On A High Holy Night

by Chris J

"It's time."

Brian nodded his head, almost finished his preparations. All he had left was to light a pair of candles at each of the long windows that lined two of the four walls of the sanctuary. He did this slowly and carefully, using the calm surroundings to quell his nerves, and flame by flame they chased away the darkness. Night was falling, and soon the only light would be from his army of candles.

When finished, Brian gestured piously at the altar at one end of the room then turned and carried his own candle back with him as he joined his superior at the door. As he kissed her cheek respectfully, the collar of her blue robe brushed against his bare neck and he shivered.

"You're ready?"

"I look forward to it, Sister Leighanne," he said, rubbing his bare forearms briskly. Tonight his body wasn't covered neck to toe. Tonight he was in simpler clothing: pants, a loose shirt, shoes that laced up and barely covered his ankles. It was comfortable, yes, but unfamiliar. "I have a very good feeling about tonight."

If it was a lie, it was only a little white one. Because he did want very much to find the one he was waiting for. But if he didn't, yet another year would pass before the right night came again, and ministering to the city could be lonely work.

"Keep that faith," she said kindly, kissing him back. "You'll need it tonight. Have patience, Brian. The first candidate is already here."

That didn't mean anything, really, except that he wouldn't be forced to wait and wonder if anyone would come. Last year, on the eve of the new year, he'd met with six men and two women and none of them had been right. The year before it had been three men and four women. And the years before that... he could no longer remember the number or the faces that went with them. All of them had been kind, decent people, but he'd had to turn them all away.

If he did not find the right person before dawn, it had been suggested to him he might be wise to consider following in the footsteps of Sister Leighanne, rising in the order by choosing to remain alone. But Brian didn't think that was his calling, deep down didn't feel it was the right path for him. And so time after time, at dusk on the last day of the year, he lit his candles and he waited and hoped.

"I'll leave you now," she said, looking past him and out a window where the last traces of sunlight were disappearing over the horizon. "And I'll send him in."

"Thank you," he said, and caught her arm before she could go. "Thank you for being my guide through this. I know it hasn't been the easiest task."

"It hasn't been the hardest either," she promised him. "I knew what I was getting into when I chose you, Brian. I don't regret it." She kissed his cheek again, gently, and her absolute calm encouraged him.

"I love you, too, Sister Leighanne," he murmured as he let her go. "I'm ready."

She gave him another smile as she slipped out the door, leaving him alone to light the only candle that mattered. It sprang to life almost on its own, shedding a warm, strong, yellow light over him, over the long table it sat on, and over the empty cushions next to next to it. Brian pretended his hand hadn't shook as he lit it, and finally blew his own candle out.

It was a few more minutes before he heard the door open again, a few minutes he spent getting comfortable on the cushions, and praying, and mostly being nervous about what was to come. He couldn't control who showed up at the doors of the sanctuary to meet him. He never knew how many there would be or what they would be like. He only knew that they would all be drawn there in some way, and if he was lucky, one of them would be for him.

"Kevin, the lord's son," said Leighanne, her voice bright and clear as she announced his arrival. It wasn't her usual way of alerting him to someone's presence, but in this case it seemed appropriate. Brian needed no other introduction to know who this tall, dark man was. He'd seen him many times before.

"Welcome, Kevin," he said as Leighanne closed the door again, giving them their privacy. "Please, come sit down."

Kevin approached with the stride of a warrior, long and heavy but dextrous all the same. Brian had seen him fight in the mock battles they staged at the manor, and had no doubt that he would be just as effective on a genuine battlefield should things ever come to that.

"Thank you," he said, sinking carefully to the cushion. Brian heard the creak of leather and the clang of steel, then silence. "You look well."

"As do you," said Brian cordially. "It looked like a lovely evening outside."

"It's crisp," said Kevin, looking past him and out the same window Leighanne had. Brian doubted he could see anything now that darkness had fallen. "And clouds were starting to come in as I rode here this evening. It may storm."

"Pity," said Brian. "I hope all the crops are in. It's early in the season for a storm; they may not be ready for it."

"I think it will be fine," said Kevin confidently. "My father had one of your order bless the harvest as it began."

And to him, it seemed as simple as that. They wanted things to go well, and they did something about it, and they made it happen. There wasn't a lot of room for fate. But as respectful as it was, the unwavering trust made Brian feel faintly uneasy.

"It's good to hear you have such faith," he said, watching Kevin's eyes as he rested a hand on Kevin's knee. He hadn't expected him to jerk slightly as he did, not to stare at the intruding hand, but he knew what it meant.

"It's always served us well," he said, making no other motion. "We try to serve it in return."

"You don't want to be here, do you, Kevin?" Brian asked gently, and as non-judgmentally as he could.

Kevin looked suddenly unhappy, in spite of that, to be called on it. He just shook his head and continued to stare at Brian's hand.

"But you came anyway."

"My father said I should," he said. "He thought it would be honourable."

Brian just patted his knee and pulled his hand away, reading so much more into those words, those gestures, than Kevin was saying. "There's someone else."

Kevin's eyes jerked up at hearing that, and Brian knew he'd read him right. "There's a woman," he admitted. "Oh, she's so beautiful. She's so wonderful. But my father..."

"Here's what you need to do," said Brian, once he was sure that Kevin was not going to continue. He did glance at the candle, just in case, but it had remained a solid yellow, not even flickering. "You've done your duty to him, coming to me, and there's no shame that you weren't the one. Then you remind him that the faith encourages you to embrace love where it comes, and you tell him about your woman. It will all work out for the best."

"Do you think so?" asked Kevin, but he was already nodding, that absolute trust rearing its head again. "He'll consider that a blessing of it, if I tell him it came from you."

"Then let him," said Brian. When he stood up, Kevin did the same. There was the creak and the clang again, and then Kevin was towering over him. "I'm sure she's ever bit as wonderful as you say she is. I can see it in your eyes. Why don't you go to her now?"

"I think I'll do that," he said, lighting right up. The exact way Brian hoped he himself would about someone soon. "Thank you very much."

Brian saw him out the door, and let Leighanne back inside with a heavy sigh. "Don't worry," she said. "He was only the first."

"You knew, didn't you. Before he even came inside."

"I suspected," she said, leading him back to sit down again. "The people who are genuine, they usually aren't here waiting before it's time. They just show up. And they don't usually know the name of who they're going to see."

"But you sent him in."

"Of course I did," she said, sitting down next to him and rubbing his shoulder. "You never know who it's going to be. And you needed to figure it out for yourself."

"He's a good boy," said Brian. "He does his father proud. I expect he'll be married by summer, and carrying on the line."

"And I expect that's for the best," she agreed. "Do you want me to leave you alone?"

"I'm going to check the candles," said Brian, which they both knew was just another way of saying yes. He was always reluctant to send his superior away, even though on this night it was well within his rights. "I'd hate to have one sputter out at a bad time."

"Of course," she said knowingly. Just what she thought she knew, though, Brian wasn't sure. "I'll be outside. I'll let you know when someone comes."

He knew she would. He knew he had nothing to worry about. And he knew that ideally he should be calm and serene about the whole night. What would happen would happen. But that knowledge didn't stop him from busying himself doing his rounds of the room again.

He paused at one window, its simple design lit up by the tiny flames, and toyed with a bit of beeswax between his fingers as he leaned on the sill. From this close he could look through to see the edges of the grounds, and watch the first few flakes of snow flutter down onto the tenacious leaves that still clung to their branches.

It felt like hours until the door opened again, but from the length the candles had burned down he guessed it had been an hour at most. He wouldn't know for certain what time it was, though, for a long time yet. Not until dawn began to break.

Leighanne entered alone this time, but hovered by the door until he turned to face her. "His name is Alexander," she told him as he shivered and moved away from the window. "Son of a priest, of another sect. He just arrived."

Brian took a moment to find his seat again, then nodded at her and smiled. He couldn't read anything into the expression on her face, but he had hope. He always did. "Send him in," he said, when he was comfortable.

When she opened the door, there he was, standing in the archway. Brian had seen people like him before, in the city--his arms stained with patterns of ink, his hair stained black. He was not the sort of person Brian usually saw inside these walls, but he wasn't one to judge.

"Am I in the right place?" Alexander asked as the door closed behind him. "I'm not sure I'd know if I was. Who are you?" It was said with nothing but curiosity, but still came across as blunt. Brian had been ready for that.

"My name is Brian," he said easily. "Would you like to sit down?"

He'd worked with boys like Alexander before, on the streets, and he knew how they could be. They all had hard edges, their unique socialization, but inside they were all different. Inside they ran the gamut of mankind.

"Yeah, sure, don't mind if I do," he said, folding himself compactly into his seat. He was the wiry sort, small and strong and, Brian guessed, dangerous. It didn't surprise him that Alexander was the son of a priest, though. It was much like being the son of the sheriff--sometimes you followed in his footsteps, and sometimes you ran as fast and far as you could in the other direction. Especially when you were still growing up and growing into yourself, like Alexander surely was.

"I'd offer you a drink but, as you can see, I have nothing."

"Aw, that's all right," he said. "I was just at the gaming parlour up the street, do you know the one? I had plenty there. So hey, this is pretty nice in here."

"We like it," agreed Brian, looking around the large, wood-and-stone room. The artwork was extraordinary, he'd always thought so. It was a pleasure to worship with it surrounding him. "I'm glad you do, too. So what brings you here, Alexander?"

"I... don't know," he admitted, and Brian didn't sense any deception in it. "I was just on my way home, from the gaming parlour, and suddenly it seemed like a real good idea to stop in."

"Well I'm glad you did." When Brian touched his knee, Alexander didn't flinch away like Kevin had. "What is it you do?"

"Well..." said Alexander. "I just do what everyone does. Parties, gaming... companionship." Brian thought he was finished, but then Alexander got a strange, sheepish look on his face and added, "And I help my mother grow roses, she sells them in the market. Nothing catches someone's eye quite like giving them a rose." The line was practiced. Brian wondered how many of Alexander's friends had heard that defense before. "Truth is, I don't do much of anything right now. Maybe that's why I'm here. Maybe that's what I'm looking for. You think?"

Brian looked at the solid yellow flame of the candle and knew Alexander wasn't going to find it there. What Brian could offer, perhaps, was a little guidance. "Do you enjoy the gaming?" he asked. "The companionship? The parties?"

Alexander nodded, but not immediately. "They pass the time," he said. "It's something to do with my friends. Feels good."

"And do you like tending the roses with your mother?"

He hesitated even longer before answering, looking around the room to be sure they were alone. "Have you ever planted something so tiny and insignificant," he said finally. "And watched it grow and flourish and become something beautiful? It's... astonishing."

"I have," said Brian indulgently. "I know what you mean. Have you considered spending more time with her there? Or doing it on your own?"

"I wouldn't know how," he said, shaking his head and sounding regretful enough Brian knew he'd hit on something. "I just help, sometimes. Even her assistants know more than I do."

"Then maybe it's time to learn," suggested Brian. He waited a few moments, then watched with pleasure as something started to grow and flourish inside Alexander.

"Yeah," he said slowly. "Yeah, maybe... yeah. Hell, if an oaf like Joseph can do it, so can I. I... I hope I haven't wasted your time here."

"Anything that brings a smile like that to your face is never a waste of time," said Brian, standing up to help Alexander out. "Good luck, Alexander. And stop by any time. I'd love to hear how you're doing."

"Yeah, yeah," he said. "I'll do that. Maybe next time I go gaming." Brian lifted his eyebrows and Alexander laughed. "What, you didn't think I'd give it up completely did you? And hey, good luck to you, too."

Brian nodded his thanks as Alexander slipped out the door and left.

Leighanne could read it on his face the moment she came back inside. "I'm sorry," she said, giving him a sympathetic hug. "But it's still early, Brian."

"It's okay," he said, and it was. "I'm glad I met him, I'm glad he came inside."

"They always come for a reason. And he certainly seemed glad to have met you, too," she said, handing him a bundle. "I've brought you more candles, for when you need them. Remember to keep them burning all night."

"I've done this before, Sister Leighanne," he reminded her. Neither of them spoke of just how many times. "I'll keep them burning until dawn. Thank you." She gave him another hug before exiting the sanctuary again, leaving Brian on his own. He wouldn't need the candles yet, but in another couple of hours he might. He wondered if she didn't expect him to see anyone else until then.

Turned out she was right.

"Brian?" she said softly. He hadn't heard the door, sprawled where he was across his cushions, watching his candle burn endlessly. "Brian, there's someone here to see you."

"Oh?" he said, scrambling to a sitting position again and knocking everything askew. "Oh! Do I look okay?"

"You look like you always do," she said with a little laugh. "His name is Howard, he's from the northern territories. He looks like he's travelled a long way, Brian."

He nodded his head and smoothed his hair. "Then let's not make him wait."

He was a small dark man with a pretty set of curls and a shy but generous smile. Leighanne was right, he looked tired and dusty, but optimistic in spite of that.

"Hello," he said, and Brian could hear the trace of an accent. "They tell me you're called Brian."

"I am," he confirmed. "Would you like to sit down?"

"I'd like that very much," he said with a weary sigh. "It's been a very long evening." When he sat down next to Brian, he started talking to him without prompting. Like he'd done this many times before. "I started getting the feeling earlier this week," he said. "Like I needed to be here. Like something was gonna happen here. So my mama, she talked to one of her clients and found me a horse, cheap, and she told me to follow my heart. You're... you're the fourth person, person like you, I've seen already tonight."

Brian knew exactly how that felt, to know something was meant to happen and to try and try and to still have to wait for it to be right. "You've come a long way."

"I have," he agreed. "I'm sure I'm quite a sight. At least I found a place to stay last night, a place that offered me a bit of time in the bathing room. Otherwise I'm sure the smell would have driven you away by now."

"Oh, nothing as trivial as a smell would drive me away," Brian assured him, resting a hand on his leg. Howard's clothing was cool, and he wondered just how cold the night had gotten. "What is it you do, when you're at home?"

"I'm an apprentice to the smith," he said shyly. "He took me on when my mama... did him a favour, you could say. I care for his animals, too. Cats, and rabbits. Do you like cats?"

"I keep dogs," admitted Brian. "I have two. Normally they're off roaming the grounds but from the look and sound of things outside, they've probably holed up somewhere for the night. I have a brother who is a smith, though. Do you like the work?"

"Well... I'm not very good at it," he said regretfully. "But my mama, she worked so hard to get me the apprenticeship. I couldn't just leave it, until this... this feeling, came. My heart was never really in it, there were other things I wanted to be doing."

"Like ball games?" asked Brian knowingly. "Before I joined the order that's where I would always be. Even now, I like to play games with the youth in the area. It keeps them busy and out of trouble."

"I wasn't very good at that, either," confessed Howard. "Usually I could be found under a tree, reading a book, whenever I had the time. I always thought I would make a good scribe, but there wasn't much call for that back home."

Brian didn't have to look at the candle to know it wasn't so much as flickering, despite the winds he was beginning to hear outside. "You're a very sweet man, Howard..." he began gently.

"But my quest won't end here," Howard finished, sounding resigned to that. "It's all right, you don't have to tell me. Perhaps someone could give me directions to the next closest sanctuary? One that I haven't been to?"

"I can do better than that," said Brian, inspired by what he'd heard. "I have a friend in the order, his name is Joshua. I think, perhaps, he may be the one you're seeking."

"Oh, do you mean it?" asked Howard, brightening. "I've been looking so hard..."

"I don't know," Brian warned him, "I can only guess. But ask the guards at the door and they'll direct you to where he is. And best of luck to you."

Howard gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek before standing. "You're a good man, Brian," he told him with the simple honesty of a country-bred boy. "You'll find what you're looking for, too."

"I certainly hope so," said Brian as he showed him out.

It was a few moments before Leighanne returned. "I think you're right," she said, obviously having overheard Howard's question to the guards. "I've got a feeling."

"The same feeling I had, I'm sure," he said, returning to his seat. But instead of enjoying the cushions he hopped up onto the table and stared into the yellow flame of his candle. "Did you ever go through this, Sister Leighanne?"

"No," she said gently, pushing a curl back behind his ear. "I always knew what I was meant to do here. But I've helped you through this before, Brian. Just keep your faith. What's meant to happen will happen."

"I know, I know," he said, letting his heels bang against the leg of the table. "I think maybe I should meditate on this some more."

"I think maybe that's a good idea," she agreed. "I'll let you know if someone else arrives."

"If," he echoed her, but she was already closing the door behind her. And so he did take his own advice, tucking his legs up under him on the table and closing his eyes and breathing deeply. He knew this was right, he knew he was doing the right thing, for him. He just needed to remind himself of that sometimes.

Hours later he still sat there, watching as the sky began to show the first few hints of light. The windows still rattled with each gust of wind, and he was on his third set of candles. The night was almost over and he was still alone.

The gentle knock at the door came as a surprise, after such a long silence. "Brian," came Leighanne's voice, then again a little louder. "Brian, there's... there's someone here for you." She sounded as surprised as Brian felt.

"Are you sure?" he blurted out, trying to see past her. "Who?"

"It's..." she began awkwardly. "His name is Nickolas. He's, well, he's the boy who hauled the potatoes, for the feast today. He just arrived not long ago and he said that he felt like there was something else he ought to be doing while he was here, so--"

Before she finished a blond head peeked through the door. "Hello?" he said. "Is this...? Yeah, I think this is where I'm supposed to be." He slipped in right past her; Leighanne just smiled and let him, and stepped out of the room herself. "Hello there, I'm Nick. And you are?" He wiped his hand off on his ragged pants and held his hand out to Brian. "I'm sorry, I've forgotten my manners."

Brian forgot his, too, as he took in this boy... no, man. Leighanne was wrong about that part. He may have been young, but he'd already worked hard for many years and was definitely not a boy in body or in experience. His clothing didn't seem warm enough for the weather, and his hair was still lightly dusted with snow from his journey through the waning storm.

"I'm Brian," he said finally, shaking his hand. "Won't you sit down?"

"Oh, I couldn't," said Nick modestly. "I'd get everything all grubby. I was out in the field this morning already and the ground was freezin' and... well, you can see I'm all covered with dirt."

"Oh, please, don't worry about that," insisted Brian, unable to help grinning at him. He slid off the table himself and onto the cushions. "You're my guest here, and I'm sure these cushions have seen worse things." After making sure Brian was sincere, Nick finally did sit down. "So... do you understand what goes on here?"

"Well yeah, sure," said Nick, giving Brian a crooked grin in return. "You can't live here your whole life and not know what tonight is. What do you take me for?" He obviously did know what Brian took him for, though, and didn't seem to mind one bit. Especially when he got the chance to show him up a bit, maybe. "It's almost dawn, though. It's almost the new year."

"You're right, it is," said Brian, glancing out a window again as the sky got lighter. "The night's almost over." He rested his hand gently on Nick's leg. "It's been a long one."

"Gosh, I bet it has," said Nick understandingly. "And oh, you're so cold!" He pressed his warmer, larger hand overtop of Brian's. "Here, here," he said, scrambling to take off his cloak, maybe the only piece of warm clothing he owned. "Take this. Have you been in here awake all night?"

"Since sundown," said Brian, yawning widely now that it was brought to his attention. "It's required." He knew he should have refused the cloak, but it was softer than it looked, and warm. "I can't sleep until someone comes. Or until sunrise."

"Well, it's just about sunrise now," Nick reminded him. "You look exhausted. And here..." He reached for something in his belt. "I have a bit of wine left. Do you want it? It should warm you up."

"I shouldn't," protested Brian, but Nick was so insistent. And he was right, it did warm him up some. He hadn't realized the sanctuary had gotten quite so cold, the winds from the storm leaking in through the unshuttered windows. Maybe that was what had been keeping him awake, because he was certainly having trouble doing it now.

"That's right, get some sleep," said Nick, putting an arm around his shoulders so Brian could rest against him. "Don't worry, I'll look out for you."

"I can't until--" began Brian, but then he looked at the candle and closed his eyes and knew that he could, in fact, sleep now. That everything was going to work out okay.

Because the candle sputtered and churned and then started burning a bright, accepting blue.

For the bsbslashfic Brian challenge.

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