

Oh.

Sebastian thinks his pulse skipped a beat.

This is not a new subject between them. They’re very close. Sebastian’s as aloof as they come, but he has always accepted the other’s open affections with an attitude beyond simply putting up with him. Vincent’s hugged him – he’s kissed him – they’ve been teased endlessly (but always kindly) for their closeness all those years they’ve known one another. It’s no coincidence that Gesaffelstein guessed, and rightly at that, that he and Vincent would be spending Christmas together. Why, it was only last month that Vincent himself suggested that maybe they could give it a try – nothing official, just to see where it might go, he said – and though Sebastian hasn’t dwelt on the question since, he never actually said no to Vincent at the time. It just dawns on him then that all he’d offered was a shrug and a faintly thoughtful look; maybe this is the reminder. That is, if he didn’t outright hurt Vincent back then and just never realized it until now.

The thought makes him anxious and deflective. “I thought you were a family man when it comes to the holidays.”

“I am.”

“Is there a leap of logic I needs must make here, Vincent?”

“I’d like us to go together, not that we have to go full speed ahead.”

The chime of the bells of Notre-Dame echo across the river. Sebastian realizes that midnight’s upon them, and is suddenly mortified down to the tips of his toes; it’s officially Christmas and they’re spending those precious first few minutes on this. He didn’t want to argue – he wanted to give Vincent his well-wishes, and maybe affection then if he wanted- “If… if you’re playing games, I’m not interested.”

“And not because I’m older, just a friend, or a man?”

Sebastian splutters in shock, but there’s no real retort to be made. “Oh, Seb,” the older man laughs quietly, squeezing his hand once before he lets go. “I assure you I’m not playing games, but I’m not demanding that you let me sweep you off your feet, either. I should be thanking you twice over for spending time with me tonight; you didn’t have to, but you did. And,” he leans down, gentle-voiced amidst the last of the bells, brown eyes soothing blue. “I want you to know that you do more than enough for me, Sebastian, as you already are. Friend or brother, or more than that, you’re family. You are that and dearly precious to me before anything else we might become.”

“…”

“I would never trade that for a shadow of smoke.”

I like you too much, is the conclusion that hangs suspended between them, but Vincent does not voice it out loud. He knows Sebastian is not one for excess emotion, not ones he has to wade through in public anyway; Vincent must consider a thanks appropriate, a little flirting acceptable, but that anything else needs pulling back. “Jardin du Luxembourg isn’t far from here, it must be a pretty sight right now,” he says, and offers his arm, beaming. “Monsieur.”

Sebastian takes him up on it. He’s warm, scented sweet, a gentleman for his best friend only. Along the way he shyly leans his head against Vincent’s arm.

He seems to understand.

-----

There is in hell a place called Maleborge, made of stone the colour of iron like the circle that encloses it. Or so it’s said, anyway, within the play of someone else’s imagination - exactly the kind that should not be running wild in Gaspard Augé’s mind as he stands at the back of this church. The theology brought up this chain of thought, his current situation led him to pursue it; Gaspard’s not so much concerned with the thought of frauds and thieves and simoniacs as he can foresee something he might need to do in the near future.
He sneaks a glance next to him. Xavier’s eyes are closed, lips moving faintly with the hymn. His eyelids are damp and ghastly pale and there’s no question that he finds the hymn comforting because it’s familiar, because he need not work hard to follow it, because he’s too unwell to do much else.

Né si stancò d'avermi a sé distretto. 
So Virgil to Dante. As he would Xavier.

How could he possibly not oblige this man, is the question.

Gaspard recalls the process through which they ended up here. For the past several years their families have gotten together for the holidays. But this year, Xavier has fallen sick with a cold, and will not be better for Christmas; he requested a quiet couple of days, and Gaspard decided to follow suit, despite the other’s protests that it was his God-given right to go and celebrate with his family. “Not even for dinner and presents?” He’d asked through a fit of coughing. “Gaspard, I’ll be asleep. It really is fine. Just bring me all of mine to open when I’m better.”

“And that’s where the catch is, trying to drag the entire pile with me onto the Métro,” Gaspard replied dryly, but tucked Xavier in with care all the same. “my place is with you, always. Get some sleep. I’ll wake you closer to evening.”

Nnh.”

He didn’t say anything more, just rolled over with his back facing Gaspard. His response was to ruffle his hair, concerned. Xavier’s always been a good sleeper, especially in response to stress.
And upon his waking, his guilt has worked as a moving force upon him. Despite his illness, and despite Gaspard’s protests, Xavier insisted that they attend midnight Mass; it’s tradition for both of them, starting at eleven at the Saint-Sulpice, and wild horses couldn’t stop Xavier when he really has his mind set on something.

So Gaspard wrapped him up extra tight and off they went. Halfway to the church Xavier stopped against a wall, his eyes glazed with fever, and pressed his forehead against frozen brick. Even in present time he stands bent over, too much heat and weight upon his head; the twinge Gaspard feels in his heart is that of the old present, Xavier’s pain wounding him now as clearly as it did back then.

“Xavier. Xavier, are you all right?”

Ah, yes. He can see him all over again, panting out a breath, eyes bright and cheeks far too pink for Gaspard’s comfort. “I’m fine,” he’d said, and he’d say it now if Gaspard nudged him and asked. “go, I’m more than strong enough.”

Repeat question. How could he possibly not oblige this man?

“Go in the peace of Christ, thanks be to God!”

And then it’s all over. The whole thing hasn’t taken longer than an hour. The good thing about Mass as a tradition is that there are no surprises. Not too far in the distance, their Lady of Paris rings her bells, and the congregation buzzes with their requisite Joyeux Noëls. Xavier lingers as the others file out; Gaspard squeezes his arm as if to affirm that he was, indeed, more than strong enough. A shadow of a smile crosses Xavier’s mouth like he’s pleased. Together they wait, and they are the last people to leave, with Xavier leaning with catlike bliss against the first blast of icy Christmas air.

Ahhh,” he exclaims, and breathes in so deeply it looks like it’d hurt. When he regards Gaspard, however, he’s bright-eyed in the good way. “do you know something, my dear fellow, I’m glad we went; I feel ready for the New Year already, like I’m done proving myself for this one. What do you want to do now?”

Good for him. Gaspard decides not to mention that this is the most anxious Christmas he’s ever had; he’s happy if his friend is. “I was about to ask you the same,” he says quietly, fastening the last button on the other’s coat. Xavier blinks at him, unsure whether to brush him off or accept. “is there something else you’d like to do, or would you like to go home?”

Xavier shakes his head. Gaspard doesn’t protest, but places the back of his hand against the other’s forehead, feeling for himself what the other was unable to voice all along: Xavier’s just too warm for comfort. Forget soup and radiators and blankets. He’s reached the stage where he needs to cool his body, and this weather’s perfect for the purpose, no matter how he might answer for it later. In the absence of a destination he takes Xavier off the beaten path and proposes that they walk around the Saint-Sulpice, long enough to let the crowd clear, and this suggestion is accepted.

Before they go, though, he’d like to add his own blessings to the holiday.
He doesn’t have an excuse, aside from that he’s relieved the other man’s all right, and that Xavier isn’t the only one who can be strong and bold. It’s not new. He’ll understand. “Wait,” he calls, and beckons Xavier back towards the entrance; before any inquiry can be thrown in his direction, he dips his finger in the stoup again and crosses Xavier in his stead. “I feel like you could do with a second round,” he explains as Xavier stares at him; a drop of holy water lingers on his forehead, beaded delicately against his dark hair, and Gaspard gives into the temptation to kiss it. “get better soon.”

He wonders what Xavier’s more confused about, the kiss or the gesture or his demeanour. “What doctrine call you this?”

“I don’t. It’s a blessing. For Christmas.” Gaspard rolls his eyes playfully but leads him down the steps, his touch delicate against Xavier’s gloved fingertips nevertheless. “There’s a prayer that went with it, too. Would you like to hear it? - Our Father in Heaven, O you who are there, hallowed be thy name; visible in candlelight, going over where the river goes, bless us and this city both and please make my friend well. Amen.”

Xavier gives him a deadpan look. “Happy Birthday.”

Gaspard splutters in mock outrage. “Mec! Really?”

It’s always been this way between them, one of them blurting out honest sentiments and the other deflecting. Thanks be to God that Xavier didn’t react like this to his actual confession, some five weeks ago; even then, they were always so close anyway that being official hasn’t made much of a difference. (They kiss and hold hands more often, yes, but they’ve had no more intimate or serious or revelatory considerations than what they were already sharing before.) So they’ve still got things to iron out, clearly, appropriate reactions to sincere good wishes most of all.
Little do they know that two of their friends are having a similarly heart-racing time of things, less than ten minutes away. Unlike them, Xavier bails Gaspard out straight away, resting his warm cheek against the latter’s shoulder as soon as they’re at the bottom of the stairs. He doesn’t say anything, but lingers there as they walk, eyelids half shut and dreamy with pleasure.

Later, he will trace the scales on Gaspard’s arm, and whisper his thanks as he sleeps. But this is the moment Gaspard assumes it, and the weight on his heart lifts immediately in response; gratitude is always appreciated, yes, but it need not be verbal. Not when two people know each other as well as they do.

“… Gaspard?”

“Mm?”

Xavier raises his hand to where the Saint-Sulpice’s Christmas tree stands. “Look over there… right at the top.”

He doesn’t quite get what he’s talking about at first. But upon Xavier’s insistence, he soon understands to look past the top of the tree.
What he sees makes him smile: doves have settled in each crevice for the night, and from the way the lighting’s set up, the golden star of the tree sits at the same level as a pair of snow-white doves tucked up soft and warm against each other. “Show-offs,” Xavier mumbles affectionately. “I wonder if they know they’re being watched.”

The breeze is a gentle one. He catches a hint of Xavier’s scent, warm and smoky with the faintest tang of salt.

“You know, Gaspard? … They mate for life.”

Gaspard leans down wordlessly to kiss the top of his head. Their hands have crossed the distance between them and have folded, one over the other, like a pair of wings settling after flight.
Xavier’s eyes drift shut. He is too tired to talk much, but keeps pace with Gaspard without too much difficulty. Regardless of whether the pigeons know they’re being watched, he knows he and Gaspard ought to be. “I wish they could have seen us tonight,” he says, his voice nearly inaudible. “… they should have seen us tonight. I’m sorry I’m so ill.”

Ah.

There it is, the heart of the matter, the one Gaspard set aside in case Xavier felt too guilty about it. 
Their families are still under the impression that they’re just friends. Neither would have been surprised to know they were official, but they were planning to make quite the announcement of it tonight. This is why Xavier was so anxious to do something together, even with his illness, so that someone would see them and notice how loving they were. There’s a pang in his heart but he presses it back, thinking instead of what he foresaw in the church; he looks down at Xavier and bends his knees, gesturing towards his back.

“May I?”

So Virgil to Dante. It is time to do what he must.

Xavier puts up no resistance. He settles himself against Gaspard’s back and slumps contentedly against him as he stands. He’s even lighter than the usual, not having had much of an appetite since his cold. “Please still like me?” He murmurs against the other’s hair, nuzzling quietly into the birdsnest warmth, and Gaspard hums in response.

The water torture of his heels emptying them both down that Parisian street, evacuated as the channels of their hearts.

This will be one memory.

-----

There is in Paris a cafe called Les Deux Magots, host to Sartre and Beauvoir and countless discussions of prominence in prior decades. Like everything else it’s closed for the night, but it is here Vincent and Sebastian pause to contemplate where they must turn; they could have turned left at any of the dozen splits in the road they’ve come, but they came here because this is the landmark they both recognize. “Hold on,” Vincent calls, and quickly crosses the road to check the Mass timetable at the Église de Saint Germain des Prés. He comes back, shaking his head. “last one started at ten thirty, they’re all gone now. A pity, even we used to go sometimes.”

By this time, Sebastian has had the time to think over all that Vincent has said: Germany, being part of Vincent’s family (whatever that means), where their friendship stands. He’s not confident he’s come to a conclusion, but he can comment on it. “You’re a honest man, Vinco,” Sebastian says, and Vincent turns around, eyebrows raised at the switch back to his nickname. “but it’s seldom you give away so much of it. I was a little blindsided, I think.”

Vincent offers a crooked grin. “Merry Christmas. Enjoy it while it lasts.”

“Thank you. I, um. You know I’m going away on the thirtieth,” the older man nods, a little more puzzled as to where this is going. “my maternal family, in Belgrade – I’m more for the New Year, really, and next Christmas is a long time away for Germany’s sake – if you… if you wanted-”

Mon Dieu, what are you guys doing here?”

Vincent whips around at the voice. What he sees makes him whoop for joy and run right across the road, again. Sebastian only wishes he could curse the heavens but hasn’t the strength, not after seeing Xavier heaved upon Gaspard’s back; now that’s something he never imagined he would see. “Never mind us, what are you doing here?” Vincent’s asking in the meantime, while Sebastian cautiously waits for the lights to change before crossing. “Are you coming back from somewhere?”

“Mass at the Saint-Sulpice,” Gaspard answers in Xavier’s stead. (‘Saint-Sulpice, why didn’t I think of that!’ Vincent exclaims, though he grins at the sight of Xavier trying to clamber down with as much dignity as possible.) He pauses to let him down proper, smiling as his partner throws his arms around Vincent, and then Sebastian too when he arrives. “Xavier’s not feeling too well, so we opted to have a quiet Christmas, the two of us.”

“Oh, excellent. Don’t give it to me or Seb.”

“Puh-lease. I’m not that ill. It’s not because we didn’t want to see anybody!” Xavier’s perked up in the presence of familiar people. Sebastian shifts awkwardly on his feet, suddenly unsure what to do in the company of extroverts; but Vincent comes to his rescue again, resuming his place next to him to affirm them as a pair. This is very much Xavier’s own language, too, as they find out when he looks at them up and down with a slow wicked grin. “… I’ll be. Gramps got a bit lonely for Christmas, huh?”

Vincent’s not shaken in the slightest. “Hardly. I’m never lonesome with family around, such is life.” He squeezes Sebastian’s hand. “And considering you ended up seeing us, I guess now’s about the right time to extend that definition. You two lovebirds want to come along and tackle a fridgeful of pheasant with us? Compete for the wishbone, maybe?”

And this is how he and Sebastian never make it down to the Jardin du Luxembourg that night. But the trade-off is better; Vincent has made the one offer neither Xavier nor Gaspard can refuse, considering that they only woke up for Mass and haven’t eaten in a number of hours. “Hell yeah, Vinco, lead the way,” Xavier exclaims. “and do wish me and Gaspard good luck, if anything – it’s been five weeks!

So they all have a destination now, and they’ll all be fed. Xavier hops back into Gaspard’s arms, presenting a laughing and faintly damp weight from his fever starting to break. At least part of his illness has to do with the lack of food, and what better cure is there for a cold other than good rest and food and cheer? Vincent gains company and Xavier and Gaspard receives recognition. It’s not quite gift-giving, but maybe it’s better.
And as for Sebastian, who has the most important and yet the least concrete desire of all, his initial deflated feeling is not made to last for long. When they’re nearly back to his apartment, Vincent gives Gaspard the keys, and tells them to go ahead and set up something comfortable for Xavier to rest on. This he does with gratitude, which lets the older man turn back to Sebastian so he can give him the full attention he deserves. “I’ve made you wait because I was weighing up what my responsibilities were,” he says. “and – you know something?”

“… Ah?”

Vincent smiles. “I confess I’ve never been to Serbia before.”

He loves to travel, but has always lamented that he never got to do much of it in his youth. He’s sometimes been ashamed of the fact, unwilling to be open about it to others.
Sebastian gets it straight away. It’s his turn to be the guide now, as Vincent has been for him. And unlike how he is with almost any other responsibility that falls onto his lap, he doesn’t hesitate this time.

“I would like that,” Sebastian whispers, and links their fingers together. “I’d like that a lot.”