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Ever since she was a child, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve has always been one of Teresa’s favourite Christmas rituals, a time to be savoured. The whole day through, her mother would have been rushing hither and yon, putting the finishing touches on the preparations for the next day; from early afternoon, relatives and neighbours would begin to drop by, exchanging presents and stories, the house ringing to the sound of adults’ laughter and children playing. Finally, when the house cleared, they would share dinner – something small, because everyone would have been snacking all day, and besides, who wanted to eat when they knew they were really saving themselves for tomorrow’s indulgences? – and get cleaned up for Midnight Mass. Afterwards, they would go home, gather in front of the fire where Teresa would be allowed to open just one present before being marched up to bed, to await Father Christmas, sleep taking a long time to come to a child who quivered with anticipation.

The ritual changed in later years, when her mother fell ill. Then the cooking was split between concerned neighbours and family members, and, once she got older, Teresa took over the reins. The house would be silent most years, either because Mom needed her rest, or because she didn’t, and to indulge in the mayhem of years gone by seemed too much like tempting fate. Either way, the day always ended the same; the three of them in the same pew at Midnight Mass, before heading home where the roles of parent and child were sometimes reversed, and Teresa would help her mother to bed.

She remembers the last Midnight Mass they attended, just weeks before her mother’s death, and she can still see her mother beside her. Her face, her beautiful face, was pale and drawn, the cancer eating away at her body, but her eyes, those eyes that everyone said were so like Teresa’s, were shining with reverence and awe as she looked at the stained glass window behind the altar, listened to the angelic voices of the choir. Teresa had kept a close eye on her, knowing that she really shouldn’t have been out of bed, and it had been during the recessional hymn that her mother had reached over and taken her hand, her grip surprisingly strong. When Teresa had looked over, her mother wasn’t looking at her, but she was smiling as tears rolled down her face.

Less than three months later, they were in that same church for her mother’s funeral, and Teresa didn’t cry.

But on Christmas Eve that year, at Midnight Mass, she couldn’t hold back the tears, as her father stood beside her and patted her back awkwardly, trying to tell her that everything was all right.

The year after that, it was easier to return to Midnight Mass, and there were no tears. Just her and her father, and, at the end of the service, as the church emptied out, they would go over to the side of the church, and light a candle for her mother. Then they would go home, where Teresa would have already spent the day slaving over the preparations, and they would sit in front of the fire and they would each open one present before turning in for the night. They did that every year, even after Teresa moved out of the house, because it was their family tradition, and even though her father told her that she must have better things to do, Teresa had insisted on coming home, on continuing as they always had.

This year is different.

This year, she goes to Midnight Mass alone, in a different church, and she thinks of all the changes that she’s gone through this year. She has a new job now, her first posting as a police officer, working long hours and catching hell from every gruff and weathered veteran in her new precinct, getting all the grunt work to do, and she loves it. She has a new apartment, a little larger than her old one, close to work, a couple of blocks walk away from this church. She has hobbies and friends, and someone who wants to be more than a friend, if she’d just let him.

She has a good life, and as the recessional hymn fades and she rises from her seat, she acknowledges this. Even so, she can’t shake the melancholy that settles around her as she walks to the bank of candles at the side of the church. Kneeling down, she lights one, looks at its bright light flickering, thinks of her mother and how she looked that last Christmas Eve, how she squeezed her daughter’s hand as if to say, “Remember this moment, my angel… it will never come again.” The candlelight blurs, and her hand shakes crazily as she reaches out with another taper, lighting a second candle. This time, she remembers her father, remembers dashing to his bedside from her police academy graduation. She remembers how his eyes focussed on her – a miracle for a man as sick as he – and he’d smiled, telling her how proud he was of her. He’d squeezed her hand, and she remembers thinking how strong his grip had been, considering how sick he was, and she remembers holding onto that hand for hours until his grip slackened and he was gone.

She swallows hard, brushing back her tears impatiently, because she knows her parents wouldn’t want her to cry so, not on Christmas Eve. All she has to do, she tells herself, is get herself home and go to sleep, because then when she wakes, it will be Christmas Day, and she has plans, is going to a friend’s house, where they know about her parents and will do their best to keep her mind off the fact that this is her first Christmas without them.

Standing, she takes one more look at the two candles, flickering in the dim light of the church, brushes away a couple more errant tears. Turning, she makes her way towards the door, stopping when she sees someone standing there, looking right at her. She blinks, shakes her head, sure that her mind is playing tricks on her, because there’s no way that he can be standing here, not at this time of the night on Christmas Eve, when he surely has other places to be.

But then he smiles, that slow, almost teasing smile that lights up his entire face, and she knows without a shadow of a doubt that what she’s seeing is real.

Joel Stevens is standing in her church on Christmas Eve, and he is smiling at her. He’s wearing a beat up pair of blue jeans, a blue button down shirt, and that old battered brown jacket that he lives in, his hands burrowed in the pockets. She wants to go to him, either to ask him why he’s here or to throw herself into his arms, but she can do neither. The only movement she can make is to reach out with one hand, steadying herself against the pew, and she’s grateful for the smooth wood, the cool solidity bringing her back to reality.

By the time she’s done all that – and it can only take seconds – he’s standing in front of her. “Hello Teresa.” His voice is low, but it still echoes in the empty church. “You look good.”

Without warning, a smile breaks across Teresa’s face, and she has to look down, fighting the urge to laugh nervously. “You too,” she says when she’s managed to get herself under control, looking up at him from under her lashes. “What are you-?”

“Doing here?” He finishes the question, and she nods, because it’s not unreasonable to wonder that. She hasn’t seen Joel since her father’s funeral, when she was barely holding herself together, and it had taken every scrap of willpower and dignity she possessed not to throw herself into his arms. Maybe he’d seen that, because he’d only given her a brief hug – even Fearless’s had been tighter, lasted longer – and his hand had lingered on her shoulder for only a moment longer than was strictly proper. Nor had he talked to her at the house, surrounded as she was by concerned family, wondering how long it would take before she fell apart, and most of her colleagues had left quickly.

Afterwards, when she’d been assigned a precinct, it hadn’t been a surprise when she’d been sent to theirs; after all, she’d worked around there as a paramedic, knew most of the personnel. That’s what she’d been told when she went to the Commandant of the Academy, asking to be sent somewhere else, citing her father’s death, her need to make a new start, as a reason. He’d listened, and he’d understood, and he’d pulled some strings to make it happen, and as far as she knew, Joel didn’t know about any of that. She’d just moved apartments, moved precincts without looking back.

Much.

“You don’t exactly strike me as the Midnight Mass type,” she observes, and he chuckles, looking down and rubbing his chin.

“I’m not, I’m not,” he says quietly, and when he looks up, looks into her eyes, she feels a rush of electricity from her head to her toes. “But I knew you’d be here.”

“You did?” She can’t keep the surprise from her voice, and she’s very grateful that she’s still holding on to that pew. “How?”

A shrug. “Tom told me.”

“Tom?” She couldn’t be more stunned if he’d told her that little green men had clued him into her location, because Tom Turcotte has more reasons than most for keeping her and Joel far, far apart.

“You sound surprised,” he observes, the corners of his lips twitching, and she knows that he knows exactly what she’s thinking.

“A little,” she allows, and he nods.

“Me too.” They share a smile then, and he swivels, looking towards the open doors. “So… you want to go for a walk? Or something?”

She draws in a deep breath, lets it out as she nods. “That sounds good.”

On the street, they fall easily into step with one another, walking in silence until they get to the end of the block, looking both ways as they cross the street. “I didn’t expect to see you here,” she tells him, and he raises an eyebrow in silent question.

“Here at church? Or here in this part of the city?”

“Either.” She looks at him out of the corner of her eye. “Both. I guess I figured you’d be with your family.”

He shoots her a gaze from the corner of his eyes, lifts the shoulder nearest her in a shrug. “I was,” he tells her. “But you should know… Kelly and I are separated.”

She debates her reaction, finally eschews surprise in favour of honesty. “I know,” she says, and his head snaps around sharply. “Tom,” she explains, and he chuckles, shaking his head.

“Tom’s been doing some talking out of school,” Joel notes with some humour, and Teresa feels her cheeks growing warm.

“You sound surprised.” She realises that she’s echoing his words from earlier, looks down, fighting another smile when he replies.

“A little.” They’re the words that she used, and he continues, “I mean, I’m hardly one of Tom’s favourite people…”

“But I am,” she tells him, knowing it to be true. Because Tom Turcotte is the one person from her old life that she’s still in touch with, a good friend who once upon a time was more, and who really wouldn’t mind being more again. She’s never told him that it’s not going to happen though, because Tom already knows that, just like he knows that the reason why is standing beside her, walking down the street on Christmas Eve.

“Yeah, I got that.”

There’s not much she can say to that, so they walk in silence for the rest of the block, crossing the street when they see a young couple standing in the middle of the sidewalk, wrapped in one another’s arms, kissing as if the world is about to end. “So, what happened?” she asks, casting another glance at him. “Between you and Kelly, I mean?”

She wonders belatedly if she might be prying, if she’s overstepped the line somewhere, but he doesn’t seem to think so. “I’m not really sure,” he starts. “It happened just after Memorial Day… I thought things were fine. We had a good holiday, I wasn’t called into work, Willie was happy… then out of the blue, Kelly tells me that we need to talk. That things aren’t right between us. That they haven’t been for a while. That she thinks some time apart would do us good.”

Teresa’s mouth goes dry. “She said all that?”

“Yeah. And I told her that she was wrong, that we were fine, that we were back on track… but she kept on saying that something was off. And it was only later that I realised she was right… that things hadn’t been right. Not for a long time.”

He stops walking then, and she’s grateful, because her mind is whirring. “What things?” Her voice doesn’t sound a thing like her own, and it gets harder to think when he sighs, reaches out and touches her elbow.

“You know what things.” His voice is low, lower than even it was in the chapel, and it sends gooseflesh rippling along her body. She can feel his touch, even through the fabric of her jacket, and she couldn’t speak if her life depended on it. He’s quiet for a long moment, as if he’s waiting for her to say something, and when she doesn’t, he drops his hand, jams it right back into his jacket pocket. “I spent so long taking care of Kelly,” he tells her. “Worrying about her, making sure she was all right… I never thought that when she did get better… that things would have changed so much.” A deep breath in, a long breath out. “That I would have changed so much.”

“Joel…” All she can say is his name, and maybe he sees that, because he smiles, taking a step forwards, tilting his head in invitation to continue walking.

“It was rough for a while… Willie didn’t really understand… but he’s better now. And Kelly and me… we’re good. Friends.” The last is said with an amazed little laugh. “She’s a hell of a woman… a lot stronger than anyone gave her credit for.” Another smile, this one decidedly wry. “Including me. She’s at the house right now… planning this big dinner for tomorrow… her sister’s coming, her sister’s boyfriend…”

His voice trails off, the look on his face moving from wry amusement to something that’s very like guilt, and she jumps to the only conclusion she can. “And you?”

He doesn’t stop walking when he nods. “And me.” He pushes his hands deeper into his pockets, moves his arms back and forth, but he doesn’t break stride. “Does that shock you?” he asks, looking at her, and that same smile that was on his face when she first saw him in the chapel, partly happy, partly teasing, is there again.

She’s not sure why though, because she can’t remember a time she’s felt less like smiling. “Shouldn’t it?” She counters. “You’re telling me that you’re separated… then that you’re going to spend tomorrow with your wife and your kid and your family… why aren’t you there now?”

He stops talking, turns to face her, and all hints of teasing are gone. “Because I’m spending tomorrow with them,” he tells her. “And I wanted to spend tonight with you.”

The world stops spinning for a few precious seconds, everything around them going perfectly still. The only things in the world are the two of them, the warm weight of Joel’s hand as it settles on her shoulder, the racing of her heart. His hand flexes, kneading her shoulder through her jacket, and it sets the world spinning again, her head spinning with it.

She opens her mouth to say something, but he beats her to it, dropping his hand to his side. “I miss you, Teresa,” he says softly. “So many times this past year I wished…” His voice broke off and he shook his head. “I knew Tom knew where you were… I didn’t ask because I never thought he’d tell me…”

“So what changed your mind?” Because this is important. This, she wants to know.

“I didn’t.” The words make something break inside her, something deep inside, and she looks down, trying to hide her hurt. “That didn’t come out right,” she hears him say. “Tom came to me… this morning. Told me where you’re living… that you’d be at Midnight Mass at that church tonight. The second he did that… I knew what I wanted to do.” A pause where she drags her head up to look into his eyes, seeing sincerity, and something else, burning there. “What I had to do.”

He pauses then, lets that settle, doesn’t take his eyes off her as she swallows hard, reaches up to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he tells her. “Where we’re going next… but whatever this is Teresa, whatever’s going on between us… I want you in my life.”

There’s another long, long pause, where he’s waiting for her to speak, where she can’t, and then, as if from nowhere, a new noise fills the silence, dim at first, but familiar. Teresa’s head turns towards the noise, and a smile comes to her lips. “Carollers,” she says, and at the edge of her vision, she sees Joel blink, a mixture of confusion and dismay on his face. “Come on,” she says, moving in that direction, and he falls into step beside her, not speaking, but obviously thoroughly at a loss.

She stops when opposite the carollers, a crowd of men and women, some barely out of their teens, some well into their golden years. All are smiling, voices blending in perfect harmony, “Silent Night” rising into the cool night air, reaching out to surround her and Joel, wrapping them in a blanket of stars and sound and magic. She is hyper-aware of every sight and sound, of Joel behind her, standing so close to her that she can almost feel every breath he takes.

“It’s beautiful,” she hears him murmur, and she smiles to herself, reaching out behind her, finding his right hand with hers, closing her fingers around his. There’s a soft huff of laughter as he steps closer to her, her back flush against his chest, and she takes advantage of the proximity, drawing their joined hands around so that they rest against her stomach, closing her other hand over them. He has the same idea, his left hand resting on her hip, before sliding around to rest on top of their hands. Leaning back against him, her head can rest on his shoulder, and she lets it fall there, closing her eyes and letting the moment wash over her.

She doesn’t open her eyes, doesn’t move, and nor does he until the hymn is over, until applause from the scattered crowd breaks the spell that surrounds them. She straightens, and he drops his hands, only for as long as it takes her to turn in his arms. That’s when his hands slide around her again, moving under her jacket to rest on her back. She tilts her head back, looking up at him, once more unable to speak, but at the moment, she doesn’t think it matters. She knows that she’s right when one of his hands moves to her cheek, fingers tracing a path as he brings his lips to hers.

For a first kiss, it’s the fulfilment of every single fantasy, every idle daydream she’s ever had, and she doesn’t want it to end. When it does, when he pulls back, breathing just as hard as she is, every nerve ending in her body tingling, he doesn’t say a word, just smiles as he pulls her into a hug. Her head rests on his shoulder, her arms around his waist, and they stay there, arm in arm on an L.A. street, the carollers’ magic surrounding them.

Ever since she was a child, Midnight Mass has always been Teresa’s favourite Christmas ritual.

But next year, she thinks it might have some serious competition.