Will had barely settled down to his marking, neat pile of papers on one side, red pen on the other, a steaming cup of hot chocolate ready for support, when, to his consternation, the doorbell rang. It was too late to be students (or overly invasive parents trying to bribe or beg him into giving their little darlings the A's they surely deserved even if Will wasn't sure some of them could even spell anthropology let alone answer questions about it) and his neighbours were all away for the holidays, Christmas being just around the corner. For a moment he stretched out his other senses, that part of him that was older than old, larger than mere flesh could encompass, and then scoffed at himself, got up, and answered the door like a person.
An unadorned plastic Christmas tree filled the space. It said, "Hello!"
"Er," said Will, because saying hello to Christmas trees seemed a bad habit to get into.
There was a great rustle and the tree leaned alarmingly, allowing Will a brief glimpse of a mess of dirty blond and fingerless gloves before it swayed back the other way. "Blimey! Almost lost the top then. Let us in, mate; it's freezing as anything out here now."
"I suppose you better come in then," Will said, bemused, and stepped back to let the tree past.
It rubbed against him like a cat then rustled down the opposite wall for a bit before rebounding and finally spinning to a halt in the corner of his flat between the bookcases, its tip only a breath from touching the ceiling, the base dwarfing pretty much everything else.
"Is that hot chocolate?" it said in an awed tone and, before Will could protest, disgorged a young man who instantly snatched up his cup and gulped from it. A hearty sigh followed, and a chocolate lined grin. "Perfect!"
"Hello, Barney," Will said dryly.
"Merry Christmas," said Barney cheerfully, knocking the pile of papers over as he perched on Will's desk. "And happy birthday and all of that. I brought you a tree," he added, unnecessarily, waving Will's mug at it and then taking another gulp. "This is great. Did you use real chocolate?"
"It's instant," Will said. Barney gave him a sceptical look. "I made it with milk, not water."
"Cool." Barney bobbed his head. There was paint under his nails and, Will noted, a purple streak of it on his neck, disappearing under the big collar of his thick brown coat. "Don't think I've been in this flat before. You were still in your rooms at Oxford last time, right?" He looked around the room, sipping the chocolate and then back at Will, grinning when he caught Will still scrutinizing him. "Cosy. Needs a bit of decoration, though. I'll paint something for you."
"Barney," Will sighed, a smile just threatening to curl the corners of his mouth.
"What are you doing here?"
"It's the season!" Barney proclaimed laughing. He set the chocolate down, pulling his coat and gloves off as he talked, clearly settling in for the next while. "So, I said to myself, I wonder what our Will is doing on this joyful occasion, and I said, self, I bet he's just sitting around by himself somewhere, doing boring dull things and being all quietly sad and alone and, like, deep and introspective and what not. Self, I said, that's no way to be, when he has so many people who love him. So I brought a tree to decorate!"
Will looked at him. He looked at the tree, which cheerfully filled the corner in all its green plastic glory. He looked back at Barney. "Barney--"
"Still my name," Barney agreed. "Don't wear it out."
"It's not that I don't appreciate the thought," Will said sincerely, "but, well. I have marking to do." Barney scoffed. Will resolutely ignored it. "And-- What I mean is, I don't have anything to put on the tree."
"Wait for it," Barney said sagely. "To all things there is a time, Professor. Oh!" He rummaged in his coat and pulled out a bundle, haphazardly wrapped in brown paper with coloured stars hastily painted on, and shoved it out at Will. "Here!"
"What's this?" Will said, taking it. It didn't feel like ornaments. He unwrapped it, ignoring Barney's frustrated noise as he carefully pulled back the tape and unfolded the paper.
"Birthday, innit," Barney said.
Inside the packaging was a chef's apron. Will shook it out, looking down at it. It said "Anthropologists do it with culture" on the front in a olde-worlde type font. Will tilted his head back up a little to look at Barney through the fall of his hair. Barney just grinned unrepentantly.
"I'm not sure I have anything to cook either," Will admitted and managed not to yelp when Barney bounced across the room to wrap him in a tight hug. "Um. Thank you."
"What would you do without us?" Barney sighed against Will's neck, squeezing him harder for a moment and then letting go, stepping back only a half pace and looking Will over carefully. "You don't have to be alone. I'll get that."
Will opened his mouth to say-- he wasn't sure. "Get what?" probably, except Barney was already sliding past him as the doorbell rang again, bouncing down the small hallway to pull it wide.
"Season's Greetings," he bellowed. "Who's my favourite sister, then?"
"I'm your only sister," Jane said. "Take this box, would you? I've got another back here as well. Hello, Will," she called over Barney's shoulder. "Happy birthday for yesterday!"
"You called," Will said stupidly.
"Well," Jane said, ducking her head a little, smiling, hair pooling around her shoulders in dark waves, little bronze loops of earrings catching the light. "Better in person."
Barney bustled past Will with the box and then past the both of them to fetch the next, giving Jane an odd look and nudging her inwards.
"Oh," said Will, catching himself. "Come in. Please."
"Thank you." Jane dimpled, carefully wiping her feet on the mat before stepping in, unwinding a scarf from about her neck. "I hope we're not interrupting?"
"We're not," Barney insisted, closing the door behind them and then pushing past with the next box, dropping to sit cross-legged in front of the tree and opening them. "Yes!"
"It's just a few things we all had left over," Jane explained to Will. "Old things from the school or stuff we weren't using this year."
"Oi!" Barney looked up, annoyed. "Don't say it like it's an after-thought."
"I just meant Will shouldn't feel guilty about us getting him all this," Jane huffed. She looked around for somewhere to put her own grey coat, and settled for piling it on Barney's, examining the cup on the desk as she did so. "Is that hot chocolate?"
"I'll just put the milk on, shall I?" Will said, smiling at them both.
Barney just nodded, biting his lower lip in concentration as he unwrapped and sorted decorations into various piles, using some esoteric sorting method Will couldn't readily grasp. Jane followed him into the tiny kitchen, smiling a little as Will settled a pan on the tiny two hob stove.
"How are you?" she asked warmly.
"Good." Will shrugged a little, the barest lift of his shoulders. "I have a tonne of administrative work to do over the break. You too, I suppose?"
"The downside of teaching," Jane said, nodding. "We're having Ofsted inspections some time next term. That's going to be a nightmare. Only... I meant, well. I was surprised that you didn't go home for your birthday."
Will busied himself with the milk, cups, chocolate powder. "I'll see them at Christmas," he said vaguely. "They have all their-- Children and partners and things. It's a busy time; they don't need me around."
"Of course we do," Jane said, touching a hand gently to his back. "You're a part of us, Will. You're our rock."
He glanced back at her over his shoulder, matching her soft smile with one of his own. The doorbell rang again and Barney yelled "Keep making chocolate!" from the other room, footsteps pounding.
"How does he make so much noise?" Jane asked with affectionate exasperation. "Some days, I swear he never grew up."
"It's good to hold onto joy," Will said softly.
Jane gave him a searching look, then nodded agreement.
Voices came closer and then Simon was sticking his head into the kitchen to say, "Hello, Will. Sorry about Barney. There's nothing to be done, of course. We've been trying for years. Real medical curiosity."
"I'm training your baby to say 'What's up, Doc?' first chance I get," Barney yelled from the other room.
"I brought groceries," Simon said, holding up Tesco's bags. "Barney insisted your cupboards would be bare."
"They're not bare," Will prevaricated.
"Fresh vegetables," Simon started and laughed when Jane hushed him, taking the bags, and pushing him from the room.
"I thought I'd cook for us," she said. "Nothing fancy. You have saucepans and trays?"
Will nodded, stepping back in bemusement to let her unpack the food and start going through his cupboard. "We'll be a bit squished at the desk. I've not much room for four."
"Five," Jane corrected absently. "Here, the chocolate's done. Go keep an eye on Barney and Simon with the tree."
"Five?" Will repeated. Jane just pushed him towards the door, mugs in hand.
Simon was unspooling a coil of lights and arguing with Barney over whether they should be put on from the top or the bottom, and then whether they should go up and down in lines or around in loops, and then whether they should go on clockwise or anticlockwise. Will tried offering to help and the brothers took their mugs and simultaneously hushed him.
"It's part of our gift to you," Barney said.
Simon nodded agreement. "You just relax. We have this well in order. Coloured lights first, of course."
"No," Barney huffed. "The white ones, Simon. Do you know nothing about decorating trees?"
"I've done it for more years than you've been alive," Simon said pompously.
"You're only three years older than me and babies don't count," Barney said, looking at Will for support.
"I put a bauble on the tree as a baby," Will said thoughtfully, and smiled at Barney's comical expression of betrayal. "Mum helped me in those days. I'm more than capable now."
"Sit down," said Simon gruffly.
"I'm the artist," Barney said, clearly not done with the previous subject. "I know all about composition and colour and shape. White lights first."
Simon capitulated, although they continued to bicker even as whites and reds and golds began to weave through the green.
"I'll just ... stand here and do nothing, then," Will said, mostly to himself.
"Go get the door," Barney said, from somewhere behind the fuss.
Will blinked at him and then, feeling something, a rush of expectancy and anticipation and, just, something, a happy itch under his skin he couldn't quite describe, like a camera coming into focus, or a particularly hard engraving coming together, or getting to that point in a jigsaw puzzle where there are only a few pieces left and you know you can just snap them all in and everything will be perfect, he went to door and opened.
Bran, hand raised to knock, blinked at him owlishly.
"Bran," Will said.
Bran lowered his hand, putting it in his pocket. He wasn't wearing his glasses, and there was a faint dusting of snow in the half-wild mess of Bran's silvery hair. He'd left his leather jacket open, and Will could see he was wearing a thick white woolen jumper over his jeans that looked perfectly soft and wonderfully warm. Will thought about hugging him.
"Hello, Will bach," Bran said evenly. "Am I coming in, then?"
"Oh!" Will smiled wide, stepping back hastily. "Yes, please. I mean. Come in. It's good to see you, Bran."
Bran gave him a little smile, sure and amused and full of affection, deliberately brushing against Will as he entered.
"Hello, boyos," he called to room, nodding to Simon and Bran's greetings. "Is Jane here, then?"
"I'm here," Jane said, coming to the kitchen door, leaning against the frame a little, wiping her hands with a dishcloth. She smiled warmly at Bran, eyes lit up. "Hello, Bran. It's good to see you."
Not so pretty as Jane, Will said, and felt hot and cold all at once.
"Come help us with the tree," Barney said, reaching out to pull Bran closer and holding the apron out to Will with his other hand. "You can help Jane."
"Oh, can I now?"
"Yes," Barney said decisively.
Will took the apron with good humour and followed Jane back into the kitchen. He tried to set it aside but Jane just gave him a look, so he pulled it on, instead.
"I feel a little ridiculous," he admitted.
"Good," Jane said. "Everyone should feel a little ridiculous once in a while. Come on. You can peel the potatoes for me."
They worked side by side in the tiny kitchen, sharing smiles every time they got in each others way, talking about teaching and school and films Jane had seen and Will have never gotten around to and the pile of books they both had to read and about their students, Jane's little ones and Will's confused adolescents, until finally the makings of a meal were all but done, and Jane was shooing Will from the room and refusing to let him take the apron off.
"It suits you," she said.
"See?" Barney crowed.
Bran glanced down at Will, then properly, clearly reading the words by the smile that spread across his face. Will turned quickly away, almost walking into Simon, who bent down a little and kissed his cheek. Will blinked at him.
Simon shrugged a little, a faint flush of colour in his cheeks, and nodded upwards. "Sorry. Barney hung mistletoe."
Will looked up too, at the little hanging sprig, then back at Barney who just laughed.
"We hung holly too," Bran said quietly, watching Will with, Will didn't want to use the word interest, but it was all he could think of to fit. "On all the windows and above the front door."
"Bran did the bedroom," Barney said. "He wouldn't let me nose around. No idea why. It's not as if I was going to ruffle through your bedside drawers or anything."
"Barney!" said Simon, scandalised, but Will just smiled.
"Nothing to find," he said, with another little shrug, feeling Bran's eyes on him.
"We used to hide fake presents to distract Barney from the real ones," Simon said, smiling fondly at his little brother. "He was a right terror for getting into places. Remember the attic in Trewissick?"
"Blimey!" Barney complained. "That was, what, ten years ago, now? More, even!"
"No fighting, boys," Jane said from the kitchen. "I'm about to dish up. Why don't you clear a space on the--" She looked around the little room and faltered. "Well, on the desk, I suppose."
"I can eat on the floor," Barney offered.
"And the armchair's good enough for me," Simon added. "You, Will and Bran can share the desk."
"All right," Jane said slowly, sharing a look with Bran that Will couldn't interpret. "But tidy up a bit anyway. We don't want to get marks all over Will's work."
"Homework's supposed to be marked," Barney piped up, looking at them all expectantly. When there was no response, he rolled his eyes. "Don't know a joke when you hear one, you lot."
"Lucky for you," Bran said lightly, "or we'd never stop laughing."
"Oh, ha ha," Barney griped, but he was smiling with it, and he tossed Bran another bauble to add to the tree.
Will followed Jane into the kitchen. The plates were stacked, meat and two veg but delicious smelling for all its simplicity. Condiments followed, and Will was carefully balancing his load on the way back out, when he felt Jane's lips brush his cheek.
"Mistletoe," she said, with an impish smile, and Will couldn't bring himself to mention the plant itself was hanging a good foot to their side.
"Grub's up," he said to the others.
"Juuuuust one second," Barney said, pushing a tiny fake Christmas cracker into a gap between branches.
"You can finish it off after," Jane tutted, smiling at Bran when he took plates from her and set them on the table.
"Almost done," Barney insisted, darting here and there to move a bauble or add another. "Alllmost. Nearly. Everrrr so close--"
Will couldn't help laughing. A ring of pleased smiles grew around him, spreading even wider when Barney stepped back with a triumphant, "Hah!" and ordered Will to press the switch; lights, white and red and gold and green and blue and silver burst into life, adding bright colour and lively warmth to the room.
"Perfect," said Barney.
"It's wonderful," Jane agreed and Bran nodded.
"I was right about the lights," Simon said thoughtfully, and then chuckled when Barney aimed a lazy kick his way. "Let's eat."
"Do you have any wine glasses, Will?" Jane asked as he set the plates down and started handing out cutlery. At his startled look, she nodded at Bran, who waggled a bottle at them.
"From Penarth," he said. "A taste of the home country for you."
"They make wine in Wales?" Barney said with apparently genuine amazement.
"Boys," said Jane chidingly, and Bran subsided before he could start.
"I think I have a couple of tumblers," Will offered. "And the mugs too, if we wash them out. That will go round." At their looks, he ducked his head a little. "I don't normally have all that many guests."
"Told you to bring beer," Barney said cheerfully. "I'll have mine in a mug, then."
"None for me," Simon said, sadly. "I have to drive all the way back to London after this, and I already had a glass at lunch with the wife."
"Oh, that's right," Jane said, while she and Bran set to cleaning and filling whatever cups they could find and Will finished making sure everyone had their food and things to eat it with. "How is Elaine?"
"You could have brought her too," Will said. "I don't think I've seen her since the wedding."
Simon shook his head at that. "Not today."
"Yep." Barney agreed, raising his mug in toast to Simon. "Vicky wanted to come but, like I told her, today is a 'just us' kind of celebration. You know. The inner circle."
Will felt something curl inside, not unpleasantly.
"Family," Jane said firmly.
"Here, here," Barney said pompously, toasting her this time, and Jane laughed and clinked her tumbler to his mug, and then there was nothing for it but that they all touch drinks, and then a cup had to be found for Simon, an old plastic one Will used for measuring some times, and filled with water and the whole ritual repeated, to much laughter.
They ate and talked. Barney regaled them with stories of art school shenanigans, painting wild political murals for various ecological and educational protests. Simon chatted about his surgery and Elaine and their plans for children and how Uncles Will and Bran would be definitely babysitting, there was no escape. Bran spoke about farms and music and his father and John Rowlands and harps. Jane talked about getting involved in local politics to try and get better education opportunities for disadvantaged children because there was never quite enough time or money or just, really, stuff in general, and about the children she taught and how they were very lovely, except when they were being evil little shits, pardon her French. When her head rocked back with laughter, Will saw the small blue-green stone hanging from her necklace, and Bran saw him seeing, and they both smiled nostalgically at each other.
Later there was cheesecake. After that, a laughing tussle of people all tried to fit in Will's tiny kitchen to clean up, passing things back and forth like a team in some bizarre sport, until all the cleanup was done. They retired back to the room with the last of the wine, sat all together now under the tree, Will between Jane and Bran, legs companionably nudging, until finally Simon sighed.
"Time for me to be getting on," he said reluctantly, clambering to his feet, and helping Barney up. "It was lovely to see you, Will. Happy Birthday again."
They shook hands in a manly sort of way, and Barney huffed and pulled them both into an awkward, giggling group hug.
"You're always welcome here," Will told them both, marvelling that he meant it.
Simon left first. Barney lingered at the door, looking Will over carefully.
"You're always welcome wherever we are too," he said eventually. "You too, Bran," he called over Will's shoulder, and Bran raised his wine in toast. "You're a part of us. You don't have to be alone."
"He's not," Bran said with calm assurance, resting a hand on Will's shoulder.
Barney's face lit up with something like relief and amusement and this time it was Bran getting dragged into a three way hug with Will. When they broke apart, Barney pressed a kiss to Will's cheek, said, "Mistletoe!" and escaped laughing into a fresh flurry of snow, waving back at them until he was completely out of sight.
"Will you look at that," Bran said, holding his hand out, letting flakes settle on it.
"It's very pretty," Jane agreed, "but it's awful cold, Bran."
He smiled at her and closed the door. Will waited for them to make their move to leave and, when they didn't, said, hesitantly, "Another drink? I think we finished the wine, but I have coffee. Or more chocolate if there's any milk left." Bran and Jane exchanged another look. "What?"
"We'd very much like to come up for coffee," Bran said.
Will blinked at him.
Jane pulled a face at Bran. "You're terrible, you are."
"That's why you love me," Bran scoffed, smiling at Will.
"Come and sit down," Jane said, patting the floor next to her. They both did as commanded, Bran and Jane once again book-ending Will, and she smiled fondly at them. "My boys."
Bran reached across Will to take her hand, pressing his lips to her knuckles with almost-smirking deference and she laughed, slapping at him.
"It really was very good to see you," Will said honestly. "Tree and all."
"That part was Barney's idea," Bran said. "We were just going to bring ourselves."
"And the food," Jane said.
"Yes," Bran nodded. "And the wine."
"We worry about you," Jane said. "You seem lonely, Will."
Will ducked his head. He knew why. Of course he did. There was always that part of him that he couldn't share, that set him apart, that meant time touched him only lightly while they went the long way around, thoroughly mortal for all they had been touched by. He opened his mouth to say something, to make excuses or denials, or to try and redirect them with something vague onto safer topics, but Bran pressed a finger to his lips.
"You were the person who convinced me that I could have friends," Bran said. "You saved me from being an all out arrogant prick and--"
"You would never!" Will interrupted.
"Maybe not," Bran allowed. "But you really did help me, Will. You've helped all of us through the years. Simon and Barney. Me."
"Me," agreed Jane. "And we want to help you too." She carefully worked her hand into his. "To see the world the way we do. To... I don't know."
"Connect," Bran offered sagely.
Jane brightened, nodding. "To connect. Because we're family, and we love you."
"We love you," Bran agreed. He too took Will's hand in his and then, leaning in, brushed a kiss against the corner of Will's mouth.
Will managed a somewhat watery smile. "Mistletoe?"
"Because I want to," Bran corrected. He squeezed Will's hand. "Why don't I go put that coffee on?"
"You're staying?" Will asked.
"We thought we'd make an evening of it," Bran said, and Jane said, "For as long as you want us."
Will swallowed. "I do," he said. "I do want you."
"And so you've got us," Jane said, and kissed his cheek again.
Will looked up at Bran, who smiled indulgently down at the pair of them. "Ah, Will bach. I bet you don't even have any proper biscuits."
"There's ginger snaps in the tin behind the kettle," Will said, rubbing at his eyes, and smiling.
"What did I say?" Bran scoffed.
He brought the tin with him when he came back with their mugs anyway, and they sat and ate them together, curled into each other while the Christmas tree lights sparkled and somewhere, far outside their bright warmth, the snow gently settled.