A/N: 'Tis that time of the year again, where I drop a random TAZ holiday fic and duck the fu- hecc out. (Tryna keep this K+ and I think one more F bomb would push it over.) Hopefully this year I can get more writing done, lol.

(52Q, perhaps)

Anyway, this was my Candlenights Exchange piece for homofocused on tumblr! They didn't give much in the way of a specific prompt, so I went for a Candlenights concept I've been thinking about for a while. It's introspective, a bit experimental, and a little sad all around, but hopefully the end meets my "warm and fuzzy" quota, lol. I haven't written creatively in a while, and I had an absolute blast with this. I hope y'all enjoy this as much as I did, and that you had a good whatever-you-celebrate.

The Candlenights season is complicated in so many ways. Being pan-religious, pan-cultural, pan-planar, and personal-pan as it is, you'll never truly find two people who celebrate the same way. There might be potato cakes or giant bonfires or just some good cookies around a light-wrapped shrub. It doesn't even get a dedicated space on the calendar. Candlenights can start on the night of the first snowfall, or the tail end of autumn, or even the middle of summer for those snow-lovers whose seasons are swapped.

Even as a particularly eclectic holiday season, the factor that complicates it the most is the very fact that it is a holiday; and as with all holidays, the individual emotions surrounding the season can differ greatly. The lucky ones get to celebrate with warm fuzzies and nothing to cast a shadow over the cheer.

The unlucky ones...

Merle, Magnus, and Taako would easily acknowledge that they don't have it the worst in terms of the holiday season, but still, there's some loneliness there.

Merle misses his kids. After being absent so long, it doesn't feel right to only see them once or twice during the season, see some lights, and give them a few gifts he prays to Pan they'll like. He knows he's shit at gift giving, and hell, at parenting in general. He's made- and is probably still making- some big mistakes. It occurs to him that they may not be young enough to tolerate his bullshit forever.

Magnus misses Julia with everything he has. His first few Candlenights without her had been short, vacant, little more than a candlelight vigil and whatever trappings others gifted to him that he was too polite to toss. Nothing else felt right. He couldn't celebrate as they had, but trying to do something new felt like burying her memory. After a while, the ache faded enough for him to begin quietly reintroducing their old traditions without feeling like he's trampling on something sacred. Some amount of mourning will always be a part of his Candlenights season, and he's accepted that. But Julia would want him to enjoy the season as he once had, and so he tries.

Taako misses...

He doesn't exactly know what it is, and that almost makes it worse. There's just something, well, missing. A hole letting in gusts of freezing air and little waves of snowflakes. He thought, for a long time, that it was retroactive longing for a safe and secure childhood that he never had. For roots, connections, little traditions with origins that reach back to people he cares about. Something he hadn't mimicked from strangers or made up himself. Candlenights always carried some amount of loneliness for him, after all, but the past few years it's been worse. Sharper. Like he's misplaced something extremely important, he just can't think of what it is, and it's driving him up the godsdamned wall. Like there's something he should be mourning, or maybe searching for, but he has no clue where to start.

For a bit, he thinks it might be that he missed cooking. He can't pin down when this all started, but he does know that the Candlenights Special of Sizzle it Up! with Taako was a big part of his holiday until that all went to the nine hells in several handbaskets. Cooking used to be his hobby, his livelihood, his passion, his entire fucking life, and try as he might, he can't deny to himself that losing it tore him apart. So he'd cracked, and for the first time in six years, he made something meant for someone else to eat. Something simple, but elegant, to act as both present and snack at the Candlenights party. He was careful, oh so careful, refusing to use magic even for something as innocuous as levitating the almond flour across the room. He triple-checked everything, and went out of his way to make absolutely sure that all ingredients were safe for consumption by any race that might conceivably live on the moon base. The entire process was as stressful and nerve wracking as it was relaxing. Even at the party, as he kept an eye on everyone he gave a macaron to, he felt something loosening in his chest. He caught himself grinning just a little too broadly for his reputation and had to fight it back down a few times throughout the night. Even the utter calamity that was getting dragged off to Lucas' lab didn't ruin that high. Not right away, at least.

It helped, but it's not The Thing he's missing. He'd set so many hopes on it without meaning to, and it's just not it. He's been wracking his brain over this for three days, losing precious beauty meditation. It's there, hovering just out of reach, and in the relative silence of the night he feels like he could almost grasp it. Beyond the almost silent whirring ambience and the slight sounds of his roommates, there's a... a voice? It's distant, garbled and fuzzy, his brain feels like it's hitting a wall trying to get closer, but this is Something. Something so ingrained in his mind, into his very atoms, and maybe if he just focuses all his will on it he can-

Knock knock knock

The sound's hesitant and soft, but it drifts through his thoughts so unexpectedly that Taako jumps anyway. He rolls out of bed with far less grace than he wants to admit and reaches for his umbrastaff. Can't be too careful with unknown knockers in the dead of night.

Another knock sounds as he creeps towards the door, even quieter than the first three and followed by the quiet rasp of fabric running over wood. Taako thinks he hears a sigh. He eases the door open, and Magnus stands framed in the doorway. One shoulder is turned away as though he was just about to leave, and he's looking back at Taako with an expression somewhere between embarrassed and hopeful. Taako lets out a breath he hadn't known he was holding and gently props the umbrastaff against his nightstand. Reprimands hang at the tip of his tongue-not for scaring him, of course, just for interrupting his nonexistent peace-but then Magnus is turning back towards him and sheepishly holding out two bottles of shiny red and pearl nail polish.

"I know it's the middle of the night, but I can't sleep and I was just hoping that- can... Can I paint your nails?"

Taako looks him up and down. He does look a little bedraggled, but it seems he's been up for a while now. His left hand has a base coat of polish and three of his nails are partway done, unfinished for whatever reason and a little messed up, like he touched something before they dried. That damned hopeful expression is still on his face, laced with wistfulness, and he just... can't say no.

But he can make his usual show of rolling his eyes, fully aware that the silence has stretched too long for it to have its usual effect. "Yeah, sure, bubala. Not like I was gonna get back to sleep anyway."

Magnus' grin is almost too relieved, and Taako pretends it doesn't tug at something in his chest. Magnus leads him to the commonspace, and it's immediately clear that he was almost banking on getting someone to come out with him, because the rug in the center is strewn with pillows and blankets and there's two steaming mugs of something capped with whipped cream next to it all. Whatever this is, it isn't entirely spontaneous. Taako nearly makes some dumb joke about how he's flattered but has to make clear that this is just as friends, just to lighten the mood, but he recognizes that this isn't the time. He's not that emotionally dense; something's up, and he actually cares about this dingus.

He shifts his attention to the rest of the room as he walks towards the rug, picking out things that weren't there when he'd turned in. A few more decorations on the shrub; a carefully carved wooden wreath on the wall; a handful of pussy willow branches in a vase on the table. Magnus had been decorating alone.

He sinks cross-legged onto a cushion and holds out his right hand to Magnus, who gently takes it and directs it to his knee. He gives the red bottle a good shake and gets to work. Taako reaches out to the mug and takes a cautious sip-hot chocolate, rich and flavored with what he thinks is cherries. It's like drinking a liquid brownie. He immediately melts and takes another long sip, and Magnus looks up. "Good?"

"Mmhm," Taako hums.

Magnus smiles and returns his attention to his nails.

The room is nearly silent, and Taako lets it go on for a moment before he sets down the mug and licks the whipped cream off his lips. He clears his throat.

"So what's... all this?"

Magnus freezes, just for a moment. He doesn't say anything for a few seconds, carefully finishing Taako's thumbnail before answering.

"This is something I used to do... back home. And I missed it." A pause, and he holds up his left hand. "Didn't feel right, doing it on myself."

Taako nods, even though Magnus has yet to look up at him. "The decorations, too?"

"Yeah." Magnus reaches out for Taako's other hand, and he gives it to him. "Have you seen the saw ornament? We used to make a game of hiding it, it'd bounce all over the place. She thought it was hilarious, hiding a saw in a shrub. I don't even remember who started it-"

Taako doesn't know who "she" is, but he has enough sense to know she's important to Magnus. He quickly gathers that she's not around anymore. So he sits and he listens, sipping at his chocolate and letting Magnus brush out and braid his hair while the polish dries. At one point he quietly steals Magnus' untouched mug, and when he realizes, he looks at Taako with an expression so caught between humor and nostalgia that he almost puts it right back with one of his rare apologies. Instead, Magnus laughs and his eyes clear. "Serves me right for not drinking it, huh?" Taako agrees, but gives it back anyway so he can finish it off. He hadn't gotten very far.

At some point during his storytelling, Merle wanders out of his room, looking drowsy but curious. He surveys the scene and disappears into the kitchen, returning with three mugs of warm mulled wine. It's surprisingly good, and they can tell Merle's trying not to beam through the dad teasing. One of his aunts' recipes, he claims, tweaked when he left home and had to deal with some different ingredients. He used to help her brew up giant vats of it around Candlenights.

Taako's nails are dry by the time the wine is half gone. The red has a dulled shine to it, and his middle nails have pearly white candy-cane stripes at diagonals. Not something he'd have chosen for himself, but it suits him, he thinks. Magnus did good. He and Merle insist on doing Magnus' the same way, one hand each. Merle's are already painted, so they braid his hair and beard instead, all the while telling stories of past Candlenights and quietly pretending they don't notice that Taako's got very little to tell.

Merle doesn't know how the hell they got here, but he isn't complaining. He's happy. His boys are happy. They're all safe and for right now, that can be enough.

Magnus hadn't planned on this going quite the way it did, but he's relieved. He was worried Taako and Merle would both refuse, he was scared that this would feel just as wrong as every other time he tried but... he feels loved. He doesn't have Julia, but he has them, and he's happy with that.

Taako still doesn't know what he feels is missing. Maybe his brain is making it up. Maybe it really is longing for what he can't have. It doesn't feel right, but it's his best guess. It doesn't really matter. Whatever it is has gone away a little bit, and besides, he's got his boys now. Even if he can't shake the loneliness, gods know they won't let him feel alone.

And maybe, tonight, he was able to return the favor.