TITLE: Magi (1/1)

AUTHOR: C. Midori

EMAIL: socksless@hotmail.com

CATEGORY: JC/AL

RATING: PG

SPOILERS: Season 7

DISCLAIMER: Story is based on characters and situations owned by Not Me, etc.

AUTHOR'S NOTES:

Look, ma, I wrote fluff! Sort of! *swells with pride* A holiday miracle if I ever saw one.

Magi is set over the course of Christmas Eve and Day within the context of Season 7 (think addictions and recovery, the triangle, unrequited love, etc.). It consists of two parts: "Unreal City" is the first and narrated mostly from Carter's perspective, and "The Gift" is the second and narrated mostly from Abby's perspective. Credits at end.

This one's for the Carby Contingent. ;) Merry (Belated) Christmas.

SUMMARY: Carter and Abby have themselves a Very Merry Un-Christmas. Flashbacks, unrequited love, T. S. Eliot, argyle socks, and some heavy-handed religious symbolism. Because Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without heavy-handed religious symbolism.

*          *          *

i. Unreal City

fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves,
où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant

It is night when Carter finishes his shift. In the ambulance bay he passes a group of carolers he thinks he saw earlier in the hospital. They are apparently banished from the ER for the remainder of the night, their expulsion courtesy of Weaver and her mighty Cane of Justice, he's willing to bet. Nevertheless, they manage to look cheerful about their predicament: they all smile and wave at him from behind chattering teeth and turned-up collars as he walks by.

In the blanket darkness of night, their voices sound not completely unlike the rich chime of sleigh bells. Their singing reminds him of a time long past, a time when he was small but not so young, a time when his agnostic parents dragged him to church every Christmas Eve after Bobby died until he was just about ready to proclaim himself Buddhist.

Thoughtful, Carter watches them sing for a couple of minutes. Before he leaves, he waves back.

But all too soon he disappears again beneath the murky waters of his memories. He feels the world slip away as he drowns without dying and lives without breathing. Once again he is a child, once again he is in his Sunday best, and once again he finds himself sandwiched between his mother on his right and his father on his left, neither of whom he knows as well as he wants to or loves as much as he should. The pew is hard against the delicate bones of his body and his legs are too short to reach the ground. They grow restless and kick out on their own.

This earns him a look of disapproval from his mother. He squirms beneath her watchful eye. When she finally turns away to bow her head, he is sure she is not praying but dreaming up some cruel and unusual punishment for him. Although what could be more cruel and unusual than this particular family tradition, he doesn't know and he doesn't think he wants to find out.

The book his father places upon the spindly legs of his lap seems bone-crushingly heavy. But its cover is soft like butter and the pages fascinate him: they are thin and translucent like flower petals. They are so thin, in fact, that he imagines he can see right through them, all the way back through time to see the faces of the men who once wrote this heavy book with their heavy hands and their heavy hearts.

He opens his mouth, but whether it is to ask the question or something else, he never knows, because he is drowned out by the sudden blast of a car horn.

The memory flees from his fingertips like water. In the end, he is just a man in a pair of expensive Italian loafers standing on a busy street corner with one foot halfway off the curb and a startled look upon his face. No less and no more.

This thought saddens him and he takes a moment to collect himself. His hands grope for a foothold and come to rest on the lamppost beside him. He is surprised to find not metal or ice but the prick of pine needles against his skin.

He looks up. The pole is wreathed with garlands that smell like the deep dark forests of fairy tales and ribbons so scarlet they belong in the flaxen hair of fair-headed maidens.

The night is cold and the stars shine like chips of metal in the sky.

Carter remembers that it is Christmas Eve.

*

The soft knock at Abby's apartment door is enough to make her nearly fall out of her seat. Instinctively, she reaches out for the cigarette that rests against the lip of the hideous ceramic ashtray at her elbow. It's a relic from her days in the pottery studio. She doesn't know why she still owns it but it still comes in handy sometimes after days like the one she just had.

One set of fingers drum against the arm of her couch; the other clutches the smoke to her lips. Her cheeks hollow in suction as she smokes the cigarette slowly, thoughtfully, unhurriedly. She makes no movement to answer the door. It's probably Luka. She's not exactly sure how she feels about that, but she knows she isn't pleased.

The knock comes again. She swears, once and loudly, and realizes that she can't even pretend she's not home anymore. Suddenly annoyed, she stamps out the cigarette and drags herself to the door. The locks and chains come undone under her expert fingers and she yanks the door open.

When the smoke clears, she blinks in surprise.

"Were you expecting Santa Claus?"

*

Somehow Abby is surprised, and not surprised, to find Carter, of all people, standing behind the threshold to her apartment on this night. It's surprising because she didn't really expect to see him tonight. She assumes he has better things to do than show up unannounced at her door.

Then again, it's not all that surprising given the fact that she's used to this by now. He's done this before: shown up at her door at odd hours on odd days, mind restless and eyes bright. At first she let him in because it came with the territory of being his sponsor. After awhile, she let him in because it came with the territory of being his friend.

"Santa Claus?" she says finally.

Elegantly, he shrugs his shoulders underneath the weight of his overcoat. Privately, Abby thinks that the shoulder pads are much too heavy for a man as slight as Carter, but she doesn't care enough to say so.

"I hope you're not disappointed," he remarks.

"That you're not a fat old man in a cheap red suit?" she retorts. "Hardly."

He smiles at her. It is an odd, disarming sort of smile, an upward turn of the mouth more than anything else, like watching paper curl as it burns, she thinks. She finds herself strangely affected by this smile, so devoid as it is from any real feeling or meaning, and she forgets why she was ever surprised to see him here in the first place.

Giving herself a mental shrug, Abby backs away from the door to let him in. "Come on in," she says simply.

Carter nods his thanks and walks in but makes no movement to shuck his coat. Abby feels impossibly short next to him and his huge shoulder pads. She hates that and he knows it.

Abby rakes a hand through her disheveled hair. "Shouldn't you be at some party sweeping some socialite off her feet?"

"Probably," Carter shrugs. "Explains why I'm here, doesn't it?"

He doesn't see her smile as she rummages through the cabinets in her kitchen to find a couple of mugs and flips the switch on her coffee maker.

"Don't bother," he calls after her. "We're going out."

Abby pauses. She turns around. Her eyebrows are practically scraping the ceiling. "Where are we going?"

Looking wholly unperturbed, Carter plays with the ends of his scarf until he tugs an end of a thread free. "You're sitting at home by yourself on Christmas Eve," he points out. "Does it really matter?"

She stares at him until the mugs nearly slip from her grasp. She catches them and puts them back in their place. "I guess not," she says. "Let me get my coat."

The last thing she sees before she slips into the darkness of her bedroom is the thread breaking as Carter gives it a venomous yank.

*

For a moment, Carter regrets ever coming here in the first place. He closes his eyes and imagines that things are different. He pretends that he is really not about to take her where he knows he needs to go tonight. He tells himself that they are, instead, going out on something other than a wild goose chase. Something normal. Like a date. A real date.

Somehow, he doesn't think that idea will fly with either her or her tall, dark, and Croatian boyfriend.

So he sticks to his original plan and he stays in spite of the fact that he is having second, third, even fourth thoughts, all of which are telling him to go. He rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet and fiddles with the fingers of his leather gloves as he grows increasingly nervous. He's not exactly sure what he's looking to accomplish with this little trip back down memory lane, if he's looking to accomplish anything at all. He has the distinct and uneasy feeling that he's looking to save someone tonight: maybe him, maybe her, and maybe even the both of them together.

He's not sure how she'll react to that.

He can't leave, even if he has a flimsy excuse for being here. He doesn't see her nearly as much as he likes even though he sees her far more than he deserves. He'll look for any reason to see her that doesn't revolve around a patient or their mutual problems with controlled substances. Tonight is just as good as an excuse as the others.

Even if a little voice in the back of his head keeps telling him that she should be with someone else tonight. Even if that little voice reminds him that the only reason she is with him on this sacred night is because she is on loan.

But he forgets to feel guilty when she appears. She is just wearing jeans and a turtleneck, but her eyes are dark with curiosity and her hair--short as it is--frames what he thinks is a beautiful face.

Suddenly, he finds breathing very, very difficult.

Abby doesn't notice any of this as she shoves a hat over her head. "This better be good," she warns him. She doesn't know that she's just reduced him to a shriveling pile of nerves. Not that he plans on ever telling her.

*

It takes only twenty minutes to walk from her apartment to wherever they are going but Abby slips almost eight times. The sidewalks are slick with ice and she is walking twice as fast as he is to keep up with him.

Carter knows this. He knows he should slow down and he knows she won't ask him to. But he also can't bring himself to forfeit this chance to catch her each of the eight times she slips. He is sure she thinks nothing of it, but his mind always flies blank when she looks up to reward him with one of her rare and infrequent smiles.

"I didn't think you'd be home," he comments, helping her right herself after slip number seven, "I thought you'd be with--"

"We had a fight." She rolls her eyes. To his amusement and secret delight, she doesn't sound sorry. "Didn't feel like dealing with him tonight."

"But it's Christmas," Carter teases her. "Have a heart."

Abby glowers at him. "Don't feel like seeing him. It's better this way." She is surprised to find that she really means it.

Nodding, he expects her to launch into one of her infamous tirades against her clueless boyfriend (her words, not his), but to his surprise she doesn't. Instead, she focuses--for once--on him. This must be his lucky day.

She peers up at him. She looks adorable in her hat. "You sure you don't have anything better to do tonight?"

"I'm sure," Carter says. His hand rests lightly against the small of her back as they scoot by a crowd of very drunk, very loud teenagers. "Do you?"

"No," Abby sighs. "Where are we going again?"

"It's a surprise," he says truthfully--sort of. He's afraid that if he tells her where they're going, she'll turn on her heel and run from him like a bat out of hell. He doesn't think he can take that. Not tonight.

"I'm freezing my ass off," she complains.

"You complain too much," he says automatically. "Be happy. It's Christmas."

She grumbles, but doesn't reply. He smiles into his scarf.

*

When they stop in front of their intended destination, Abby gives him a look that says, plainly, you're crazy, followed by another look that begins with there's no way in hell--

Carter gives her what he hopes is his most charming smile.

She is incredulous. "You're taking me to church?"

Methodically, he extracts each finger from his gloves, one by one. "You say that like it's a bad thing," he says calmly.

She looks mutinous.

"Don't knock it until you've tried it," he suggests. "You might like it."

Abby sidesteps a crowd of bible-toting churchgoers, eyeing their hymn books suspiciously. "Hell might freeze over. What's your point?"

"It is pretty cold tonight," he points out reasonably.

This earns him a smile. He can't help but smile back.

"All right, all right," she says finally. "Let's go, altar boy."

Carter reaches for the door. As his fingers curl around the ice-encrusted handle, he thinks that it is not nearly as cold as he previously imagined it to be.

"You owe me," she manages to whisper loudly before they duck into the church.

*          *          *

ii. The Gift

in solstitio brumali

Abby is wearing a turtleneck--and under that, a tee--but for some reason it feels like there is nothing, absolutely nothing at all, between Carter's hand and the place on the small of her back where he rests it as he steers her down the aisle.

She gives up trying to explain it away by the time they pick a pew. By mutual and silent consent, they stick towards the back.

All around them people bow their heads in prayer. The moonlight that spills through the many stained glass windows in the small church paints beautiful multicolored halos upon the bent heads. The red panes bleed, the blue panes weep, and the yellow panes glow golden like the sun.

Abby glances over at Carter. The Bible sits on his lap. He looks thoughtful, absorbed, distracted. He is neither red nor blue nor yellow but manages to escape all three, his face pale like a swipe of white paint against a canvas of primary colors.

If he closes his eyes, he looks just like one of them, she thinks dazedly.

Maybe it's the hushed and hallowed silence of the church, maybe it's the quiet unassuming smiles that people direct her way, but something about this place throws her off balance. When he leans over to whisper in her ear, she is astonished to find herself leaning across the small space to meet him.

*

They are halfway through the service and Abby is still awake. In fact, she looks downright at ease as she listens to the recitations and the prayers and the hymns with the scholarly attentiveness of a med student.

Carter takes this to be a good sign.

He also takes this time to commit her to memory. He thinks it will be a long time before she lets him drag her to a church again, if ever. So he sneaks quick peeks at her out of the corner of his eye--memorizing the pale glow of her skin, the soft slope of her mouth, the curve of her wrist--and he thinks that he'll never forget the way she looks under candlelight.

When she catches him staring at her, she does a double take.

"Are you bored?" she whispers.

"No," he whispers back. "Why?"

She hesitates. "No reason."

The choir stands up to sing. Carter remembers what brings him here in the first place. Quietly, he settles back in his seat. His feet kick out without meaning to.

*

People are praying again.

But Abby isn't. She doesn't believe in prayer.

Apparently, neither does Carver. He is sitting with the Bible still across his lap. Curiously, his feet are swinging. Really, they are too long to swing. She wants to make him stop because he is scuffing his expensive Italian loafers in church and there must be a commandment for that.

But she restrains herself from doing so and decides to people watch for awhile.

Eventually, she gets bored spying on the people around them and she turns her attention back to Carter.

He is crying.

Startled, Abby forces herself to stare forward. Her heart jacks up against her ribcage. She can feel her pulse thrumming against her wrist as she drags her eyes back on him.

His eyes are blank and his cheeks are smeared with tears.

She is not even sure if he knows that he is crying.

She doesn't believe in prayer. She doesn't even really believe in God. But suddenly she finds herself wishing that she did.

*

The second half of the service flies by much faster than the first. Perhaps it is because she spends most of the time worrying about Carter. Perhaps.

He misinterprets her immobility. "Are you bored?" he whispers.

"What?" she whispers back. "Sorry, I fell asleep."

"Ha, ha," he says under his breath. "Do you want to leave?"

She shrugs. "It's almost over."

And it is. The collection plate is coming around. Abby isn't a regular churchgoer, but she knows that it's all downhill from here.

She prays that no one sees her pass the plate straight to Carter without dropping anything in it. It isn't her fault she doesn't have her wallet on her. It really isn't. Right?

Oh, Christ. Maybe the church will take a belated check, she thinks glumly.

She's going straight to hell for this.

Meanwhile, she watches as Carter drops a twenty.

Bastard.

When the service is over, they file out the door like regular churchgoers and shake hands with the reverend. Strangely enough, he reminds Abby of Santa Claus. She keeps that thought to herself and manages to wait until they are out of earshot before she bursts out laughing.

*

It starts to snow on their way back to her apartment. All around them are the sights and sounds of winter: the muffled fall of snow, the sky sprigged with stars, the nets of frost covering the trees. Abby finds herself enjoying it in spite of the fact that they're about to walk into the middle of a very large snowball fight and she's so cold that she can't feel her toes.

She turns to Carter after dodging a stray snowball. "I didn't know you went to church."

"I don't," he says easily. Snow explodes against his back. He waves off the culprit: a teenage girl who blushes as red as the hair poking out from beneath her hat. Her hand is still frozen in the act of throwing. Abby thinks she looks like a life-size action figure. An NFL quarterback, maybe.

Irritated, she brushes the snowflakes from her eyelashes. "What do you call what we just did?"

Carter gives her a shrug as hard as ice before replying. "My parents used to drag me to church every Christmas Eve after Bobby died."

Abby stops fidgeting. An odd, heavy feeling settles into her chest. "Old habits die hard?"

"I guess," he says. "I go every year."

She looks sideways at him but doesn't answer. Instead, she slips her hand around his and gives it a gentle squeeze.

He turns toward her, obviously surprised. Their breaths mingle in the cold air. He looks like he is about to say something. But at the last minute he changes his mind and instead chooses to drop a snowball over her head.

*

It is midnight when Carter drops her off at her door. Their fingers are cold and wet but their cheeks are glowing warm and they wear matching idiotic grins. Abby insists that she won fair and square. Carter maintains that he let her--cheat and win.

She invites him in even though they both know he will decline.

Abby rubs her hands together in hopes of restoring the feeling in her fingers. "What are you doing tomorrow?"

"Probably feigning my joy at receiving my fiftieth pair of argyle socks," Carter shrugs into the doorway.

"Poor little rich boy," she remarks.

He clutches his chest in mock hurt. "What about you?" he asks. "Want to shoot hoops with my socks?"

"I can't." Abby looks regretful. "Luka and I…"

She doesn't finish her sentence. She doesn't have to. She sees the look on Carter's face as soon as she mentions the L-word.

She doesn't know what that look means. She's not sure she wants to find out.

He stands up straight. "I'll see you at work, then?"

"At work," she echoes. "See you."

But then Carter does something she does not expect. Across what little space is left between them, he leans over and, touching her shoulder with butterfly fingers, kisses her on the cheek.

Without thinking about it, she closes her eyes.

"Merry Christmas, Carter," she manages.

He leaves. She doesn't realize until after he is gone that he never says it back. It leaves her feeling oddly hurt.

*

It snows off and on throughout the night. When Abby wakes on Christmas Day, the world is sugar-coated white and there is a message on her machine from Luka. She glosses over the usual apology and concentrates on the part where he suggests breakfast at his place. He offers to cook. She can't argue with that.

She doesn't notice the small gift-wrapped box by her ashtray until she is almost out her door and cursing under her breath because she is already running late. But she can't leave without her cigarettes.

When she turns around and makes a grab for them, she finds her fingers brushing instead against streams of silver ribbon. She blinks in surprise for the first time since last night.

The gift bears a tag. Even though she is late, she sinks down into her couch with the gift on her lap and a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. She recognizes the writing on the tag with its familiar loops and slants, and she grins when she reads the short note scrawled upon the tag.

Merry Christmas, Abby.

Morning falls upon the shiny silver trim in bright spikes of light. Abby takes her time untangling the flurry of ribbons that cages the box. Finally, she tugs the box free. The wrapping falls to the floor unheeded. Unable to fend off her impatience any longer, she lifts the lid.

The sun sparkles off a set of crystal ornaments. They are very beautiful against their bed of dark blue velvet and, Abby is sure, very expensive. But that is not what immediately strikes her.

Blinking, she uses one hand to lift them out of their box. Two--not three--magi dangle from her fingertips and come to rest against her palm. The light sparks off their angles and makes them look like bright stars caught in the hollow of her hand.

*          *          *

CREDITS:

Magi, of course, refers to the wise men who came from the east and traveled to Jerusalem to pay homage to the infant Jesus.

"Cane of Justice" is all JD and A Mouthful of Air. I hope she doesn't mind me borrowing it.

The title and accompanying quotation of Part I is taken from "The Wasteland" by T. S. Eliot. 'Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves, / Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant' is originally from "The Seven Old Men" by Charles Baudelaire and translates loosely to 'Swarming city, city full of dreams, / Where the specter in broad daylight accosts the passerby'.

'in solstitio brumali' ('the very dead of winter') is quoted in Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" but was originally from a Nativity sermon by Lancelot Andrewes.