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Comfort and Joy: Thirteen Times Emily Fields Loved Christmas

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I.

Emily wakes up on Christmas morning at 4am.

She can’t exactly tell time yet, but she learned the numbers on Sesame Street.

There was a noise downstairs. She’s almost sure.

She lays very still in her bed, wide awake.

She didn’t hear anything on the roof.

There are footsteps on the stairs. Heavy boots, carrying a big bag.

She’s so excited she can barely breathe.

The door to her room opens and she launches herself out of bed.

Daddy!

Her dad drops his gear and scoops her into a hug.

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II.

Emily feels something soft brush against her cheek. Her eyes flutter open. The room is dark.

Remember last year?

Alison’s voice, whispering in her ear. A shiver runs down her spine.

“Ali?”

She rolls over, and it is Ali. Tousled blonde hair. Jungle red lipstick. Silk pajamas that are unbuttoned enough to make Emily swallow hard.

You were supposed to go to church with your mom, but you bailed to keep me company when I was sick.

“You didn’t have the flu,” Emily mutters, sleepily. “You were faking to get out of dinner at your aunt’s house.”

Alison grins and squeezes Emily’s hand under the covers.

You didn’t know that, though. I could have been gross and contagious.

Ali rests her head on Emily’s shoulder. It feels so real.

You wanted to take care of me.

Emily feels tears streaming down her cheeks.

Ali’s lips are feather light as she kisses them away.

“Where are you?” Emily asks, pleadingly. “Am I ever going to see you again?”

Alison strokes Emily’s hair.

“If the fates allow.”

A door slams downstairs.

Emily jolts awake.

Sunlight is streaming through the windows.

Her dad is home.

Her heart drops.

Alison is still gone.

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III.

It’s Christmas Eve and it seems like everyone in Rosewood is stopping by their house with cookies and casseroles.

How are you doing?

He’s been dead for eight months and tomorrow is Christmas.

How do they think?

Her mom is fake smiling a lot.

Emily hasn’t told her about school yet.

It’s temporary. She’s just taking the semester off.

She lies to everyone who asks about her classes.

Paints a rosy picture of California, all sunshine and palm trees.

No drunk guys with wandering hands.

No wiping vomit off the bar at the end of the night.

Her mom goes to bed at ten-thirty, worn down by everyone else’s good cheer.

Emily stays up, sitting in the darkened living room, nursing a whiskey.

Snow is falling outside the window.

Mrs. Buckner has covered her entire yard with twinkle lights.

Emily feels anger writhing inside her chest.

She shoves on her boots and stumbles out into the cold.

She runs across the street and tears at one of the strands.

It won’t come off.

She claws at it until her fingers bleed.

She kicks the mailbox and feels tears stinging her eyes.

She grabs at one of the low hanging strands in the tree.

The branch breaks off in her hand.

The snap is loud in the silence.

She sinks to her knees and sobs.

“Em?” It’s Alison’s voice.

Alison’s gloved hand on the small of her back.

Ali doesn’t ask if she’s okay. She just sets down her baking dish and wraps Emily in a tight hug.

She walks her back across the street and runs warm water over Emily’s scraped knuckles.

She puts the kettle on for tea, finding the mugs and the spoons instinctively. She still knows her way around the kitchen.

They don’t actually talk.

Alison takes her upstairs and tucks her into bed.

Emily grabs her wrist when she turns to go.

“Stay.”

“Is that what you want?”

Emily doesn’t answer. She pulls Ali closer and kisses her, hard.

Ali pulls away and studies Emily’s face, as if she’s trying to read between the lines of all the usual back and forth between them, calculate the degrees of grief and love and affection in Emily’s need.

Maybe she sees what she was looking for. Maybe not.

But she takes off her shirt and pins Emily against the mattress, bites her lip until it bleeds.

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IV.

Emily wakes up on Christmas morning at 4am.

It’s a habit her body hasn’t quite unlearned after the months of early morning feedings. Now, at six months old, Emma is finally sleeping through the night. It’s still dark outside, but the glow of the room is lit by the glow of multi-colored lights strung along the eaves.

There’s a real Christmas tree downstairs, filling the whole house with the scent of fresh pine. Stockings with each of their names on the mantle and stacks of presents wrapped in shiny paper.

The baby is fast asleep in her bassinet, wearing a reindeer onesie from a special pack of holiday prints that Hanna sent.

Alison is snoring lightly, her body warm and soft under the blankets. Emily reaches out and brushes a lock of hair off her forehead. Alison sighs and snuggles against her instinctively.

There’s nothing left to be afraid of.

Emily closes her eyes and drifts back to sleep.

It’s Christmas morning, and she got everything she wanted.

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V.

Emily is sure she’s only been asleep for a few minutes.

They had to wait until the girls were finally conked out before they could bring in the rest of their gifts. There was wrapping to finish. Bows to put on. New bikes to assemble. Stockings to stuff.

“See?” Emma’s says, her voice a loud whisper. “I told you he came.”

“He did!” Sophie exclaims, happily. “How did he get a bike down the chimney?”

“He just comes in through the chimney,” Emma tells her, solemnly. “After that, he’s allowed to open the door.”

Emily cracks her eyes open a little. The girls are laying on their stomachs at the top of the stairs, looking down at the tree.

“Can we go down yet?” Sophie pleads.

“No,” Emma says, firmly. “The elves would take one of your presents back.”

“How would they know?”

“They’re always watching. Aunt Charlotte told me. They have tech-nol-ogy.”

Emily groans.

“I’ll talk to her,” Alison mutters, half-awake.

The girls must’ve heard them stirring because they scamper quickly back to their beds.

Emily looks at the clock. It’s 530AM. “We should make them wait until six, right?”

Alison nods and yawns.

“They’re lucky,” she says, curling an arm around Emily’s waist.

“We bought them way too much.”

“It’s not that,” Alison says, her voice thick as she kisses the back of Emily’s neck. “They’re going to grow up like you. Believing in magic.”

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VI.

The day after Thanksgiving is Black Friday in the DiLaurentis-Fields house. It’s the day that Pastor Ted announces the cast for the Christmas Pageant.

Sophie has her heart set on being one of the Wise Men this year. She’s spent the past week draping an old t-shirt over her head to get in character. As the star soprano in the Children’s Choir, Emma is above caring about pageant casting. But she did give her sister one of Alison’s fancy perfume bottles to carry around for practice.

“Every part is important,” Emily says, as they drive to the church.

“I know,” Sophie says,twisting her gloves in her lap. “I want a people part, though. I’ve been an animal since forever.”

It’s true. The last four years that she’s auditioned, she’s been cast as a lamb, a cow, a goat, and a sheep. The sheep being basically the same role as the lamb, just a bigger costume. As far as Sophie is concerned, she’s paid her dues as a nativity animal.

Unfortunately, the church doesn’t seem to agree.

“I’m a camel!” Sophie wails as they come in the door. “Half a camel!”

“Which half?” Emma asks, looking up from her magazine.

“Second hump,” Sophie cries, stomping upstairs to her room.

There’s a thunking sound that might be her hurling the perfume bottle at the rug.

“Second hump,” Emily repeats, shaking her head. “Do they really have to be that specific?

“This is ridiculous,” Alison huffs. “I’m pulling out of the bake sale. They can’t keep doing this to her!”

“The bake sale is to help the homeless,” Emma points out. “It’s not their fault.”

“I’ll call Pastor Ted,” Emily suggests. “Maybe we can offer to sew a new lamb costume?”

“Like that’s going to make her feel better?” Emma scoffs, rolling her eyes. She’s twelve, and leaning hard into her teenage years these days. Sometimes Emily feels like they may need to brace themselves. Assume crash positions as she heads into full on adolescence as the second coming of Ali herself.

Emma puts her magazine down, and goes upstairs after her sister.

When Christmas Eve services finally come, Emma invites the whole family to hear her sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Sophie half heartedly pins the camel tail on the back of her pajamas.

Emma’s big number is supposed to come at the end of the program, so it’s a bit of a surprise when the opening bars start to play just as the pageant actors trail in.

Alison nudges Emily. The camel has only one hump.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie..”

Emma’s warm melodious voice is harmonizing with Sophie, who’s a little off key but completely singing her heart out.

Emily squeezes Alison’s hand with tears in her eyes.

The pageant kids have no idea what to do. One of the lambs trips over the goat, and the wise men keep stepping on the back of the camel costume that’s dragging on the floor like a train. Mary and Joseph are trying hard to keep it together, but one of the shepherds accidentally knocks the baby doll out of her hands when he tries to get around the goat and sheep, who are now wrestling with the cow on the floor.

Everything is chaos and confusion, while their daughter’s voices rise angelically above the fray, sharing what would have been Emma’s big solo.

By the time they get to the last verse, the Baby Jesus is missing one of his arms and the angel is bleeding from where Herod bit her. One of the Wise Men throws up, then runs off stage. The nativity animals run after him in a small stampede. Mary and Joseph lead the others in a full scale retreat just as Emma and Sophie make it to the final ringing Emmanuel.

“Brava!” Charlotte shouts, clapping wildly. The rest of the church joins her in a riot of applause.

Sophie and Emma hold hands and bow.

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VII.

It’s the third day of Christmas break, and Emily is curled up on the couch, drinking hot chocolate and snuggling with Ali as they watch The Bishop’s Wife.

The girls are roasting marshmallows in the fireplace and whispering together. Emily tries to casually overhear without obviously eavesdropping.

They’re keeping a close eye on Sophie, who seems to be in the throes of a dramatic but unspecified middle school heartbreak.

For the past month, she’s been in an even better mood than usual. She’s been walking around the house humming to herself and texting furiously. Since the break started, though, her phone has gone silent.

She’s been throwing herself into a knitting project, trying to make her first sweater. It’s lumpy and one sleeve is shorter than the other. The reindeer on the front looks more like a hippo and may be upside down. It’s hard to tell. But she’s been working on it in between two minute bouts of checking her phone for non-existent messages, so it’s not too bad all things considered.

The crush object seems to be Sophie’s friend Cole. If it even is a crush. If crushes are still a thing. The world that Sophie is growing up in seems to be a place where gender and attraction are fluid and variable. Her friend group seems to be made up entirely of kids who identify themselves with a whole host of acronyms that Emily is constantly having to google. AFAB. Demi. Ace. Aro. NB.

Alison referred to herself as bisexual in conversation once, and Sophie and Emma both acted like it was a hilariously old fashioned label. As if it belonged in a museum with rotary telephones and neon fanny packs, a total period piece.

Now the girls finish the marshmallows and flop down on the floor in front of the couch to watch the rest of the movie with them.

Emily stretches and yawns as the final credits are rolling, watching as Sophie checks her phone for the third time in five minutes.

Ali recruits Emma to help with the dishes, leaving Emily and Sophie alone together.

“Is everything okay, Sweetie? Is there anything you want to talk about.”

“No,” Sophie says, in a quiet voice.

Emily leans over and strokes her daughter’s hair. “I’m here, okay? If you change your mind.”

“Cole turned out to be kind of a jerk.”

“That’s too bad. I’m sorry.”

Sophie shrugs. “I’ll try to pick someone better next time.”

Alison swoops back into the room to get the popcorn bowl.

“Don’t settle for better,” she suggests. “Go for the best. The best people make you better when you’re around them. That’s how you know.”

Emily catches sight of Emma leaning in the doorway, listening with a thoughtful look on her face.

Sophie thinks it over, then nods solemnly.

She picks up her phone and deletes Cole’s number.

“Let’s hop in the car,” Emily suggests. “We can drive around and look at the lights.”

The girls throw on their coats and pile into the backseat. Alison finds a station that’s playing Christmas music. Sophie invents a game where they howl along with the melody instead of singing. They play until they’re all laughing so hard there are tears in their eyes.

Just like that, everyone is happy again.

It’s a Christmas miracle.

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VIII.

It’s December in New York. The giant tree in Rockefeller Plaza. Ice skating in Central Park. Incredible shop windows along Fifth Avenue.

Hanna tries to be low key about her level of celebrity in the city. She takes taxis and never insists that restaurants kick out other customers to seat her. Mona, of course, has no such scruples. She owns New York and doesn’t care who knows it. Which is how they spent last night with Emma and Sophie hanging out the moon roof of the Vanderwaal limo trying to catch snowflakes on their tongues. After going backstage at the Langston Hughes musical to meet Daveed Diggs.

“Please,” Emma begs, for the fiftieth time. “I’ll never ask for anything ever again.”

“Can we get that in writing?” Emily asks, wearily.

Emma wants to spend next summer here. She’s proposed a complete plan. She’s applied for an internship at the Vanderwaal Action Initiative. She wants to stay with Hanna and Spencer, who Emily is pretty sure are actually thrilled at the idea. Emma enlisted them as allies with the promise of live in babysitting services for Asher and Atticus. Which isn’t wildly necessary, although Spencer has fired at least three au pairs and two nannies.

“We’re not going to decide now,” Alison tells her, firmly. “We need to talk it over and nail down the details. And see how your grades are next semester. If you slip off the Honor Roll because you’re daydreaming about summer in the city, all bets are off.”

Two hours later, Emma’s flounced off for a shopping trip with Charlotte and Sophie.

“We’re spoiling them,” Alison worries, as they walk through Central Park together.

“Emma’s going to be in college soon,” Emily replies, running a hand down Alison’s back. “We can afford to spoil them a little.”

“It’s only a matter of time. If we let Emma go, Sophie will want to hare off to save the rainforests or join one of your Habitat builds.”

“She wants to go with Jason. He’s building wells and funding vaccination clinics.”

“They can’t wait to get away from us.”

“To get out of Rosewood.”

“They think all of our friends live these big exciting lives.”

“Everyone thinks their parents are boring.”

Alison sighs. “We spent our teenage years almost dying every five seconds. Boring is nice.

Emily pulls her close with a mittened hand and kisses her on the side of the head. “You could never be boring.”

“It’s strange to think about,” Alison says. “The girls going away.”

“They’re growing up so fast.”

“Is this what it’ll be like? When it’s just the two of us?”

Emily stops walking and kisses Alison right there in the middle of the path. The kiss is long and deep and full of feeling.

When they finally break apart, Emily gestures around them. The nearby gazebo is strung with white Christmas lights, there are icicles dangling from the trees, a light snow is falling.

“It’ll be the two of us, in our own private snow globe.”

Ali gives her a look that still gives Emily’s stomach go a little swoopy.

“That’s why you’re my favorite.”

 

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IX.

Christmas Eve is turning into quite the production. Seventeen guests, and Sophie came home for winter break announcing she’s gone vegan.

Aria shows up at 10am with two enormous carrier bags full of groceries. She looks happier than she has in years. Divorce agrees with her. Or maybe it’s her new novel, which is one of the hottest sellers of the holiday season.

Spencer and Hanna arrive at noon with a case of wine.

They spend the whole day in the kitchen. Chopping vegetables and drinking wine and gossiping lightly about whether Bridget Wu’s new MLM handbag company is a pyramid scheme, Tom Marin’s third divorce, the rumor that Mona and Halsey might be an item.

“We saw Jenna,” Spencer tells them. “She’s playing for the National Symphony.”

“Did you talk to her?” Emily asks, curiously.

“She caught up to us in the lobby,” Hanna scowls. “In a crowd of two thousand people, she sniffed us out like a creepy bloodhound.”

“She’s dating a ballerina,” Aria tells them. “Or maybe two ballerinas.”

“Jenna might be in a ballet triad, and you didn’t get details?” Alison says, incredulously.

Spencer bites a carrot stick as she hip checks Aria. “Your inner peace is annoying, you know that?”

“Speaking of details,” Hanna says, pouring Emily a third glass of wine. “I think someone has a new boyfriend.”

Aria loses her grip on a pan of mashed sweet potatoes, nearly dropping them on Alison’s shoes.

“Emma is bringing someone,” Emily nods. “Did she tell you?”

“She didn’t need to,” Hanna shrugs. “Alison is making latkes when she’s already got a million other things to do? It’s been awhile, but I know a clue when I see one.”

“You’ve officially been married to Spencer too long,” Aria laughs.

Spencer tosses a piece of celery at her good naturedly.

“His name is David,” Alison tells them. “We think it’s serious.”

It’s not that Emma hasn’t brought guys home before. There was the anarchist with at least twenty facial piercings and a greasy mohawk. The hockey player who confused Emily Post with Emily Dickinson. The Mormon missionary who reminded everyone of Sean Ackard.

But those guys seemed chosen mainly as a salvo in her ongoing battle with Alison over her overprotective impulses when it came to Emma’s love life.

David seems different. He’s a law student. They met over the summer when he was clerking for Melissa.

Emma’s voice gets a little softer when she talks about him.

Hours later, the table is laden with food and has the entire extended family seated around it.

Sophie and Ash are arguing about who should win the ugliest sweater contest, appealing to David as the impartial newcomer to decide.

“Mine is a manger,” Sophie explains. She’s crocheted otherwise loose straw into a rough pattern with lumpy yarn.

“If you need to explain it, it’s not working,” Asher counters. “Also, mine lights up.”

“Mine has authenticity.”

“And it’s shedding into the soup.”

Before David can make a ruling, Hanna cuts in to ask him to pass the rolls.

By the end of dinner, Spencer and Mona have mapped out a strategy for Rosewood’s Model UN club to spearhead pro-refugee resolutions in spite of being assigned Mauritania. Barry has told a story about a rookie cop locking himself out of his cruiser, and having to have the burglary suspect in the back of the car talk him through jimmying the door. Pam has arranged a date for Aria to come and speak to her book club, and Melissa has ruled that Sophie is eliminated from the ugly sweater contest after she got straw in the lentil gravy. And Emily caught Aria and Jason making out under the mistletoe under the stairs, so it looks like Emma isn’t the only one who brought her new boyfriend to dinner.

They’ve also learned that David was born on Ellsworth AFB and grew up moving from base to base as his mother rose through the ranks. He has two sisters. He’s in his third year at Harvard Law, works part time as a bike messenger, volunteers for the Innocence Project, and keeps a small apiary on the roof of his apartment building. He has curly brown hair and clear green eyes behind his thick framed glasses.

Emma keeps touching his arm unconsciously as he talks. Their bodies seem to tilt towards one another as if they share some kind of private gravity. He looks at her as if he can’t believe his luck.

Alison catches Emily’s eye and smiles.

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X.

It’s Christmas Eve and Emily is still in the throes of decorating. The light up reindeer should have been in place weeks ago, but she’s been so busy with work and her mom had a bad case of bronchitis and all of a sudden it seems like everyone is coming tomorrow and she’s hopelessly behind.

“It’s fine,” Alison tells her, for the fifth time. “It looks like we’re running an Airbnb for Santa’s elves.”

“I want everything to be perfect,” Emily sighs. The empty nest is hitting her harder than usual this year. She wants to make sure the house is festive, to celebrate everyone being home again. Emma and Dave are flying in on the red eye from San Francisco. Which probably means they’ll be almost as tired as Sophie, who’s crashed out upstairs. It seems like she never sleeps more than three hours a night these days.

“It will be,” Ali promises, putting her arms around Emily’s waist. “But come to bed. You’re exhausted. Everyone is going to have a wonderful time, you don’t need to stay up all night stringing popcorn.”

“I’ll be up in a minute,” Emily says, distractedly. She starts digging through boxes of decorations, hoping to find the tree topper from her mom’s house.

The next thing she knows, she’s on the couch with an afghan draped over her. The lights are off, but the tree is beautifully lit and there’s a fire crackling merrily in the fireplace.

Someone is adjusting the ornaments on the tree, rearranging them so the shiny metallic ones are positioned near the colored strings of lights. Her dad turns around and smiles at her.

“You made it home,” she says.

“It’s Christmas,” he replies, putting an arm around her shoulders.

For the first time in weeks, she feels calm.

Like she doesn’t need to be worried about Emma, who hasn’t been home since April. About that tone in her voice that usually means she’s hiding something. Or about Sophie studying herself into nervous exhaustion over the MCATs. Or the build schedule for the Jenkins house. Her mom’s lingering cough. Spencer’s mammogram. Ali driving at night without her glasses.

Her heart is suddenly full of a warm certainty that everything - every single thing - is going to be okay.

She reaches out and moves a shiny silver bell ornament next to a green LED bulb.

“There,” her dad says. “Isn’t that better?”

He moves over to the fire place, even though she’s sure she hung the stockings before dinner.

But there they are in the box. She must have gotten distracted.

They work in companionable silence. He hands them to her one at a time and she hangs them carefully on the mantle. She finishes and steps back to admire the effect.

Her dad shakes his head. There are two more stockings. They’re shimmery white, with golden beading and a soft ruff. Emily has never seen them before.

She takes them and runs her fingers over the cloth. It feels strange and special, like it’s made out of moonlight. She feels an unexpected swell of happiness, a giant wave of love washing over her.

She looks at her dad, but there’s a popping noise from the other room that takes them both by surprise.

Her father pulls her close, kisses her softly on the forehead.

Emily wakes up to the sound of the popcorn lid clanging against the stove.

Twelve hours later, she and Ali open a small elegantly wrapped box from Emma and Dave.

It’s an ultrasound photo.

She’s pregnant with twins.

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XI.

It’s Christmas Eve and the scene at the Rosewood Market is pandemonium. Last minute shoppers in the throes of holiday panic and frantic cooks in need of forgotten ingredients - everyone is milling around in a fog as the snow falls lightly outside.

Emily is wearing a Santa hat and trying to keep track of Wayne and Jess, who are bouncing along beside her practically vibrating with excitement. And sugar. Alison is a soft touch, she’s been letting them both sneak cookies off the cooling rack all day.

The baking aisle looks like it’s been hit by a tornado. A grainy package of cake mix has burst on the floor, along with a tube of chocolate frosting that looks to have been crushed under the feet of the crowd. Wayne giggles with delight as he slides across the slippery floor.

“Careful,” Emily warns, as Jess tries out the sliding move as well. He does does a dramatic pirouette the ends with him crashing into his brother and collapsing into a heap of laughter near a streaky puddle of frosting.

He’s already struggling back to his feet by the time Emily reaches him. Unfortunately, he’s pulling himself up by tugging at the bottom of a stranger’s coat. A stylish white trench coat, now with small chocolate frosted handprints on the hem.

“I’m so sorry,” Emily says, bustling forward and trying to corral the twins into wiping their hands.

“Emily?” a familiar voice inquires.

Emily looks up, startled. It’s Paige McCullers, rocking a tailored vest and a short gray pixie cut.

“How bad is it?” Paige asks.

“It’s kind of awkward, I guess” Emily says, kneeling down and using a wet wipe on Wayne. “But it’s good to see you.”

“I meant the coat,” Paige explains, and her grin is exactly the same. The rest of her face looks - not older exactly - like time has darkened the lines, added more definition.

“Oh,” Emily says, laughing a little nervously. “It’s….pretty bad, actually.” She turns to Jess. “Do you have something to say, young man?”

He looks up at Paige with the big eyed look that’s his go-to for charming strangers. “I’m sorry,” he says, the picture of sweetness and innocence.

“It’s okay,” Paige assures him. “It’s machine washable.”

He beams and kicks a marshmallow at his brother.

“How are you?” Emily asks.

“Good. Really good. I’m the head coach at Occidental now. Division III, but it’s a great program.”

“I saw your picture in the Sharks newsletter,” Emily says. “When you medaled at the Gay Games.” She puts a restraining hand on Wayne’s collar, as he and Jess are kicking a loose marshmallow back and forth between them. “So you’re back in Rosewood for the holidays?”

Paige nods. “My aunt passed away. My mom asked me to come up and help sort through some of her things.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Thanks. She was sick for a long time, but it’s still hard. She left me the lake house.”

“Oh god, that lake house. Remember what Bridget Wu did to the teapot?”

“I forgot all about that. That party was such a disaster,” Paige laughs.

Emily wonders how the sound still feels so familiar when they haven’t seen each other in years.

“I’m sorry,” she says again. “I’ve always felt bad about that.”

“About the party?” Paige asks, kicking the marshmallow back at Jess after he sends it skittering towards her boot. “Honestly, it was so long ago, it feels like a different lifetime.”

“Not just about the party,” Emily says. “About how I acted back then. The way I treated you. In high school and - afterwards.”

“Emily,” Paige says. “You don’t need to apologize.”

“I do. You deserved better.”

“How’s Alison?”

“Good. We’re good. These little guys,” she says, gesturing towards Wayne and Jess, who are now playing frisbee with a package of aluminum pie tins, “are our grandsons.”

“I figured,” Paige says. “They look a lot like you.” She pulls out her cell phone and shows Emily a picture. A young woman in a cap and gown, with Paige and a woman who must be her partner smiling broadly, their arms locked around her shoulders. The partner has a deep tan and ropy arm muscles. A triathlete, Emily thinks. Maybe a firefighter..

“That’s our oldest, Riese. She’s a freshman at UCLA.” The girl has Paige’s eyes and a similar intensity to her expression. She flips to another picture, a younger teen with an asymmetrical haircut sitting on the floor playing with a small furry dog and two cats. “That’s Marley. They’re fourteen and they want to be a vet.” She flips to a vacation shot. Paige and her partner drinking champagne on the beach with a magnificent sunset in the background. They look radiant with happiness. “Heather and I went to Hawaii for our anniversary last February. Twenty years.”

“Wow,” Emily says. “Congratulations.”

Paige reaches out and squeezes her arm. “I get it now. If things had worked out with us, it would have been second best. The silver medal instead of the gold. Not just for you. For me, too.”

Emily smiles, a little surprised to feel tears pricking behind her eyes. “I guess silver isn’t too bad.”

“No,” Paige replies. “It’s not. It’s good to see you, Emily.”

“You, too.”

“I should get going. Take care of yourself. Say hi to Alison for me.”

“I will. Merry Christmas, Paige.”

“Merry Christmas.”

Emily is fastening the twins into their car seats when she catches sight of Paige pulling out of the parking lot in a Subaru with a “Vote Hastings” bumper sticker on that back window. She watches Paige drive away. Her tail lights fade into the distance as the snow turns into rain.

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XII.

It’s Christmas morning, and the house is eerily quiet.

No kids.

Emma and Dave and the boys are having family Christmas at their house in the morning. Sophie is in the middle of her ER rotation and she was on call at the hospital all night. They’ll all be over this afternoon.

Still, it feels a little lonely.

Alison rolls over and strokes her hair, as if she knows exactly what Emily is thinking.

“Stay here,” Ali says as she slides out of bed. “I have a present for you.”

She comes back moments later dressed in a sheer red peignoir. She lights every candle in the room, then walks slowly towards the bed.

She gives Emily a sultry look. Takes her hand and places it on the silk sash.

“It’s Christmas morning,” she says, her lips working against Emily’s neck. “And there are no kids in the house.”

Emily kisses her hungrily.

She’s always loved Christmas.

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XIII.

Emily wakes up at 4am on Christmas morning. It’s the jet lag. Her body is still a little confused about night and day.

The moon is reflecting against the newly fallen snow. There are icicles on the windows, and the white dome of Sacre Coeur just visible in the distance.

The apartment is like a time capsule of Hanna and Spencer’s early days. Hanna’s early Vogue covers are stuck to the aging fridge with magnets. A well thumbed biography of Eleanor Roosevelt sits on the nightstand, with a postcard from Aria’s first honeymoon wedged between the pages.

Alison rolls over, wrapping a warm leg around Emily’s own.

“Are you asleep?”

“No,” Emily says. “Not really.”

“Come on,” Alison says. “Let’s go for a walk.”

They stroll arm and arm through the streets. It feels like they have the entire city to themselves.

“What do you think the kids are doing right now?” Emily asks.

“It’s still Christmas Eve back home. Sophie’s probably setting a broken leg of a drunk who fell off his roof pretending to be Santa.” Alison puts her head against Emily’s shoulder and tucks her hand into Emily’s pocket.

“And Emma and Dave are probably trying to convince Wayne and Jess to go to bed before the elves take away all their presents,” Emily agrees.

They celebrated family Christmas a week early this year. December 17th was the best day for everyone’s schedule. Pam and Barry have gone full snow bird now that he’s finally retired from the force. They mailed gifts from Florida and Skyped in to talk to everyone.

Twinkle lights are reflecting in the Seine as a lone accordion player stands on top of a bridge playing carols.

Alison twirls her around in an impromptu dance.

“I have a secret,” Ali says.

“Tell me.”

“I never cared about Christmas before I met you. I was three years old when I heard my parents arguing about how much Santa’s gifts cost. It wasn’t exactly the stuff dreams are made of. Then you came along. The girl who loved Christmas more than anything.”

“Not quite more than anything,” Emily smiles. She looks around them. Paris. The city of lights. The most romantic place in the world. She looks at Alison’s face. Her wife. The most beautiful sight of all.

“No?” Alison asks, sounding a little breathless in the cold night air.

They kiss underneath a street lamp as moon starts to set.

It’s Christmas morning, and she has nothing left to wish for.