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Christmases Past

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"I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder creatures."
(Gail Caldwell)


 9 December 1999

If Kate’s being honest, she doesn’t remember how she ended up here, in this particular alley in Queens, clutching a bottle of cheap whiskey as snowflakes melt in her hair. She's been here before, many times, over the past eleven months. She feels drawn here. A part of her needs this -- needs to breathe in the same fetid air as her mother's last breath, rank with the smell of rancid Chinese takeout and day-old piss, needs to see the stones that drank up her mother's blood as Johanna Beckett bled out on the pavement. Somehow, being here in this wretched place calms the storm inside of her, and Kate knows full well how crazy that sounds.

She hasn't visited her mother's grave since the funeral. Somehow it feels wrong -- too final -- to talk to a slab of rock as if it's her mother. Kate would rather visit ghosts in an alley than bones in a grave.

Kate had been alright in California for her final semester at Stanford -- easy enough to pretend that her mom was still back home, like always -- and even after she moved back to New York the heat of summer was enough to fool her. But now it is cold again, and so is she. The rest of the city, oblivious to her pain, is hanging tinsel and stockings and ornaments, as if this is a time for joy rather than mourning. All Kate remembers about last Christmas is how she and her dad couldn't make eye contact as they packed up the decorations in January with a Johanna-shaped chasm between them.


He sleeps better these days, now that Shepard's off the streets. John hadn't realized just how much of his life he had spent waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for Shepard to figure it out and come after him once and for all. So when the phone jerks him awake, it’s not until the third ring that John Sullivan sits up in bed and answers it.

“What? . . . Whoa, whoa, slow down, let me get a pen . . .” He stumbles around the dark bedroom, heedless of the noise he is making, until his wife groans and switches on the lamp on her nightstand.

“What is it, John?” Sam asks, irritated at being awakened at this hour. “Nothing, sweetheart; go back to sleep.” John cradles the cordless phone against his chest as he takes it into the other room. Sometimes he forgets that it wasn’t all just a dream, that this is his real life now.

“Alright, thanks, Satch. I’ll be there in twenty.” He takes down the address and hangs up. John starts up the coffee maker and heads for the shower. Four A.M. body drops always make for long days.


The streets are quiet in Queens at this time of night. The morning commute hasn’t yet begun, and though New York is known as the City That Never Sleeps, the boroughs have less of a reputation for that, particularly on a Wednesday night in December. It’s snowing softly, blanketing the row house roofs in white like frosting on gingerbread houses. It's still warm enough that it melts as it hits the asphalt, matte black in the absence of the moon. The residential neighborhood is festooned with icicle lights, a wreath on every door. It brings back memories of Christmases past, and it's a feeling John doesn't think he'll ever be able to put into words: of holidays with and without his dead parents, and Christmases with a family of his own he remembers without living it firsthand. He has three distinct memories of the Christmas of '69, and each feels as real as the next.

He remembers his mom, attempting a sense of normalcy for John's sake, putting up decorations and singing along with the O'Jays on the radio to "Christmas Ain't Christmas (Without the One You Love)", but her heart wasn't in it. This memory is the most vivid of the three, but he also can recall his father chain smoking at the kitchen table with a fifth of whiskey and his wedding album. There are no decorations in this memory; Frank couldn't bear celebrating without his Jules. The happiest is the one with his parents dancing round the kitchen on Christmas morning. Elvis howls along as his namesake croons "All I Want For Christmas Is You" in the background, while Julia Sullivan clutches a mug of coffee, laughing, and protests that Frank will make her spill it all down her nightgown. It's so happy John sometimes can't believe it is real, that this is the memory that led to the life he's living now. As if he wasn't shaped by tragedies that no longer exist. This Christmas he will only have one memory, for the first time since he was six years old, and it’s an oddly comforting thought.

He glimpses movement out of the corner of his eye -- a young woman on the sidewalk, teetering sideways and scraping her shoulder against the brick wall of Hong Fu’s House of Wok. John barely has time to debate if he should pull over and offer assistance when she veers sharply into the street. “What the hell -- shit!”

John slams on the brakes as she stumbles off the curb. The Ford Taurus squeals to a halt inches away, and the girl uses the hood to brace herself as she stands back up. The gold Maltese cross swings wildly from the rearview mirror. John gets out and dashes around the car to her side.

“Ma’am! You okay?”

Kate sways on the spot. She looks up at him. John realizes he was remiss in calling her ma’am; she's hardly a day over twenty. Her mascara is hopelessly smeared by tear tracks, but she wears a strange little smile that unnerves him.

“It gets worse when it gets cold,” she says.

“What? What gets worse?” She’s about to fall over again, but John catches her awkwardly by her biceps against his chest. The bottle slips from her grasp and shatters on the pavement. The sharp scent of whiskey sears their nostrils.

“Jesus, where’s your coat? You’ll freeze to death out here.” He shrugs out of his own coat and wraps it around her. It’s too big on her, and heavy; she feels like a sapling pulled down under the weight of wet snow. It’s warm from his body and smells like cigarettes, leather, and her father’s aftershave -- they must use the same brand.

“Let me get you in the car; get you warmed up,” John says, steering her to the passenger’s side. Even as drunk as she is, Kate’s common sense kicks in, and she balks. John feels her stiffen under his fingers, and the second before she tries to break away, he locks his grip -- not hard enough to bruise but easily restraining the drunk girl. She fixes him with hard hazel eyes.

“Let go of me.”

John releases her and holds up his hands in a gesture meant for soothing wary animals and intoxicated young women. “Wait,” he says. “Look, we got off on the wrong foot. I’m John Sullivan; I’m a homicide detective out of the 7-4.” Her eyes drop to his belt where his gold shield is clipped. Kate hadn’t noticed it before. Suddenly it scares her how reckless she’s been. She nods once at John and gets into the passenger’s seat.

John lets out the breath he’s been holding. It dissipates in a cloud of vapor that only serves to remind him how much he could use a cigarette right now, despite his resolve to quit. He sinks into the driver’s seat, molded to his form from years of use, and cranks the heat up. The dash-mounted radio crackles but he ignores it. Instead, he reaches under the seat and pulls out a Stanley thermos.

“Here,” he says, handing over the steaming silver cup. “Try not to spill it; Satch’ll have my hide.”

“Thanks.” Kate takes a tentative sip.

“What’s your name?”

“It’s Kate,” she says, guardedly, but to her relief he doesn’t ask for her last name. Not yet, anyway. She clutches the coffee with both hands, mindful of his warning but also to ground herself -- the world is still spinning at the corners of her vision, but she doesn’t feel like she is about to vomit anymore. Small victories.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-one,” she says. It alarms her how easily the lies slip off her tongue these days, like I’m fine, when everyone knows she’s not, or I’m keeping my options open after graduation, when she’s already set on the police academy.

He grimaces. “You don’t have to lie to me, Kate.”

But she does, because by now it’s second nature. “I’m not lying.”

“You a student?”

“NYU. I just transferred back to be closer to my dad.”

"Yeah? What's your dad do?"

"He's -- he was -- a lawyer," she says.

“Was?”

Kate swallows hard. “My mom was murdered in January.  My dad took it hard. He started drinking --” She stops and stares straight ahead, blinking away tears she doesn’t want John to see, and he lets her pretend she’s succeeded. “I don’t know how to help him when I can’t even help myself."

John thinks of all the hopeless, sleepless nights his parents endured without each other -- and how often he was an afterthought to their pain. "I can't answer that. But, you know, give it time."

"You lost someone?"

"Yeah," he says, but doesn't elaborate.

“How do you get over it?”

"You don’t. But one day you'll wake up and it will just be a part of you," John says. "That's what helped me." He chuckles a little self-consciously. "I'm probably not one to give advice."

"Why not?" She leans in, eager for another perspective. Someone to tell her that one day her pain will make sense. "Is that why you joined the force? What happened?"

"It doesn't matter, alright?" The words are harsher than John intended.

Kate falls silent and looks out the window.

Before, John might not have acknowledged the way he uses words as a barbed wire fence around his heart. But now that fence is gone, and it is only the shadow of it that remains.

"Just let me out here; I'll walk home. I'm fine."

"No way in hell," John says. "Look at you. You've got Manhattan written all over you. You won't last an hour in this neighborhood."

"I can take care of myself," Kate snaps.

"Or maybe you're more trouble than you're worth," John says, raising his voice. "Maybe I oughta take you to detox, let them sort out where you gotta be."

Kate grabs his arm. "No -- please don't do that."

John takes a deep breath. "Look, I'm sorry," he says. "I'm just not used to letting people in."

Kate cracks a cynical smile. "Something we have in common, then."

"I wanna help you, Kate. But I caught a case. Think you can sober up in my car before we figure out where I’m gonna drop you off?”

Kate nods. She can do that. She takes another sip of coffee as she watches the golden pendant sway from the rearview mirror. “Why would a cop have an FDNY charm?”

“It was my mom’s,” John says. He knows Kate's drawing her own conclusions, and he lets her. “My dad gave it to her on their first anniversary. He and my grandad were both firemen. My dad hoped I’d be one, too, but I always knew I wanted to be a cop. When she died . . . It was the only piece of her I could still hold onto. Sort of felt like she’s still watching over me, you know? Hope she’s proud.” He chuckles self-consciously. “Probably sounds stupid.”

Kate fished out the chain around her own neck, where her mother’s wedding ring rested. She closed her hand around it, drawing strength from memories of her mom and his. “Not at all.”

It isn’t a lie, not really. John remembers that truth well, when it was the truth. When all the memories of his mother’s murder hit him at once. He’d always wanted to be a cop, but after she died he had burned with the drive from the inside out. He worked his way up to detective to pick up the Nightingale case, cold for twenty-odd years, and paid his penance by looking into his mother’s unseeing eyes in the crime scene photographs -- the same eyes he sees in the mirror each day. His own personal hell. But he deserved it, somehow, because he had caused it with his selfish desire to have his father back for one more day. That knowledge lived alongside the guilt deep in his heart -- that in the end, he couldn’t have either of them. Maybe it was he all along who didn’t deserve a happy ending.

They pull up alongside an alley that's already cordoned off with caution tape. A squad blocks their view of the body from here. Kate closes her eyes -- the flashing red and blues bring back the nausea. God, she's never drinking again.

"Stay in the car," John says. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

"What took you so long?" Satch says as John gets out. He cranes his neck to peer into the squad. "And who the hell is that?"

“She’s -- it’s a long story. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. What have we got?"

"Jane Doe, early twenties. Multiple stab wounds. ME put the time of death around 10 P.M. last night."

John bends over the body. The victim is a pretty brunette with delicate features -- she reminds him a little of the girl sitting in his squad, and he is glad he came upon Kate before anyone else did.

"Nice bracelet," Satch comments.

"Probably not a robbery, then." John scribbles it down in his notepad.

"I wouldn't be so sure," Satch says, scanning the area around the body. "No purse."

"Maybe someone interrupted a mugging and spooked him, so he stabbed her and took off with it."

"I'll catch up with the neighbors, see if anybody saw anything. You'll want to hurry this up, yeah?" Satch pointedly glances at John's squad, leaving the rest unspoken.

John squats down to take a closer look. The victim is wearing a black sheath cocktail dress and pantyhose. Her jacket is short, flashy, and unlined, clearly more form than function. No pockets, either. John calls over a uniform. "Check all the dumpsters in a five-block radius. Killer might've dumped her purse sooner rather than later." The officer nods once and jogs off.

"Did you check her bra?" John nearly falls forward onto the victim in surprise. He catches himself and straightens up to find Kate standing behind him.

"What?"

"If she wasn't carrying a purse, her ID might be in her bra. Can't hurt to check."

"You shouldn't be out here,"John says, turning back to the victim. "I told you to stay in the --" He sits back on his heels, a New York driver's license and a wad of cash in his gloved hand. "I'll be damned."

Kate shrugs. John almost doesn't see it, dwarfed as she is by his coat. "I go out clubbing occasionally."

John studies her, like he's known her awhile but is just now taking a closer look. It's similar to the way he gets at crime scenes when some seemingly insignificant detail piques his interest. Kate's sobering up, slowly, but she's still in no state to be trampling all over his crime scene in her high-heeled boots. "You should get back in the car. I'd hate for you to freeze on my watch."

"But I was helpful," she protests.

"What, you want a gold star? Get back in the car."

Kate grumbles under her breath but does as she's told. She barely even stumbles -- either she's already sobering up, or she's more used to wearing ridiculous footwear than John originally thought.

John finishes his preliminary duties at the crime scene quickly, arranging for CSU to sweep the area for forensic evidence and eventually giving the the okay for the ME to transport the body to the morgue. He's just heading back to his squad when Satch returns.

"Anyone see anything?"

Satch shakes his head. "It's not like our neighborhood, John. Nobody saw a thing."

"Worth a try. Listen, Satch, I'm gonna go take care of this," he gestures at Kate. "I'll meet you back at the precinct."

Satch raises an eyebrow. "Alright John, but if the donuts are gone by the time you get back don't come crying to me."

John grins and pats his stomach. "That's alright; I'm trying to quit."

Satch hides his grin as they part ways.


"Thanks for the help," John says as he slides behind the steering wheel. "So, Kate, where am I dropping you off?"

"NYU," she says. She's more subdued than before.

"The crime scene got to you, didn't it?" John says. "I shouldn't have let you get out; you didn't need to see that."

"It wasn't a mugging gone wrong," she says. "Those stab wounds are deep. He wanted to hurt her. He wanted to see the look on her face when -- when --" Kate pauses to take a deep breath. Inhale, exhale. "When she died."

John is quiet for a moment. "Well, if you're right, I'm sure the ME will find out. Don't worry about it."

"But it's important."

"I'll keep it in mind," John says. He's not sure why she is so invested in his case after so little time.

"How do you do it?"

"Do what?"

"How can you go to work and see murder victims everyday?" Kate asks. "People like your mom, and mine. How can you look into their eyes and not see what you lost?"

John chooses his words carefully. "The victims. They're why I do it," John says. "My mom went thirty years without justice. While I waited for her, I got justice for them."

"Did you ever look into your mom's case? See if there was anything the original investigators overlooked?"

John is caught off guard by the question.

"Of course," he says. "When I made detective, it's all I could think about. You ever hear about the Nightingale murders?"

"Vaguely," Kate says. "Serial killer in Queens, targeting nurses in the late 60s, right?"

He nods. "Cold for thirty years. I got myself assigned to the case and kept digging until I found something. It almost cost me, though." John thought of Sam, who had never met him, and Shepard's face looming over him in triumph as John clawed at the hand around his throat, spots in his eyes as the world went dark.

"Did you ever find out who did it?"

"A dirty cop," he says. "But now he can't hurt anyone anymore."

"Thanks to you?" Kate asks.

John shrugs. "I had help."

Kate looks out the window at the East River, black as ink under the moonless sky. They're crossing the bridge between his world and hers. "I've never told anyone this, but I'm applying for the academy after graduation. I want to be a cop. Do what you do. For her."

"You'll be great at it," he says, and he means it.

Once across the bridge, it's no time at all before they're at NYU. Kate directs him to her dorm, her voice clearer than ever.

John pulls up to the front of her residence hall. The front windows are mostly dark but for one or two night owls on the upper floors. Several others are framed with multi-colored Christmas lights.

She slips her driver’s license out of her wallet and hands it to John. She trusts him enough for this.

“Katherine Beckett,” he reads off the laminated card. He notices her birthdate but doesn't mention it.

Kate bites her lip. "Thank you for not giving me a minor."

His smile is crooked. "I became a cop to help people. You needed this more than a ticket. And besides -- I was young once too. Listen, Kate -- you ever need anything, you give me a call." John hands her his business card.

Detective John F. Sullivan
Homicide, 74th Precinct
Queens, NY

The precinct's address and his desk phone number follow.

"You'll make a great cop," he says. "I've been on the force fifteen years. I can usually tell who's gonna make it and who'll wash out. You're strong, Kate. You'll make it. Maybe you'll even make detective someday."

She smiles. "Thanks. I hope so."

He returns her ID and she slips it back into her wallet.

He rolls down the window before she walks away. "Some advice? Don't let your mom's case consume you. That thin line between justice and revenge, it's a dark place. Don't lose yourself there like I did."

"I won't," Kate says. "Thanks for everything, John."

He waits until she's safely inside before he fishes his secret stash out of the glove compartment. Satch hates it when he smokes in the squad, but just one won't make a difference. John takes a long draw on his cigarette and sighs. He’d been doing so well, too. Until Kate Beckett walked off the curb in front of his squad car.