A/N: In the episode 'Love the Picture, Hate the Frame', (the only Christmas episode the show was kind enough to give us), Mark is in the middle of decorating the tree when he notices he can't find the angel. He stops in the middle of stringing the lights, leaving the judge and immediately heading off to purchase a new one. Of course, I wondered why...
With thanks to Owl for the beta!
The Christmas Angel
It was Christmas Eve, and the boy stood on the street corner next to the light, trying not to shiver. His jacket was nearly two sizes too small, and it was most noticeable in his arms. His mother always said he grew like a weed, and pretty soon he'd be out of clothes all together. Then she'd smile, and brush back his long wavy hair.
She'd knitted him a pair of extra long mittens to keep his wrists from getting cold.
He pulled them up higher as he saw the man approaching. The stranger looked to be in a hurry, and his arms were full of packages, but the boy thought he'd try it anyway.
"Hey, Mister—you wanna buy a wreath?" he called out.
The man brushed by without even acknowledging him, too intent on his own holiday rush to take notice of a small boy peddling his wares.
That was okay, though. Only two more to go, and then he could take the money down to the drug store to find a present for his mom. He smiled when he thought of how surprised she'd be on Christmas morning to find something for her under the tree.
The street was nearly empty now. It was almost nine-thirty. His mom said she'd be home at ten o'clock, and he'd have to hustle if he wanted to pick out something special. He'd almost decided to call it a night, when he saw the movement out of the corner of his eye.
An older boy separated himself from the shadow of the doorway he'd been hiding in and moved toward him intently.
The young boy stiffened and tightened his grip on the wreaths in his arm, unconsciously preparing himself for battle. "What do you want, Kenny?"
"You know what I want, squirt," Kenny taunted.
The crack in his voice made it come out sounding more humorous than menacing, and the boy couldn't help it—he laughed.
It was a mistake; Von Bishoffhausen grabbed him by the collar and shoved him against the wall. He towered over the younger boy by a head, and he used his extra weight to hold him still.
The arm across the boy's neck threatened to cut off his air, and he struggled against it even as he felt the hand reaching into the pocket where his night's earnings were hidden. "Kenny, don't!" he cried out, though it wasn't much more than a whisper. "I need that!"
Kenny laughed, wrapping his fingers around the handful of bills. He released his arm and allowed the younger boy to drop to the ground. "Yeah, well, I need it too," he said as he turned away, grabbing one of the two remaining wreaths. "Merry Christmas, loser."
The boy scrambled to his feet and launched himself at his assailant in one last desperate attempt to recover what was his. Though he gave it his all, he was no match against the older boy's size. One quick punch from Kenny and he was down, blood dripping from his nose, watching through blurred eyes as Kenny took the hard-earned money and ran.
The boy sat back against the wall with his arms draped around his knees, doing his best not to cry. Crying never solved anything. He supposed he could go home and draw his mom a picture; he'd done that before.
He'd just wanted this year to be special.
"Are you okay?"
The voice startled him, because he hadn't seen anyone walk by. It was soft and gentle, and sounded almost like music. He looked up.
She was maybe the prettiest lady he'd ever seen, next to his mom. Her hair was long and golden, and the way she stooped down to talk to him made it glisten in the light of the street lamp. Her face was kind, and she reached out gently and took his chin.
"Ouch," she said, commenting on his nose. "That looks like it must hurt." She reached into her white coat and pulled out a tissue, handing it to him.
He took it, holding it up to his nose while he continued to stare at her.
"It's late," she commented. "And it's Christmas Eve. Shouldn't you be home, getting ready for Santa?"
The boy shook his head. "Santa's not real."
"He's not? Are you sure?" She smiled, and for some reason the boy thought he smelled freshly baked cookies.
"Yeah," he said sullenly, standing to his feet. "I'm sure." He looked down at his last remaining wreath, which must have been trampled in the scuffle. The branches were bent at odd angles, and the bow was hanging by a thread. He sighed.
"Well," the woman said, standing up as well, "maybe you should head home anyway. I'm sure your mom must be worried."
"She's not home yet. She's at work."
"Oh," she smiled in understanding. "And I bet it's no fun just hanging out at home all by yourself, huh?"
The boy felt an answering smile tugging at his lips. "Not much." He reached down and picked up the wreath.
"Is that yours?" the woman asked, sounding excited. "I've been looking everywhere for a wreath. Most places are sold out by now," she added conspiratorially. "I don't suppose it's for sale, is it?"
He looked at the lopsided and nearly crushed wreath. "What do you want this old thing for?"
"You see, I live in an apartment, so I don't have a tree. But I love the way Christmas trees smell, don't you? This wreath is perfect—I think it smells even better since some of the branches are broken. The only problem is..." she paused for a moment. "Well, I've spent all my money already. Would you be willing to trade it?"
The boy looked at her doubtfully, then shrugged. He had no use for it anymore. "You can just have it," he offered.
If anything, her face softened a bit more. "You're so sweet. Your mom must be very proud to have a son like you." She reached out, gently removing the hand that held the tissue. The bleeding had stopped. "Thank you, but I can't just take it from you. Let me see what I might have in here that a boy like you would want."
Out came a shopping bag that he hadn't noticed before. His curiosity was aroused as he watched her kneel to dig through it on the deserted street.
She pulled out a red box and held it between her hands, looking at him intently. "Do you have a tree?" she asked.
"Yes," he said proudly. "My mom and I picked it out and we decorated it with popcorn and stuff." He looked down at his feet. "It's kind of small," he added. For reasons he could not explain, he felt the need to be honest with her.
"Oh, that's alright. It sounds perfect." She removed the lid from the box.
Inside was a little angel. Dressed all in white, with golden curls cascading alongside her porcelain face, she looked almost like a miniature version of the woman herself, who held the box for the boy to see closely.
A sense of wonderment illuminated his young face. His heart began to pound with hope. This would be the perfect gift; better than anything he could have gotten at Warner's Drug Store. He was almost afraid to reach out and take it.
The woman could sense this, and she placed it into his waiting hands. "She's a special angel," the woman continued. "She's made to sit on top of a Christmas tree. I received her as a gift, but since I have no tree, I can't use it. Do you think you would like it?"
The boy nodded, afraid to breathe lest his hopes be dashed.
She smiled. "Wonderful. Then you can have this, and I can have my wreath. Sounds just about perfect, don't you think?" She stood up, gathering up her bag and encircling her arm with the wreath.
"Thank you," the boy said, his voice barely more than a whisper.
"You're welcome. And I thank you, too. But there's just one more thing..."
He tensed, trying to prepare for the disappointment he was certain would come.
She laid a soft hand on his cheek. "I want you to remember - when your mom is working, and you're in your apartment, feeling like you're all by yourself, take a look at the Christmas Angel on top of your tree. She'll be there, reminding you that you're never really alone. There will always be an angel watching out for you."
"Really?" the boy asked, wanting to believe it was true.
"Yes," she promised. "Really." She looked at him kindly before placing her hand in the pocket of her coat. "And now, I think it's time you head back home, don't you?"
"Yes, ma'am." He turned and began to walk quickly in the direction of home, clutching his treasure tightly to his chest. Remembering his manners at the last minute, he said, "Hey lady? Merry..."
As he turned back, he saw the street behind him was empty, with not a trace of the woman in sight. He puzzled over that for just a moment, before resuming his walk toward home. His excitement got the best of him and he began to run in delight.
It was going to be a wonderful Christmas.
Mark almost didn't see her. The box was shoved back onto a corner of the store shelf, hidden in amongst the gold and silver ornaments and packages of tinsel. He reached in and pulled it out wonderingly, staring down at the miniature angel. It was almost an exact replica of the first angel he'd ever had. The same sense of wonderment he'd felt as a boy lit up his face once again, and he held the box reverently as he made his way to the cash register.
He thought back on the words he heard from the woman that night - his very own angel, as he'd come to think of her - that whenever he saw the Christmas Angel atop the tree, he should remember he wasn't alone. Those words had held great comfort for him during the dark times of his past, and he'd clung tightly to the truth of the promise, even when reality seemed to say otherwise.
Now, he thought of the man he'd left just minutes ago, sitting at his desk poring over a file instead of helping him decorate the tree. A wry smile came to his face. Hardcastle might bring new meaning to the word stubborn. He might make a better Scrooge than a Santa, and he might never get this whole Christmas Spirit thing.
But Mark knew without a doubt, as long as Hardcastle was around, he'd never be alone again.
He whistled as he bagged up his purchases and made his way back to the car. It was going to be a wonderful Christmas.