Disclaimer: They're not mine, for they obviously belong to each other.

Sub-Disclaimer: And if it makes no sense, it's just the slice of two- year old fruitcake that's doing the writing. XP

Done (with love) for the Interlude SSP, 2004.

For my Dearest SSP Recipient- Nekozuki1776(with much love )

Before The First Light

By: Nikoru Sanzo

The whitewashed cathedral defied the darkness as warm beams shone through its stained glass windows. It stood upon a field blanketed with snow and surrounded by pine trees, planted there years ago by the first settlers in the town. Its doors were thrown wide open to welcome the procession of devotees who braved the chill of the early morning hours to participate in a decades old tradition of holiday Mass at dawn.

As the people silently filed into the church, no one took notice of the young man who stood beneath the trees. In their own quiet contemplation (or plain sleepiness), they didn't notice the hem of his monk's robes peeking from under a long brown cloak.

Sanzo allowed his gaze to fall upon nearly each individual face in the crowd. A couple, oblivious to the world, walked arm in arm. A family, the mother impatiently tugging at her son, barely out of sleep, his elder sister more vocal in her protest even as she yawned. A father telling what seemed to be a particularly interesting story to his child, as the latter's eyes widened and pointed at the stars.

And before his mind could be tempted to dwell on what-ifs, he distracted himself with lighting his first cigarette of the day. He watched the last handful of townsfolk enter the church as the first strains of the opening hymn rose into the air. His ears picked out the sound of footsteps sinking into the inch- deep snow behind him. It was a familiar intruder who had no intention of hiding his presence.

"Back in the orphanage, we celebrated holiday Mass after the sun has gone up. The Sisters didn't want us to lose sleep and a chapel full of snoring children would've inspired a less holy albeit charming sight."

Sanzo flicked his cigarette. "We're in a town full of insomniacs?"

Hakkai shook his head. "More like workaholics. These people are traders; the market is the center of town life. An earlier than usual holiday worship service would fit nicely into their routine."

They both fell into a comfortable silence, content to listen to the chorus of voices that rang strong and clear through the cathedral's door and high windows. Hakkai took a few steps away from Sanzo and surveyed the starry sky.

Hakkai' s eyes swept across the vast expanse of the firmament. "People gawk at the stars and feel humbled by something that's bigger than them."

"From what I've read long ago, these stars are billions and billions of miles away. Thus, their light takes ages to reach us. When we look at them tonight, it's as if we're looking at how they appeared billions of years ago. It's like looking into the past." He lowered his head and let his gaze drop to the ground.

Sanzo eyed him thoughtfully. The past, is it? Does he imagine her to be somewhere up there, looking down at him?

Hakkai continued and his voice was softer. "To us, the stars appear unchanging. Much like dreams and aspirations of what could've been. But such dreams are eternal in the sense that they'll never change because they'll never come to pass and have the chance to grow into something better."

Sanzo pointed at an outdoor Christmas tree, adorned with glittering ornaments and strung with tiny bulbs that cheerfully blinked among the branches. "Is that why they make copies of the real thing? Mold it out of plastic and put it on top of a pine tree? To remind them of yesterday and what shall never transpire because of what happened in the past?"

Hakkai smiled, a sad and fond one. "That's not exactly what the star on the tree stands for. From what I recall, it doesn't even symbolize hope or joyful anticipation of an unceasingly happy future. But that's what I could read from her eyes whenever we stood back to look at the tree after it has been decorated."

For a moment, his vision clouded. Hakkai adjusted his monocle and used the opportunity to secretly wipe his eye. "But right now, she's not here. Is she?" He turned to look at the stars again.

Sanzo pursed his lips in reply. No. But I am.

Last time I checked.

Hakkai crouched down and traced his slender fingers across the snow. He stopped when the other man walked over and stood beside him.

"The stars can also tell the future." Sanzo offered.

Hakkai chuckled. "You know we don't believe in that."

The monk snapped and clenched his fists. "Will you please let me finish?"

Hakkai got up and brushed the snow from his fingers. "All right. Genjo Sanzo rarely makes requests." Only demands, most if not all of the time.

Sanzo closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "When you have the audacity to get yourself lost in the woods, but have enough of your wits with you, what do you do to find your way again?"

He was answered with a smile. Sanzo impatiently resumed his preaching, if it could be stated as one.

"For once in your miserable life, you detach yourself from self-pity and your confusion to look up and use the stars to guide you towards north, west, or wherever the hell you think you should be going to."

Hakkai tilted his head and smiled. "And what has that got to do with knowing the future?"

Sanzo turned around and began to walk away. "It's up to you. Either stay where you are, lost and wallowing in the darkness you won't leave behind, or summon what measly courage you can churn up and believe that by the time the sun comes up, you'd have found your way to what's waiting for you. If what's waiting for you hasn't given up and decided that you're a fool who isn't worth the wait."

The words hit Hakkai like a snowball aimed at his face. The sensation didn't stop at the impact, but lingered on as something heavy and cold upon him. As with all things icy and wet, they are capable of one beneficial action.

Hakkai smiled. Am I finally awake?

Sanzo continued to trudge through the snow. He heard his companion call out his name. That didn't stop him. Until…

"Then wait for me, Sanzo. Wait for me, then."

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Half an hour later, the church bells rang, signaling the end of the dawn Mass. Whereas most of the people came with an air of solemnity, they now left with a jovial spirit. Food merchants took their places around the cathedral and noisily hawked their wares.

As everyone exchanged laughter and warm greetings, nobody noticed the two figures silently making their way through the trees, arms around each other and oblivious to the rest of the world and what lay behind them.

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