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in the (not so) bleak midwinter

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A breeze whispers through the tall grasses on either side of the road, and Caduceus looks up from bundled herbs he’s tucking back into his pack. After a moment, a slow smile spreads across his wide face. “It’s almost the solstice.”

“Oh wow, really ?” Jester’s blue clawed hands are wrapped around the straps of her knapsack, and she pulls them forward in excitement, hefting it further up her back. “I love Midwinter. It’s only, like, my most favorite time of the whole entire year.”

“You guys celebrate Midwinter on the Menagerie Coast?” Beau looks, as ever, dubious. “It doesn’t even snow there.”

“It’s still winter, silly.” Unphased, Jester holds her hand out so Beau can boost her up into the cart. “ Any way, we totally had magic snow. Like, my mom? She had the most beautiful dance she would do every Midwinter, and all this glittery snow would fall from the ceiling, and she would just take off one fur, and then another, and then another, until the stage was all filled with snow and she was totally-”

Fjord interrupts with a cough. “That certainly sounds, uh. Festive.” Glancing around for a change of subject, he sees Caleb still frowning into a book, even as he’s started to plod forward along the dirty road. “What about you, Caleb?”

“Hm? Oh, ja .” Caleb looks up, his brow furrowed and eyes seeming far away, not quite focusing. “We called it Kerzenachten , when I was young. A night of never-ending light.”

Surprised, Fjord blinks. “That’s quite lovely.” But before he can say more, Jester is jumping in with a thousand questions for Caduceus about how he can tell these things.

“Can you hear it? Can you smell it? Can you taste it? Is it like someone tapping you on the shoulder? Ooh or pinching your ass just like, really quickly?”

Caduceus just shrugs beatifically, but Nott chimes in with, “I think that the solstice would smell like raw sewage, because it’s the worst time of year.” Jester gasps, and Nott settles into a corner of the cart, tucking her knobby knees up to her chest. “It’s true. It’s just a time to feel bad about yourself and the fact that you have no family and no presents.”

Fjord can’t necessarily disagree, but Jester is already on the case. “But Nott , this year you do have a family! You have all of us, and we are going to have the most magical Midwinter that ever was, and I am going to get you really, really good presents.”

Nott’s abnormally large eyes somehow seemed even larger. “You will?”

“Of course!” Jester giggles. “I am pretty much the best at giving presents. I’ve gotten so many, you know, that I’ve learned how. Like jewelry, and new paints, and paintbrushes, and a doll that looked exactly like me only small.”

“I don’t want a doll that looks like me,” Nott says, but she does unfold herself a little, relaxing into her seat. “But I would like something shiny.”

“Oranges,” Caleb says suddenly. He doesn’t take his eyes off the road ahead, still staring straight in front of him. “We did not have much. But in the morning, when the candle had burned out, there would be sweet oranges, and fat sticks of peppermint. That is a good gift.”

Fjord doesn’t have many especially fond memories of Midwinter, certainly nothing so fine as what Jester is speaking of. What he does have is the memory of a morning where everyone got to sleep an extra hour before chores, of a steaming mug passed eagerly between crewmates, smiles and laughter out in frigid waters. A moment when everyone felt like an equal. It’s not much...but it don’t take much, does it?

They’re only a few hours out from the next town, so they end up at an inn before the sun goes down. Within the first five minutes, Beau is at the bar, trading out her usual order for a round of spiced wines for the party. She shrugs when Jester squeals, shoulders hunching, but the tips of her ears are flushed pink. “‘Tis the season, right?”

“Indeed.” Fjord picks up the mug, raising it in a toast to her. “Thank you kindly, Beauregard.”

Caduceus gives the mug in front of him a sniff, rightfully suspicious, but he seems much more pleased with this than the other alcohol their little party has tried to introduce him too. “It tastes jolly,” he says, with quiet finality, taking a second sip. That earns whoops from both Beau and Jester, who climbs up on her chair to press a smacking kiss on his cheek.

They don’t even talk about Midwinter, or solstice, or whatever name they know the holiday by the rest of the night, but there’s a certain warmth at the long wooden table. Fjord can feel it, at least, settling in his chest and tugging at the corners of his mouth, and he doesn’t think he’s alone. Even Caleb seems like he’s smiling a little easier.

In the morning, Jester wants to go shopping. That’s no surprise, but it’s a little more unexpected when Fjord is the one “invited” to accompany her.

“Well, I can’t bring Nott with me,” Jester points out once they’re inside what Fjord suspects is the most strongly scented store in the entire province. “I’m getting a present for her, duh .”

“Right.” Fjord picks up a small glass vial of...something, since it seems the least likely to be punctured by his claws. He brings it toward his face for a whiff, then sets it down again with a cough. “Is this, uh, the kind of thing she likes?”

“Well, she does not like to take baths that much. So something that makes you smell good anyway is a good gift, I think.” Jester inspects a jar of salve and casually shoves a fistful of scented salt crystals into her pocket with her other hand. For later use, he can only assume. “And maybe she can put a little bit on Caleb, like, while he’s sleeping? That would be good for everybody, yes?”

“Yes,” Fjord says emphatically, though he’s not all that hopeful that would ever actually happen. But it does remind him of what Caleb had said yesterday about his holiday memories. “We should look for a fruit cart of some kind before we head back.”

“Oooh yes.” Jester’s eyes light up at that. She ends up purchasing two different lotions, cheerfully handing over a handful of silver before tucking her hand into the crook of Fjord’s arm and skipping out. As they leave, he notices a few carefully calligraphied signs reading Recommended for anal use propped up against products he’s fairly certain didn’t have them before.

When they make it back to the inn, they find that Beau has commandeered the large table next to the fireplace. She’s sprawled over one bench, long legs stretched out as far as they go, and glaring at anybody who passes by. She straightens up when she sees them coming and clenches her fist when Jester spills their bounty out onto the table. “Oh, fuck yes.”

“These were always my favorites.” Jester grabs a pomegranate, slicing around the circumference with practiced ease. She twists it, tugging the halves apart to reveal the shiny red arils inside. She pops a few off the rind with a blue clawed thumb. “They taste good and they’re a lot like my mom, you know? A bea-uti-ful ruby.”

Beau takes the other half. She’s a lot less graceful than Jester with it, ending up with dark red juices staining her fingers as she pries the fruit free.

Caduceus is next to join the table, and he takes great pleasure in smelling each of the fruits one by one. Nott and Caleb return some hours later, and they’re all together again - apart from Yasha, that is, and Fjord hopes that wherever she’s at, she’s warm and only as alone as she wants to be.

The fire crackles beside them as Jester presents Nott with her Midwinter gifts. After a few moments of just clutching the bottles in her clawed hands, looking back and forth between them with huge yellow eyes, Nott smears a fistful of lotion down each of her thin arms. She smells incredibly strongly of lavender, and Fjord honestly isn’t sure that it’s an improvement, but he can’t deny that she looks pleased.

Caleb doesn’t say anything directly about holidays, but he holds one of the oranges Fjord picked out in his hand, thumb rubbing restlessly over the dimpled rind, and it doesn’t take much, Fjord thinks. Just a moment or two with people you care about.