Merry Christmas To You Too, Gwin!
by Sauron Gorthaur

The frozen water was collecting on Farid's long eyelashes again. He could see the flakes sticking there, bobbing in front of his eyes, white against the dark lashes. He blinked, but they remained stubbornly fixed there, so he scrubbed a hand across his eyes instead. That did the trick. He stared suspiciously at the melted water on his palm and glanced around at the white substance falling all around him. He had seen sand that flew so thick you couldn't breathe. He had seen mountains that opened at a command. But he was fairly sure that water wasn't supposed to turn hard and white.

The first time he had seen the small white flakes dropping out of the sky, a few days ago, he had tried to hide under the bushes, sure that it was some sort of ghostly apparition or dark magic. Dustfinger had just laughed at him and told him it happened every year in this world and that it was just frozen water and nothing to be afraid of. Farid didn't know how water could get as hard as a sand grain, but he trusted Dustfinger and when he realized that this new substance couldn't hurt him, he'd even tramped about in the soft, thin layer, marveling at his foot prints and twitching his nose when the flakes landed on it until Dustfinger told him to hurry up and move along.

They were in one of the small inland villages now. The snow was still falling placidly, dusting the quaint, grey shops in a white sheet, but it hadn't deterred Dustfinger from putting on a show in the town square, barely on hour after they'd arrived. Despite the cold, there were many people about on the streets, peeking in the shops and carrying boxes and bundles in their arms, and a good crowd had gathered around Dustfinger as he juggled his torches and made the snow sizzle in his fire. Surrounded by the glistening flakes, the red flames had looked even more beautiful and alive than ever, and Farid was so fascinated by the way the fire reflected off the whiteness on the ground around Dustfinger that he had almost forgotten to make his rounds with his silver bowl.

He ran his fingers over the coins that now filled the bowl, brushing away the snow layer that had already settled on them in the last few minutes. The people had been especially generous, and he counted almost fifty of the coins. He smiled. Dustfinger would be pleased – he'd said only yesterday that they could use some extra money. "We'll buy you a decent coat then," the fire-eater had said.

"I'm all right," Farid had answered, although his arms did feel a little chilly, even under the sweater that Dustfinger had bought him.

"You won't in a few weeks, when it's really winter," Dustfinger retorted. "Come January, it'll be so cold you wouldn't even be able to feel Gwin bite you."

"But Gwin doesn't bite me," Farid said. Dustfinger had just rolled his eyes and turned away, muttering something about children.

Well, Dustfinger would be able to buy a coat now, and if he did, Farid decided he would wear it, even if he wasn't completely convinced yet that he need it. By now, he was getting to know Dustfinger fairly well, and there were some things that you simply didn't argue with the fire-eater about. Fire was one. Basic survival skills were another. And Farid had to admit that he knew decidedly little about this strange world that dropped hard water out of the sky.

Gwin snuffled at the coins, his muzzle white, trying to discover what was so interesting about those cold, round pieces of metal. When he determined it wasn't food, he looked at Farid skeptically, or at least, Farid thought he looked skeptical. The boy sometimes thought that the horned marten could wear expressions that looked amazingly like his master's.

"Let's show Dustfinger what we've got, Gwin," he said, crouching down and holding out his arm. The marten obligingly clambered up, his claws sticking through the sweater and his feet leaving a series of white prints up the sleeve. Farid stood, tucking the bowl against his chest, and trotted across the square toward the fire-eater.

Dustfinger was packing away the last of his bottles from his show. He'd put his shirt and long coat back on, but his hands still looked a little red from being exposed to the cold. There were snowflakes liberally scattered over his hair, but when he looked up and brushed his hair back out of his face, the flakes dissolved into the ginger locks.

"You look pleased with yourself," he said dryly, observing the grin plastered across the boy's face. "One would think it was you who just put on a show."

Eagerly Farid displayed the bowl while Gwin peeked at it from over his shoulder. "We made almost fifty coins! Look! These people are generous."

One of his rare, wry smiles twitched Dustfinger's lips, but his reply was curt as always. "Very nice, but the people are always more generous this time of year. They feel sorry for tramps like us out in the cold. And they don't like seeing a boy like you running around without a coat."

Farid grinned and picked up Dustfinger's backpack, quickly finding the leather bag in which they stored their money. His grin broadened when he poured their new earnings in and felt how heavy the bag became. "Will we stay here a few days?" he asked, looking up at his mentor.

Dustfinger absently attempted to stroke Gwin's back, but the marten turned around and bit him on his hand. Other than giving his marten a spiteful glare, Dustfinger ignored him and looked pensively at Farid instead. "I think so," he said. "There's plenty of old barns and unused sheds around, and we can set up camp in a likely one. That'll keep us out of the wind and snow for a little while at least. And maybe this evening or the next one I'll put on another show after the sun has set."

The plan satisfied Farid. With Gwin still on his shoulders, the boy trotted after Dustfinger, glancing around at the shops and people with open curiosity. He had noticed a change in the villages over the last few weeks – everything seemed to be decorated with red and green banners, garlands, and circles of evergreen branches hanging on doors. The little shops were overflowing with trinkets and bright, little boxes, and they were generally full of people who emerged with many of these ornaments in shopping bags or already wrapped in boxes with large, colorful bows. This village was no exception, and if anything, it seemed even more bustling and colorful than usual. Farid stopped to glance in a wide display window and saw small statues of people gathered around a barn and a baby, all carved of wood and hand-painted. One of the people was a woman with wings, and Farid stared curiously at her, wondering what world she came from.

He caught up with Dustfinger and followed at his tail, still glancing around, when suddenly something caught his eye and he pulled on the fire-eater's coat. "Dustfinger! Dustfinger!"

"Yes, yes, all right," Dustfinger snapped, stopping. "One tug on my coat or one call of my name would have been enough. What is it now?"

Farid was gaping at the house they stood in front of, gazing through the window into the living room. "Dustfinger," he whispered, still not able to believe what he was seeing, "they have a tree in their house!"

The fire-eater gave the house a cursory glance. "Yes, people do that this time of year."

Hard water and now trees that grew in houses. "Why?" he asked, staring wide-eyed at his mentor.

"Christmas," Dustfinger said with a shrug as he continued walking.

Farid darted after him. "What's Christmas?" he asked. "If we find a barn, can you make a tree grow in it, too?"

"They don't grow there, they cut them down and bring them in," Dustfinger said. "And if you want to sleep around trees, sleep outside."

Undeterred by Dustfinger's sharp answers, Farid persisted in his questions, fascinated by the new knowledge he was gaining. "Why?" he asked again. "What's Christmas?"

Dustfinger sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "It's a holiday they have here in this world," he said. "Every year in December they decorate everything, and then one morning they give each other gifts. They call it Christmas."

"Can we have a Christmas, Dustfinger?"

Dustfinger turned around to glare at his apprentice. "No, but if you'd like to give me a gift, you can do it by not asking any more questions."

They had reached the edge of the town, which was nestled inside a shallow valley between the hills that shielded them from the wind. The snow had covered all the trees around the village in a beautiful white blanket, and Farid thought it was one of the loveliest sights he had ever seen. The snow came up to his ankles as they left the road, heading down a disused lane toward an old storage shed. It was locked, but Dustfinger's nimble fingers soon had it open, and they made themselves at home.

While Dustfinger lit a fire in the middle of the room, Farid glanced around. It was a two-room building that looked like once it might have been used to store snowplows or other machinery during the months that they weren't needed. A rusting plow sat in the corner, and there were ruts in the ground from where the machines used to be parked, but except for the rustle of a few pigeons in the eves, it had clearly not been used for a long time.

The fire was delightfully warm on Farid's face and hands as he knelt by it. Until his fingers began to warm up again, he didn't realize how cold they had been. They prickled as the heat soaked through them, and he sighed contentedly and looked at Dustfinger.

The fire-eater was sitting on the other side of the flames, gazing silently into them. Farid knew the look on his face, that look of longing and homesickness that came all too often when he sat staring into the fire too long. His felt his own light heart waver slightly at the sight of his friend and mentor looking so sad. "Dustfinger?" he said quietly. As they'd walked, an idea had begun to form in his mind, and the look on Dustfinger's face hardened his resolve. He could not bear that sadness in his friend's eyes.

The fire-eater merely grunted in reply, and Farid continued. "When's the day when people get up and give each other presents?"

Dustfinger sighed irritably. "I thought we were past those questions. I don't know, I think it's tomorrow."

Farid stretched out by the fire, staring into it. "I think it's a nice idea. Decorating everything so beautifully and giving each other gifts and bringing trees in your house. There was nothing like that in my world. Don't you think it's a lovely idea?"

"Yes, it's lovely," Dustfinger said sarcastically, "I'm sure they enjoy spending time with their families in their nice, warm houses. It's lovely that some people can enjoy being in the right world." His face immediately was covered by an all-too-familiar mask, and he pressed his lips tightly together as if scolding himself for having revealed too much of his emotions. When he spoke again, his husky voice was flat and quiet. "Why don't you see what we've got by way of supper. And see if there's any firewood behind the shed."

Farid did as Dustfinger bid him. There was a pile of fairly dry wood behind the shed underneath a tarp, which had probably been used by whichever farmer once owned the building. Farid carried in an armful of the logs, shuffling his feet through the snow and watching how it piled up on top of his toes.

Dustfinger had disappeared when he returned to the main room, but he figured the fire-eater wouldn't stray too far away while his fire was still lit. Farid deposited the logs against the wall near the fire then dug around in Dustfinger's backpack, looking for the smaller knapsack where they kept their food. All he came up with was a half-loaf of bread and some apples from the last village they had passed through. These he laid out on top of the now-empty sack as he waited for Dustfinger to return. Gwin gave the apples a distasteful look and slunk out of the shed.

As he waited, Farid peeked inside the money pouch, then after glancing around, he counted the coins. With the addition of the coins from that afternoon, he counted almost ninety. He frowned – he had excepted there to be more, but it didn't matter. There was still plenty to accomplish his plan. Hoping that Dustfinger hadn't counted them yet this afternoon, he slipped close to half of them into his pocket.

He ate one of the apples and put more wood on the fire, then went outside again. The light was just starting to fade over the treetops, and the snow had almost stopped falling. He bent down curiously and scooped a handful of it up, shivering as the cold, wet substance came in contact with his bare skin. He squeezed it, feeling it harden between his fingers, and then with a grin, he threw the snowball at a nearby tree. It exploded as it hit the trunk, leaving a white blotch on the brown bark and sending chunks of snow flying in every direction. Grinning, Farid reached down for another handful – this snow was much more fun than sand.

"I leave you half an hour and you're attacking trees." Farid whirled around to see Dustfinger standing a few paces away, his hands tucked inside his coat, and his face a little red from the cold. There was the faintest hint of a smile on his face. "You'd better not be throwing any of those things at Gwin."

Farid dropped his second snowball. "Of course not," he said indignantly. "Gwin's hunting."

"Hmm," Dustfinger answered, heading for the shed. "And what about you? What have you hunted down for us?"

Farid followed the fire-eater to the shed entrance. "There's only a little bread and some apples. I already ate one." He shifted from foot to foot. "Would you like me to go to the town to get more."

Dustfinger just looked at him for a few minutes. He couldn't tell what the fire-eater was thinking, but there was a flicker in his eyes. "All right," he said finally, "but don't be gone long. It'll be dark in another half hour."

It was all the prompting Farid needed. He dashed off toward the town before Dustfinger could change his mind, fingering the coins in his pocket. It wasn't just food that he had in his mind as he hurried toward the lights and colorful garlands of the village.

~o~o~

Dustfinger had been dreaming. He was searching desperately for something that he'd forgotten, and he knew he needed it, but for the life of him, he couldn't remember what it was. He only knew that the loss of it upset him terribly and he wished more than anything to find it. Everyone he asked for help turned away from him, and he felt panic and grief rise up thick in him as if it wanted to choke him. He was all alone, lost, and there was no one there to help him.

"Dustfinger?"

A quiet whisper broke through his panicked thoughts and choked back sobs. The scene around him faded, and his vision briefly went dark, but then he realized his eyes were open and he was gazing upwards at a low, wood ceiling. A dark face bobbed between him and the ceiling, and he stared at it confused a second or two, trying to shake off the remnants of the dream before reality came back to him. He sat up.

"What is it, Farid? Is there trouble?"

Farid was looking at him, a little concerned, but there was something dancing in the boy's eyes, bright and alive as fire. "You were dreaming again," the boy said as way of answer.

Dustfinger rubbed a hand across his brow, the memories coming back to him. "That I was…" he said quietly, remembering. Now that he was awake, it was not hard to understand the dream and the terrible sense of loss that still hung heavily on his chest. He almost wished Farid had let him sleep.

But the boy tugged gently on his sleeve. "I've got a surprise for you," he said, a grin starting to spread across his face. Dustfinger frowned. He was hardly in the mood for whatever "surprise" the boy had thought up. No doubt it was well-intentioned, but Dustfinger's heart had been heavy for the last several weeks, except for the minutes that he played with fire. This had always been a hard time of year for him in this world. For nine years, he had had to endure watching everyone else celebrating with their families and loved ones, knowing that his own chances of doing so were desperately slim. Christmas was not a good time to be alone.

But the boy was still tugging on his sleeve, and Dustfinger waved him away as he stretched and rubbed a hand in his bleary eyes. Then he looked around, and despite his reserve, his mouth dropped a little.

The dreary little shed had been transformed. There was a new fire lit in the center of the room that illuminated the space, and morning light was trickling in through cracks in the roof and through the partially open door. Several garlands of red and green had been strung artfully across the room, and a makeshift wreath with snow still clinging to its interwoven boughs was hanging on the door. A tiny evergreen tree, more of a bush than a tree, was standing beside them, barely taller than his head as he remained sitting. It was supported in a chipped flower pot that Dustfinger had noticed yesterday in the second shed room, but now it was filled with dirt with some snow sprinkled over the top. And underneath the tree were two boxes wrapped in colorful paper and tied with bows.

Farid squatted beside the tree, balancing on his toes, watching Dustfinger's reaction with a grin still fixed on his dark face. "What do you think?" he asked, a note of hope clear in his voice.

Dustfinger pushed his hair back from his brow, releasing his pent-up breath, before raising an eyebrow at the boy. "And where did all of this come from?"

"The village," Farid explained cheerfully. "I bought it yesterday evening and hid it outside. Then I found the tree and put it all up this morning while you were asleep."

Dustfinger shook his head, too surprised to really be annoyed yet, and before he could come up with a proper retort, Farid had snatched the larger of the two boxes from under the tree and set it in the fire-eater's lap. "I got you a gift, just like you said they do in the village this morning."

Dustfinger stared at the box in his lap. It had been crudely wrapped, and part of the box was sticking out, showing that the piece of paper hadn't quite been large enough for the box, but Farid was beaming so proudly that Dustfinger couldn't have commented on these facts. The boy crouched right beside him as he picked up the box and quickly stripped away the paper, then opened the package.

Inside was a simple object, a multicolored ball doubtlessly meant to be a child's toy. Gently, he lifted it, feeling that its weight was an almost perfect match to the eleven other balls that he kept in his backpack. There was nothing particularly special about it, but Dustfinger suddenly realized there were tears forming in his eyes. He lifted his hand and pressed it to his lips.

Farid rocked back and forth on his toes, his arms clasped around his knees, still grinning as if he had just received a marvelous gift. "Eleven balls are too easy for you," he said. "You'll have to learn twelve now. It'll keep you busy." He frowned just slightly. "I don't know if the colors will match your other ones, but red and green was almost all I could find. I hope it has the right balance. They all…"

He stopped talking as Dustfinger laid a hand on his arm. The fire-eater had to swallow once before he could talk, and when he did, he hoped Farid didn't notice the extra huskiness in it. "No, Farid, it'll be perfect."

The boy's dark eyes sparkled.

Dustfinger shifted awkwardly, then moved over to where he'd been sleeping. His coat was lying on the ground by the fire, and he carefully lifted it, revealing a folded object underneath. He picked it up and scooted back over to the tree and laid it down. "I don't know if it counts, and it's not wrapped, but if you'd like to call it a gift, you can," he said quietly, still not trusting his voice.

Farid eagerly picked it up, and a smile crossed his face as it unfolded, revealing a long coat similar in style to the one Dustfinger wore, though smaller. Dustfinger folded his arms and couldn't help letting a smile tug at his lips as Farid put the coat on, smoothing out the wrinkles and attempting to look down at himself. "It's just like yours," he said delightedly, and then he paused as he ran his hand over the breast pocket. His expression changed to surprise as he pulled out the small cardboard box that Dustfinger had stowed there the previous evening. His hands were trembling a little as he slid it open.

Dustfinger let his smile broaden. "There, now there's no need for you to go filching my matches every time you want a fire."

Without warning, Farid suddenly hugged Dustfinger, taking the fire-eater's breath away. Awkwardly, Dustfinger patted his back and then withdrew, scratching his chin with embarrassment. "Thank you," Farid said, grinning.

"Yes, yes, thank you," Dustfinger murmured.

He glanced back at the makeshift Christmas tree. "And what about your other package? I assume it's not for the pigeons."

Farid picked it up and gave Dustfinger a mischievous look. "Of course not. Doesn't Gwin deserve a gift, too."

"That's debatable," Dustfinger said, though he couldn't help smiling as he watched Farid unwrap the gift as Gwin looked on curiously. Farid opened the box, revealing a large slice of turkey meat. "You won't have to hunt this morning, Gwin," he said, laying the meat out before the marten.

Gwin sniffed the meat, then greedily began gnawing on it. He looked up at the two humans watching him and stifling their laughs, chattered at them, then began dragging the meat away to eat it in a more private space.

Dustfinger shook his head as he watched his marten vanish through a crack in the wall. "Merry Christmas to you too, Gwin," he muttered, before looking back at Farid. The boy was attempting to twirl his box of matches the way Dustfinger did it, but he looked up and smiled as the fire-eater glanced at him.

"I like Christmas," he said, before the box of matches escaped his hand and went skipping away over the floor.

Dustfinger watched him chase it and shook his head again. The fire was warm behind him, and a warmth had blossomed in his heart as well. "Who would have thought it?" he murmured to himself. "It appears I do as well."