all a very
All Charles Heppel wanted for Christmas was a hard-on and his husband. Or a hard-on and his almost husband, to be accurate, wedding plans on hold while Hugo was busy. He hadn't had time to draw breath for months now. Wouldn't until well after Christmas. Until then, ships passing in the night saw more horizontal action.
“Can the honeymoon period really be over if we haven’t tied the knot yet?” he asked when Hugo backed into their bedroom before six in the morning, his shoulders still beaded from a quick shower.
Hugo set down a laden tea tray on the bedside table, then slid back under the sheets for a last cuddle before another long day started for him. “Honeymoon period?" he asked. "What do you mean, Charles?”
His damp skin prompted goosebumps, but Charles pulled him closer. Held him. Didn’t want to let go, so he clasped him tighter. “Ugh. It’s nothing,” he said into the crook of Hugo’s neck and shoulder. “Ignore me.”
“Never,” Hugo promised, a single word full of conviction. “Now, tell me why you’ve woken up so woeful. You had such a good week. Your Nativity play was a triumph. Unique. Who knew there were as many crabs as sheep to witness our Lord and Saviour’s joyous birth? Or such colourful angels with rainbow feathers in their wings? All of your maggots will remember that you joined them on stage when they were nervous, even if your halo kept slipping. Now they’re off for a well-earned Christmas break and so are you.”
He paused, his gaze searching.
“Is that why you’ve woken up so sad, Charles? Because you could have slept in, and now you regret leaving that note asking me to wake you before my early service?”
“No.” How could Charles regret waking up to company after falling asleep alone, like he had all week long, Hugo sent to Advent services in far-flung chapels all the way across the county? Charles soaked up the sight of gentle concern, a reflection he knew he mirrored. “It’s always good to see you. I don’t get enough time with you lately.”
“Well, I can spare you another five minutes.” Hugo reached for his tea, taking a quick sip. “Will that be long enough to tell me why our honeymoon period is over?”
Charles kept his complaint short by showing instead of telling.
He pushed back the sheets and prodded his bare cock, which lay against his thigh, still asleep instead of upstanding. “Look at it.”
Hugo did look, eyebrows raised as if to ask, “And?”
Charles prodded it again, saying, “I think it’s broken,” just as Hugo took a bite of shortbread.
He snorted, icing sugar hanging in the air before falling as the snow did outside their bedroom window, rendering Glynn Harber Christmas-card perfect. “There’s nothing wrong with your penis,” Hugo finally got out once he’d stopped coughing. “It looks fine if a little dusty.” He brushed away some fallen sugar. “Sorry about that.”
“I’ve had worse things in my pubes.” Charles grabbed Hugo’s hand, guiding it where he most wanted. “You missed a bit.” He tilted his head, watching a still sleepy part of himself start to perk up. “Maybe you could try blowing instead of brushing.” He met a warm gaze that twinkled, and whether Charles had woken with their recent lack of time together on his mind or not, wasn’t this his favourite version of Hugo to have in bed beside him?
Smiling and sleep creased, Hugo was so gorgeous Charles could look at him forever, but Hugo had obligations. So many of them, yet another task on his long Christmas list about to pull him from their bed soon.
“You know what they say about patience, Charles.”
“That it’s overrated?”
“No,” Hugo said, somehow looking both pious and deeply sexy. “That it’s a virtue.”
“I shouldn’t need patience.” Charles slumped against their pillows as Hugo rolled out of bed to get dressed. “I should be having morning sex loud enough to wake the wood pigeons and vigorous enough to knock the icicles off the gutters.” He huffed, only half-joking. “If this dry spell keeps up, Santa might gift me back my virginity for Christmas.”
“Charles,” Hugo said, reproving, but he leant over the bed, dropping a rough kiss on a shoulder he next covered with their duvet, tucking him in with care. “I’m not convinced that’s how virginity works. Besides, it hasn’t been that long.”
He backed off and buttoned his shirt, next reaching for his clerical collar. “It’s just that Advent is a busy time of year for us God-botherers. Particularly trainee ones like me. Lots of late nights and early morning services that no one else can be spared for. Or wants to drive to the middle of the moor to get to. Combine that with the end of the school term and all the extra work with Nativity plays and whatnot and it’s no surprise that both of us are…”
“That we’re what?”
“Preoccupied? Trying to cram in so much more work than usual? Not even getting up early helps with that, does it?” Hugo wasn’t wrong about the earliness of the hour—it was still dark outside their converted stable, no light creeping past their bedroom curtains. “Plus me starting over on the ordination track means saying yes to every request. I’ve got a lot of good books to get back into, so that means helping at as many extra services in the diocese as I can fit in around being the school padre. Maybe consider this advance warning before you commit, long-term.”
“Before I commit?” Charles sat up hugging the bedding to him. “I’m not sure being more committed to you is humanly possible.” If it was up to him, they’d be married already, only Hugo had enough on his plate with his double workload, so Charles kept his lip buttoned.
Maybe Hugo noticed. He stopped fiddling with his collar, dropping to sit on the edge of the bed beside Charles, contrition as stark as the scar slicing his face. Charles never usually noticed it. Now that old injury tightened. Whitened. Drew attention to a sober expression.
“I absolutely didn’t mean to suggest you weren’t committed,” Hugo promised. “I meant that this time of year will always be busy. Additionally so, while I still have so much to prove to the Bishop. Forgive me?” His kiss was soft. Closed-mouthed. Sorry.
Hugo kissed him again before Charles could ask what someone so good could possibly have to prove. He also stole a glance at his watch, commitments still waiting for him. “Go,” Charles ordered. “Before you’re late. I’m fine. Just being silly.”
Perhaps Hugo heard a thickening to his voice Charles hadn't managed to stifle. He said, “Listen to me, will you?”
Charles nodded because speaking again would be a mistake, his throat tightening even though he told himself to get it together.
Again, Hugo noticed. “I can see you clenching your jaw, but there’s nothing silly about you. Nothing, do you hear me?”
Hugo let out a sigh. “You’re sad.”
This time, Charles nodded again. Couldn't ever lie, not while Hugo watched him, those caring eyes of his so wide and honest. “I shouldn’t be,” Charles confessed. “I know, I shouldn’t. Not when it’s a happy time of year for you.” And it was, every sermon he’d heard Hugo practice full of joy at getting to share the true Christmas message. “I just… I really miss you.”
Hugo watched him for a long moment, face as still as Casterley’s lake during a cold snap, frozen. “We have been like ships that pass in the night for the last few weeks,” he eventually said, unfastening his shirt buttons.
“What are you doing?”
Hugo stood to shove down his boxers. “Getting back into bed.”
“But you’ll be late.”
“For an early morning service in one of Cornwall’s most isolated chapels that’s inconveniently in the middle of nowhere. If I’m lucky, three souls might attend this morning, and that’s including me and the two sheep I found last time sheltering in the doorway. It will probably be the same again for evening prayer tonight. So being a few minutes late won’t matter.”
“Wait. No one comes to your services?”
“It’s not exactly a surprise, Charles. Fewer than five per cent of the population attend church for regular Sunday services. Expect people to get out of warm beds on a Saturday to go to early morning prayers when it’s still dark and snowing? Or leave their cosy homes in the evening, and miss an episode of Strictly?” He shook his head. “Middle of the moor, remember? I’m not trusted yet with the busier Advent services in town, or to help the bishop with the bigger ones in the Cathedral, not after…”
“Not after what?”
Hugo slid back into bed, naked, his hands cool compared to the warm skin he found beneath the duvet. He gathered Charles close so they pressed together, facing each other. “Not after I wavered last year. Hesitated. Pressed pause on the ordination process. Asked some difficult questions instead of having faith in the process. I’m not blamed for that,” he hurried to add. “The bishop just doesn’t want me to feel pressured. He knows like I do that even if no one comes along to join in, the prayers are still important. Are still heard. Will always be worth making. I don’t blame him for not rushing my progress. For giving me small tasks instead of bigger ones like the main family services.”
Only months of close proximity let Charles read the slight shift in his expression. “You mean like the Christingle service you held for my maggots?” That had been sheer joy-filled manic magic. “You sang all the wrong words to Jingle Bells with them.”
“Who cares about the right words?” Hugo said. “Maybe Tor was right and BatMan does smell.” Charles felt the light press of a fingertip over his heart, Hugo tracing a cross as if marking where he’d found treasure. “It’s hearing the right message that matters. The reason for the season. And I’ve heard that one loud and clear this morning.”
“Yes. Which means I need to say aloud what I hold inside every moment of every day. You’re my reason, Charles,” Hugo said, plain and simple. “Not just for the season. For every minute we’re here on earth together. For every moment after that as well, God willing.”
His gaze was a magnet Charles couldn't pull away from. Didn’t want to. Let it draw him closer, nodding as Hugo said, “Did you know that even when I’ve been alone on all these early mornings and late evenings, it’s you I think about every time I light a candle?” A similar light in his eyes flickered, warm and loving. “You are the light of my whole life, Charles.”
“You.” Hugo kissed him, his mouth soft, his voice a brush of velvet. “I count my blessings every time I wake up beside you even if I have to leave while you’re still sleeping.” His mouth connected one more time, finding that spot below his ear that made Charles melt before saying, “I count even more blessings every time I get to see you do what you were made for in the outdoor classroom.”
He inched nearer, offering a bicep as a pillow, his other arm coming around Charles to bring him closer, chest-to-chest, nothing left between them. “And I add a few more blessings to the list every time I get to lay my head on the pillow next to you, already asleep by the time I get home.” From this close, Charles couldn’t mistake his conviction, hearing it too as Hugo said, “You're my confirmation.”
“Of love.” His lips were a light press, there and gone in an instant. “Of hope.” Hugo touched their foreheads together. “Of faith. That’s why if no one comes to my services, it’s you I picture listening to every word.”
“Even though I’m not religious?”
“Especially because you're not religious. You’d still listen, wouldn't you?”
Charles kissed him back instead of answering. Kissed him again to stop Hugo from continuing, not sure he could take honesty so raw he couldn't discount it— had to believe it—his mouth opening to the taste of tea and the sweetness of shortbread and sugar.
For long, slow minutes that Hugo surely shouldn’t have spared for this—for him—for reconnecting on a physical level, they embraced, each moment reconfirming that Charles was loved and treasured by this man he worshipped.
Charles gave him back the same emotions he hoped, deepening their kiss, their tongues meeting as his hands mapped a man who was his home and shelter. His rock and his reason. Everything that mattered.
Hugo touched Charles too—his jaw, his hip, the hardening length of his cock between them—a smile in his voice. “And lo. A Christmas miracle,” he teased, stuttering to a stop when Charles found him hardening too, and encouraged that progress, wrapping his hand around Hugo as he thickened, lengthened, grew weighty. His thumb found a thick vein and satiny skin stretching over his crown that Charles helped ease back, caressing the frenulum to hear Hugo stutter all over again.
“T-that’s so good.”
Hugo was good too, Charles thought while burrowing under the duvet to mouth what he’d just touched with his fingers. Too good to pray all alone with no one there to listen.
He’s so good to me.
Always makes me feel like I matter.
Someone should do the same for him.
He held Hugo's cock, kissing the head, tip of his tongue finding the slit and gently probing in the way that always prompted Hugo to gasp. Charles stroked him once, twice, before taking the head into his mouth to suck it. To love it. To take his time until Hugo shuddered. Then he moved back, a strand of saliva glistening, stretching, only breaking as Hugo pulled him up the bed to roll him over.
They were aligned, Hugo braced above him on his elbows, Charles wrapping his arms around him. His legs too, wishing he still had the angel wings he’d worn that week to wrap him in as well. He grasped Hugo as close as he could get him, connected at heart and hips and lips, kissing like they had all the time in the world for each other, not only a few minutes.
Hugo was hard against him, hips rolling, and Charles moved with him like the tide did against the shore, starting gently with small ripples rather than steep waves, building to more forceful surges. Charles panted against Hugo's shoulder, hands roaming until he clutched Hugo's buttocks and pushed up. They ground against each other, seeking friction, and sensation spiralled, climbing until Hugo rolled off to stroke him.
Charles came in pearly pulses, relief arching his back, his breath heaving.
Hugo didn't let go right away. He held him until he shivered, the sensation overwhelming and only then released him as if he’d missed this physical contact as much as Charles had, reluctant to break this reconnection.
Charles caught his breath, blinking at the sight of Hugo watching, that still face of his showing so much emotion that Charles could hardly contain it. Couldn’t keep from lavishing what they hadn’t had time for lately on him, moving down the bed again to suck him again.
Hugo’s cock filled his mouth, his throat, filled his eyes with tears too. Charles blinked them back, looking up as Hugo got up on one elbow and noticed, brushing a stray tear away, his cheeks and chest flushed, his own eyes shining.
This is my version of worship.
I hope he knows that.
Charles bobbed his head, Hugo’s shaft wet and slick from his mouth, heavy balls drawn up, his breaths hitching and catching, Charles hearing his name over and over before Hugo went rigid, almost there, but not quite, until Charles found the furl of where he’d open and touched it. Tapped it. Pressed in just a little.
Hugo might be late to his service, but at least he left Charles smiling.
Charles caught a lift into town with Luke later that morning, saying goodbye to the last of the boarding students at the station before tagging along with him to a Christmas market in the Cathedral close.
Luke pointed to a bench between market stalls. “Meet you back here at noon?” He pulled his phone from his pocket, scrolling through a to-do list. “My shopping shouldn’t take too long. Just need to get a last few presents.”
“Who for? Nathan?” Charles aimed for teasing, sure he’d missed the mark when Luke froze. “Sorry,” Charles quickly offered. “It’s just that Hugo hoped…”
“That Nathan and I would get back together?” Luke shook his head, and Charles was reminded of how wrong his first impression of his headmaster had been. There wasn’t anything stern in the fragile smile he spared Charles. “We might have done once,” he admitted. “I almost thought we could have... Too much water under the bridge now though. We missed our moment.”
Luke shrugged. Nodded. Shrugged again, saying a lot without speaking, and something at the core of Charles ached for what went unspoken.
“Do you think he’ll be back for Christmas?”
“You’d have to ask your other half,” Luke said. “Nathan and I don’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to communicating. Or for getting together at this time of year.”
That fragility suddenly seemed like thin ice Charles might break if he pressed any harder. “Sorry,” he said, treading lightly. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No problem. There’s nothing to pry about, I promise.” Luke’s smile warmed. “Anyway, I’m too busy for a love life, even if you and Hugo make it seem appealing.”
“We do?” Charles would have preened, if he'd had feathers.
“You do, so don’t stop whatever it is you’re doing to make him so happy,” Luke said. “See you at noon.”
Charles strolled between market stalls for the next half hour, Luke’s comment almost as affirming as Hugo had been in bed that morning. He staved off the chill with an extra-large cup of mulled wine, full of goodwill to all men as he sipped, apart from the bishop, he decided, his eyes narrowing, who should know Hugo was one in a million, shouldn’t he?
One cup of mulled wine turned into two, Charles almost certain he should knock on the cathedral door and tell him. A third cup confirmed it, Charles composing what he’d say to the bishop as he weaved between shoppers to go ahead and do so.
He’s the most trustworthy man on the planet.
You should let more people hear him.
Give him the biggest church to preach in not the smallest.
The day was crisp and clear, the sun so bright it dazzled him. Must have dazzled another shopper too. They bumped into each other, both apologising.
“Oh, no!” an older man said. “I’ve made you spill your drink. Let me get you another.” Charles spied that his ungloved hands shook, his head bare too, despite it being so chilly.
“Only if you’ll join me.”
The older man’s breath plumed like a dragon’s. “Me?” He had a nice smile, Charles thought, reminding him of Hugo’s, much warmer than the shade they stood in. It soon faded, the man patting his pockets. “Blast. The stalls only take cash.” He shoved a parcel under his arm. “I don’t have any. I was just on my way to the post office.”
“To collect your pension? Then you’ll have to owe me.” Charles steered the way to the mulled wine stall. Or was steered he realised the second time the man beside him course-corrected, a guiding hand on his elbow. “I’m a bit tiddly,” Charles confided on the way back to the bench that, thankfully, was in full sunshine. “Building up some liquid courage before telling the bishop how to do his job much better.”
His drinking partner spluttered around a mouthful as Charles set down his bags of shopping, sloshing wine on the ground while rummaging deep inside one. “Ta-da!” He shook out a patchwork blanket in the same shades of the angel’s wings Hugo had remembered. “I bought this for my boyfriend,” he confided. “Thought it could go on the back of the sofa. Save him from grabbing his bible each time my boss barges in on us doing some role-play.”
“To cover his hard-on,” Charles said, nodding, more wine sloshing. “Luckily it’s a very big book. Sit.” He did too, covering both of their laps. “There. That’s much cosier.”
“Could use a scarf?” Charles rummaged again, smiling as he pulled out one of a pair he’d intended for matching stocking fillers.
His drinking partner read what was embroidered on it. “‘I’m a ho ho ho for my boyfriend’?”
“I really am.” Charles cackled. “Although he’s actually my fiance, not my boyfriend. Wait until you see the hat. Hugo’s going to love it.” Once he’d smoothed it over hair so white it rivalled the snow, he had to blink a few times before the writing came into focus. “Ask to see my north pole.” He cackled again. “I’m going to ask to see his pole every single time he wears it. And do you know what the best thing is about Hugo?”
He continued without waiting for an answer, remembering Hugo making the time for him before dawn that morning.
“If I ask, he’ll do it. Do anything for me. For anyone, to be honest. He’s got the hugest heart.” He lowered his voice and confided, “Almost as big as his north pole.” Then he beamed. “You do look much warmer now. All rosy-cheeked, like my maggots.”
As if summoned, a little voice rang out. “Charles Heppel!”
Charles gave up on his wine, passing his cup over so he could catch a double armful of Tor Trelawney, who spoke so fast everything came out sounding like one sentence.
“What are you doing here? I’m getting a hotdog. Is this your grandad? Why do you both smell funny?”
“Tor!” His mother jogged up. “Sorry,” she said, trying to peel her son away. “It’s the first day of Mr Heppel’s Christmas holiday,” she told him. “I’m sure he wants a break from you.”
“Oh, no.” Charles shook his head so robustly he had to clutch his benchmate’s knee to stay upright, the world spinning. “I’d rather see more of him. More of all of the children, to be honest, at the chapel on the moor tonight to be specific.” He patted the knee he’d gripped, turning to confide some more. “Did you know that vicars still do services even if no one comes to listen? That’s what my fiance did this morning, and will do tonight as well. Has done for weeks now. Be all on his own with no one to listen.”
Tor’s mum lured him away with his promised hotdog, and Charles drew himself up, spine straightening. “I’ll go with him.”
“To get a hotdog?” the man beside him asked. “Might help to soak up some of the wine–”
“No, to the chapel on the moor, even if I’m not exactly a believer. In God, I mean. I do believe in Hugo though. He’s so kind, it’s impossible not to. Brave too. Still went out to Syria again to rescue children even after he was shelled. He’s just as committed in his role as a padre where we work. You should see him in action. He isn’t only great with children. All kinds of people love him.” A thought struck him. “Bear with me for a moment…” He pulled out his phone, dialling and putting it on speaker so he could take back his mulled wine. He took a quick swig. “Keir!” he said as if surprised to hear his best friend answer. “I really love you.”
“You too, drunkie," Keir said. "Long time no hear. Do you need someone to pour you into a car to bring you home? It’s been ages since I had that honour.” Charles could almost see the smile in Keir’s voice turn into a frown. “Hang on. Where’s Hugo?”
“That’s why I’m calling. Keir, his bloody boss doesn’t trust him.”
“Luke doesn’t? Are you sure?”
“No. His other one.”
“You mean God?” Keir’s voice echoed. “How does Hugo know? Is he having visions like Moses?”
“No, and his bush isn’t on fire either,” Charles cackled for a third time before turning serious. “I mean the bloody bishop. He’s sending my lovely man out at the crack of dawn and last thing at night to the back of beyond because he had one tiny little wobble.”
“Hey,” the man beside Charles said.
“Bear with,” Charles repeated. “Sorry, but I can only hold one train of thought at a time. Dyslexic.” He returned to his phone call. “Keir, he had one little wobble, and that wasn’t even about God. It was about getting married. Or feeling like he couldn't. And then he met me and everything came right. For me. For him. He makes me so bloody happy.” His eyes welled out of nowhere. He dabbed at them with the edge of his shared patchwork blanket. “I really love him, Keir, and I want him to be happy, but how can he be if he’s praying all alone with no one to listen?” He sniffed. “I think I’m a bit tipsy.”
“No. Say it isn’t so.” Keir let out a long-suffering sigh. “You forget I was around when you had a shagging marathon with that red-wine guy. I’m amazed your liver didn’t give up the ghost after that weekend you two fucked through. You demolished an entire case of my wedding Chateau Neuf, remember? And what was it he gave you?”
“Crabs?” Charles guessed, squinting.
“No, the aftershave that gives Mitch a perpetual hard-on. I keep meaning to thank you for re-gifting it to me.”
“Fucking Fabulous,” Charles remembered, turning to the side to say, “Tom Ford.”
“No, I’m not Tom Ford. I’m–”
“Bear with.” Charles drew in a crisp, cold breath and asked for what he needed. “I’m more than a bit tipsy, Keir, so will you take me to support Hugo later tonight.”
“Tonight? Sorry, Charles. It’s the Haven Christmas party.”
“Ah, never mind.” A familiar stern face approached. “I’ll ask Luke.” He added a quick, “Love you loads. Give Mitch a kiss for me,” before ending the call and standing. The blanket came with him. “Sorry, I need to take this. But why don’t you keep the hat and scarf? It is terribly cold.” He stuffed the blanket back into his bag, but stopped before leaving, because the man he’d sat with had grabbed his free hand.
“Listen,” he said, kind eyes fixed on Charles. “One thing before you go. Are you listening?”
Charles nodded, his world tilting before he steadied. He nodded again as his benchmate said, “Your Hugo isn’t ever praying alone. It doesn’t matter if no one attends his services. Someone’s always listening. I promise.”
“That’s what Hugo says too.” Charles backed away. “But I’m still going to support him, even if I have to walk there. Middle of the fucking moor,” he muttered. “Lucky I know how to use a compass. Shouldn’t take me long to find him. You have a merry Christmas.”
Charles fell asleep in the minibus on the way home, waking up with his head against Luke’s shoulder, still just as determined.
Come sunset, Charles felt almost entirely sober.
Even so, he left the keys to the Defender in the stables, setting off on foot to get to Hugo. “Better safe than sorry,” he told himself while pulling on a hat that had been part of a matching pair until he’d visited the Christmas market and given one away to a stranger. “I’ll be fine as long as I’m all bundled up,” he told himself as he knotted his scarf. Even so, a nagging worry followed him out of the front door.
“And I won’t be too late,” he muttered, snow crunching underfoot. “Not if I take the path through the woods to the edge of the moor. That should definitely shave some time off. Then it’s a straight line between High Tor and the quarry. And if it snows too hard to see, I can always use the compass app on my phone like last time.” He checked his battery level. “Oh. Not much charge left.” He paused, hesitating before marching onward. “I’ll just have to walk a lot faster.”
He didn’t get far.
Snow fell in fat flakes through bare tree branches. Charles walked with his head down, only looking up when streaks of jewel-bright colours crossed the snowy path ahead of him. Light flooded through the stained glass windows of the school chapel.
“Who can be in there?” He went to look, cracking the door open to find Luke with Ruth and Mark, the houseparents, gathering the song sheets used for the Christingle. “What are you doing? Having a tidy up for Hugo?” Honestly, their friends were the absolute best. His heart swelled at them taking the time to lighten his man’s load. “Let me help.”
“You can carry these.” Luke loaded him up with hymn books, Charles following as they all trudged back to the school building.
Worry tagged along too, Charles looking back over his shoulder to the woods, which whited out as more snow fell. Luke dragged back his attention. “This way.” He led them to the car park, sliding open the minibus door before getting into the driver’s seat. “Get in and pop those in the box in the back.” He started the engine.
“Oh, are you going anywhere near the moor? If so, can I catch a lift with you?”
Luke glanced over his shoulder. “Of course, why do you think…”
That stern look of his softened. Melted. Warmed, and goodness Luke was almost as handsome as Hugo when he smiled.
Luke’s voice was as soft as his expression. “Don’t you remember what we talked about on the way back from the market?”
“We talked?” Charles shook his head. “No, but I did have a lovely nap on your shoulder.”
“Get in,” Luke said again, more gently this time.
They drove, the snow still falling but lighter when Luke next stopped, this time at the Haven.
Mitch slid the side door open, calling over his shoulder. “All aboard the party bus!” He hefted a tote full of food and bottles.
Charles took it from him. “Hang on, I thought your Christmas party was here tonight?”
Keir answered for him, shepherding the last few residents inside and helping to fasten their seatbelts. “Nope. We’re bringing the party with us.” He straightened a woman’s tinsel halo. “Isn’t that right, Mary?”
They drove again, snow swirling, but pretty now instead of a hindrance, the moor’s stark lines softened, granite giants asleep under thick, white blankets.
“I love it here,” Charles said unprompted.
His seatmate nodded, joining in with sharing. “Love Pringles more.”
Charles munched, the minibus crowded, windows steaming up with happy chatter. Keir caught his eye, smiling, Mitch’s arm around his shoulder, and Charles wasn’t sure it was possible to be so happy. Only one thing could make it better.
One of those wishes was granted, all of his maggots waiting in the next spot where Luke stopped, parking the minibus in the shadow of a building. They ran to Charles once he got out, little arms reaching for him. He hefted Maisie Dymond up onto his hip, snowflakes dusting her curls. “What are you all doing here?”
“Tor’s mummy phoned my daddy. Phoned all of the mummies and daddies. We’re here to sing!” And she did, the chorus of Jingle Bells picked up by Tor and the others. Their parents too, the sound of all the wrong words carrying as loud and clear as bells ringing.
The doors to the building behind them opened, candlelight working its magic because if Hugo’s face was marred by a scar, Charles couldn’t see it.
Only surprise registered.
And joy, as his congregation for the evening streamed inside the building, bringing Christmas spirit with them, leaving Hugo and Charles alone in the doorway of a chapel that had been empty until their arrival.
Hugo caught Charles by the elbows before he could follow them inside. He studied him, gaze searching, eyes full of emotion, his voice a lovely, low rumble. “Ask to see my north pole?”
“Oh!” Charles touched his hat. He pulled it off, his hair flopping forward. Hugo pushed it back from his eyes, his fingers gentle. “Sorry,” Charles said. “Not very holy, is it? But after my last attempt at walking across the moor on my own, I thought I’d better dress for the weather, this time.”
Hugo’s hold on him tightened. “You walked here? From Glynn Harber?”
“No. But I would have done if that meant you weren’t all on your own.”
“Thank you. That means so much to me.” Then Hugo said something Charles had heard once today already. “I wasn’t alone—”
“That’s what I suggested,” someone said from behind them.
Hugo blinked, his hold on Charles loosening, and they parted. “Bishop…”
The candles lit kind eyes, white hair barely contained by a twin hat to the one Charles clutched. “It sounds like you have a full house, Hugo. Thought you might need someone to act as your verger.” He slipped between them, going inside, only turning back to say, “Thank you for today, Charles. Hugo, let’s talk about your next steps once you’re finished.” He pulled the door closed behind him, shutting out the sound of singing, leaving them in darkness.
Charles didn’t need candlelight to know what he'd glimpsed before the door shut. He felt the same devotion. Would have walked a hundred miles to be here, with or without the people inside the chapel, who were a testament to how much Hugo meant to them as well.
“l love you,” Charles told him. It was his truth, now and forever. “Let’s get married really soon instead of waiting for the perfect moment.”
Hugo kissed him.
Pressed his face against his throat, his eyelashes damp when he pulled back.
Snow fell, children sang, and Hugo nodded his answer.
Happy holidays to all who celebrate, and a huge thank you to you all.
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Next up is Luke's story, my favourite so far!