Gather Near to Us
by Lorelei Jones
Written for Sonneta for the 2007 Yuletide Rare Fandom Holiday Fic Exchange. Much thanks to Eliza and Elke for betaing. Title and summary taken from the Christmas standard, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."
"Are we sure it's supposed to be that color?" Lucas asked, eyeing the simmering pot of wassail dubiously.
Ben put down the orange he was stabbing with cloves, and came over to look. He sniffed experimentally, then said, "It smells right, which is the important thing. Told you all that time spent in labs would pay off for this."
"Right," Lucas snorted, "but is anybody gonna drink it when it's that violently orange? And non-alcoholic?"
"There's the nog if they want alcohol, and Christmas is not exactly a time of natural-colored food. They'll drink it." Lucas must still have looked dubious--he felt dubious--because Ben rolled his eyes and grabbed a ladle and cup. "I'll drink it. Let's test your grasp of kitchen chemistry."
Lucas watched closely as Ben ladled up about a third of a cup, brought it to his lips, blew on it, then sipped. He rolled it around his mouth a few times, looking thoughtful, and Lucas finally had to ask, "Well?"
Ben began to choke.
"Ben?!" Lucas grabbed the cup away, throwing it into the sink, and began to pound on Ben's back as he shouted, "Capt--!"
"Lucas!" Ben straightened and grabbed him by the wrist. "Calm down! I'm just joking. It tastes fine!"
It took a second for the reality to sink in. Then Lucas freed his wrist and punched Ben hard on the arm.
"You're lucky it's just your arm," Lucas snapped, feeling any enthusiasm he'd managed to dredge up for this whole holiday business draining away. He turned his back on Ben, stirring the wassail jerkily with the ladle. "I hate the holidays."
"Which would explain why you disabled the sound system mid-carol about fifteen minutes ago." Ben moved around until Lucas couldn't help catching sight of him out of peripheral vision. Ben had a talent for making himself noticed. "Still, you usually take a joke better than this. What's up?"
"I'm just not a fan of Christmas cheer. Don't you have fruit to clove?"
"Lucas," Ben said, and it'd been almost a year since they'd seen each other, but Lucas still found himself responding to his name said in that warm tone.
"When I was two, my parents took me to see Santa and get pictures. The guy laughed right in my ear. It scared me so bad I pulled his fake beard off." He turned his head to meet Ben's eyes, shrugging wryly. "The holidays lost their magic after that."
He didn't say there wasn't much magic to be lost when his parents spent Christmas Eve at no-children-allowed parties. Every year, they'd come home late, drunk and arguing. Every year, he ended up opening presents under the doting eyes of a series of well-compensated nannies. Then he got older, and his father left, and his mother didn't care if he spent Christmas in his room, as long as he was quiet. Even when he left for college, only coming home for the holidays, his father couldn't be bothered to so much as meet him for dinner somewhere, and his mother's usual greetings were along the lines of, "I've had the living room redecorated for a New Year's party. Don't go in there. I don't want you messing it up."
He didn't say any of that, but he didn't need to. Ben got it. Ben had always gotten it, and Lucas wasn't sure what it'd be like to have a seaQuest without Ben. Provided, of course, that the new seaQuest was approved.
"Maybe this is the year some of that magic'll come back," Ben said, then grinned. "If nothing else, there's the exciting possibility the captain will blow a fuse, with all the lights he's planning to put up."
"Hello?" called a voice before Lucas could answer. He raised an eyebrow, then responded to the greeting.
"Coming, Doctor!" He led Ben through the captain's living room to where Dr. Westphalen waited on the other side of the screen door, laden with bags of presents.
"Oh, good, there are two of you," she said, handing some of the bags to Lucas and indicating a boat with her head. "There are more in there, if you please, Benjamin."
"Yes, ma'am," Ben said, and he took a deep breath before raising his head and heading out like a soldier on a death march.
"Honestly," Dr. Westphalen said, rolling her eyes as Lucas held the door open for her while juggling the bags she'd given him. "That man and his theatrics. But where is Nathan?"
"He and Commander Ford were looking in the storage shed for more lights."
"More? He's throwing a Christmas party, not trying to land an aeroplane." She set her bags down near the potted cedar tree, then straightened up and pulled Lucas into a hug. He went with it, because he'd learned better than to fight the doctor when she wanted to hug him. And really, it wasn't the worst thing that had ever happened to him. At least she didn't smell overwhelmingly of perfume, like his mother usually had when she'd felt obliged to hug him for appearances' sake.
Still, he couldn't help getting a little antsy, and it was another point in the doctor's favor that she always let go just before he would feel compelled to pull away. This time she smiled at him, then inhaled, a look of utter delight lighting up her face. "Is that wassail I smell?"
"Well," Lucas began, but she was already heading for the kitchen, and he only caught up to her when she was already bent over the pot, breathing deeply.
"Oh, someone had to be generous with the cinnamon and orange to get it this color. Marvelous." She took up a cup, ladled it almost full, then drank. Lucas waited for her to declare it undrinkable, but she only closed her eyes and lowered the cup, swallowing. "Oh. Heaven. Did you make this, Lucas?"
"Ben provided the recipe." It seemed only fair to share the praise when he was more than willing to share the blame if she didn't like it.
"Well, either it's a very good one, or you improved on it."
"There's eggnog, too," Lucas offered. The doctor crinkled her nose.
"You know, I got into a bad batch of that when I was just a girl, and I haven't cared for it since." She raised her cup again, gesturing with it. "But I love wassail, and hardly anybody over here makes it."
"You realize the captain didn't invite the entire UEO, right?" Ben asked, stepping around the corner from the living room and holding up his armful of wrapped packages meaningfully. "How many gifts did you bring?"
"It's just a few things," the doctor protested, "most of them for Lucas. It's only been a month since I've seen him, and I swear he's grown another two inches. Somebody needs to keep the boy clothed."
"I can buy my own clothes, Doctor," Lucas reminded her, though it was an argument he lost every time, and at least she took his tastes into account. She just smiled, and Ben disappeared back around the corner. Lucas could hear him setting things down and going back out the door.
"Of course you can, but when I have to take Malique and Caesar shopping anyway, it only seems reasonable to pick up something for you too."
"How are they?" Not that Lucas didn't vidphone Malique regularly, and Darwin made his own jaunts down to the dolphin research center to visit friends, but Lucas had learned Dr. Westphalen loved talking about all "her boys." He was sure Malcolm and Malique would get an earful about him when she returned home after the holidays.
"They're doing very well. Caesar's talking more, and he's even picked up some Portuguese from Malique. Malcolm just helped Malique submit a package for a scholarship, and I think his chances are very good."
Lucas had heard about the scholarship. It was turning out that Malique had a talent for marine biology, and the fact that he lived at Malcolm's research center could only help when it came to school.
"Kristin, is that you I hear bragging about your boys?" The captain opened the back door and stepped inside, moving around the corner to embrace the doctor, who laughed and hugged him close.
"Who else? But, Nathan, don't tell me you've left the poor Commander to put up all those lights by himself."
"Oh, no, I'm not going to risk the best first officer in the UEO like that." The captain released her enough to look at her. "He's untangling the strands we found."
"Nathan, I saw how many you already have up. Do you really need more?"
"I put them on a solar-powered timer. They won't all be on at once. Besides, I want to be sure Santa can find us."
"I'm pretty sure Santa sent his haul with the good doctor this year," Ben said, finally returning with empty arms. "We're going to need to move some furniture around to get it to all fit under the--"
"Knock knock!" Commander Hitchcock's voice was followed by the appearance of the woman herself, holding a shopping bag of what looked like wine and food. "It was open."
"It's always open to you, Commander," the captain said, and the doctor moved forward with her arms outstretched.
"Katie!" she said before hugging the commander, who returned it one-armed, holding the bag out to the captain.
"For you. Oh, and I found these two hooligans lurking outside, too."
Tim and Migs popped around the corner, both wearing bells around their necks and reindeer antlers on their heads. "Surprise!"
"Do I wanna--" Ben began, but Migs just shook his head, bell chiming and ears keeping his new-grown curls from bouncing too wildly.
"Let's just say we lost a bet and leave it at that."
"Ho ho ho!"
Lucas groaned inwardly while everybody else made for the living room. Everybody but Ben, who shot him a sympathetic look, but then threw an arm over his shoulders and started herding him forward.
"Come on. Somehow, I think Crocker knows better than to laugh in your ear."
"He'd better," Lucas muttered, but let himself be pulled into the living room.
Chief Crocker--retired chief, Lucas reminded himself--was already inside, beaming in a red suit and a beard that, while not as long and white as customary, at least looked like he'd grown it himself. Chief Shan stood beside him, holding two white bags.
"What, no elf suit?" Ben quipped, and Chief Shan flashed his teeth in a quick, dangerous smile.
"Unlike some people, I know when not to bet."
"Drat, I was rather hoping to see your legs, Chief," the doctor said, and Commander Hitchcock smirked in apparent agreement. Chief Shan turned an entirely different smile on them.
"We could probably work something out in private, Doctor, if you're really interested."
Dr. Westphalen opened her mouth to answer that, but then they all heard the back door open, and Commander Ford come in, singing "I Saw Three Ships" surprisingly well.
"In here, Commander," Dr. Westphalen called out. He stopped singing and came into the room, grinning wide when he saw everyone gathered, and moving around the room to shake hands and exchange hugs with the other guests.
"And Santa!" he said when he reached Crocker. "What have you got for us this year?"
"Well," Crocker began, but the vidphone chimed at just that moment, and the captain moved to answer it. Admiral Noyce appeared on the screen, seated in his home office and smiling.
"Bill! What's up?"
"Good news, Nathan." Admiral Noyce beamed at them all, and Lucas wondered how much rum was in the mug of eggnog he was holding. "And it looks like you've got a crowd gathered to hear it."
"So don't keep us waiting, Bill. Let's hear it."
"You've been given the go-ahead. The new seaQuest is approved."
A general cheer went up at that, though Lucas had to stop and swallow at the realization that the announcement only meant home to about half the people in the room anymore. Ben was head of acquisitions for a chain of resorts now; Dr. Westphalen had settled into her life with Malcolm and Caesar, doing research on autism and therapy using dolphins. Commander Hitchcock had her own ship, Chief Shan had a prime job in DC, and Chief Crocker was enjoying his retirement better than he'd apparently expected. Even Tim and Migs had no guarantees, though Lucas knew the captain and Commander Ford would pull every string they had to get the crew who wanted to return.
"Merry Christmas," Admiral Noyce said, and raised his glass to them.
"Merry Christmas," the captain said, before the screen went dark. Then the captain turned, and despite his gloomy thoughts, Lucas had to smile again at how giddy he looked. "I do believe this calls for a toast."
"Have you tried the wassail yet?" Dr. Westphalen asked. "It's really just fantastic."
"I have no doubt, but I was thinking something a little stronger. Commander Hitchcock's gift should fit the bill."
The captain swept them all back into the kitchen, where he pulled the champagne bottle out of the bag, and checked the label. "A good year for sailors," he said, nodding at Commander Hitchcock, who looked pleased.
"I thought you might know it."
Ben took champagne glasses down from their rack and passed them around, winking as he handed one to Lucas. The captain unwrapped and popped the cork, and everyone shifted so he could pour a measure for them. That done, the captain poured for himself, then held his glass aloft, meeting each of their eyes in turn.
"To good friends and second chances," he said, and Lucas prepared for Dr. Westphalen to object to his participation, but she only clinked her glass to his and put her arm around him as she sipped. He followed her example to keep from coughing on the bubbles.
"To the seaQuest and her crew, past and future," Commander Ford said, and they all toasted again. Lucas wondered if they'd go around the room proposing toasts, and what he'd say if they did. Then the captain tilted his glass at Chief Crocker, and Lucas felt a surge of relief at the realization this would probably be it for the toasts.
"Wind in your sails," the chief said, sounding a little shaky, "wherever they take you."
"Wind in your sails," everyone echoed, and the captain said, "Wherever they take you, you know the way home."
That made Lucas pause, made him reconsider the idea that any of them had completely moved on from what they'd shared, and Ben leaned close to him and whispered, "There it is," before clinking glasses. Lucas considered asking what Ben meant, but as everyone began laughing and talking and helping to lay out the food they'd be eating throughout the night, he thought he had an idea.
He also thought Ben might be just a little bit right, judging by the way his heart felt lighter, but he wasn't going to say that.
Ben would get it, anyway.