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In the Lonely Midnight

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They have a signal for dark, cold December nights like this. After she comes back from her run, Clare is supposed to turn on the little battery powered candle in the second floor windowsill. Russ drives by her house on the way home from work, or on patrol, and sees it and knows she's home and safe.

It isn't much-- it isn't a chance to hear her voice on the phone, or a chance to see her. But he'd be willing to bet she thinks about him, every time she turns the tiny light on. And he thinks about her when he sees it, about Clare warm and secure in the old rectory, her hair wet from the shower--. He tries not to think too much about it, actually.

So when he goes by at seven-- and it isn't that much out of the way, not really-- on Thursday night the week before Christmas, and her car is in the driveway but the light isn't on, he worries. Mostly she runs on the well-lit, populated streets near St. Alban's when it's this dark, and he swings the truck into the church parking lot and turns around.

He doesn't see her any where in a ten block radius, and he thinks, maybe I just missed her. But when he goes by her house again the candle still isn't lit. He parks on the street and gets out, willing it to come on. There are lights on downstairs, but he can't tell from this distance whether anyone's home.

Russ's heart is always in is throat, when it comes to Clare-- and he guesses in his throat is better than on his sleeve where anyone can see it-- but it's terror and not adrenaline that makes his chest hurt tonight. He reminds himself that she's only a friend, that he shouldn't be any more concerned about her than he would be about Linda's best friend Meg, or one of his officers. It doesn't help.

He knocks on the door, and it feels like a lifetime before someone answers. Despite his parka, Russ shivers, trying not to think of Clare outside somewhere, in a jacket and running tights, lying in a ditch somewhere. Stupid, stupid--.

She opens the door, and for a minute all he can think about is how beautiful she is, in an old flannel robe and sweatpants, her hair braided. Nothing like the women he used to fantasize about, and nothing like Linda, but beautiful all the same. “The light wasn't on,” he says, in explanation.

“Come in, Russ,” Clare interrupts impatiently, but he can see the faintest hint of a smile lifting the corners of her mouth. “It's too cold to stand here with the door open.”

Russ moves inside obediently and takes off his coat without even thinking about it. He's bent over, untying his boots, before he realizes what he's doing. He straightens, flushing a little, but Clare's already moving toward the kitchen.

“Coffee?” she calls over her shoulder. Russ takes his boots off and follows her. The coffee's already made, it smells like, and he leans against the counter while she pours him up a cup, listens to her talk.

“I'm so sorry about the stupid candle. The bulb's burned out and I didn't make it to the hardware store. There's just something about the Advent season that makes everything twice as crazy as usual.”

Russ takes a sip of his coffee. “S'okay-- good to know the system works, right? I'm glad you're alright.”

She smiles at him, and he tries not to think about his wife, waiting at home. Linda deserves better-- and so, for that matter, does Clare. They deserve a hundred percent, and Russ is being torn in half, and even if he weren't he's not sure he'd really deserve either of them.

If someone had told him a couple of years ago that it was possible to love two women this way, he wouldn't have believed it. Would have thought it was some kind of a cheap cop-out, that I love them both meant the guy didn't really love either of them.

There's a warm glow of lights from the next room, the reflection dancing in the glass fronts of the cabinets. Original, Russ thinks, built when the house was. “You get a tree this year?”

To his surprise, Clare blushes a little. “Oh. Yes-- I thought--.” She waves her arm, and he accepts the invitation and follows her into the living room. The tree is in front of the fireplace, a crooked, scraggly thing decorated with a string of colored lights and a couple of glass balls and a handful of ornaments.

“Does Charlie Brown know you took his tree?” Russ asks. “Sorry. But I would've helped you get a bigger one, you know that.”

“Of course. But I like this one-- it has character. I've never had a tree of my own before. I always went home to my parents' for Christmas, unless I was stuck overseas or on an Army base somewhere. Last year there wasn't time, but I thought maybe it was time for a new tradition.”

Russ and Linda put up a tree every year. Russ cuts it down and hauls it in and jams it into the tree stand, and Linda picks it out and decorates it. The decorations are tasteful: strings of popcorn and cranberries, white lights, matching glass balls. Their trees are always perfect, like something out of a magazine, but Russ can't honestly say they have character.

“It looks nice,” he says, and he means it. “It looks like you.”

Clare looks a little startled. “Thank you, I think.”

It didn't come out the way Russ meant it. He takes off his glasses and wipes them on his shirt, fumbling for the words to explain what he's thinking. “No, I mean, it's you. I never really thought what your tree would look like, but if I had, this would be it.”

And he hates the thought of her choosing it and dragging it inside and hanging the ornaments by herself. He hates the thought that this is her new tradition: spending Christmas alone, because she has to be here to do services on Christmas eve and Christmas day. He hates the thought of her alone almost as much as he hates the thought of her finding someone else.

Linda will have dinner on the table when he gets home, but there isn't anyone coming for Clare, and that's mostly his fault. Clare is beautiful, in the soft flickering light from the tree, the strong angles of her face in sharp relief against the white of the walls.

Russ wants nothing so much as to kiss her, to feel her body under her shapeless sweats, her skin warm and damp from the shower. But if he does that there will be no stopping, and no going back. Once he touches her he won't want to stop. And she isn't the kind of woman who can love a man committing adultery, even if he were the kind of man who could commit adultery and live with himself,

“I should go,” he says.

“Probably.” Clare sounds half wistful, half amused, as if she knows exactly what he's thinking and is waiting to see what he decides-- but Russ knows that can't be right, because Clare doesn't do waiting patiently.

He wishes he had something for her, a gift to put under her sad little tree, but they don't give each other Christmas presents, even the safe, meaningless presents Linda picks out for Harlene and for his friends' wives. The only thing he has for her is his heart, and it's not his to give away.

“Merry Christmas, Clare,” Russ says, and it will have to make up for all the things he can't say-- yet.