Christmas Miracle

Snowflakes drifted gently down from the heavens to the earth, each
tiny, individual crystal landing lightly on a bed of its fellows.
Golden light from the lamposts along the street was filtered to a soft
glow by the falling flakes, creating a surreal effect. At four in the
morning on Christmas Morning, most of the Christmas lights had been
turned off, but here and there were bright spots of flashing colour in
the darkness.

It was, Duo reflected ironically, an incredibly beautiful picture for a
town that until last night, had been under siege and attack by the
warring factions of OZ. He stood beneath one of the picturesque antique
lamps, watching the snow fall. :So pure and white, like nothing bad had
ever touched the earth,: he reflected, holding out his hand and
watching the delicate crystals melt from the heat of his flesh. :Hard
to believe that the chemicals from the pollution in this area make this
snow almost toxic.:

He snorted, dropped his hand, and looked around again. The world was
utterly silent, what few noises this quiet town produced in the dead of
the night muffled by the gently swirling white flakes. If he closed his
eyes, he could almost believe he was alone, untouched by other human
influences, untouched by war and death.

He laughed, but his voice held none of its usual cheerfulness. :Yeah,
right. You’re Shinigami, man, remember? You ARE Death.:

He opened his eyes again, staring blankly into the darkness, letting
the swirling contrast of white flakes on black sky lull him into an
almost hypnotic state. Tonight, there was no sign of the manic grin,
the bright eyes, or the cheerful bounciness that he usually exhibited.
All bets were off, all masks were down, and for this one night, the
holiest of Christian Holys, the real Duo was showing his face to the
world.

:The guys wouldn’t recognize me,: He thought wryly. In fact, this very
melancholy was the reason he was out here, in the cold and damp,
instead of inside the nice, warm mansion Quatre had provided for the
Christmas holidays. The others had been gathered around a two story,
beautifully decorated Christmas tree when he’d left at midnight. Even
Heero and Wufei had been reluctantly charmed into enjoying the holdiay
by Quatre’s insistent pleas.

Duo had felt smothered by the heavy weight of the Christmas atmosphere.
Everywhere you looked, Christmas decorations held sway – tastefully
done, to give Quatre’s men credit, but still inescapable. To the boy
who called himself Death, this night and the day that followed
represented neither the joyous birth of the world’s Saviour, nor a time
to gather with friends and family. Instead, it was a harsh reminder of
his lost faith, his bloody past and his missed opportunities for
happiness.

The snow began to fall more heavily, until he could barely make out the
light from the next lamp down the road. Shivering, he realized he’d
been standing still for far too long, and resumed his wandering.
Dressed in his priest outfit, his black ballcap pulled low over his
face and his braid tucked inside his dark jacket, he was a ghostly
shadow moving through the swirl of winter white.

When he paused for a moment to get his bearings, he became fascinated
with the way the falling flakes erased all sign of his passing. :So
quickly, the traces of a person’s passage through the world are
destroyed. What’s left, when life is over? Nothing more than wiped out
footprints, nothing left to mark the presence or loss of any
individual.:

Trudging on through the rapidly building drifts, he shoved his hands in
his pockets and allowed his thoughts to roam. Tonight, he let himself
think of the forbidden. Tonight, he let himself remember.

:Solo. He never did understand what all the fuss was about.: To the
boys in the streets of L2, Christmas had meant nothing more than easy
pickings from the harried shoppers. When your mark was carrying a dozen
bags, it was easy to slide something out and make off with it. They’d
never notice until they got home and counted their purchases, and
sometimes not even then.

Duo had been the best of their small band at relieving others of their
possessions without their awareness. Christmas had been a busy time,
weaving in and out among the shoppers, gathering food and money. What
few larger gifts he managed to lift, were sold on the black market for
supplies. He vaguely remembered feeling envious of the little boys with
their mothers, eagerly sitting on Santa’s lap, making their Christmas
wishes, carting around their shiny new toys on Christmas Day. But he
had been equally contemptuous of those boys, for their naivete and
ignorance of the way Real Life worked.

Absently, he scooped up some snow, ignoring the stinging needles of
cold on his palms, and formed it into a rough ball. When he was
satisfied with the weight of the sphere, he lobbed it far into the
night, watching as it disappeared past the influence of the lamps, into
the dark. There was a satisfying ‘splat!’ as it impacted against some
hard surface, and he started to gather some more.

:Father Maxwell. Sister Helen.: His first and only Christmas at the
Maxwell Church had been a very different affair from his previous
experiences. The tree was decorated, not with expensive baubles, but
with ornaments the children themselves had made. Each ball or angel or
what-have-you, held the love and wishes of the child who had
constructed it. The presents beneath were mostly homemade by the Father
and the Sister, but not one of the children felt slighted. Far from it
– they recognized that love was in those presents every bit as much as
their love was in their ornaments.

For the first time, Duo had understood one of the most important things
about Christmas – the spirit of giving, that brought people together,
as a family. The Maxwell Church had become his family, and he had begun
to believe that perhaps, after all, God was up there, and intended him
to be happy. He had cherished the black scarf Sister Helen had made
him, and wore it until it disintegrated, three years later.

Duo bit his lip as his eyes stung and watered. “Damn snowflakes, get in
your eyes,” he muttered, wiping at the tears viciously with his hand.
:Even after all this time, I still miss them,: he reflected, his eyes
haunted. His hand went unconsciously to the golden cross around his
neck – his Christmas present from Father Maxwell. Though he hadn’t
believed in the faith represented by the symbol for years, he never
took it off – it was his only connection to the one time when he had
been truly happy.

His foot dislodged a rock from the side of the road, and he amused
himself for a while, kicking it back and forth through the snow. :I
know how it feels:, he thought, kicking it with a bit of extra force.
:Battered back and forth by forces it can’t understand and has no hope
of fighting.. Taken far from where it belongs, only to be dumped when
it’s no longer amusing.: He drew back his leg and fired the rock out
into the darkness, taking a morbid satisfaction in his comparison of
himself to the rock.

The rock came to rest with the heavy ‘thunk’ of stone meeting wood, and
Duo looked up in surprise. Before him was a tiny Catholic cathedral,
the brightly lit stained glass windows sending patches of brilliant
colour out onto the snow. His rock had smacked into the corner of the
open double doors, where golden light spilled out welcomingly. Warmth
radiated from inside, inviting the weary traveler to enter and warm up,
before returning to the chilly winter night.

Duo blinked, and checked his watch – yes, it was nearly 4:30 at night.
Even the most devout Christmas worshipers would have returned to their
snug homes by now, preparing for the joys of Christmas morning. And yet
here was a church, lit, warm, and open to the public in the darkest
part of the night.

:Well, it IS Christmas,: he thought, :Maybe they stay open all night
just tonight. Not that anyone sane would be out at this time of night
in the cold and snow. Including me.: He hesitated, debating with
himself, then moved past the church. :I don’t belong there any more.:

He was now past the limits of the town, heading out into less populated
areas. His were the only footprints in the snow, and they were quickly
swallowed by the drifting snow. The land looked as if humans had never
set foot there, never brought their destroying presence to rape and
pillage the land.

Duo laughed at himself, bitterly. :Well, aren’t we a poet tonight,: he
mocked his thoughts. :Christmas always brings out the worst in you,
Maxwell.: He came to a bridge of steel, stretching over a narrow but
quickly rushing river, three or four stories below. Duo leaned his arms
against the frozen railing and watched the water flow by, his breath
misting in the air before him.

The water was moving too fast for ice to form anywhere but the edges,
but Duo knew it would be cold enough to freeze on impact. Slowly, he
reached up on his tiptoes, leaning over the chest-high railing, staring
fascinated at the current. When he could stretch no higher, he lifted
his foot, placed it on the lowest bar, and started climbing.

At the top, he reached out a grabbed hold of one of the metal bracers,
steadying his balance on the slippery, icy bar. His eyes were fixed on
the river below, his face thoughtful.

:It wouldn’t take much… just one little slip,: he reflected. :Human
beings are so very fragile. I’d never survive.: The sound of rushing
water rose to fill his ears, as his vision narrowed and he swayed,
suddenly dizzy. :It’d take them weeks to find the body, if they ever
did. And nobody would have any idea who I was.:

It was tempting – oh, so very tempting! It wasn’t the first time he’d
thought about ending it all – the multiple scars on his wrists attested
to that. But, coward that he was, he always stopped just short of the
point of no return. :Too damn scared that God really IS out there, and
that He’ll damn me for eternity for sure.: he reflected absently,
feeling distanced from his own thoughts and emotions. :I may be Death,
but I have no particular desire to spend eternity in Hell. I’ve had
enough of that here on earth.:

Still, the temptation was stronger on this night than any other, as
always. Gently, he removed his hands from the bracer, balancing like
Trowa in one of his acrobatic displays. He raised one foot – slowly,
slowly…

His balancing foot skidded abruptly on the ice, and the next thing he
knew, he was plastered up against the bracer, his grip so tight his
knuckles were white. :Huh. Guess I’m not ready to die yet after all.:
Disgusted with himself, he climbed down carefully. Tears frosted his
eyelashes, surrounding the violet orbs with tiny, glittering crystals.
He clenched his hands so tightly, his nails cut into his palms. Thin
trickles of red flowed over his fists, dripping down to stain the pure
snow below. :Just like I stain everything pure that touches me.:

He crossed the bridge and continued on down the road, his thoughts and
emotions in a whirl. :Kuso. I can’t do anything right, not even kill
myself.: He snorted. :I’m certainly good enough at killing other
people, especially the ones I care about. You wouldn’t think I’d be so
incompetent when it comes to killing myself.:

A beam of coloured light struck him, causing him to pause momentarily
in confusion. :What the hell? Where’s that coming from?: He looked up,
to find a church nearly identical to the one he had left behind several
minutes ago. The same bright stained glass, the same warm, inviting
open doors. Glancing around, he confirmed that there were no other
signs of habitation within sight.

:Weird,: He thought, shrugging and continuing on. :What’s a church like
that doing out here in the middle of nowhere? And why’s it open now?:

Dismissing it from his mind, he started scooping up snow as he walked,
watching in melt and trickle through his fingers. :So beautiful, and so
delicate. Just like people. So damn fragile, they dissolve if you even
get too close. Maybe that’s why I haven’t had any luck finding real
friends or family – they’re destroyed by getting too close to me. Hey,
that’s why I’m Death, man. Everybody close to me dies.:

He walked on, his thin jacket no longer proof against the cold wind
which had blown up. The gusts of air and snow seemed to find every seam
and crack in his clothing, sneaking in to kiss his skin with chilly
breath. He started to shiver, and contemplated turning his steps back
to the safe house.

He glanced behind him, and shook his head. :Nah, I’m not ready to go
back yet. I’ve gotta walk off this mood, or the other’s’ll realize
there’s something wrong. I’m the cheerful one, Quatre’s the loving one,
Trowa’s the silent one, Wufei’s the ranting one, and Heero’s the
psychotic one. That’s just the way it is, and if that changes at all,
we’ll all be off balance.: That led him to wonder absently what Quatre
did when he didn’t feel like being ‘the loving one’. :Even he’s gotta
get pissed off sometimes. Poor kid. Maybe that’s why he spends so much
of his free time out in those rose gardens – he’s free to feel whatever
he wants to there, he doesn’t have to be what we need him to be.:

This time, he saw the patch of light before he stepped into it, and
halted, puzzled. :What the hell?:

More shivers ran down his spine as he looked up, but these were not
generated by the cold. :The church… it’s the same damn church! Dammit,
I KNOW I’m not going in circles – this road is lined by trees and
bordered by deep ditches. I’d have noticed if I’d wandered off! So how
the hell did I get back to this same damn church, out in the middle of
nowhere, without crossing the river again – not once, but twice!:

He stared at the open and welcoming doors with a kind of sick
fascination. Slowly, he moved forward. :I don’t think I’m gonna be
allowed to go back until I do whatever I’m supposed to do in there.:
Reaching the doors, he peered inside. “Hello?” He called out, then
repeated himself in English, just to be sure.

No answer came back, and he stepped hesitantly into the receiving area.
The church was simple, five rows of strait wooden pews, with a carpeted
aisle in the middle. The pews had worn cushions that looked like they
had seen decades of services. The kneeling benches were equally
tattered. There was no glittering gold and silver, none of the
ostentatious decorations that so many churches used to ‘show their
faith’. But the wood was clean and glowed from thousands of coats of
polish, the paint on the wall murals and the idols was fresh and
bright, and the Jesus hanging on the cross over the altar had a gentle,
forgiving smile. The light came from dozens of oil lamps, and hundreds
of tallow and beeswax candles, scattered throughout the church. The
smoke rose up to the peaked roof, where it stained the wood of the
exposed rafters a darker brown than the walls.

Moving like an automaton, Duo picked his way down the aisle until he
reached the altar. By sheer force of habit, he dropped to his knees in
the traditional position for prayer, and bowed his hands over his
folded hands.

“Father,” he whispered, not certain if he was praying to God or Father
Maxwell, “I don’t know if you can hear me. I don’t even know if I
really believe that you’re there. But, if you are, do you think you
could, maybe, help me? Just a little?”

“God is always there to help us, my son,” a deep, aged voice came from
just behind him. Startled, Duo jumped to his feet, pulling his gun from
its place at the small of his back and leveling it at…

A kindly looking priest, whose sympathetic smile, if anything, grew
sadder and more profound as he looked down the barrel of the gun. “It
would seem that you are quite desperately in need of help, my son.
Please, put your weapon away. I mean you no harm.”

“I – I know that,” Duo stuttered, blushing furiously as he replaced the
weapon. :Geez, Duo, way to go. Pull a gun on the priest, in the church,
why don’t you? THAT’ll sure get you in good with Him.: “I’m sorry,
Father, I really am. I shouldn’t even be here…”

The old priest raised an eyebrow. “Should you not?” He kneeled before
the altar, much as Duo had been doing moments before. “All God’s
children are always welcome in His house, child.”

“Even Shinigami?” Duo muttered, but the priest seemed not to have heard
him. After a moment, Duo returned to his place beside the wizened man.

“Perhaps you would care to tell me your troubles?” The man asked after
long moments of silence had stretched out between them. “Sometimes,
just talking about it can help.”

Duo snorted, and said nothing for a long minute. When he finally spoke,
his voice had the distant quality of someone deep in thought, not
really aware that they are speaking aloud. “I don’t know what I’m
fighting for, anymore. At first, I did it for revenge. Killing the
bastards who burned the church. But, dammit, killing a bunch of
soldiers who are just following orders, who are far too young to have
had anything to do with what happened ten years ago – hell, that’s not
revenge. That’s just more of the same, from the other side this time.
I’m as bad as they are.”

He sighed, and buried his face in his hands. “Then you have realized
the most important thing about revenge, my son – that it is empty.
Revenge is a tool of evil, to perpetuate the evil deeds already done.”

Duo shook his head, and his words were muffled by his hands. “Then I
was fighting just ‘cause, just for the thrill and excitement. I’m GOOD
at what I do, damn good. I took pride in myself, in Shinigami.” A sob
escaped him, then another. “But I’m NOT proud. Dammit, I’m NOT! I HATE
killing people! I hate myself!” He broke down entirely then, and the
priest put thin arms around him, giving comfort.

“There, there, my son. You have been through so very much, but you must
learn to distance yourself, to look at the problem from an outside
point of view. Killing is indeed wrong, but there are times when it is
necessary, to protect those you care about."

Duo managed a weak version of his normal psychotic grin. “I suppose
that’s the reason I’m still fighting. ‘Cause I keep telling myself that
I’m changing the world, freeing my people to live their lives normally,
bringing peace and prosperity.” He shook his head miserably, his whole
body trembling in the sheltering embrace of the priest. “But I don’t
really believe that. We’re not changing anything. It’s just more of the
same, all throughout history. It never stops, it never ends, and it’s
people like me who are caught in the middle!”

The priest smiled gently. “Ah, but you are changing things. In ways
both large and small. Because of you and your friends, Duo, the
colonies have a chance at freedom and autonomy, which they need if they
are to prosper.”

Duo looked thoughtful. “Yeah, I guess so… hey, wait a sec! I never told
you my name!” He looked at the old priest with a bit of fear.
:Considering the way I was practically forced to come in here – what if
I didn’t catch myself on that bridge? What if I fell and drowned? Is
this my Judgement?:

“Without you, your friends would lack an element they sorely need to
carry on,” The old priest continued, though a twinkle in his eyes
indicated he was not entirely unaware of Duo’s line of thought. “The
element of laughter. Quatre takes hope from you, and continues to
dispense the caring you also need. Your cheer has touched Trowa, Wufei,
even Heero, changing their lives for the better.” Duo was staring
openly at this point, and his trembling was no longer from suppressed
sobs. The priest gave him a kindly look.

“No, Duo, you’re not dead. You are in a very rare position – your fate
is divided, from this point on. Either you will continue on the way you
have been, a road which leads to sorrow and grief, and ultimately self
destruction. Or, you will realize the good which you accomplish here on
earth, and you will continue to bring light into the lives of those you
touch.”

“Are you some kind of angel?” Duo blurted, then flushed in shame. “I
don’t deserve an angel,” he muttered, turning his face down.

The priest laughed. “No, Duo, I’m not an angel. I am what I appear, a
simple priest in a simple church. Angels are radiant beings, so
beautiful they’re – well, angelic. If you ever meet one, trust me,
you’ll know it!” And there was an element of teasing in the kindly old
eyes. “I was offered the chance to help a young, lost little boy, and I
chose to take it. God does indeed work in mysterious ways, my child.”

Duo continued to shake his head, unable to believe the events which
were unfolding before him. “I – I don’t know what to say. What do I
have to do? Is this, like, where the three ghosts of Christmas Past,
Present and Future come to me, or what?”

“You don’t have to do anything, except realize your own inherent
worth,” the priest replied. “People do not die because they love you,
Duo. They die because of the actions of men, acting under their own
free will. God is not punishing or testing you. He loves you, and he
misses you. Here,” the priest withdrew a crystal rosary, the rough-cut
quartz gems glittering in the candle light. “Perhaps this will help
you. Now, you look tired…” And indeed, suddenly Duo was yawning fit to
crack his jaw, and could barely keep his eyes open. The old priest led
him to one side of the church, where a small cot was set up. “I
sometimes sleep here, when I feel I might be needed in the night. You
rest, and in the morning, return to your friends.” He settled Duo into
the cot and tucked the blankets around him. Though Duo had some vague
notion that he should be protesting, his mind was too overwhelmed by
exhaustion to form a coherent sentence. The old priest patted his hand,
then moved away, blowi!
ng out the candles as he went.

Duo’s eyes slid shut despite all his efforts to keep them open, and the
priest’s last words reached him on the wings of sleep, following him
into his dreams. “Just remember, Duo – the choice is yours, but God is
always with you, whatever you decide.”

Duo was awakened by someone roughly shaking his shoulder. He sat up
abruptly, one hand going for his gun, before he realized the person
standing before him was just an old street bum. He relaxed marginally,
but kept his eyes peeled for trouble. “Huh… wha?” He managed
intelligently, never at his best when he was first woken up in the
morning.

“You oughtn’t to be sleeping here, boy,” the old man rasped in a
whisky-ridden voice. “Cops’ll catch ya. Don’ want that, no you don’t
and there’s a good boy.”

Duo blinked, and looked around. He was on the floor of a broken down
old building, a ratty, tattered rag lying over him like a blanket.
Faint signs of the church he believed he had been in last night could
be seen; the neat rows of holes in the wooden floor where the pews had
been ripped out, the faint negative shadow on the wall, where the cross
had hung and protected the peeling white paint from sunlight and dust,
the faded murals on the walls. Duo shook his head, sending his braid
flying, and bounced to his feet. “What the hell? How’d I…”

The old wino shuffled off towards the crazily leaning door, passing in
and out of the early morning sunlight which leaked through the many
holes in the roof. “Side’s, they say this place is haunted. Old priest
was murdered here, nearly a cent’ry ago, on Christmas Eve. Folks ‘round
here claim he comes back sometimes.” The old man continued muttering,
mostly to himself, as he moved off down the street.

Duo picked his way across the rubble from the tumbling walls and
ceiling, unable to quite believe his eyes. “Did I dream it all?” He
wondered aloud. “Or did I really see a ghost? What the hell happened to
me last night?”

A cold blast of wind found its way through the doorway, and Duo
shivered, shoving his hands in his pockets to warm them. His eyes
widened, and he slowly drew his hand back out.

Twined around his fist, rough-cut quartz beads glittered and gleamed,
the silver Jesus on the golden cross on the end of the rosary
possessing that same, sweet smile that he remembered from the altar
Jesus the night before. Duo began to tremble, then clutched the rosary
to his chest. The cross around his neck seemed to radiate a strange
warmth and comfort.

Suddenly, Duo’s eyes filled with tears, and he sank to his knees, his
head thrown back to the sky. “Thank you,” He whispered, to God, and to
the spirit of the kindly priest who had helped him. “Thank you so much!
I promise, I’ll make the right decision!”

He bounded to his feet and dashed out of the church, his usual cheer
restored plus a little, his mind churning madly. It was barely past
eight, by his watch – the others would be up, and a little worried
about him, but they could wait another hour. He had to find an open
mall, and buy the guys presents – what was Christmas without a
Christmas present, after all? There were enough non-Christians around
here that something should still be open. A new teacup for Quatre,
something Oriental for Wufei – endless possibilities ran through his
mind. His eyes shone with real joy, and for once, the jokers mask
wasn’t needed – he was filled with REAL cheer. Beaming up at the sun,
he shouted aloud, not caring about the strange looks he drew from the
few others outside at this hour.

“MERRY CHRISTMAS!”