Percival sat on the floor in front of the fireplace in the living room, his long legs extended out in front of him, tapping at the laptop perched on his knees. A sudden, fierce blast of Maine’s bitter-cold winter winds rattled the window panes.
“Give me just one sec to open this spreadsheet, guys.”
Even though it was finals season at the University of Maine, a stressful time of year, Percival was determined to wrap up plans for the annual holiday party. Today.
It was hard to believe he and his four best friends – also his roommates – would be graduating in a mere five months. They’d been lucky to get their hands on this fantastic off-campus rental during their sophomore year. It was a five-bedroom renovated farmhouse, spacious, boasting a massive fireplace in the living room, and exposed beam ceilings throughout. The home sat on four acres of pristine wooded property, with a quaint, whitewashed brick guest cottage situated within sight of the main house.
They rented the home from Mr. Gaius, an elderly man who told them he could no longer take care of the acreage and houses, and said, “If you five nice young men move in here and promise to take care of the homestead, I’d be happy to rent it to you for a reasonable cost.”
Mr. Gaius quoted a price that was a fraction of other rents in the area, and the friends jumped on it. A week after signing the rental lease, Percival, Gwaine, Leon, Merlin, and Arthur moved in. A few weeks after that, a trio of other university students – Gwen, Mithian, and Freya – moved into the guest cottage. They’d all become fast friends, and by springtime, Arthur was dating Gwen and Merlin was dating Freya, and they were like one, big, happy family.
Gwaine, Percival’s closest friend and the most boisterous of the bunch, rose from the well-worn, overstuffed couch and cupped his hands around his mouth.
“Hear ye, hear ye!” Gwaine bellowed, shaking his shaggy, dark hair out of his face. “I henceforth call to order the annual Holiday Shindig Planning Meeting, one where we shall argue, groan, complain, and behave in tragically un-festive ways…”
“Gwaine…” Percival glared at his friend with narrowed eyes. “Can we cut the theatrics? I want everything planned and decided today. This is our last year together and it needs to be special; pizza and beer in front of the fire won’t cut it. I want this year to be the best ever.”
Gwaine scoffed but took a seat. “Asking a theater major to not be theatrical is like asking him to stop breathing,” he muttered.
“Gwaine, we still love you,” Leon chimed in, always the voice of reason. “But don’t stress-out Percival. Finals are coming, we don’t have a lot of time to plan, and we’re all on edge.”
“I agree with Percival,” Arthur said. “We need to do something big. We’re lucky we’ve been able to rent this great house with lots of space. Let’s make the party a good one.”
Percival appreciated Arthur’s support. Arthur had become the de facto head of the household, partially because no one else wanted the job, and partially because he was organized and had no problem ordering people around. But since Arthur handled the boring tasks like coordinating bill payments and making household chore schedules, the men rarely got angry when Arthur became overbearing, which happened sometimes.
Yet while Arthur was in charge, each of the men possessed skills that kept the house running smoothly. Percival and Leon were good at conflict resolution (often needed in a home with five college-age men), cleaning, and repairs. Merlin kept the place stocked with groceries and did most of the cooking, making sure they subsisted on more than Ramen noodles and microwave macaroni and cheese. Gwaine managed their social calendar, and oddly, he loved splitting wood for the fireplace. Shirtless. Even if it was freezing out. Again, a little theatrical.
When it came to yard work, they all pitched in, and they’d settled into an easy, enjoyable rhythm of caring for their house. Percival would be sad to leave this place, a home where he’d felt so comfortable for the past two years. He and the men had become more than friends; they were brothers.
And they’d seen each other through difficult times. Some hardships had been minor, like dating disappointments, and when Gwaine had failed calculus. Other situations had been much more trying, such as when Arthur’s father died, and then there had been Leon’s near-fatal car wreck last winter.
Percival would never forget that night in the hospital a year ago, as they and the girls all stood around in a cramped, worn waiting room, terrified, waiting to hear the news from the surgeon if Leon was going to make it or not. The doors to the waiting area swished open, and all they heard from the doctor’s mouth was: “He made it through…”
That’s all they needed to know; they broke down into tears and huddled into a weepy hug. Leon was left with a serious limp from the accident, one that would remain with him always, but everyone was just thrilled he was still alive. Life without Leon was unthinkable.
Percival’s chest tightened with emotion at that memory, but he cleared his throat, forcing himself to focus on the spreadsheet before him. It was time to get down to business.
“I think we should talk about the menu first, then decorations and music,” Percival offered. “I want to make sure everyone’s happy with what we’re doing, because I realize we come from different backgrounds. I don’t want anyone to feel slighted. Just because Arthur and I are Christian doesn’t mean our preferences are the most important, not by a longshot.”
“Speaking as the resident atheist, as long as there’s food, booze, and music at this party, I’m fine with it,” Gwaine said. “But I demand Leon’s mother’s latkes. As long as we have that onion-ish, potato-ey fried goodness, all will be right with the world.”
“Wait, I thought you said you were agnostic now,” Leon said, shaking his mop of curly, light-brown hair. “Or a non-theist? I can’t keep up with you. And yes, my mom would be happy to make a thousand latkes for us. It’s every Jewish mother’s dream to feed people, believe me.”
Gwaine grinned at Leon. “Can I text her and ask if she’ll do it?”
“Yes,” Leon replied, giving Gwaine a playful shove.
“You know, your mom’s kind of young and hot,” Gwaine said.
Leon pulled a face of disgust. “Yeah. Great. Too bad she’s married to my father…”
“Back on track, boys,” Arthur demanded.
Percival typed furiously. “All right, latkes. What else? Merlin? You’re our Pagan. You always come up with cool ideas for food and decorations.”
“Do we have to eat venison or raw turkey or anything weird like that?” Gwaine asked. “Because I’m not really into those things.”
Merlin, who sat right next to Gwaine on the couch, threw his hands into the air. “Have I ever tried to make you eat those things? I was going to suggest quiche, crescent cookies, and hot buttered rum, but if those sound too ‘weird’ for you, you don’t have to indulge.”
Gwaine wrapped his arms around Merlin’s skinny frame and planted a loud, wet kiss on his cheek. “That’s crazy-talk! I want hot buttered rum! Have I told you lately that I love you, Merlin?”
“And back to planning…” Arthur insisted with an eye roll.
Within the hour, the spreadsheet was full and planning was complete. From food to decorations to entertainment, they had a solid outline. The party would take place in just over a week, the night finals were over, right before everyone traveled home for the holidays.
As they wrapped up the meeting, Gwaine announced, “I think as part of the entertainment, we should have Percival bench press the Yule log. Come on, Percival, don’t you want to show off those pretty muscles?”
Percival saved his work, closed the laptop, then tackled Gwaine on the couch. “Let me show you my muscles,” Percival said, pretending to punch at Gwaine’s head, but stopping short.
“Violence!” Gwaine shouted, laughing. “Extreme holiday violence!”
Percival hopped up and helped Gwaine to his feet. When Percival considered the fact that these days of fun and camaraderie would end sooner than later, his heart grew heavy.
They needed this one final holiday bash, all of them.