Keep the Candle Burning
Duo shoved his hands deeper in his pockets, warily watching the bustling shoppers around him. It was Christmas Eve and it seemed like the whole colony was searching for last minute but perfect gifts. The meteorological system had even been adjusted to allow for snow.
However, he had never been less in the Christmas spirit, including his childhood. Sister Helen and the others had always done their best to make the holiday enjoyable for the orphans. Although his Gundam years had left little time for celebrations, his time with Hilde more than made up for it.
Hilde. Her name elicited the usual pang in his chest, which he tried to immediately numb. If he had acted differently, if he hadn’t been such an ass, he could be enjoying another Christmas with her now.
‘I wonder if she is celebrating with someone this year,’ he wondered before he could crush the thought. Despite his best efforts, he could not banish the mental images of Hilde hanging ornaments on the tree or finishing a magnificent Christmas dinner. And it was all for someone else.
Before he could talk himself out of it, he began to walk to her part of town. Howard had let her address slip months ago, but Duo had never let himself act on it. Maybe it was the holiday, the loneliness, or just the need for closure that drove his feet. Whatever the reason, he just needed to see her, no matter how brief it was.
It was several blocks before he finally found himself outside her building. Peering through the following snow, he tried to figure which one was her window. Then he saw the candle.
“No way,” he breathed, drawing curious looks from passers-by. But Duo remained oblivious to their stares. He couldn’t take his eyes away from the window.
Before he could even blink, Hilde herself appeared in the window. She paused and watched the snow, but her eyes never drifted down to the streets. Shaking her head, she pulled out a book of matches and struck a match to light the candle.
As he watched the scene, Duo wondered if she was thinking about their first Christmas together.
* * * * *
“Duo, quit shaking the presents,” Hilde scolded, entering the living room.
“But, babe,” he pouted, “I can’t decided which one to open.”
She laughed, setting the candle and a book of matches on a table. “You’ll get to open the rest in the morning. Can’t you wait?”
“It depends on how you distract me,” he replied. Without warning, he launched himself at her, knocking her backward unto the couch. He peered down at his captured prey. “Got any ideas?”
“You cheat at cards,” she replied, mischief twinkling in her eyes, “and we’ve already been to Mass.”
“That’s not what I had in mind.”
“Duo, you have a one-track mind, you know that?”
“I know,” he replied. Duo briefly covered her lips with his. “You, babe.”
She sighed blissfully before slowly opening her eyes. “I still have to put the candle in the window.”
“It’s a tradition.”
Groaning, he pushed himself off of her and the couch. Hilde smoothed down her shirt before she retrieved the candle and the matches. She was surprised when Duo followed her to the window.
“So, what’s this tradition all about? The tree’s not enough of a fire hazard?”
Hilde shook her head as she smiled. “It was something my family did. You place a lighted candle in the window on Christmas Eve to offer those who need a place to stay for the night. I guess it was because there was no room in the inn for Mary and her child.”
She shook her head, glancing down at the candle she held in her hand. “It’s stupid. No one really does it anymore. Besides, you’re right. The tree is enough of a fire hazard.”
“No, it’s a nice idea,” Duo said softly. He surprised her by striking the match and lighting the candle. “Traditions are important, Hilde.”
She was touched by the gesture. With a soft smile, she placed the candle in the window. However, she pulled the curtains far enough back that there would be no chance of a fire.
“Merry Christmas, Duo,” she said, wrapping her arms around his neck.
He wrapped his arms around her as well. “Merry Christmas, Hilde.”
* * * * *
The beep of the microwave pulled Hilde from her reverie. As she left the window and headed back to the kitchen, she wondered what her mother would have thought of her daughter enjoying a frozen dinner alone on Christmas. The woman would have been horrified at the least.
The apartment was silent as she finished preparing her solitary meal. Hilde had turned the holiday music off hours ago. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” had been the last straw.
‘You could out with Tom tonight,’ Hilde reminded herself, ‘instead of being alone.’
However, she had ended things with Tom a week ago. He was a nice enough guy, but Hilde found herself comparing him to Duo. It would have been unfair to both of them to let it continue on.
Although her dinner sat steaming on the table, she found she was suddenly not hungry. She decided that the food could wait. Shaking her head, she went back to the window to watch the snowfall.
* * * * *
Duo pulled his cap lower as he continued to stare up at the vacant window. ‘Okay, I’ve seen her. I should go home now.’ However, he seemed unable to tear his eyes away.
His heart stopped momentarily when the curtains once more began to move. He couldn’t believe when she appeared in the window once more. Unlike before, her eyes followed the snow as it fell toward the street.
Their eyes locked. Even over the distance between them, they stared each other in the eye. He had faced battle several times, knowing that he could easily meet his namesake. Yet, he couldn’t face her.
He stopped before slowly turning around. Hilde seemed just as surprised as he was. He waited for her to say something else. When she didn’t, he tipped the bill of his hat and turned to leave once more.
Watching, Hilde gripped the windowsill. “Duo!” she called again, hating her weakness but ignoring the stares of the other people on the sidewalk. Again, Duo hesitated before facing the window once more.
“Why don’t you come up?” she finally asked. “You look cold.”
It was a weak excuse. They both knew it. However, Duo merely nodded and headed to the building’s entrance.
* * * * *
“Come in,” Hilde said, opening the door wide. “I wasn’t expecting to see you.”
He grinned. “No, I’m sure.”
Duo glanced around the small apartment as she closed the door. His stomach twisted as his eyes roamed over her familiar belongings. However, he didn’t notice anything that betrayed the presence of another man.
“I hope that I’m not interrupting anything,” he said, turning back to her.
Hilde arched a dark eyebrow. “When has that ever stopped you? But, no, it’s just me here.” Her tone was sharp, slicing away at him.
“I knew that this wasn’t a good idea,” he muttered, shaking his head. “I should go.”
“What did you expect, Duo?” Hilde demanded, standing between him and the door. “Did you imagine me here, pining for you? Waiting for you to apologize and make it all better? Well, sorry to disappoint you.”
“I don’t know what I expected. I just started thinking about you and found myself walking to this part of town. I didn’t expect to see you.”
“That’s flattering! I’m glad that you finally thought about me after eight months. What finally jogged your memory?”
“That’s not what I meant!”
Hilde sighed and slumped against the door. “How did you know where I lived any?”
“Howard,” Duo admitted. “He let it slip a while back.”
“Figures.” She went into the living room and sat on the couch. “So, what are your holiday plans?”
Duo took a seat on the loveseat. “I don’t have any, actually. Quatre invited me to a Christmas party, but it was going to be mostly business people.”
“How’s the scrap yard?”
“Business’s fine. How are things with you?”
Hilde shrugged. “Can’t complain.”
They fell into an uneasy silence. For several moments, neither spoke or dared to look at the other. When a clock chimed, Duo stood up.
“I won’t bother you anymore, Hilde,” he stated. He walked across the room but paused at the door. “I’m sorry I was such a jerk. I know it doesn’t mean anything after all this time, but I am sorry.”
He was quiet, apparently waiting for a response. Getting none, he sighed. “Merry Christmas, Hilde.”
“Duo, you idiot.”
“What?” He turned, all thoughts of leaving vacating his mind.
Hilde was still seated on the couch. However, she had turned so she could face him. Tears were pouring down her cheeks, but she was smiling, too. He was thoroughly confused.
“Was it really that hard to apologize, Duo?” she asked, rising from the couch.
He gaped at her. “That’s what you’ve been waiting for? Hell, if I had known that, I would have been here on my knees ages ago, Hilde.”
“I needed to know if you would miss me,” she said. “I had to know that I wasn’t just some habit to you.”
“Miss you? The guys swear I haven’t done anything but mope since you left. I can’t believe you put me through hell just for some kind of test.”
“It wasn’t a test. I’m sorry but I had to know for sure, Duo.”
“Know what for sure?”
She was quiet for a moment before softly answering, “That you really loved me.”
“And you called me an idiot,” he growled.
Duo stalked back across the room. In the otherwise silent room, his footsteps were menancing. However, Hilde stood her ground.
Then, he hugged her.
His embrace was so tight that it threatened to rob her of air. Yet, Hilde couldn’t bring herself to care. She buried her head in his shoulder, clinging to him.
“I love you, Hilde,” he breathed into her hair. “I love you.”
“I know.” Her words were muffled by his shirt but still understandable. “I love you, too.”
In the windowsill, the candle went out. The beacon was no longer needed. The wandering souls had finally found shelter.