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Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence! - A Halo Rendition
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<arthur_wellesly@hotmail.com>
Date: 22 December 2005, 5:25 pm

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       It really is very beautiful, thought Sergeant David Miller whimsically, standing on the packed sidewalk and taking in his surroundings with a comfortable relish. The snow that was gently covering his dark overcoat was likewise coating the city in white, wrapping the stark skyscrapers in a glowing embrace. He had been unsure how he would greet his return to his northern home after spending the past ten years in the tropical Inner Worlds, with their groomed communities and artificially controlled weather, but standing here before the Halifax Harbor filled his heart with a wonderful nostalgia that provided his body with the warmth the cold air could not. This truly was home, and he couldn't have been happier to be back.

       He waited in front of the Oceanfront, a bar that his father had owned before he had been drafted and then killed in the war. He had fond memories of this place. When he was very young he would come here in the daytime for lunch, to get a good meal and catch up with his dad. After prom, his father had been kind enough to close down the place so that he and his friends could come here afterwards and indulge in their first binge drinking, to which a blind eye had been mercifully turned. That, in fact, was one of the last memories he had of his father in the Oceanfront; he had been shipped off soon after when things had gotten bad in the mid '30s. It wasn't so long after that he had been drafted himself. Despite these dire associations, he could only remember the good times as he peered in through the window at the crowd who had gathered within to celebrate Christmas Eve.

       Looking up and down the street, a small flicker of impatience dulled his enthusiasm. The sidewalk was bustling with last-minute shoppers, couples walking along lovingly, and parents pushing their wildly excited children through the crowd. There was no sign of those he was looking for, however. For the past ten years, since he had first been called up for service, he and his four closest friends had come to this bar on Christmas Eve to catch up and bolster each other's spirits when they needed it most. Whatever the cost, whatever their orders or position, they had always made it on Christmas Eve.

       That isn't entirely true, Miller thought on reflection, a coldness replacing the warmth he had felt only moments before. One of his friends, Amanda Carver, had been killed in the line of duty a week prior to Christmas the year before. The gathering that year had been a morose one, though they had all shown up nonetheless, if only to honor her memory. More than the death of a dear friend, the question had struck them all: how long would it be before none of them were left to carry on the tradition?

       "What, you don't recognize us?" a familiar voice sounded from beside him. "It's only been a year."

       Turning, he saw the face of his closest friend, Greg Epstein, his cheeks reddened with the cold. Such was the joy he felt at seeing his friend again that he pushed his sorrow aside and embraced him with all the warmth of a year's worth of waiting.

       "My God, man, how are you doing?" David said genially.

       "Not too bad!" he responded merrily. "It's Christmas Eve, after all!"

       As he stepped back, he realized Greg was not alone. Standing next to him, with her gloved hands pressed against her face, was Caitlin Dennison, of whom he was almost as fond of as Greg. Back in grade school when the two of them were inseparable and before they had developed their keen appreciation for the opposite sex, the strong-willed young girl had quickly made a place for her in both their hearts. No one as much as Greg, however; having been the only two of the group to be shipped out together, their friendship was sparked into something much more. They had been married for many years now, and seeing them together now made David appreciate the permanence of their tight-knit clique.

       "Caitlin!" he cried in greeting, and hugged her as well. "I'm so glad you guys could make it."

       "Come off it, Dave," she said, returning his embrace warmly. "It won't be us that breaks the pact."

       "I don't see why I had to be dragged along, though," Greg said jokingly. "By the way, watch the hands," he added, to which David responded by hastily backing away with his hands raised. Caitlin laughed and playfully hit Greg on the shoulder.

       "Should we wait out here for Charley?" Caitlin asked, vigorously rubbing her gloved hands together and peering up at the dark clouds. The light snow was falling thicker and faster now, and a light but biting wind was blowing across the Harbor.

       For a moment, the three of them looked at each other, and as it happens with people after many years together they all consented before David finally said, with a small smile on his lips, "I'm sure he'll find us anyway." With that, they entered the Oceanfront.

       They took a seat near the door so that the last of their friends, Charley McKeagan, could spot them easily. A harassed looking waitress came over to them and took their order on a small notepad. David had the local beer, Alexander Keith's, while both Greg and Caitlin had the more festive mistletoe martini. The waitress bustled off again, though taking a look around the crowded room David wondered vaguely when they would see those drinks.

       "Damn, it's busy pretty early, isn't it?" Greg noticed aloud as he got comfortable in their booth.

       "Well, they've done an especially good job decorating this year," said David, who had been thinking the same thing, not without a certain amount of pride. The Oceanfront had always gone to extreme lengths for the holidays, a legacy from his father, who, every year, would be more ecstatic with the season than his children. This year, the bar had tinted every light a faint green and red hue, giving the expansive room a merry glow. In the center, where there was usually a small stage for live performers, was a giant Christmas trees weighted down with innumerable traditional ornaments and lights and topped with a bright star. Natural heat and a comfortable smell also permeated the air from a fireplace on the far wall, whose mantle was decorated with an elaborate display of religious figures. Coupled with the merry Christmas music and loud chatter of the customers, it was altogether the coziest place he had been in a long time.

       "It's too bad your wife couldn't make it, Dave," Greg said when they were settled.

       "Yeah, I was looking forward to meeting her," Caitlin agreed.

       "I know, we were both really disappointed," David said earnestly. "She works at one of the Reach shipyards, though, and output it through the roof right now. She just couldn't get out of it."

       "I can imagine," Caitlin murmured sympathetically. "Well, give her our best, at least."

       "Ah! Look who it is," Greg cried loudly enough to be heard amongst the din by a snow covered man who had just walked in. Snapping his head quickly in their direction, he came over as everyone stood up to exchange greetings.

       "Good to see you, Charley," Greg said.

       "Old Chuck himself, eh? How are things, way out in, oh, where are you serving now?" David pinched the bridge of his nose in mock contemplation. "Is it all the way in New York now?"

       "Oh, yea, that's nice," Charles said, struggling to put an edge on his voice. "I get in here after a year and the first thing I get is a shovel of shit."

       "Yeah well, you work for ONI, so I thought you'd be used to that by now," David countered with a laugh. Caitlin also laughed appreciatively, but Greg put a stop to it.

       "Could you at least let the man sit down?" he said, though the severity of it all was somewhat lessened by the friendly punch Charles gave David which elicited a merry laugh all round.

       When the waitress came with their drinks, Charles looked scandalized. "Thanks for ordering me one, guys," he said.

       "We didn't know what you'd want," Greg began.

       "No, no, no, I see how it is," he said, throwing up a hand in mock indignation. "Yes, I'll have a punch, darling," he said to the waitress, who growled something unintelligible as she retreated back to the bar.

       "Here, I'll split my beer with you until she gets back," David offered.

       "Thanks, mate. Hey, so I hear you tied the knot this year, Davey. I thought only this one was that stupid," he said, gesturing to Greg and receiving a prompt and violent kick under the table from Caitlin.

       "Yea, she's wonderful, you'd really like her." He considered this as he took another drink. "She wouldn't like you, but you'd like her."

       "Well, it's been nice seeing you guys again," Charley said, making to leave and receiving chiding laughter. "You know, you're supposed to at least try to make me stay."

       "Yeah? Why would that be?" Caitlin asked with a mischievous grin.

       "You know what?" Charles began, though exactly what he knew David never really heard, for he fell in that moment into a sort of comfortable reverie. It was difficult these days to stay strong and keep the thought of the Covenant from a mind that was inundated with troubles of all kinds, especially after the death of Amanda had shaken them all to the core. But sitting here with his closest friends of many years, getting slowly but inexorably drunk in a bar teeming with human energy seemed to wash all his worries cleanly away. How could such power as billions of humans celebrating the holidays in the face of extinction possibly be defeated? Here, in this bar, shrouded in the magic of Christmas, humanity was invincible.

       Such thoughts trickled slowly from his mind as the night wore on. The bar closed at midnight, and as eleven drifted by the packed bar gradually emptied of its unsteady customers. The Christmas tree was dark now, its lights turned off and the star looking much less impressive. The doors had been closed on the fireplace, and the flames were little more than a few burning embers now. The tinted lights seemed a whole lot less cheery now, even starkly depressing in a way. Even the music didn't help: a rendition of 'Happy Christmas – War is Over' was being played at low volume, and only served to remind the group of the war they still had to fight.

       "Ah, Christmas," Charles slurred, attempting without success to raise the spirits of his friends. Everyone simply stared morosely at their half empty drinks, or watched as the last couple remaining in the bar staggered out the front door.

       "Well, that's that, I guess," Greg said dismally, crushing a peanut on the sleek oak table top.

       "I can't believe it's going to be another year before we get to see each other again," said Caitlin, though the moment she said it, she regretted it. It was clear the same thought passed through everyone's mind: Amanda had said almost the exact same thing on her last Christmas. Every year was another chance that there would be another empty seat at this table.

       "Well, when does everybody have to go back?" David asked with sudden enthusiasm.

       "Tomorrow night for the two of us," Greg said.

       "Yeah, same for me," Charley put in, then looked at his watch. "Actually, I guess tonight, now."

       "Why don't we spend Christmas morning together, then?" David asked. "We could rent a couple of hotel rooms, stay up 'til we have to go back. We could get some coffee on, maybe something to eat." He looked around as his friends slowly sat up, considering this new idea. "Come on! Christmas only comes once a year."

       "Shit, I'm in," Charles said.

       "Me too," Caitlin said, eager to put her comment behind her.

       "Well, I guess that means I'm in too," Greg said with a smile, and lovingly kissed his wife.

       "Man, I need to get a goddamn girl," Charles grumbled as he got up, to which Caitlin laughed and Greg gave him a consoling pat on the back.

       As his three friends stumbled towards the door, spontaneously breaking out into a ragged chorus of 'Silver Bells', David turned to gaze on the bar where so many of his best memories had taken place. The few servers that were left were closing up now, collecting the last disparate dishes and cleaning the surfaces. Clearly they were eager to get home to their families and celebrate the holidays in their own way. It was sad, in a way, to see his bar close after anticipating this moment for a year, but the quietness that had fallen on it was oddly comforting too.

       He gazed at the now dark star on top of the indomitable Christmas tree. This bar would stay standing until the end of days, and when all else was dust and echoes, the spirit that it had housed this night and every other Christmas night was truly forever. As long as he lived, even if he was the only one left, he would come here every Christmas Eve and keep the memories and seasonal merriment alive.

       Because here, humanity was invincible.

Do not concern yourself with matters of flesh and blood
When it seems violence and death must become a torrent and flood.
In one thing may you always find solace:
The warmth and goodwill of Christmas.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!