Note: This was originally written for Yuletide (). The lyrics are from the Christmas standard, originally performed by Judy Garland in "Meet Me in St. Louis."
If the Fates Allow
Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow.
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
It was almost midnight, very early on Christmas morning, when Markus wandered into the dark and empty cafeteria. He heard nothing except the ever-present hum of the machines that made life under the mountain possible. He might be the only one awake in the whole mountain.
The main light source came from the tiny lights on the large tree, glimmering like colorful stars. Closer, he could see the ornaments that the children had made over the years. Some were getting rather tattered, made by little hands fifteen years ago, but Markus thought he'd rather cut off his arm than throw any of them away.
Right now there was one in particular he wanted to see. He searched, looking up and down and walking around the tree, until he found it hanging on one side, on a low branch: Elizabeth's first attempt at an angel. He reached out to touch it, remembering how her little face had scrunched up and she'd stuck out her tongue, all serious, as she colored it a dark purple very thoroughly. The paper felt brittle and little flakes came off on his fingers.
He had to close his eyes, just for a moment, letting the sorrow flow through him. She was gone.
Remembering Elizabeth brought out thoughts of Simon as well, who'd died more than a year ago now. There was Simon's garland of colored paperclips, circling the tree on the higher branches. He'd taken them all from Quantrell's desk, which Markus had always thought rather fitting. But he was another good friend from the early days who was dead.
So much loss. But it felt right to remember them, on this night of all nights. In those first few years, there had only been a hundred kids, rattling around this big bunker, but they'd been so young, so eager to dream their way to a new world.
Now the dream was starting to come true with Valhalla Sector destroyed, but at what price?
He touched a small golden bell at the end of one of the boughs to make it ring, and the tinkle sounded forlorn. No angel was getting his wings from that sound.
There was one more ornament he wanted to find, but his feet were rooted to the floor and his eyes refused to look. Not yet.
All those years, he'd done his best to make Christmas for the little ones, creating a tradition in Thunder Mountain that was probably now unbreakable. The kids made ornaments and then a big group went out to cut down the tree and carry it back. On Christmas morning everybody sang songs, passed out small presents, and had something sweet for dessert at dinner.
His private tradition had included something else no one ever knew about. After dinner, he would bring another plate to Meaghan and they would exchange their own gifts. She would make him things: a knitted scarf, a drawing or hand-written copy of a poem or a passage from a book. He gave her things from the outdoors: a pinecone, a book of pressed leaves, a pretty rock. Everything had to be small enough to pass through the autoclave, but everything she sent through was precious to him because she had touched it.
Most of her gifts to him were hidden in a locked box in his room, but one he had put on the tree in secret. As far as anyone knew it had magically appeared on the tree one year, and once it was in the ornament box, someone put it on the tree every year afterward.
He lifted his eyes and it was right there, just a little above him. It shimmered softly golden from the yellow light next to it.
She had taken her necklace apart and remade the silver wires into a hoop to hold a piece of translucent green jade she'd carved into the shape of a Christmas tree. He'd been stunned by it, having no idea she'd been working on it for months. He hadn't wanted to put it on the tree, in case it got lost, but it was what she had wanted.
His fingers hovered an inch above the ornament, frozen in place, until his hand started to tremble.
Telling himself it wasn't going to burn him, he forced himself to touch it. His fingers decided to tug it from the branch.
Touching it hurt somewhere down deep in the same place where the memory of her jump stayed fresh.
He backed away from the tree, into one of the lunch benches, and let himself sit down. He had the tiny tree cradled in his hand -- a tree frozen forever in stone, unlike the big living tree in front of him that was going to dry up and die. For a heartbeat, it was tempting to let the ornament fall to the floor and break, but his fingers tightened around it, to keep it safe.
He sat there, ornament in his hand, staring at the tree lights until the individual lights smeared into rainbows.
Soft footsteps behind him warned that he wasn't alone anymore. For a moment, his throat tightened around harsh words to tell the intruder to go away, but then he recognized Erin's tread and held them back, pushing the anger away.
"I thought I might find you here," she said, coming close.
He didn't look at her. "Is there something wrong?"
She sat next to him on the bench, close but not quite touching. "No. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
He shrugged a bit. "Fine."
"Yeah? Then you should go to bed. My parents told us Santa wouldn't come unless we were asleep," she teased.
He ignored the suggestion to go to bed and let the levity go past. "Did you believe them?" he asked, a little curious. "About Santa?"
She thought about it for a moment, and answered. "At the time. We were little. Later, one of Lauren's friends told us Santa wasn't real, and I remember I was so upset, I kicked her in the shins."
He snorted a bit of a laugh at the image. But his amusement died away. "I was almost four when I asked my parents how Santa could visit more than two million houses per minute on Christmas night," he admitted after a moment, "and what happened in houses without chimneys. Why his reindeer could fly, when regular reindeer didn't. Why Santa's workshop made the same toys that I could see in the toy store all year round. I was a bit too... logical," he allowed after a moment, and she chuckled in tacit agreement.
Then he let out a soft sigh and glanced down at the tiny tree in his hand. "I only understood the power of belief when I was much older. I made up my own myth and believed in it, believing that someday things would change. That someday I would get what I wanted."
"Things are changing, Markus," she murmured, intending to reassure even though she completely missed what he meant. She laid a hand on his arm and squeezed, "They are. Valhalla's gone, people are coming together... it's happening."
His hand tightened on the jade tree. He didn't get everything he wanted. Not even the most important thing. But he couldn't say that to Erin, even though she knew about Meaghan. So instead he said, not hiding the bitterness, "Funny how presents never look quite so good after you get them, isn't it?"
He'd seen Meaghan in the sunlight, just as he'd always wanted. It should have been a dream come true, or a miracle. But the dream had been snatched away, and the miracle had proven to be an illusion after all.
When Erin was silent, struggling for something to say, he felt his conscience stir and prod him. It was Christmas, and there was no reason to make her morose too.
He tucked his hand around the jade tree, hiding it in his fist, and turned to her with an apologetic face. "Sorry. I was thinking about Elizabeth and Simon, and those first Christmases here, when you came in. It made me a bit moody."
Expecting some crack about how he was always moody, he was surprised when she cocked her head a little to one side to regard him and said, "It's okay to miss them, you know. I miss them too."
He looked away. "It's not much in the spirit of things."
"Of course it is. Christmas is about our friends and the people we love. Even the ones we've lost. You know who taught me that?" she paused and he was going to guess her parents, but she answered her own question. "You did."
She laid a hand over his fist and added gently, "And you know, you never have to pretend with me. I know this is your first Christmas without her."
Taken by surprise, he could only manage to swallow back the sudden lump in his throat.
She turned his hand over and pried open his fingers, until the tiny jade tree was visible. "I thought so. The kids say an angel brought it to the mountain," she murmured. "I guess the story's even more right than they know."
Remembering Meaghan in her angelic white dress made his insides twist and he shut his eyes, clenching his jaw. "She didn't have any wings," he whispered. "She fell."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"I keep telling myself at least I got to say goodbye. Maybe someday that'll help. But not tonight. Tonight I just want her back."
As soon as the words were out of his mouth he regretted saying them, and stood up, dislodging Erin's hand. He folded his arms and took a deep breath to get his voice under control, leaving it flat. "But that's not going to happen. You'd think the Big Death would've erased that sort of wishful thinking from me."
"Markus..." Erin protested and then trailed off into helpless silence. She gathered her thoughts and tried again. "I didn't know Meaghan, not really. But I do know she did what she did for love. She gave everything to save you, because she believed in you and your dream of the future. The last thing she'd want is for you to turn bitter over her."
He looked at the tree in his hand for a long moment, knowing Erin was right. He remembered exactly what Meaghan had said when he'd unwrapped it: "In some cultures they believe jade gives protection. So I give this to you, so it can help you protect Thunder Mountain. Because someday, the mountain is going to protect everyone."
She hadn't known then that trying to protect everyone would come at such a price, but she'd paid it anyway. She'd jumped from that cliff to clear the way, so Thunder Mountain wouldn't have the Big Death looming over its future. As much as it hurt, he had to honor that choice, and wonder if he would've had the same strength.
He put the jade tree carefully back on its branch, tugged gently to make sure it wouldn't fall off, and then returned to sit next to Erin.
"It's a beautiful tree," she murmured. He wasn't sure which tree she meant, but decided it didn't matter.
They sat in silence for awhile and he realized he felt ... all right. Not so raw. Maybe he could make it through Christmas day afer all. "Erin?" When she turned her head, eyebrows up quizzically, he added, "Thanks."
She flashed a smile. "Any time." She hitched a little closer and put her head on his shoulder. "Merry Christmas, Markus."
He glanced up at the clock to see that it was, in fact, after midnight. "Merry Christmas."
His eyes rested on the small jade ornament and he added silently, "Merry Christmas, Meaghan. Be at peace. If you're out there somewhere, somehow, be my guardian angel and watch over me."
There was no answer, but he didn't expect one. Or maybe Erin's arrival was his answer.
He put his arm around her, and together, they waited for morning.