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A Christmas Tree for the Sangheili Embassy - A Halo Xmas
Posted By: WarlordFil<warlordenfilade@yahoo.ca>
Date: 19 December 2009, 7:55 pm

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Author's Note: This version of the story is slightly different from the one on fanfiction.net. I revised it so that a reader would not need to be familiar with my whole series in order to enjoy this story. To the curious, it can be found on ff net under the heading "The Sangheili Chronicles" and it is Chapter 3 of that short story collection.

This story is K+ rated, unless you are easily offended by discussion of religion and/or the extent of the relationship between Usze and N'tho (nothing sexual depicted and no overt romance). This story mentions multiple religions and also atheism. If either of the above is intolerably offensive, you will not want to read this. To everyone else, enjoy!

A Blessed Yule, Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday Season.

A Christmas Tree for the Sangheili Embassy (revised version)

December 10, 2553 (approximately one year, one month after Halo 3)

       "It's a tree," N'tho 'Sraom pronounced, leaning in to prod the green, prickly branches with his muzzle.

       Usze 'Taham scowled and crossed his arms. "I've been on Earth long enough to know that it is a tree," he said scathingly. "The inquiry was in regards to why a tree has found its way into our lounge."

       After the final Halo Event, Usze and N'tho had found themselves assigned to Earth as the first Sangheili Ambassadors. For their personal safety, they lived in private quarters on a Human military base, and ran the Sangheili Embassy from a separate wing of the building. Following typical military style, whether "home" was a single bunk and locker or an entire apartment, the building's architect had included a common lounge. And, Usze had to admit, the common lounge reminded him very much of the large meeting room in his mother's house in Taham State, though of course this Human version was smaller and far more cheaply appointed. His mother hung fine art on her walls, not unframed posters. Her furniture was carved by skilled artisans; this furniture, for the most part, had been assembled by N'tho 'Sraom and Sergeant Carlos Perez with screwdrivers and hammers, and came out of a box. His mother raised exotic flowers; this tree…

       Usze frowned.

       He limped forward, leaning on his cane. His leg still ached from the injuries he'd suffered in the final battle on Omega Halo, and he struggled every day to come to terms with the fact that he'd never be quite the same. Nevertheless, as an Ambassador, he didn't need to be in perfect fighting condition in order to make a valuable contribution. And he had N'tho to be his bodyguard.

       Usze thrust his muzzle in between the branches and took a sniff.

       "This does not smell like a tree." But he was hardly an expert in Earth botany. "Does it?" he asked N'tho.

       N'tho shook his head. He looked at Usze, eyes wide. "You think it's a…a bomb or something?"

       'Taham scowled again, and while he wanted to tell 'Sraom not to be stupid, a shiver of fear ran down his back. There were a lot of people who didn't like Usze and N'tho, including but not limited to Humans who could not forgive the Sangheili's role in the Covenant Wars, the rebel Sangheili led by Imperial Admiral Xytan Jar 'Wattin, Usze's former associates in the Ascetic Order … Could N'tho be right? Could this false tree somehow be hiding a weapon?

       Usze did his best to be rational. "If this were a trap, it could have been disguised as something far less noticeable." He licked his mandibles. "Still, perhaps you should call Sergeant Perez and make an inquiry."

       But before N'tho could turn on his communicator, the doorway was filled with a trio of Marines, including Perez himself, each with an armload of boxes.

       "Merry Christmas!" Perez said.

       "A Blessed Yule!" the pale-skinned, ash-blonde, stocky Corporal Jane Cyr trilled.

       "Um…Happy Hanukkah?" Corporal Kumani Mbeki added.

       Usze and N'tho exchanged glances.

       "What?" the Sangheili said together.

       "It's Christmas," the sergeant explained, as though that were patently obvious. He strolled into the room and deposited his boxes on the top of the coffee table.

       Usze picked up the top box. At first glance, the blue balls within reminded him of plasma grenades—but no, the box was far too light, and upon closer inspection he could see little rings and hooks on each of the orbs.

       "Technically," Corporal Mbeki corrected him, "Christmas itself is on December twenty-fifth. This is only December tenth."

       "It's a…holiday?" Usze guessed. He'd learned a thing or two about Human holidays during his past eleven months of living on Earth. November sixteenth, for example, was Remembrance Day—technically the date of the end of Humanity's Rainforest War, but expanded to remember all the Humans who had given their lives for their countries. Usze approved of holidays such as that. He privately admitted that he did not mind Thanksgiving so much, either—the excuse to fill his belly on such delicious food was more than acceptable.

       "Do we get to wear costumes?" N'tho blurted excitedly, and Usze winced. Halloween was a holiday he could do without.

       "Sure," Jane Cyr said, and put a red cap with a fuzzy white band and pompom atop N'tho's head.

       Usze turned to Kumani Mbeki pleadingly. The dark-skinned, short-haired, tall Kenyan-born woman grinned and said, "Don't worry, Ambassador, dressing up in costume is not a common part of Christmas."

       "Speak for yourself," Perez said ruefully. He unbuttoned his casual battle dress shirt to reveal a T-shirt depicting a fat man with a machine gun and the words YOU SLEIGH ME. The fat man wore a hat just like N'tho's. "My brother got me this and is insisting I wear it at the base party."

       N'tho blinked. Cyr laughed. Mbeki looked confused.

       "My brother is Colonel Perez," the sergeant said with much eye-rolling. Mbeki's lips slowly split into a grin.

       Usze didn't get the joke that was apparently on the shirt, but he did understand what it was like to tolerate something for the sake of one's superiors—or one's position. Whatever this Christmas involved, he was going to have to take part in it, for the sake of the alliance between Humanity and Sangheili.

       But if it involved another zombie costume, so help all the Gods, he'd…

       "Let's get started on the tree!" Cyr said, sounding excited.

       Usze's eyes flashed. "So you put that thing here!"

       "Well, Staff Sergeant Perez did," the Marine retorted, glancing at her leader. "Decorating the tree is a big part of the holiday."

       "Wait. Where's Doyle?" N'tho asked.

       Mbeki rolled her eyes. Privately, Usze had the same reaction. Private Seamus Doyle, the Marines' number one bootlegger, was an alcoholic disaster waiting to happen.

       "Don't even ask," Cyr grumbled. "You know how Doyle gets at this time of year."

       "Drunk off his rocker, running around the base in a Santa suit and a pirate hat, singing "Ho Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum?" Perez said slyly.

       "That was after consuming a case of beer," Cyr countered. "When he's sober, he hates Christmas."

       The three Humans fell silent.

       "Come on," Perez said quietly. "Doyle…well…I have a wife and two daughters. Mbeki has a sister and a son. Cyr has her mom..."

       "And a boyfriend," Cyr added.

       Mbeki's eyebrows raised…apparently this was something new.

       "And Doyle…" Perez shook his head. "I don't think Doyle's got anybody left after the war. Or anyone since then, either." He swallowed. "This is Christmas. Can't we think the best of our fellow man, just once a year?"

       "Fine," Cyr sighed. "But we're not putting off tree decorating until Doyle wakes up and gets some coke and aspirin or whatever he's using as a hangover remedy these days."

       Mbeki glanced at Cyr. "I'm surprised that you're so interested in decorating the tree, since you don't celebrate Christmas."

       Cyr opened the top box and plucked out a golden-coloured globe made of glass. "Pagans had trees before Christians did."

       Usze glanced over at N'tho, but the other Sangheili appeared just as confused by this conversational turn as Usze felt.

       Sergeant Perez saw their confusion and took it upon himself to explain. "Here, we'll tell you about it while we decorate."

       "This Christmas tree is fake," Cyr said, wrinkling her nose in what Usze had come to know was a Human expression of distaste.

       "It better be," Mbeki retorted. "I'm allergic to pine."

       "And we don't know how these two," Perez gestured to the Sangheili, "would deal with the real thing, so we got Base Stores to drop this one off this morning. Apparently they have more than they can use in their collection of decorations."

       "The first part," Mbeki said, "is to find the lights."

       Everyone grabbed the nearest box and pulled off the lid. Usze's box contained two small human figures and a geometrical shape. He peered inside N'tho's box. There was a slithering tangle of fuzzy, silvery rope in there.

       "Got 'em," Perez announced. He pulled out a giant tangled mess of cord studded with little lights.

       "It's the twenty-sixth century," Cyr muttered, "and technology has yet to advance far enough to invent the non-tangling Christmas lights."

       Looking at the snarl, Usze was not certain that Covenant technology was up to that task either.

       "Plug them in," Mbeki suggested. "The last thing we want is to get them on the tree only to find out some of them don't work."

       "If you're such an expert, why don't you do it, Corporal Mbeki?"

       While Mbeki struggled with the lights, Perez explained the holiday to the Sangheili. "Christmas is a holiday held shortly after the Winter Solstice."

       Usze and N'tho nodded. Sanghelios had a Winter Solstice as well.

       "My father says Sangheili used to celebrate the Solstice, before the Prophets came," N'tho said. "After that, most of our holidays had to do with the date of such-and-such Declaration or the date of the discovery of various Forerunner artifacts."

       "Christmas is a rather odd holiday from your point of view, I think," Perez said, "in that it's both a secular and a religious celebration."

       "Religious?" N'tho asked warily. Usze admitted to feeling a little uneasy himself. There was nothing like being shown that the faith you'd been raised in had been based on lies and manipulation to give someone a healthy mistrust of religion.

       N'tho's father Piro 'Kipaz had always been a follower of the old Sangheili spirituality, a tradition based in ancestor veneration and the cycles of the seasons, though he had paid lip service to the Covenant faith in public. With the breaking of the Covenant, Piro had sloughed off the religion of the Prophets and continued to honour the Forerunners alongside the ancient Sangheili heroes and his own ancestors, just as he always had.

       N'tho, on the other hand, had taken the news a lot more poorly. He'd been outright angry that all his suffering and struggling, all the pain that had been inflicted upon him, had been in the name of something that hadn't even been real. Usze wasn't sure if N'tho was really an atheist now or just wished he were, or if he'd taken up Human beliefs along with his other Human-influenced ways, but Usze hadn't been able to summon up the courage to ask.

       Usze was still too conflicted about his own beliefs. N'tho had been the victim of the Sangheili belief system; Usze had been one of the perpetrators. N'tho might have been punished for his perceived failings, but it was Usze who'd willingly dedicated his life, and his soul, to an organization that had proven rotten at the core. Without the Covenant, N'tho was free, but Usze…

       Usze was hollow.

       He didn't like to think about it. This Christmas was apparently supposed to be a happy time. Usze did not want to ruin the mood by withdrawing and brooding. He had spent enough of his life in solitude already. If he allowed his private darkness to overwhelm him, he might as well join Private Doyle inside a bottle of screech.

       Usze closed his hand around N'tho's and gripped tightly. The other Sangheili turned his head towards his battle brother, his eyes curious, the pompom on the hat swinging back and forth off the side of his muzzle. Understanding crossed N'tho's expression and he squeezed Usze's hand to reassure him.

       With N'tho at his side, Usze 'Taham could get through anything.

       "Don't worry," Mbeki said, noticing the look on the Sangheili's faces. "I don't believe in any kind of God and I still love Christmas."

       Usze tilted his head, confused. On Sanghelios, if one didn't show proper behaviour on a High Holy Day, one could expect a "visit" from the local authorities to…encourage…one's zeal. Holidays had not been much fun for the private atheists among the Sangheili, who had to act one way while privately thinking and feeling another.

       "What this time of year means to you kind of depends on what you believe," Perez explained. "To someone like Mbeki, Christmas is a winter festival with an emphasis on love and family. To a Christian like me, Christmas is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who we believe was the Son of God. His birth brings Christians the hope of salvation. To a Wiccan like Cyr, the Winter Solstice marks the symbolic rebirth of the sun and the return of the light. That's also a celebration of hope—hope that spring will return, hope that life will renew itself once more. Jewish people like Major Osstrander celebrate Hanukkah. Muslim people like Rashid Youssef celebrate Ramadan earlier on. All sorts of religions have different holidays at this time of year, but all of them have one thing in common: this is a time of year to celebrate with family and friends." He coughed. "And, er, the presents are pretty good too."

       It was still blowing Usze's mind how many religions Humanity seemed to have. When he was growing up on Sanghelios, if you weren't a closet atheist or a more-or-less faithful follower of the Covenant faith, about the only other thing you could be was a practitioner of ancient Sangheili spirituality like Piro, or some mixture of the above. Humanity had so many options, including the choice not to believe…and the choice not to care about the issue either way. Usze could not imagine not caring whether or not there were Gods.

       N'tho, predictably, had other concerns.

       "Presents?" N'tho asked, pushing his muzzle against Perez' cheek in an overly familiar nuzzle that had the Marine wincing.

       Usze could not help himself. He laughed. N'tho always made him feel happier.

       Mbeki was laughing too. "Big, tough Sangheili looks just like my four year old where presents are concerned." She was covered all over in colourful lights—but the strands were much straighter, and every light glowed red, yellow, green or blue.

       "Do we get presents?" N'tho asked excitedly.

       "I don't know," Cyr said. "There's fourteen shopping days until Christmas…eleven until the Solstice…so you've got some time, but the malls are crazy this time of year."

       Mbeki's eyes sparkled. "Or you could do what my son does and write a letter to Santa."

       "That's assuming they haven't been naughty," Cyr countered.

       Usze felt bewildered again.

       "Here," Perez said, handing something to Usze.

       Usze accepted it. It was a little human figure dressed in red. Plump and bearded, it wore a hat like N'tho's.

       "That's Santa," Perez said. "A mythological figure who supposedly travels the world on Christmas Even and leaves gifts for children who've been good."

       'Taham peered into the box. There were several Santas, some painted on glass orbs, some of plastic, some of cloth, some of painted wood. Usze noted that some of the Santas had pale skin, like Cyr, and some had dark skin, like Mbeki. But somehow, both seemed to represent the same character. Usze could comprehend this "Santa" as a god figure, but…a god who existed for nothing other than to bring happiness to the young? The Prophets had said the Forerunners were distant, otherworldly, focused only on creating the path to godhood and judging who among mortals was worthy to walk upon it.

       But the Prophets had been wrong about so many things.

       "What happens to the bad children?" Usze asked, unable to shake the idea that there had to be a condemnation somewhere, for someone.

       Cyr laughed. "Naughty boys and girls get coal in their stockings."

       "Fuel," Usze translated. "That seems like a useful item, though in this day and age, perhaps gasoline or solar cells might be more practical."

       The Marines were giving him that look again. In fact, so was N'tho.

       "Fuel sucks," N'tho said, "when you'd rather have toys. I want a holovid game. There's this one where you play as a wizard and turn bad guys into frogs. Santa can bring me that."

       Usze folded his arms. "How do you know anything about Santa?"

       "Christmas specials," N'tho shot back.

       Usze blinked.

       "You know, on television?"

       Usze rarely watched television unless he was aware in advance of something interesting that he could download. Most of the TV downloads were stupid, in his opinion. Still, TV downloads were one of the reasons N'tho knew so much about Human culture.

       "Oh boy," Mbeki said quietly. "I wonder if N'tho realizes that Santa is fictional?"

       'Taham tilted his head.

       "It's usually the parents who buy the presents and put them out in the middle of the night. Sometimes charities, if the parents are too poor to afford anything. Well, at least we know what N'tho wants…"

       Usze folded his arms. "I think what N'tho needs is a bodysuit filled with coal," he said in a normal tone of voice, "since we do not wear stockings and since N'tho is very naughty."

       "It's hard to be naughty alone," N'tho shot back, and Usze felt his face purpling. "If I'm getting coal, so are you."

       "Too much information," Perez retorted, and rapidly changed the subject. He handed Usze an ornament depicting a Human with wings like a bird's, and N'tho, another Santa. "The next step is to hang all the ornaments on the tree."

       Cyr demonstrated by hanging a gold globe from a bough with a little hook.

       Usze hung the flying human, which Mbeki called an "angel." Perez showed him how to choose a bough with enough space beneath it for the ornament to hang free. Usze nodded his understanding and put his Santa on the opposite side of the tree.

       The boxes were piled high with ornaments. There were blown-glass ornaments in various shapes: perfect spheres, ovals with pointed ends, imperfect spheres with stems and tails rising from the bottom and top. There was a little bell that rang when you touched it. There were wooden and plastic objects, some of which Usze could identify as musical instruments, flowers, and animals. Other items Usze did not recognize, and Kumani Mbeki taught him the names for them: rocking horse, sleigh, mistletoe, elf.

       There were miniature cloth items which resembled nothing so much as human socks. What was next—miniature underwear?

       There were shapes made with beads, including something Usze guessed was meant to represent a "snowman." Perez' two daughters and Mbeki's son had taken advantage of the first major snowfall to teach Nitro how to make one. Uzi had spent the first major snowfall wrapped up in front of the lounge's fireplace, watching through the window, drinking the hot chocolate beverage and wondering how anything could live on a planet so cold.

       Corporal Cyr seemed attached to a miniature broom, a stylized sun, some plastic apples, and another snowman, this one wearing—if he remembered enough about Halloween—a witch's hat. Perez explained to Usze that these were symbolic of Cyr's religion. Then he showed Usze some of his symbols: a beaded cross, a sheep herder, a baby Human, and the angels.

       "Next year," Mbeki said, "you guys should collect some stuff from Sangheilos, so that next Christmas we could hang some things of yours on the tree."

       N'tho's face lit up. "Wait!" he said, and ran out of the room.

       "Do I want to know?" Jane Cyr asked.

       Usze groaned. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what N'tho might come up with either.

       "Tinsel garland," Perez announced. The sergeant showed Usze how to help the Marines wrap the glittering tinsel rope around the tree in a spiral shape. By the time they were done, N'tho was back, holding a handful of little items which he dropped onto the coffee table. Usze recognized some of the smaller models which N'tho built from scrap metal, wood carvings, and other spare parts. There was a little Warthog, a Ghost, a Mongoose, a Wraith, a tiny Scarab which Usze was certain had begun its life as one of the fake spiders from Halloween, and a five-inch carving of a Sangheili ship much like Shadow of Intent.

       "Can we put hooks on these?" N'tho asked.

       So, each person picked up a model and an ornament hanger and added N'tho's creations to the tree. Usze had to admit, the combination of Human and Sangheili items on the tree was stirring.

       A mixture of religions. A mixture of cultures. A mixture of species, even.

       Usze was not sure he fully understood the meaning of Christmas, but he was beginning to grasp what the holiday meant—would mean—to him.

       "Now we have to pick what goes at the top of the tree," Mbeki said, looking into the box that Usze had first opened.

       "Angel," said Perez.

       "Holly King," said Cyr.

       "Not this again," Mbeki grumbled. She turned to Usze and N'tho. "Every year they fight about what goes on top of the tree. Carlos wants his angel and Jane wants her Holly King or Father Christmas or fancy Santa or whatever you want to call him." She smirked. "In the better years, we make them compete in some stupid contest to choose a winner."

       "How about we use this one?" Usze said, removing the third item—the geometrical figure.

       "The star?" Mbeki frowned. "I don't know…don't you think it's kind of beaten-up looking?"

       "Is that what that's supposed to be?" N'tho asked, scratching his head.

       "Well, obviously it doesn't really look like a star. A star looks like just a pinpoint of light. But it's also a symbol, I guess. A beacon of hope for Humanity. You don't need to be religious to understand that. I think for a long time, people were inspired by the idea of something bigger than we were…a promise of something waiting for us, somewhere out there."

       Mbeki fell suddenly silent and Usze could guess what she was thinking as he cradled the star in his hands. What Humanity had found "out there" had not been the glorious future it had dreamed of for countless generations. Instead, it had found the Covenant, and Usze and those like him had helped to burn their worlds to ash.

       In the process, the Humans had killed many Sangheili. And, Usze admitted, the Sangheili had found their own problems in the wider universe. The lying Prophets. The Brutes, who'd happily see every Sangheili dead. And… He shuddered. And the Flood.

       But, Usze thought as he looked around the room, they had also found this alliance with the Humans. They had found the truth about the Great Journey, and used it as an opportunity to begin again, to purge the arrogance and pride and selfishness and cruelty that had begun to infect them as a species. They had defeated the Flood, and kept their galaxy safe. He looked down at the star figure and felt a stirring of hope.

       "It is a little battered," Usze said slowly. "So is Sanghelios. So is Earth. But I have a hope that we both will rise again—together. Don't you?"

       The three Marines exchanged glances, first with one another, then with N'tho, and finally, they nodded.

       Usze's bad leg trembled as he reached for the top of the tree. N'tho darted in to support his partner, but before he could cross the room, Usze found himself being held up by the three Marines.

       Just this once, Usze swallowed his considerable Sangheili pride and accepted their support as he stretched to his full height and put the star on top of the Sangheili Embassy's very first Christmas tree.