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Hidaka Ken would be the last man, the last man in the world, to assign value and weight to another man's pain. The past two years had taught him that: every person had a story, and in every one of those stories was a tragedy, and there was no point in measuring your pain against his pain and turning life into some sort of demented poker game to see who had the higher stakes.

But this first Christmas, he admitted -- in the quiet of his own soul, where no one else could see it -- was tempting him to try. He cared idly about each of his teammates, in one particular way or another, but he knew that none of them had quite the same associations with the holiday season that he did. Youji never talked about his family, but Ken got the impression that they hadn't been close at all. Aya -- well, from what Ken could tell, Aya's family had been the perfect Japanese family, with Christmas viewed as a decadent Western tradition that was to be shunned rather than celebrated. And Omi had been raised by Krikiter, and that wasn't the sort of thing that tended to leave happy holiday memories.

Ken, on the other hand, had been raised a Catholic. He didn't believe, not in the way that his mother had while he had been growing up, but he still retained enough of the catechism to celebrate the birth of Christ. His fellow teammates were all alone in the world; Ken was burdened not only with happy memories of the holidays, but also with the knowledge that out of all of them, he was the only one whose family was alive, was in fact probably visiting the countryside grave that bore his name if not his body.

He wondered dimly whether or not they had hung his stocking over the doorway this year.

The Koneko had been decorated for the holidays, of course. Successful florists celebrated all holidays, even the ones it was painful for them to remember. Successful assassins never gave a clue as to their second lives -- not when those very lives depended on their concealment. Christmas Eve, though hardly a religious holiday in Japan, was certainly an excuse to buy flowers. Ken had been scheduled to work the afternoon shift; more than he suspected must have showed in his face, for Youji to stop him as he was putting on his apron and tell him, quietly, not to bother. "My Christmas present to you," Youji had said softly. "Get out of here. I'll take your shift."

Catholic churches were about as rare in Tokyo as Catholics were, if not more so, but Ken of course knew where the closest one to the Koneko was. His feet had taken him there before he'd even realized it.

The priest had given him a few worried glances (young man, troubled face, slumped in a pew in the back of the church, eyes closed, looking tired and weary) but had let him be. Afternoon melted into evening, the candles were changed, and Ken sat in the pew wondering dully if he even remembered how to pray.

The words sprang to his mind before he could even complete the thought.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father, through him all things were made.

The church was calm, as befitted the House of God. Ken lifted a hand to scrub it over his face. He was hungry; he hadn't eaten since the morning, and that had been a quick handful of cereal as he rushed out the door of the Koneko. He had dimly suspected that it would be better to keep busy on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, to avoid the very thoughts that were threatening to drag him under. Youji's gesture, though well-meaning, had perhaps not been a kindness after all.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the virgin Mary, and was made man.

The clicking of high heels on the stone floor of the church brought him out of his reverie sharply; he was reaching for a weapon that he did not carry even as the owner of those heels slid into the pew behind him, and he cursed himself quietly even as he overrode that instinct. Surely he was not so jaded to the life he was leading so as to be willing to attack someone in a church on Christmas Eve. But the familiar flash of auburn hair as the woman behind him leaned forward told him who had disturbed him.

"Omi guessed that I could find you here," Manx said, resting her arms on the back of the pew Ken was sitting in and leaning her chin on her arms.

Ken simply sighed. "Omi talks too much. And knows me too well for his own good."

Manx hid her smile carefully. "Or just well enough." Her Japanese, as always, was accentless, but Ken knew that it had not been her native language. The candlelight caught the flash of gold around her neck as the crucifix she wore swung loose. "Happy Christmas, Ken."

Ken looked away. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell; on the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. "Happy Christmas, Manx," he said, and closed his eyes again. "If you've come to tell us that we've got a mission, we shouldn't discuss it here."

"Not a mission," Manx said, lightly. "I came to wish you all a happy holiday, and to tell you that we wouldn't be needing you for a week or so. When Omi told me that you'd gone, I came to look for you to see if you were all right."

Recognizing that as a question, no matter how plainly it had been phrased as a statement -- and knowing that Manx wouldn't stop subtly prying until she got an answer -- Ken sighed again. "I'm fine," he said, and forced his face into a more neutral expression. /Just go away, Manx. I'm fine. I just don't want any company./

Manx nodded again. "If you say that you're fine, I'll believe you, Ken." She paused. "I brought over some wine, and when I left, Youji was trying to convince Aya that it was all right to unbend long enough to have an actual holiday party. You should come and join us, before it's all gone."

Intellectually, Ken knew that she was right. Sitting in a Catholic church on Christmas Eve would do nothing more than depress him, particularly in a few more hours when the faithful began to congregate for evening services. He couldn't quite bring himself to contemplate the prospects of a night trying to be social with his teammates, however. "...I guess so," he said, and he could hear the lack of enthusiasm in his tone.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.

This time, the smile did make it to Manx's lips. "Don't be so enthusiastic, Ken," she said lightly, and rested a hand on his shoulder. "The holidays are always the toughest part," she continued, suddenly utterly serious. "Particularly the first set of them. It won't be easy, nor will it be pleasant. But you do yourself no favors by sitting here and dwelling on it."

Ken shrugged, feeling each of her delicate fingerprints against his shoulder, even through his shirt. "I'm not dwelling," he said shortly; he could feel the scowl slipping back over his face. "I'm just --"

"You're dwelling, Ken," she interrupted. "And while I understand the impulse, I've a responsibility to all of you to keep you from dwelling too long." She stood up, genuflecting to the altar with the absent-minded habit of another who had spent too long as a child in a house of worship without truly believing, and held out her hand for him to take. "Come on. Youji has promised to save you a glass of wine, but only if you get there quickly enough."

Ken closed his eyes again. "You're going to stand there and nag me until I agree, aren't you."

Again, that soft smile. "Yes, you're absolutely correct. It's Christmas Eve, Ken. Come spend it with your friends and your teammates."

It wasn't the same. He knew that she knew that much; that the people back at the Koneko were his teammates and sometime friends rather than his family, that the only thing they had in common was the severance of their ties to the past and the blood that would never wash clean from their hands. She looked down at him as though she knew that it was all she could offer. As though she knew that it wasn't enough, but it was all she had, and all that she could give him.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

And maybe it was all he had, and all that he would ever have, and it would have to be enough.

"All right," he said, finally, faintly, and rose himself.

She stopped him with a hand to his shoulder as he turned to leave, her high heels bringing her closer to his height but not close enough. "Ken."

Ken turned back to her. "What?"

Manx's eyes were calm and sober as she looked back at him. "The police reports came back this morning. Kanashima Kai's country house was searched, and the missing children were in his basement." She tilted her head to one side. "They've been brought back to their families for Christmas and New Year's." A pause. "Think of that. Don't think of the rest of it."

He couldn't help but think of the rest of it; couldn't help but feel the skin of his hands constrict as though remembering the touch of Kanashima's blood, couldn't help but remember the taste, heavy and metallic, as he had licked his lips inadvertently before wiping away the spray of Kanashima's blood that had struck him across the cheek. But he knew what she was trying to do. "...Thank you for telling me."

She nodded. "I thought you should know."

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Together, they walked out of the church and made their way, side by side, back to the warmth of the Koneko.

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