Dedicated to my sister, who understands how important Billy and Littlejohn are.

"And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?" ~The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

"Hey, Billy, help me out with this, will ya?"

Billy looked up from the letter he was reading – an old one from Evelyn – to see Charlie sitting on the floor, surrounded by all the parts to his M1. Billy sighed and stuck the letter back in his pocket. He stood up and walked over to the impromptu demonstration on how not to re-assemble an M1.

"Why'd you have to go and take it apart again?" Billy asked, squatting down beside his friend. A couple of screws rolled across the floor towards him. He grabbed the pieces and set them beside Charlie. "Today's Christmas Eve. There won't be a big inspection or anything like that, will there?"

"Yeah, that's just what the brass wants you to think," Charlie said. "But just when we all start to relax, they're gonna come in here and start inspecting everything. Well, I'm not going to give 'em an excuse to take my pass."

Charlie leaned over and pulled all the parts he could reach into a big heap. Billy went after everything else and stuck them in Charlie's pile. He didn't believe what Charlie said about the brass, not really. They had to want a break from work themselves, right? But he decided to help anyway.

It wasn't like he really minded helping his friend, but all the little springs and things usually got lost when Charlie worked on his M1. Charlie was great when it came to taking apart his equipment, but putting it all back together was a whole other thing.

Because of that fact, the two of them had worked out a system. Charlie handed Billy the right pieces in the right order, and Billy put the whole thing together. Charlie knew how the M1 went together, in theory, but he could never get the hang of actually snapping and sliding everything into place.

You couldn't say it was easier than it looked, because it wasn't, but Billy had put both his and Charlie's M1s together enough times that he could practically do it with his eyes closed. Well, almost. He'd tried that once and ended up losing more stuff than Charlie usually lost in a month. Some of the guys still kidded him about it.

"Yessiree, I've got myself a forty-eight hour pass and I'm not afraid to use it," Charlie said, grinning. He slapped Billy on the shoulder. "Figured I'd go see Ma and the rest of the family and then hit up ol' St. Louis for the other forty-seven hours or so."

"Trigger pin," Billy said, focusing his attention on the M1. He didn't want to think about what he'd do if he'd been lucky enough to get a pass – even if it was only a twelve-hour one. Right now, he shoved the thought of Christmas, and especially Christmas back home, to the very back of his mind. Nearly everyone was pretty open with their plans for Christmas and what Christmases were like back home, but for him Christmas had always been an extra special time of year, and he didn't want to have his family and all their Christmas traditions become company property, so to speak.

After a couple minutes of searching, Charlie came up with the trigger pin and handed it to Billy. "Whew!" he said. "For a second I thought it might be lost, like last time."

Billy remembered last time. Charlie'd sent him to the supply sergeant to get a replacement part and he'd had to go through a bunch of red tape and standing in lines to get a new trigger pin. Billy hadn't minded too much – Charlie was a friend, after all – but, all the same, he didn't want to go through that again just for a little trigger pin.

"Hey, don't be all down," Charlie said. "You're going to be here, dancin' with all those pretty USO girls and getting to see those Andrews Sisters for real." Using his fist, he nudged Billy in the arm, his eyebrows raised. "Make sure you tell me all about it when I get back, eh, kid?"

Billy nodded half-heartedly and snapped the trigger pin into the little holes in the trigger housing. He didn't really care about the USO girls or the Andrews Sisters or whatever else the Army had planned for this evening. All he wanted was a bit of Christmas, just like home.

:::

"Mail call! Mail call!"

Billy sprang up from his seat on the floor, sending the nearly finished M1 clattering to the ground. Charlie was still looking for the hammer spring, and Billy had fallen into thinking about home and how Mom would be getting the last of the presents wrapped about right now – she always waited until the last minute to do it because she tended to get really busy with the cooking and baking and making sure everyone looked presentable for the relatives.

The whole barracks was a flurry of excitement over the appearance of Cookie, the assistant from the PX who usually brought in their mail when he wasn't too busy doing other things. Billy ran over to where everyone else was crowding around Cookie, even though he didn't have much of a chance of getting close until everyone else had gotten their letters and packages.

In between calling out names and reaching over heads to hand out his mail, Cookie kept up a running commentary about how he couldn't stand the thought of anyone being lonely on Christmas Eve, which is why he'd taken it upon himself to bring in the overflow of letters, packages, and magazines.

"Nelson!"

"Here!" Billy shouted as loud as he could to be heard above the general din.

He elbowed his way through the crowd, apologizing as he went, until he reached Cookie and the two letters he held out. "Thanks," he said, grinning. He almost always got a letter from Mom or Evelyn whenever the mail was brought in. Or both, if he was really lucky. Things were already looking up.

Holding the letters close to him, Billy pushed back through all the other guys and went back to his bunk. He perched on the edge of it and stared at the two letters in his hands. Sure enough, one from Mom and one from Evelyn. He couldn't keep the grin of his face.

"Good news?" Charlie asked. He pushed himself up off the floor with one hand.

"I haven't opened them yet," Billy said. He wanted to savour the moment. With the bad weather and fouled up mail lines, he hadn't gotten a letter from anyone in nearly a month. "Aren't you going to go see if you got anything?"

Charlie shrugged. "Nah. Nobody ever sends me anything. Mom's not much one for writing."

Billy couldn't imagine never getting any letters or packages. If he didn't have Evelyn and Mom writing to him...well, he didn't exactly know what it would be like, but it'd sure be a lot harder to get through training and guard duty and everything else he did on base if he didn't know how things were doing back in St. Louis. Getting a letter from home was almost as good as actually being there in person.

Charlie popped the last bolt into place and said, "Well, as much as I'd like to hear all the news from St. Louis and that girl of yours, I've gotta be going." He reached over and grabbed his bag and then stood up. "See you in a couple days, Billy. Say hello to the Andrews Sisters for me, will ya?"

"Sure, Charlie."

"Take care, kid."

Billy watched Charlie go, forcing his way through the crowd around Cookie. Then he went back to the letters. He'd read the one from Mom first, he decided. Save Evelyn's for last since her letters were a little rarer. She was pretty busy working in one of those war factories, making airplane parts.

Dear Son,

By the time you get this, it will most likely be Christmas or a little after, so as soon as I finish writing this, I'm going make up a little package with some of those Christmas cookies you like so much. Hopefully it will arrive on time for you to have a little bit of Christmas from home. The post man has assured me that they won't go stale between here and the army base.

We've had a lot of snow this year – about four inches just these past couple of days. Davie has been enjoying that, especially since school's out right now. He's gone around to some of our neighbours – the Jacksons and the Birds – and offered to shovel their walkways for some Christmas money. He wants to buy everyone a present this year, all by himself.

Are you feeling well, Billy? Your last letter said that you were doing fine, but with the cold and snow, make sure you're bundled up whenever you go outside. And I've heard about how horrible army food is, but eat a hearty meal every day – you're going to need lots of energy so that you don't get sick. Hopefully my cookies will help with that.

Your father brought in a tree last evening and he, Davie, and I all trimmed it this morning. It looks beautiful sitting in the living room. We'll be putting out the other decorations later on today as well. Of course, there won't be as many decorations – or presents – as other years, since nearly everything is either rationed or very expensive, but I'm sure we'll be able to have a merry Christmas all the same.

Let us know how you're doing, son. We love hearing from you.

Love,

Mother

Billy smiled. Mom always wrote about the little things, and that's what he liked most of all. Davie shoveling the neighbours' walks and decorating the tree and a package of cookies – which he hadn't gotten yet, of course, but mail was slow so he wasn't worried.

He folded up the letter carefully and tucked it back into the envelope. Then, he opened the one from Evelyn.

Before he had a chance to unfold the letter, a snapshot fell out of the envelope and dropped onto his blanket. He picked it up and turned it over, and there was Evelyn looking right back at him like she was in the room. She was smiling as wide as he'd ever seen her smile and the sight of it made him smile back, even if she couldn't see it. He stared at the photograph for the longest time before reading her letter.

Dear Billy,

How have you been? Mother says I shouldn't worry, since you aren't off fighting in North Africa or Italy or the Pacific, but things can happen here just as well as over there. But I try not to think about that too much. I have been doing a lot of praying lately – not just for this war to be over soon, but for you as well, specifically. I think it's helped me feel better.

Now enough about me and my worries! You probably want to hear a little bit about all that's happening here, with Christmas coming up and all. Well, there's quite a bit to tell. Due to shortages and rationing, we can't go all out like most years before this one, but I'm determined to make Christmas memorable this year all the same. Father and Mother have told me that they don't plan on having a big celebration – or really any celebration – so I'm planning a little surprise party for them. Nothing too fancy, just a few old friends and some refreshments. After all, it's not really the gifts or the food that matters, but friends and family and the holiday itself, right?

After the party, your mother said she wanted me to come over to be with her and your father and Davie for the Christmas countdown. As you can probably imagine, I'm pretty excited, but a little bittersweet too. My first Christmas countdown with the Nelson family and you won't be there.

I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. There'll be plenty more Christmases that I can spend with you, and it's my own fault that I didn't do the countdown with you and your family last year. I wanted to go to Anna May's party and then I completely forgot about the whole thing when I got home. But you know all about that.

Mother's calling me to help with the Christmas cookies, so I'll finish this quickly. I had a snapshot taken of myself to send to you. It's all I could think of for a Christmas gift, especially since I know your mother is sending you cookies and...well, I won't say what else. It's a surprise. At any rate, I hope you like it – both the snapshot and her package.

Hugs and kisses,

Your Evelyn

As soon as he read the last words, a sickening wave of homesickness washed over Billy, so bad it was almost physical. No, it was physical. There was a knot in his stomach and a lump in his throat and a feeling that was like–like not feeling anything. It left him light-headed and dizzy, and he could hardly focus on the words in front of him.

He hadn't had it this bad since his first night at Basic when the lights were out and everyone was sleeping – or supposed to be – and he'd stared into the dark and felt himself getting tenser and tenser, and that same sick feeling had come over him and he hadn't been able to sleep all night, he was missing home and his family so badly. Volunteering had seemed the right thing to do – it had been the right thing to do – but at that moment, lying all alone in the dark even though there were nearly twenty other guys in the same room, he'd have given anything to be back home and safe and comfortable if it meant the homesickness would go away.

Billy got up off the bed. Slipping the two letters and the snapshot of Evelyn into his pocket, he walked through the now mostly quiet barracks, pushed the door open, and stepped outside.

Freezing air hit him as soon as he left the barracks, but he hardly noticed. All he wanted was some peace and quiet; somewhere he could walk without being interrupted, and some fresh, good air to clear his mind. He didn't want the other guys to ask him questions about his letters right now – everyone always asked everyone else about their mail, even if they didn't always get their questions answered – because he was afraid that if he said anything to anyone right now, he'd start crying like a sissy.

Snow was falling, but it wasn't the Christmas kind. More like rainy slush that made everything and everyone – including Billy – gloomier than usual. He shoved his hands in his pockets, hunched his shoulders, and trudged along a path someone had broken through the wet, dirty snow.

:::

By the time Billy got back to the barracks, the place was nearly empty. He'd watched the shadows get longer and longer on the slushy ground and had only come back to the barracks because everyone'd started coming out for the dance. That, and he was getting colder and colder. The rainy kind of snow had a way of getting under your jacket and making you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.

Inside was toasty warm, and Billy shed his jacket and placed it on his bed. There were only a couple of guys left in the room and nobody paid him any attention. Still, Billy looked around to make sure no-one was watching before he reached into his duffel bag and pulled out a bunch of letters. They were all from Mom and Evelyn, and even a couple from Davie and Dad, though theirs were much less frequent.

He wasn't going to the dance tonight, something he'd decided somewhere between his barracks and the camp perimeter where he'd been sent back by an MP. He'd stay here and re-read his letters and probably answer the ones he'd gotten today too. The way Billy saw it, there wasn't much sense in his going to the dance. He wasn't interested in the USO girls or the Andrews Sisters or whoever they had over in the hall, and the donuts and coffee wouldn't compare to Mom's cooking.

"Hey, are you coming?"

The voice was deep and rumbled a little, and when Billy looked up, he saw the big guy who'd just joined up with the rest of them – the one who had the bunk right beside Billy's, in fact. But Billy didn't know anything about him, not even the guy's name, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to get close enough to find out. A fellow that big could have a pretty scary temper, right?

Billy stuffed his letters under his blanket. "Nah," he said, trying to be casual. "I don't really feel like it."

The guy lumbered over to Billy's bunk. He didn't look scary or mean. Besides his size, he looked pretty normal: friendly face, uniform rumpled like it hadn't been pressed for a few days – although who was Billy to point fingers in that department? – and an overall cheerful presence.

"Why not?" His voice sure was deep, but he was smiling a little, and not in a mean way.

Billy smiled a smile that he was sure looked more nervous than a guy stuck with night patrol duty on Halloween – something he knew about first-hand, courtesy of Charlie and a couple of the other guys. "Well, you see, I've got a–" He cleared his throat. "I've got a girl back home and I didn't really want to go meet all those USO girls when she can't be here herself."

He hadn't meant to spill all of that out, it had just sort of happened. Billy cringed, waiting for the big guy to snicker or sneer or something like that. None of the others ever understood about Evelyn and why he didn't go out with a bunch of different women like they all did...which is why he'd stopped talking about her or home in general. Why should this guy be any different?

"I've got a girl back home too," the guy said. He smiled. "Sarah Sue. That's her name."

He settled himself onto the bunk opposite Billy, but was so tall that even sitting down, he had to crouch down a little to keep from banging his head. "Hey, I don't think I've got your name yet," he said.

"Nelson," Billy said. "Billy Nelson."

"Pleased to meet you, Billy. My name's Littlejohn."

Right away, Billy thought of the story of Robin Hood and Littlejohn that he'd read about a million times when he was a kid. It'd been one of his favorites, right along with Kidnapped and Swiss Family Robinson. Was it really his name? Or a nickname? Or a-what did they call it? An alias?

Of course, it wasn't any of his business what a guy wanted to be called, but as soon as Charlie got back, he'd ask if he knew anything about...Littlejohn.

Littlejohn pulled something out of his shirt pocket and handed it to Billy.

"That's Sarah Sue," he said, pointing to the photograph Billy now held. The girl in the picture was pretty, no doubt about it, but in Billy's opinion, Evelyn was even prettier. He handed Sarah Sue's picture back and dug into his pants pocket for the snapshot Evelyn'd sent him, but when his fingers found it, he hesitated. Should he really go around showing Evelyn's picture to people he hardly even knew?

Well, Littlejohn hadn't made fun of what Billy'd said, and he'd shown off his picture of Sarah Sue without any hesitation, and he was more polite than most people Billy had run into in the past few months, so Billy figured it was only good manners to return the favour. He pulled out Evelyn's picture and passed it over to Littlejohn. "That's Evelyn."

Littlejohn looked at the snapshot for a couple of moments and then gently gave it back to Billy. "She looks nice," he said, smiling again. Billy found himself smiling back, a normal smile this time, not a nervous one.

Quietness draped itself over the barracks. Everyone else was gone and had been gone for about five minutes. There was just the two of them, each staring at a picture of his girl, not knowing what to say next. Billy fidgeted. He usually ended up filling awkward silences like this with lots of chatter, but he wasn't sure what Littlejohn would think of him if he started babbling – he seemed like one of those guys who only said things if they needed to be said.

"Are you going to the dance?" Billy finally asked.

Littlejohn shook his head. "I'm not the best dancer."

The conversation lagged again, but only for a moment before Billy asked, "Where are you from?" Talking about home towns was usually a safe topic.

"Nebraska. What about you?"

"St. Louis. We used to live in Chicago, but Mom and Dad didn't like all the crime and gangs, things like that, so we moved down to St. Louis when I was ten, and that's where we've been ever since. That's where I met Evelyn." He grinned at the memory.

"I was riding my bike and then she came up on her own bike. We didn't even have to say anything to know that we were going to race each other. Only, when we did, I ran over a rock and fell off my bike and scraped my hands and knees and got a bloody nose. She took me home with her and Mrs. Harris – her mom – patched me up and gave me some cookies and milk." He paused to catch his breath. "That's how we met."

The next minute he was wondering why he was telling Littlejohn all of this.

Maybe it was because even though he hardly knew anything about Littlejohn, there was something about him that felt honest and trustworthy and real.

"My family's always lived in Nebraska," Littlejohn said. "Ever since my grandpa went over there in a covered wagon."

Faint bits of music came from outside. Lively music. Dance music. Billy and Littlejohn both looked out the window, even though the window was too frosted over to see anything except a faint, golden glow. Along with the music, Billy could hear wind howling everywhere and suddenly the barracks felt even warmer and cozier than before. Much better than a crowded rec hall.

There was a big chunk of silence again, but Billy didn't mind it as much this time. He could listen to the music and wait for Littlejohn to start up the conversation this time. And if he didn't, well, it wasn't really a big deal. They could just sit and be comfortable.

About five minutes went by before anyone spoke again. This time, it was Littlejohn.

"What's Christmas like in St. Louis?"

:::

Billy and Littlejohn had been sitting in the empty barracks for a while now – he didn't know exactly how much time had passed – swapping stories of what Christmas was like back home for each of them.

Billy talked about his Mom's Christmas cookies – how she'd put a lot of sugar on the tops so that when you bit into one, sugar would get all over your face but you didn't mind because it was so delicious. Putting up all the decorations was another one of those things he remembered best and missed an awful lot. Once the tree and all the berries and branches and trimmings were in place, the whole house smelled like it belonged in a Christmas movie – or a forest. There were Uncle Joe's funny stories, even though they were always the same. And, of course, the way Grandma Nelson gave everyone mittens or a scarf – knitted by herself, naturally.

Littlejohn, in his turn, shared about his Christmases back home – though, if the truth be told, in much fewer words than Billy. How his mom and sisters, aunts and grandmothers would all come over a couple days before the big day and cook up a storm. Turkey, stuffing, pies and cakes, apple turnovers, cookies, ham, and lots of other goodies. For the past few years, they hadn't had a lot of money for presents, but there was always something for every family member, even if it was as simple as a few pieces of candy, a handmade hat, or a secret recipe passed through the generations.

Billy considered adding in everything about what Christmas was like in the rest of St. Louis with the big tree in the square, all lit up, and carolers going everywhere, and how the department stores would stay open all day and night sometime around December twenty-third and on, but he didn't want to hog the conversation.

There was, however, one other thing he wanted to tell Littlejohn about. The Christmas countdown. He'd been encouraged by Littlejohn's easy way of sharing all the details about his kind of Christmas, and it wouldn't really be a full account of Christmas back home if Billy didn't tell him about the countdown. And it wasn't like anyone was twisting his arm to make him do it, he just wanted to.

"Once we've opened all the presents and everyone else has gone home, Mom and Dad and me and Davie all sit in the living room and wait for midnight. Lots of folks do a countdown on New Year's Eve, but we've always done one on Christmas Eve. You get kind of attached to one way of doing things after a few years," Billy added, with a little nod.

"I like it," Littlejohn said.

"You do?"

"Yep."

Billy settled back a little in his bunk. He'd never really told anyone – not even Charlie – about the Christmas countdown, since it was really just his family's special little tradition, but it'd seemed natural to add it on to his sharing of the different things he did at Christmas time. Littlejohn was easy to talk to, someone people would call a 'good listener', but he didn't leave the whole conversation up to Billy. Granted, he said much more than Littlejohn did, but that was just their different personalities.

Littlejohn pushed up his sleeve and stared at his watch for a moment. "Did you know they're having a concert at ten o'clock?" He looked up at Billy. "No dancing, just carols and Christmas songs. Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters."

"Well, what time is it now?" Billy asked, craning to see Littlejohn's watch – he could never find his own. Littlejohn slid the watch around his wrist so Billy could get a better look. Two minutes to ten.

"Are you going to go?" Billy asked.

"I think I will." Littlejohn raised his eyebrows and nodded at Billy. "You?"

Billy only had to think about it for a moment. "Sure," he said. "I'll come."

:::

If talking with Littlejohn hadn't cheered Billy up and put him in a better Christmas mood, the walk to the rec hall would've. The slushy snow had turned into big, thick flakes that covered everything in a clean, white blanket – Christmas-card worthy, in fact. The snow made everything softer and quieter too.

Littlejohn walked alongside him companionably. "Hear that, Billy?"

The opening notes of 'Silent Night' seeped through the hall door and out into the cold night air. A little tingle of what could only be the Christmas spirit ran through Billy, making his arms and the back of his neck all bumpy with an appreciative chill. He smiled.

"I hear it," he said, shivery excitement slipping into his voice.

Snow pushed its way up onto the tops of his boots and Billy stamped it off before entering the hall. Littlejohn did the same, and then Billy pushed open the door, and they went in. Inside, it was pretty warm – almost too warm – and bursting at the seams with people, all standing quietly and facing the same general direction. There was no way they'd get to the front of the room or even a few more feet into the crowd, but there were great acoustics in the rec hall, along with microphones, so Billy didn't mind too much. The main thing was the music and he couldn't have seen that even if he'd been the only person in the room.

'Silent Night' played on. No singing, at least not right now, just the music.

Billy closed his eyes. A mixture of real, live Christmas music, hundreds of people packed in one room, and his own memories of Christmas combined to make an energy that buzzed through the room so strong he could almost feel it.

Talking with Littlejohn had reminded him of all the different smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and just the general feeling of Christmas back home. This concert was different from anything he'd experienced back home, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Maybe he wasn't full of hot chocolate and holiday cookies, but the Christmas Eve dinner hadn't been too bad. He might not have been playing checkers with Davie or one of his friends back home, but Littlejohn had kept him from being lonely and sticking back at the barracks feeling sorry for himself.

Billy opened his eyes and glanced over at Littlejohn. He was glad Littlejohn hadn't let him stay all alone with his thoughts, stewing over and wishing for things he didn't even have any control over. And he was glad he'd come to the concert. The music was beautiful and great and funny all at different times.

There was a whole mix of different tunes – carols that'd probably been around for hundreds of years along with newer songs. Some modern songs sung like old carols and some old carols played like modern songs. It wasn't the carolers back home, but he liked it all the same.

He wouldn't be able to tell Charlie what the Andrews Sisters looked like, but he could say that they had probably the nicest voices he'd ever heard. And if that really was Glenn Miller and his famous band up there, well, he'd tell Mom and Evelyn to buy some of their records and play them, just so they could hear for themselves how great the band was.

Yes, that's exactly what he'd do.

Billy looked up at Littlejohn again. "Thanks," he said softly so as not to interfere with everyone else's enjoyment of the music.

"For what?" Littlejohn said in the same quiet voice.

"Dragging me over here," Billy said.

Littlejohn smiled. "You're welcome."

:::

Billy couldn't sleep.

He lay on his bunk, wrapped up in blankets just like every other night, but he couldn't find the same tired feeling that usually swept over him once it was lights-out all through the base. It was a combination of music running through his head and the fact that it was Christmas Eve.

Suddenly, he remembered. It was Christmas Eve. Or was it? What time was it?

Twisting around, he whispered into the dark, "Littlejohn?"

There was a moment of silence, then, "Yeah."

"Are you awake?"

"No."

Billy considered dropping the whole thing, but Littlejohn had to be awake just a little bit to be able to say he wasn't, so he asked, "Can I borrow your watch anyway?"

There was another bit of silence, and then he heard Littlejohn's bunk creaking and his blankets rustling. Out of the dimness that went through the whole barracks came a hand holding a watch. Billy took it. "Thanks."

He waited for a response, but there wasn't any. Maybe Littlejohn had already gone back to sleep. He sure was a deep sleeper if he had, but even so, Billy felt bad about waking him up. He made a mental note to keep track of his own watch so he wouldn't have to wake up friends to ask for theirs, especially for something as important as this. Billy shook his head at himself and held the watch up to the faint moonlight coming into the barracks.

11:58.

Just in time.

Billy watched the second hand sweep around the face of the watch.

Back home, Mom and Dad, Davie and Evelyn were doing the exact same thing. Well, actually they'd be watching the mantel clock and they might not even doing the countdown right now – he'd never really checked on the time differences between states – but sometime, somewhere, his family and Evelyn were counting down to Christmas just like he was.

11:59.

Christmas was just a few seconds away.

"Ten..." he whispered, so he wouldn't disturb the other guys.

"Nine..." He thought of the living room back home, all warm and glowing and cozy.

"Eight..." Mom would pass out her cookies and hot chocolate in case anyone wanted a late night snack.

"Seven..." They were usually still too stuffed from dinner and desert to want anything much, but who could pass up cookies and chocolate?

"Six..." Mom would put the cookie plate down once everyone'd had some or said 'no, thank you', and then she'd go and sit next to Dad on the soft, old sofa.

"Five..." Billy imagined sitting side by side with Evelyn on that same sofa once he got back, holding hands with her, and enjoying the crackling fire and a day without war.

"Four..." In the few seconds before Christmas Day, there was always a little hush with everyone holding their breath. Billy felt the same thing coming over him too.

"Three..." Everything was quiet in the barracks, except for his whispered countdown, and he was doing it so softly he could hardly hear himself. Everything was dark and silent. It was just him, Littlejohn's watch, and memories of Christmas.

"Two..." The entire world seemed to be waiting for midnight.

"One..." Billy stared at the second hand as it quivered slightly before ticking on.

When the hour hand moved ever so slightly and hit the '12' square on, Billy let out the breath he'd been holding in. Now it was Christmas. He felt just about the same as he'd been just a couple minutes ago. 'Silent Night' and 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas' getting all mixed up in his head, and remembering other Christmas countdowns, and wondering what his family was doing right now. But now it really was Christmas and he was happy to have been awake for at least the first few seconds of it.

Billy jumped when Littlejohn's voice came out of the quiet blackness of the barracks. "Can I have my watch back now?"

"Oh, yeah," Billy said. "Here. Thanks," he added.

Again, the shifting and creaking. Billy handed the watch back, and settled back down into his pillow and blankets. He closed his eyes, but it was only a moment before he opened them again. "Littlejohn?"

There was a longer silence this time before Littlejohn said, "Yeah."

"Merry Christmas."

Quietness.

Then, "Merry Christmas, Billy."

The End

{All my thanks goes to White Queen for critiquing this story and helping me get it ready in time for the holidays.}