Before we start, this story originated in Ipsita Chaudhuri's extraordinary imagination (IpsitaC77), and this chapter is the piece she wrote for the Naughty or Nice Christmas Contest in 2017, when she allowed PaTrizia88 and me to lend a little help. I've just made a few tiny changes after I was lucky enough to visit the Australian outback in 2021.

Disclaimer: SM owns all things Twilight, Ipsita just wants to kiss Masen under the Northern Lights (well, so do I, really).

Chapter 1

January 2000, Finnish Lapland - 190 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

"Mommy… Mommmyyy…"

The fiercely cold arctic air carries the child's voice to where the couple stands in front of the frozen lake, admiring the twinkling Christmas trees and icicle lights from the main resort building. Smiling, they turn to see the two excited girls barreling toward them as fast as their little feet permit. The hoods of their parkas have fallen off their heads, and clouds of powdery white dust fly up behind them as they run ankle-deep through the snow.

"Mommy! Tanya says tomorrow is Christmas! I told her Christmas was already twelve days ago, but she still says it's tomorrow." Impatient energy vibrates off the brown-eyed girl's face when she stops in front of them. She's not even out of breath after running around in the cold, though the tip of her nose is red and her eyes are a little watery.

"But it is, Bella!" Tanya protests meekly, nodding her head full of long blonde hair.

"You can't have two Christmases, silly!" Bella indignantly throws the words to her friend before turning back to her mother with expectant eyes.

Tanya smiles up shyly to the woman, her violet eyes shining in the pale arctic twilight. "It's true, Mrs. Swan. We even went to see Santa in his grotto two days ago, and he asked me to watch out for him tonight from the glass igloo." She wrinkles her small button nose adorably as she adds, "But I know it was Mr. Laukkanen dressed as Santa because he always smells bad."

A loud guffaw erupts from the man who has been silently watching the interaction with a pleasant smile. The woman, Renee Swan, tries to suppress her smirk as she guides the girls to a nearby bench made of coarse wooden planks and sits down with them.

"You can have two Christmases, sweet pea." She brushes back a few rebellious curls from her daughter's forehead as the girl promptly starts to protest. "Shh... not so fast, young lady!" Putting a finger on her lips, Renee chides gently. "You can have two Christmases. Jesus was born so long ago that many of the stories about him have changed along the way. There are people who follow a different calendar for their religious customs and believe his actual date of birth is the 7th of January, so they celebrate it that day."

"That's why you came to visit me now, remember?" Bella's father, Charlie, kneels down in front of them. "Miss Tanya here..." He smiles at the girl who shows a half-grown front tooth as she grins, "...comes from a place in Russia where they have Christmas in January, so what she says is correct, baby girl."

"Then which one is the real Christmas, Daddy? Ours or theirs?"

Tanya interjects before Bella's father can answer. "Whenever someone asks, my mom says it doesn't matter which day we celebrate as long as it's a day of prayers and love. I still sing carols with the guests in December. Mom says I can sing to God any day I want. Mr. Laukkanen plays Santa then, too."

Bella's parents smile appreciatively at Tanya, but noticing that Bella still has a doubtful expression, Charlie takes one of her hands in his.

"What I'm saying, princess, is that Christmas necessarily shouldn't be about the day. It's about family and the love we have for them. We run around with our busy lives, our responsibilities, the whole year. So it should be a day we stop to spend with our dear ones, when we tell them that we love them, and fill up our stock of love to survive the year ahead." He places their joined hands over Bella's heart to demonstrate the meaning of his words. "It's all decided in here, not by any book or calendar. You wanna celebrate Christmas on the 4th of July? We'll hang up the lights and plead with Mommy to make her English Christmas pudding." He winks at his daughter who giggles at her mother's good-natured eye roll.

"Only you, Charlie Swan, could want that rich plum pudding at any time of the year," she snorts.

"You know the shortest route to my heart, love." He winks at her but turns to the girls. "See? That's the point. You feel like Christmas? Then it's Christmas!"

Seemingly satisfied by what her father said, Bella turns to Tanya. "I didn't know that, Tan. I'm sorry I called you silly." Bella bumps shoulders with her friend, and Tanya nods happily. However, it's not always possible to engage a nine-year-old heart in a serious discussion for long.

"So, Santa works double shifts, like Uncle Vernon does in the hospital? Is that why Mr. Laukkanen was snoring like a bear when we passed by his cabin yesterday? He must have been exhausted." Bella grins at her friend with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, which makes Renee wonder about what these two have been up to.

"He always snores like that. Robin says that old man uses his chain-saw even in his sleep." Both girls giggle at Tanya's remark but suddenly Bella's eyes light up with something and she again turns to her mother.

"You see, Mom! Santa is just for babies. I know you and Dad leave the presents under the tree when I fall asleep," she declares decisively.

"Well, we've all seen his pack of reindeer grazing around here. The blue and green lights trace his path in the sky, so maybe he really does come to this part of the world." Renee winks at her daughter who turns to her father to confirm.

It saddens Renee that Bella and Charlie don't get more time together because she is such a daddy's girl.

"Really, Daddy?"

"Well, there's no better place than this if that old bearded man wants to freeze his…"

"Charlie!" Renee narrows her eyes at her husband, although the corners of her lips twitch in amusement.

"Well, I don't know about Santa because he never brings me any gifts," Charlie comments, making a funny face, which causes the girls to break into laughter again. "But what I'd love to know is what dessert we're going to have on tonight's special menu, or the angry bears in my belly will be just as loud as Mr. Laukkanen's snoring."

That makes the girls jump off the bench and get ready to bolt even before the adults can stand, but Renee grabs one of Bella's hands to stop her. After donning both her and Tanya's hoods properly, she pats them lightly on the back.

The girls skip ahead of them, laughing and chatting animatedly about every important thing in their untainted world while Renee and Charlie follow them rather slowly—gloved hands clasped together—contentment evident in their body language.

The place they have been staying for the past few days is situated in Finnish Lapland, 190 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Miles and miles of flat valley, occasionally interrupted by low hills covered in snow, glowing in the muted arctic sun. It looks nothing like their home in the city of Anchorage. The trees and rock outcroppings here are like shiny marble. Except for the wind cutting through the vegetation and the sound of ice falling from tree branches, it's peacefully quiet. Limited hours of daylight wane fast in the winter, but the celestial Aurora Borealis attracts people from all over the globe to this dreamlike place.

During his first visit two years ago, Charlie decided to bring his family here one day. The spectacular scene of a man dressed as Santa, guiding the reindeer-driven sleigh under the Northern Lights, made his heart ache for his baby girl back home, though it seems like Bella is about to grow out of her Santa fantasy.

Charlie Swan works for the United States Foreign Service and is currently stationed in Minsk, Belarus. Due to the troubled relationship between the two governments, staff don't have families with them. Last year, the ambassador and all the staff were called home for fifteen months when the Belarus government raised an objection to their living arrangements on the administrative campus. Charlie came back last June as part of the smaller team to run the office along with the ambassador.

After emerging as an independent country in 1991, Belarus has continued to carry on its former Russian tradition of January Christmas. The country celebrates a weeklong holiday at the beginning of the year. Charlie didn't want his family in the stressed environment there, so he flew in his wife and daughter to Helsinki. After touring the area for a few days, they are spending the end of their holidays in this beautiful, luxurious village resort in the middle of nowhere.

Tanya is the daughter of one of the employees of the resort and has become a fast and inseparable friend to their daughter. At nine years of age, it doesn't take much to form a friendship with a promise of "friends forever." While the two adults have been enjoying their limited time together as much as possible, the girls have roamed freely around the vast resort ground without any fear of getting lost. Being family to an employee, Tanya has the advantage of knowing all the good places the guests don't know about, and these two friends have been taking full advantage of their free rein.

Keskiyön Aurinko Village Resort was built by a man who camped here on his way back from a fishing trip in the early 70's. Liam Kivinen was making pancakes over an open fire when a streak of green light rippled across the night sky. It danced over the snow-covered wilderness for a few minutes before disappearing, transforming the land into a dreamlike state. Suddenly, everything just felt right to him, and he thought this could be a great place to start a business. The idea of an arctic village resort was born, and after twenty-seven years, it has become one of the most exquisite hotels in the world. It's still growing under Liam's endless energy and never-ending ideas. Twenty luxurious log cabins welcome tourists from all over the world, but Liam is currently investing his brain and money in its crowning glory. To offer the guests the wondrous experience of the northern lights from their warm bed inside a glass igloo instead of waiting for the aurora in -40oC outside, he's just finished building the first one. The igloo isn't available for tourist bookings yet, but Liam has been offering it to his special guests and getting their feedback. Charlie Swan is one of those privileged guests who got the chance to enjoy it.

From chefs capable of serving cuisines from different countries to multilingual employees, Liam's hospitality caters to his guests from all over the world. However, he maintains the real feel of his land and culture. Most of the furniture is wooden and hand-made locally. The beautiful wooden artworks, carved by artists Liam invited to stay and create for him, show his dedication and passion.

The biggest building, consisting of the reception and dining areas, looks like a dream castle wonderland when Charlie, Renee, and Bella arrive at dinner. The snow-covered roof and strings of twinkling lights emanate the feel of a perfect white Christmas. Tanya has gone back to have dinner with her family, but has promised to return later. The inside of the building is fragrant with numerous pine cones beautifully placed around various surfaces and added to the fire. The big Christmas tree in the middle of the lounge is dazzling with hundreds of ornaments. A few years ago, a guest asked Liam if he could add an ornament to the tree in memory of his wife who wished to visit this place, but died before she could make it. The word traveled about this soulful gesture, and since then, the practice of guests adding trinkets to the tree has continued. Traditional Finnish ornaments have made their home with many different mementos from all over the world. Bella ties a crystal forget-me-not flower ornament, a symbol of their state, to a branch she can reach. Renee brought it with her from America after Charlie told her about the lovely custom.

The main dining area's interior is timber with rustic looking logs supporting the high vaulted ceiling, and the room is cozy warm in comparison to the subzero temperature outside. Every wooden arch in here has a mistletoe branch tied to it. Himmeli, the traditional Nordic Christmas decoration made of bent straw, is everywhere, representing the heavens and sky, and Bella jumps to touch each one she passes on her way to their table. However, the greatest attraction of this room is the huge chandelier. The central section is a circular wooden ring covered with animal skin that has beautiful folk motifs painted on it. Antlers around its circular edge form a huge crown, and painted wooden discs and feathers tied around the outer ring make the piece gloriously colorful.

Christmas music in different languages is wafting from speakers, enhancing the feeling of festivity. Traditional Russian salad, roasted codfish, Kutia- a pudding traditionally made of wheat and fruit with the addition of poppy seeds and honey, and Vzvar- the Russian Christmas drink, are all included in tonight's menu, much to Charlie's and the other guests' delight.

However, for the girls, their ultimate enjoyment comes in staying in the glass room for the night and looking out for Santa. No matter how many times they declare that only babies believe in him, they still wait up late into the night, whispering and giggling about the fat tummy and body odor of Mr. Laukkanen.

"Just imagine Tan, if he tries to climb this roof how his fat bottom will slide down the glass and land with a thud on the snow outside." The peals of laughter draw no one's attention as Charlie and Renee have let them sleep alone in the igloo tonight.

Lying flat on their backs, they count the streaks of green, blue, gold, and orange light changing rapidly, and point to the occasional snowy owl or Lapland bunting flying in the clear sky. Between the flashes, they can see the magnificent Milky Way illuminating the night sky like a river of glimmering clouds. Bella feels like she is in a dreamworld, having never seen a place like this before.

"Mr. Niemi says it's Mr. Kivinen's project to make divine babies, you know? I wonder what he means by that." Tanya muses while waving her arms up and down, watching the rainbow-like display on them.

"Maybe Santa is hiding one or two babies in his sack." Bella's reply only brings more snickering.

As the night wears on, their eyelids become heavy from the exhaustion of the day. The warmth of the thick hand-knitted blanket, with its stars and reindeer designs draped over their little bodies, is lulling them into sleep.

"Can you see the Linnunrata from your home?" Tanya asks quietly.

"You mean the Milky Way? Not from our home, but Daddy took us to a log cabin in the Chugach forest once, and it's big in the sky there. I loved it. If I can, then we can see the same stars at the same time, can't we?"

"Come back next year, Bella." Tanya's sleepy whisper is full of hope with a touch of sadness.

"If my daddy is still in Minsk, Tan, I'll ask Mom if we can come again. I love this second Christmas and I'll celebrate it forever, even if no one does it with me. It will always be my special Christmas." Bella's voice breaks as she holds her gift from Tanya tightly in her little fist. It is a small snowflake shaped pendant made of wood and metal, with a reindeer carved in the center of it. Tanya reaches out to play with the loose ends of Bella's hair and nods without looking at her friend.

Silence spreads through the little glass dome as the innocent souls drift off to dreamland—a place where they don't have to learn about different religions and politics, about international boundaries and treaties. Santa Claus may or may not arrive on his sleigh, drawn by magical creatures, but tonight the ethereal Northern Lights shine upon two sleeping girls as a lone reindeer stops to peek into the igloo, its warm breath fogging up the glass around its snout, before wandering away aimlessly in the snow-covered valley.

December 2017, Alice Springs - Northern Territory, Central Australia.


"Beautiful." A deep masculine voice softly permeates my captivated thoughts.

The carpet inside the terminal of Alice Springs Airport has me completely enchanted. Great rivers of navy with swirling bold colors and motifs in yellow, orange, lavender, sky blue, white, and black create a harmony of never-ending life across the floor. There are long snakes, three-toed footprints, the concentric circles I know to mean "waterhole," and I decide the dots surrounding celestial looking emblems have to depict stars.

I crouch down to examine the waves of ochre-colored sand that form a boundary in this section, like the ground of the western desert we're going to see.

"It's like a dream," I whisper, without acknowledging the owner of the voice, who is obviously as impressed as I am. " diving into the galaxy and being immersed in creation."

"That's a perfect way to describe it," I hear the male voice say.

In the silence that follows, I become aware of the human presence beside me. Turning my head, I see a pair of heavy boots and denim-clad legs and allow my eyes to travel their length before jerking my head up to the man's face, saving myself the embarrassment of indecent ogling.

"Welcome to Alice Springs, Miss Swan. I'm Masen Edwards... NGA." I'm struck by how remarkably handsome the man is, smiling down at me with a slight tilt of his head. The morning sun, filtering through the wall of glass, adds a warm hue to his sun-kissed skin, and the way he stares at me causes me to reply a moment late.

"I see you appreciate our welcome."

Standing up from my crouched position, I appraise him and take his extended hand.

"Oh, this is magnificent!" I exclaim. "We saw colorful carpets at Darwin Airport, but this is so vibrant—simple but meaningful symbols."

"Do you know these symbols?" he asks.

"Not really. I know the circles mean a water supply."

He nods. "Or a camp. The long wavy lines indicate underground water."

"I see the cosmos as well… over there." I turn to the area at our left. "Is this supposed to represent their Dreamtime?"

"It's one artist's interpretation. To another, it might look completely different."

"So what is the difference between the Dreamtime and the Dreaming?"

"They are two different things but bound together. The Dreamtime is the creation of the world, the beginning of knowledge and laws of behavior. Aboriginals believe in dreams and visions. The Dreaming is their spiritual life, how they connect to every living thing and landform, and it comes with a great responsibility to take care of their land. The symbols here hold the essence, the dreams, and realities of one of the oldest cultures on earth. As modern Australians, we owe it to the original owners of the land to keep them alive."

Nodding, I try to understand as I stare at the designs, seeing them in a new light after his explanation, and it makes me curious about him and how he knows me.

"How do you know my name?" I ask.

"They told me." He points his chin toward the group of people currently waving their arms at me, taking our luggage from the carousel. Ben, one of our two photographers, is carefully stacking equipment on a cart, while his colleague, Jasper, talks to a woman I guess to be the other Australian joining us here.

The monolith of Uluru is said to be the spiritual heart of these people, so the rock and its surrounds is the last leg of our trip, collecting data for an upcoming film for the National Geographic Channel, documenting a race who migrated from the Indian continent four thousand years ago. Based on our findings, I'm going to write an article for the online magazine. Our team has recorded the evidence of their great journey through Sumatra, Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, and sites around Darwin, and now we're heading into the desert of Australia's Northern Territory.

National Geographic Australia agreed to provide us with two of their people who were accustomed to the area and languages of the indigenous people living here. Masen Edwards contacted us yesterday, confirming he would be here to meet us.

They never said anything about him being so good looking.

He's tall, with dark brown hair flecked with golden streaks, probably a result of the harsh Australian sun. Lean but muscular, he looks fit as he walks ahead of me. However, it's his easy smile and expressive eyes I find most attractive. I love when a person's eyes speak more than their words do, and Mr. Edwards is one of those people. I'm thinking this trip is going to be more interesting than I anticipated when I see Alice smirking and raising her eyebrows, having caught me ogling him. My response is to smirk right back and shrug my shoulders because no one could blame me.

Reaching the rest of the team, the woman introduces herself as Heather McGrath. Before we leave the terminal, I request Jasper to take a few photos of the beautiful carpet for my personal collection, asking him to leave the Christmas decorations out of the frame.

Coming out in the bright sunshine, it's hot, without the oppressive humidity we left in Darwin. Masen points to two white Nissan Patrol Wagons waiting for us, and Alice and Peter, the two other data researchers, start loading our luggage on top. I laugh when she begins teasing Peter about paying attention to the task at hand.

Though Alice is one of the kindest people I've ever met, she likes to mess with our very young and inexperienced team member. Peter isn't paying attention, furtively glancing at Heather's behind as she bends over while she moves something in the back seat.

"Ali, don't torture the poor boy!" Jasper shakes his head in amusement at his girlfriend's antics and goes to help Ben secure the camera gear in the back of the car.

Masen stashes my carry on, transferring two of the biggest packs of bottled water I've ever seen to the other car. He notices me eyeing the huge water supply.

"Sunstroke and dehydration can kill you out there."

"Where do the Aboriginals get their water?" I ask, trying to show I'm genuinely interested.

He chuckles. "The supermarket—Coles or Woolies, usually."

I roll my eyes at him. "You know what I mean."

"I've seen maps drawn on the ground, showing suns representing days between symbols for waterhole."

"Days?" I question, hoping he's still joking around.

"On foot, yeah," he clarifies, and I recognize I'm no expert on outback survival.

Then something occurs to me. "Wouldn't rain wash away the map?"

He looks at me for a second and then smirks. "They won't need the map if it's raining."

Okay, I didn't think of that, did I.

Jasper looks curiously at the fifty or so bottles sitting in their car as our team leader, Maggie, walks over. Peter blurts out the words I knew he would.

"I'm going with Ben and Jasper. You ladies take this one."

Alice throws her arm around Peter's neck. "Aww, Pete, it's a long drive. I thought I'd make you my pillow while you tell me a Christmas story." We all chuckle as the boy's ears turn pink, and he's trying to free himself when Maggie saves him.

"I was coming to tell you that I'm going with Heather since she will be the one helping us with the Kata Tjuta site. Masen will be at Uluru with you guys," she declares.

Maggie is a great organizer and a marvelous team leader. We have already chalked out our work plan around the area, and because of time constraints, we've decided to split the team into two. We'll take separate routes to scout the aboriginal settlements in the area and gather data needed for the film team coming back in January.

Finally Maggie, Peter and Ben end up in the car with Heather, and the rest of us go with Masen, speeding out of Alice Springs into the vast wilderness of central Australia. We're taking the quickest route via the Stuart and Lasseter Highways with fuel stops along the way. Five hours of travel will definitely require a change in driver, and I'm looking forward to getting behind the wheel of this big, powerful vehicle.

Being a student of Anthropology and working in a field research wing of National Geographic, I've found an interest in the Australian indigenous people and their ancient culture. When Maggie offered me the chance to work on this project, I said yes even before she finished talking. The plane ride from Darwin gave us an idea of the landscape, but a bird's eye view is nothing compared to standing in the expanse of red dust where the air whispers the secrets of an ancient past.

Jasper's phone pings with an incoming message. "Looks like my mama is up all night again, experimenting with her new phone." From his expression, his adoration for his mom is unmistakable.

"What is she doing now?" Poking her head through the gap between the two front seats, Alice tries to look at the screen. Jasper turns and holds his phone up to show us. "She's sending nativity pictures using different photo filters."

Alice takes the phone and swipes through the images.

"God! I'd love to be back in Leadville for Christmas. It's so beautiful up there—snow, pines, and your mom's cooking. It's like a dream come true." She sighs. "It definitely sucks being away from home at Christmas, but how many chances will I get to celebrate Christmas down under in Aussie style… beach, barbeque, and bikini."

The men chuckle as I groan loudly. "Jesus, Alice! You should wear that damn red bikini under your clothes every day and stop mentioning it every third sentence! Jasper should be the only one enjoying your Christmas obsession."

"Says the girl who thinks reindeer are the coolest animals on earth!" She sticks her tongue out at me, but smiles nonetheless. "You just don't want to admit how much you love it. Every year you take the longest Christmas break, missy!"

"Whatever." I roll my eyes at her while my fingers absentmindedly trace the tiny snowflakes and reindeer tattoo on the inside of my left wrist.

Some things are not for everyone's knowledge and understanding.

"Are you spending Christmas here?" Masen asks, once we're well out of town. The road is pretty much deserted now, and I've been watching cars and semi-trailer trucks coming from miles away in mirages on these long stretches of straight road.

"Yes. We're headed for Adelaide after we finish here," Jasper replies. "An old friend lives there now, and we're staying with him. We'll fly back home on the 26th."

"Bewdy! You'll have your typical Australian Christmas beach party then," Masen laughs.

"What did you just say?" I ask in surprise, not recognizing the colloquial word.

"Bewdy? It means great or okay," he explains. "Sorry, my vocabulary slips when I'm out here. I'll remember to speak 'English' around you."

"Bewdy! That has a nice ring to it. I like it!" I try out the word. Masen looks at me through the rearview mirror—a second longer than required, a second shorter than I'd have liked, his smile evident in those expressive eyes.

He has a beautiful smile.

"That reminds me, I have that playlist..." Alice says, looking at her phone.

Jasper turns to his girlfriend, stopping her before she finishes her sentence. "No more Christmas songs, Ali, please! You know I love you, and I let you dance around the tree last night, but I've had my fill of Christmas music for the week." All he does is make her break into giggles.

Alice and Jasper are a very charming couple to watch. His laid-back personality and her rollicking nature mix beautifully, and while in the field working, you won't find two people more serious and dedicated than they are. We have a good balance in our team that works perfectly in our favor.

As we drive into the arid heart of Central Australia, the tapestry of the driest part of this country surrounds us with its sublime glory. The extreme forces of nature have formed the earth's contours here, but the indomitable force of life rears its head nonetheless. Green bushes and trees dot the wavy red desert wherever they find the slightest access to underground water. Heat rising from the dry ground makes the air tremble and dance in the distance, adding a mystic character to the land. I haven't seen anything like this ever before and I'm fascinated.

I'm curious about the layers of rock that jut up in dramatic angles, and Masen informs us they are remnants of the MacDonnell Ranges, once the size of the Himalayas, folded, faulted, and eroded over hundreds of millions of years into today's peaks and gaps and gorges. If we had an extra day, he could have taken us to some amazing water holes west of Alice Springs. Jasper asks about the trees with black trunks and branches, and Masen explains they are desert oaks struck by lightning that have exploded, but survived to produce new growth. I marvel at his extensive knowledge of the land. No wonder when NG asked for an expert guide, NGA sent this guy as their best man.

Masen and Heather planned our first stop to be at the Desert Oaks Rest Area and Roadhouse at Erldunda where we leave the Stuart Highway for Uluru. It's my first chance to see emus, but they are kept in a pen. The absence of wildlife has surprised me, actually. Until now, we've crossed cattle grids, but we haven't seen any cattle. I thought there would be wild camels and kangaroos everywhere, but they don't come near the highway, apparently. Maybe they've learned it's a treacherous place, because we have had to slow down and swerve for massive wedge tail eagles feasting on "roadkill."

Enjoying a coffee beside the emu enclosure, I stare at an enormous tree, covered in huge white flowers. "What is that tree, Masen?" I ask.

"Watch this." He whistles loudly, and hundreds of white cockatoos take flight, almost deafening us with their screeching. I'm in awe, seeing them fill the sky, and when I turn back to Masen, he's grinning at me.

After the stop, we change drivers. Jasper goes to the back seat and I take the wheel with Masen beside me in the passenger seat.

"Remember the speed limit of 110 kilometers per hour, okay?" he reminds me. "It's not like you're gonna get a ticket, but we don't want to hit a roo. We're about to leave mobile phone range, and that roo bar on the front does not make us invincible. Though they are more active at night, just be careful."

"Bewdy!" I wink as I crank up the engine, and that gives me the intended result—a hearty laugh from the man.

"Do you mind?" he asks, gesturing his phone to the car's music system.

"No Christmas music." Jasper's playful reply comes before I can say anything.

"Don't worry, mate. No elf songs for me." Masen's Australian drawl is enticing as he says "mate."

"You know Masen, this landscape reminds me of that song from your famous country singer," Alice says from the back seat. "'Somebody Like You' by Keith Urban? The beginning of the video shows a huge circle made of stones on the red soil."

"That's not what you call real country music, darling!" Jasper scoffs. "But yeah, I liked the tune."

What Masen puts on is neither country nor anything I've listened to before. The music is old, like 80's or 90's type old. He sets the volume to a level that doesn't hurt our ears, but rocks the air inside the car with a mild sizzling buzz.

"What is this?" I ask softly when I see Alice close her eyes and lean on Jasper's shoulder, his arm encircling her securely.

"It's Icehouse, an Australian band from the 80's," he answers, glancing over and smiling.

"You like old music?"

"They are my mom's favorites but yeah, I like them too. She used to play them all the time so I had no choice," he jokes but doesn't say more.

I hear the sound of the stranger's voices

I see their hungry eyes, their hungry eyes

Great Southern Land, Great Southern Land

You walk alone, like a primitive man

You walk alone with the ghost of time

And they burned you black

Yeah, they burned you black

Great Southern Land

Listening to the soulful lyrics, I concentrate on the road in silence while his fingers drum on his thighs. Something about Masen Edwards tells me another man exists inside the one I see. I've done extensive reading and research on the subject we're working on, but there's an unmistakable reverence in the way he describes the different indigenous settlements and their culture scattered throughout this desert area. His choice of song makes me wonder if he has more to do with these people than just doing his job very well.

My theory solidifies when he convinces Heather to stop at Mt. Ebenezer for lunch. It's a place owned by the Aboriginal community, Imanpa, and Masen informs us that whatever money we spend here will benefit the local people. I watch him interact with a native man under the shade of a big tree. They look like old friends, comfortably chatting about all the things they have missed in each other's lives.

Masen takes the wheel again when we leave Mt. Ebenezer, and I call dibs on the passenger seat. This time, Maggie comes with us and Alice leaves happily for the other car, no doubt to mess with Peter some more.

Maggie discusses the plans we're going to follow for the next three days, covering nearly 30 sacred sites in the area, and Masen continues at a steady pace, a little over the speed limit. As the afternoon sun bathes the landscape in rich ocher, the massive flat-topped mesa of Mt. Conner comes into view. This rock is another one of the important sacred places, associated with the story of Seven Sisters and their Songlines. It dominates the horizon, mighty but alone out here in the desert, calling to us to reveal its secrets, and I feel the power of this landmark and why it has become part of their legends. Taking a short detour, we spend an hour respectfully watching the spectacle of the light changing, turning its sandstone cliffs purple.

It's almost dark when we reach Yulara and the Desert Gardens Hotel. The resort is elegant and our rooms have incredible views of Uluru. The whole hotel has been decorated for Christmas, but they haven't suppressed the beautiful native interior. Christmas bells, bows and garlands sit in harmony with Aboriginal grass and stone artifacts exhibited around the place. After dinner, we part ways to our rooms, exhausted from the early flight and all day on the road, needing to recharge for the dawn to dusk fieldwork scheduled for the next three days.

However, I can't fall asleep after my much-needed shower. From the small porch at the back of my room, the giant rock is like an enigma to me, dark and mysterious under the Milky Way, and I walk down the steps to the lawn, drawn to it. The garden lights are dim, and all the windows are curtained shut, blocking any light from coming out. I stand there, absorbing the heat coming from the earth, until the faint sound of a cell phone ringing breaks my trance, making me drag my feet to the room and surrender to a deep dreamless slumber.


The morning starts with a beehive of activity as we gather our things to ride off to our assigned locations, everyone regretting we missed the opportunity of seeing sunrise on Uluru. Exhaustion ultimately caught up with everyone and, except for our Australian friends, we were all late rising from our beds. Masen, Alice, Ben and I set out for the settlements around Uluru while the rest go to the Kata Tjuta area. We are obviously not going to do the typical touristy stuff around the rock, but I'm not leaving this place without experiencing the sublimity of the most sacred Aboriginal sites either.

Masen guides us into the local Anangu settlements for the next two days. We take notes and pictures for the film crew, some of which will be used in my article. All the while, I keep watching Masen, grateful his presence has allowed them to tolerate us. He seems to know more than one Aboriginal language, and the people interact with him as if he is one of their own. I look closely for any defining physical feature but find none, which makes me more curious.

At the end of another long day, we reach the hotel to find the other team already seated in the dining area with iPads and laptops spread open. Over dinner, we're all satisfied with both the delicious meal and the progress we've made on our work. It looks like we've got almost everything we need, and the rest can be covered in half a day, leaving us with free time to enjoy the area at will.

"Oh man! I'm so full," Peter groans, as he slumps back in his chair.

"Let's go for a walk and burn some off, eh?" Masen suggests, smiling at him, but it's me who perks up at the proposal.

"Can we… walk around the area at night? Is it allowed?"

Masen chuckles at my enthusiasm. "You can, if you know where to go and where not to. Bring your cameras."

Jasper stands, pulling Alice up with him. Heather waves her hand, passing when her phone rings, but the rest of us meet outside after storing our gear in the rooms.

He surprises us by leading everyone to the car.

"I thought we were going for a walk," I comment, as Alice, Maggie, and I fit ourselves into the back seat. Without the luggage, we can utilize the extra two seats in the rear, and now seven of us can travel a short distance in this big car.

"We will be walking," is all he replies.

We drive until Masen abandons the road and parks the car in the shadow of a large mound. Following his flashlight, we come to an abrupt stop when we reach the top.

The huge arc of the Milky Way dominates the moonless sky over the massive monolith on the horizon. However, what makes us all gasp is not the sky. Thousands of tiny light bulbs, in every color possible, stand on man-made stems, creating a field of glowing flowers, their power cables glimmering like bright intricate webs. They fan out over acres of land, appearing to spread out to the foot of Uluru. From up here, they're like clusters of stars, unique constellations that only seem possible in the realms of dreams. It feels like the galaxy is cascading down on earth.

"Wow, it's like thousands of Christmas lights." Alice marvels at the spectacular sight while the others murmur in agreement. Their soft conversations filter through my senses but I can't find words to clearly express my feelings. It's overwhelming my heart, and I have to step away to block out the chatter from the others.

When I was growing up, watching the Milky Way was always a favorite pastime of mine. It's one of the things I miss most about home. This sky is so similar here, a perfect reflection of what I see in Alaska, and yet it seems different. In the heart of the driest habitable continent of the world, everything feels spiritual, full of ancient mystery. The monumental presence of the sacred rock invokes the untold stories from a time beyond our senses. It's an out of the world experience—the smell of the earth, the rustling sound of wind passing through small bushes, and the man-made heavenly display called Field of Light.

Gazing at the stars, my skin prickles with memories of another Milky Way and an ice-cold wind—flashes of heavenly northern light, the Linnunrata, as Tanya used to call it, glimmering through the glass—these are some of my fondest memories of Christmas.

"Looking for your reindeer, Bella?"

Smiling, I shake my head at Masen's gentle teasing and become articulate again.

"My reindeer doesn't pull Santa's sleigh, Masen."

"What do you see in these stars, then?" He's not joking anymore.

"I feel like I'm surrounded by unspoken stories and dreams of wanderers who never got the chance to fulfill them. It's like they are reaching out to me." My unfiltered thoughts have flown out before I consciously thought about it, and now I feel embarrassed, having bared my soul like that.

I turn to him after a few moments of silence, and once again find that captivating look in his eyes. It was there when he watched me crouching down on the carpet in Alice Springs Airport, and it's been there in the past two days when I've caught him staring at me interacting with people in the settlements.

"Masen?" I prompt him, expectantly looking up to him.

"You feel the Dreaming more than any book or research could teach you, Miss Swan," he says with a smile. "I can't wait to read your article. I know you'll do justice to the subject." His expressive eyes betray him. He's holding back what he wants to say, but I don't press him.

We stay for another half hour before returning to the resort, and the whole time, those intense moments keep playing in my head.

What do your eyes say, Mr. Masen?


A vast white blanket with tall snow-covered trees standing like sentinels invades my dreams. Scientists say that we dream in black and white, but mine is full of green and pink celestial lights and bright red Christmas ornaments. Reindeer graze on the valley while snowflakes silently fall and a sweet whisper calls to me, "Come back next year, Bella."

Jolting awake, I lay still, trying to remember the last time I had a dream so clear about Tanya and Lapland. With a heavy heart, I decide to get up when I hear the buses outside. People are leaving on tours to see the sunrise on Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and some will experience it from the back of a camel. It's quiet in the restaurant, so I eat breakfast before returning to my room as the sky begins to lighten. They don't exaggerate in the touristy brochures and blogs when they describe the beauty of sunrise on Uluru. The first touch of nascent sunrays transforms the massive stone into a sublime entity. Watching it change color from the porch of my room, I feel the longing left over from the dream.

Dreaming about Lapland and snow always makes me miss home, and the restless feeling lingers in the corner of my mind. Even the thrill of walking around the 1000 feet high rock later that afternoon doesn't erase it completely.

After dinner, we go through the information and pictures we've gathered for the last time, and the conversation shifts to the subject of upcoming holidays. I'm listening to the others talking about their plans for Christmas when a little kid a few tables away loudly asks her mother if Santa will come here to deliver the gifts. The girl is clearly not Australian, and her mother's accent confirms they're Alaskan. Watching them, I suddenly feel more homesick and want to talk to my mom. However, Alice recaptures my attention by asking the dreaded question, again.

"Bella, you sure you don't wanna come with us to Adelaide? I don't like you spending Christmas alone in a foreign country. Jasper's friend won't mind another person."

"No, Ali. I've already booked everything and I really want to see this place. I don't know if I'll ever come back here. Don't worry, I'll keep you posted, Mom!" She rolls her eyes, but I don't give her the chance to talk. "I know, I know! No one should be alone on Christmas day…" I go on, "...but I won't be! There will be lots of people around me, and it's my parents' Christmas gift, remember? Which reminds me, I need to call home. I'll be back okay?"

"Leave her be, Alice. She's a grown woman and she'll be fine." I throw a grateful smile at Jasper and retreat to the farthest corner of the garden. It's not like I need supreme privacy to call home, but I want to feel the subtle vibration of the night and absorb the intangible essences of this place one last time. Standing under the glittering river of stars, I reach out to my parents on the other side of the globe. It should be around noon in Anchorage.

"Bella!" My mother's voice filters in clearly as she answers my call. "How are you, sweet pea?"

"Hi, Mom!" I suddenly choke up a little, which is unusual for me.

"Bella? What's wrong, sweetie? Are you alright? Where are you?" She sounds suddenly worried.

"I'm okay, Mom, I'm okay," I assure her quickly. "It's just… I was thinking about how far away I am at the moment and I wanted to talk to you and it's just…"

"Take a breath, baby girl!" she chuckles, "You miss home," she declares softly.

Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, I let it out slowly. "Yeah, I guess so, and I'm being silly." That makes us both laugh and I feel calm enough to answer her normally.

I tell her all the things we've done and seen in the past three days. I know she loves to hear about the places I get to visit for my job, and I love to tell her about them. She asks many questions about Uluru, and I gush about it, picturing my mother absorbing every word with rapt attention like she always does.

"I can't wait to have you home and see the pictures, sweet pea," she says. "Your dad will be thrilled too. He'll be sad he missed your call."

"Yeah, see you soon at home, and please don't send Lothar to pick me up. His crazy music is too much for my sanity." Her laughter rings in my ear. "Love you, Mom." I disconnect the call, feeling much better. My mother knows how I get around Christmas time.

Lost in my thoughts, I stand under the stars until a presence behind me invades my musing. I don't need to turn around to see who it is because I think I've been unconsciously expecting him.

Masen comes to stand beside me, and for a few minutes, we're silent and still. It's him who finally breaks the silence.

"You are not going home for Christmas." It's not a question but a statement.


"Where is home, Bella? Isn't anyone gonna miss you there?" His questions are hesitant, full of curiosity, and a little longing… maybe.

"Home is Anchorage. They know I always come home… when it's time. I don't care much for purposeful and institutional religious celebration." I answer as best as I can without giving too much away, and rush to steer him away from more questions.

"What about you? Where are you from?"

"I live in Melbourne."

"But you said you're flying to Sydney tomorrow."

"Yeah, I have family there."

I wait for him to say more but he doesn't. From the corner of my eye, I can see him staring at me, and several minutes go by before he speaks again.

"We should get back. It's getting late." He tugs at my arm and sighs in resignation when I don't move, but his hand remains on my arm as we stand in silence. A battle erupts between my head and heart. I have so many questions about him and yet I don't know where to start or if I should start at all. I know he also has something on his mind.

Does he feel the same attraction as I do?

"Where are you staying in Katoomba?" He asks something unexpected, looking down at his hand that still touches my arm.

"Well, I'm actually staying at Jenolan Caves, not Katoomba."

"Really? That's a nice place you've chosen," he comments, surprise prominent in his expression as he looks up. "Lemme guess, Caves House?"

"Yeah! How did you know?"

"Well, you said it's your parents' holiday gift to you…" he trails off. "Weather is pretty nice up there. You'll get some relief from the scorching heat." He waves his hand around casually.

"I'd love to stay here too." Taking a deep breath, I speak more to myself than him.

He doesn't say anything, but his hand moves slowly down to my wrist, resting over where my tattoo is, just on the other side.

"So Masen, are you heading home for Christmas?" I can't keep it inside anymore, the curiosity and questions are killing me.

I really want to know who he is going home to if I'm being honest with myself.

"I don't do Christmas. It's an over-hyped colonial tradition where people top each other with expensive gifts."

Before I can manage a suitable reply to his agitated declaration, he picks up my hand, close to his face. Startled by this abrupt movement, I turn to him, but he doesn't look up at me. Flipping my wrist gently, his fingers trace my tattoo lightly, again and again. I hold my breath still as silent electricity pulsates through me, warming my arm and slowly spreading through my entire body. When I look up, his gaze is intense as he leans in closer.

"This must mean something to a girl who has a strong opinion about purposeful and institutional religious celebrations." His low tone is laced with curiosity, not judgment or criticism.

"Yeah, it does." It's all I can manage while exhaling shakily. His close proximity, the attraction I've been feeling toward him for the last three days, and the way his eyes hold mine makes my head spin with a sudden desire to kiss him. The muted lights from the lawn and the faint glow from the stars above create a mysterious pattern on his face, highlighting those earnest eyes, the sharp nose, and defined jawline. As if he's feeling the same yearning brewing in the moment, his eyes move from mine, only to settle on my lips, which part slightly of their own accord. A low groan escapes Masen's throat and, a second later, I find my face encompassed in his palms, my lips inches away from his.

"Bella…" he breathes before words escape us and instincts take over. His lips are warm and soft, demanding yet gentle. They explore mine thoroughly and I'm lost in the sensation. Standing under that glorious sky, we give in to our heart's breathless whispers. Time ceases to exist as his lips meet mine, over and over, melting me from inside. When he pulls away slowly and rests his forehead on mine, his heart is beating fast under my palm. With eyes closed, still lost in the heady smell of him, I feel him engulf me in his strong arms. He buries his face in my neck and exhales heavily. My own arms go around him without hesitation, holding him close to my equally pounding heart. After what seems like an eternity, he pulls back and presses his lips to my forehead. The gesture suddenly makes my eyes burn with overwhelming emotion.

Hand in hand, we silently skirt around the building and come to a stop at the steps of my porch. The area is completely deserted, and the faint sound of a didgeridoo is the only sound that reaches us. When I look up at him, there's emotion burning behind his eyes, but he smiles ruefully. Placing a hand on my cheek, he leans in and places tiny kisses on each corner of my mouth and then brushes his lips against mine ever so softly. Pulling back, he strokes my cheek with his thumb and quietly whispers, "My reindeer girl". Taking a step back, he leaves without saying another word.


My mood is pensive as I stand on the amazing carpet of Alice Springs airport. Christmas is in two days, and home is calling hard to everyone. With work officially over, this is where we go our separate ways. The rest of the team are flying to Adelaide to catch their flights home while Alice and Jasper will stay there. For me, it'll be Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

My Christmas is yet to come.

"You let me know when you arrive there and when you're back home, okay?" Alice asks, after releasing me from a tight hug.

"I will. Have a great time on the beach in your red bikini," I tease, playfully poking her in the stomach.

"Oh, the possibilities!" Her smile is evil as Jasper rolls his eyes behind her.

"So Masen is flying with you?" Jasper asks, "You'll be in good company, then. I like that man."

"We won't be sitting together, but you're right. He is great at what he does." I can feel my face flushing as I nod. Alice watches me with a curious frown, but thankfully says nothing.

Arriving at Sydney Airport in the late afternoon is weird. My phone notifies me I've just lost an hour to Daylight Saving. After four days in the primitive wilderness of the outback, I struggle to welcome back the noise, crowds and chaos of modern civilization. Bright Christmas decorations adorn the terminal, matching the happy moods of travelers, eager to see their loved ones. However, it doesn't lift my spirits as my mind has been in constant turmoil since last night.

After Masen disappeared into the darkness, I stood there for ages, trying to decipher the impact of what happened between us. He hasn't mentioned the passionate moment we shared, hardly speaking a word to me since this morning. He was missing while we waited at Alice Springs Airport and didn't show up until the final boarding call. We didn't get the chance to talk on the flight to Sydney, and I haven't seen him since we touched down. Now I feel sad and a little angry, disappointed that I didn't get the chance to know more about the mysterious man with expressive eyes and beautiful smile. He didn't even say goodbye.

It looks like I have to leave what happened in the desert... well, in the desert.

Busy finding the exit and a cab to my hotel, I don't notice him approaching me.

"Bella! Hold on!" He tugs on my backpack to get my attention.

"What do you want, Masen? You're talking to me again?" Reining in my suddenly racing heart, I try to act nonchalant, which stops him for a second, and he tilts his head, just like he did the first time we met.

"I guess I deserved that." He looks down apologetically but when he looks up, I see a determination in his eyes. "Look. I'm sorry I couldn't talk to you before, but there wasn't a suitable time with everyone around."

"Where did you go before the flight?" I don't let him see how his sincere face is affecting my stern attitude.

"Ah… well, I needed to find something." Very uncharacteristically, his cheeks flush pink. "And, okay, I needed time to think."

"Oh." I don't know what to say and it seems as if he doesn't either. After a few awkward moments of silence, we both speak at the same time.

"So, Bella I was thinking…"

"Well, I think…"

Chuckling, he motions for me to go first.

"I need to get a cab." I point my thumb over my shoulder and start turning to find the end of the taxi rank.

"How about I come with you tomorrow?" Masen blurts out, causing me to stop and turn.

"You wanna come with me? To the Blue Mountains?" I can't believe he's offering.

"Yeah." He rubs the back of his neck with a nervous yet hopeful look in his eyes.

"Look, I don't want to impose. It's just… I enjoyed your company very much and I'd love to show you some more of my country, if you'll let me."

"Do you always show your country to people whose company you enjoy, Masen?" I try hard to suppress the smile that threatens to break free.

I don't miss the embarrassed grin while he lowers his head, shaking it a few times before looking back up. "Only to beautiful girls with reindeer tattoos." The smile still lingers in the curve of his lips, but there's also a hint of something in his eyes which sends a shiver down my spine. I lose my ability to tease him.

"All right," I say.

"Does that mean…?"

"Yes. You can come with me, Mr. Edwards, and I trust you to be on top of your game as my tour guide." I beam happily with the sudden turn of events.

"Bewdy." He winks back at me.

Masen shares my cab to the hotel and then leaves, saying he's already made plans for tonight. I fill in my evening wandering around the shore of Sydney's magnificent harbor, thrilled to see vivid indigenous images projected on the sails of the Opera House at sunset. My happy mood brightens even more when I step out of the hotel the next morning to find Masen waiting. Today, he's in a gorgeous blue BMW X1, and I can't decide which one I should appreciate more—the car or the man driving it. Its cleanliness and well-maintained condition make it feel like no rental car I've ever been in. What gives it away is the beautifully carved wooden black swan hanging from the rearview mirror.

"This is beautiful." I touch the delicate piece with my fingers.

"Yeah. My mom loves her showpieces."

"Mom? Is this your mother's car?"

"Yes. I went home last night to steal this beauty for our trip." He glances at me before turning his attention to the road.

"Home? I thought Melbourne was your home."

"I grew up in Sydney."

"You take her car and leave home to spend Christmas with a virtual stranger, and they don't mind?" I blurt out before I can stop myself. "Sorry. None of my business." I try to backtrack, but I'm sure he feels my burning curiosity nonetheless.

"You didn't go home for Christmas either," he points out with a meaningful look toward me, shutting me up effectively.

As we drive down the freeway out of the city, we avoid talking about home and families, consciously keeping our conversations to safe topics. I decide it's not my place to intrude because I'm only here for another two days. That thought doesn't make me feel comfortable or happy.

Masen switches on the music and another unknown song fills the car.

"Mom's car, Mom's music," he jokes. "Midnight Oil is her favorite."

We carry in our hearts the true country

And that cannot be stolen

We follow in the steps of our ancestry

And that cannot be broken.

He softly sings along while I enjoy the passing scenery as the road ascends into the mountains.

Jenolan Caves House welcomes us with the cheery spirit of Christmas. I put a stop to Masen's mention of getting a separate room as my parents had already gone overboard. They booked a grand deluxe room with a king-sized bed which two people can easily share. "You need a little comfort after the rigorous schedule," had been their logic and I wasn't about to complain. I do warn Masen with the threat of my father's ice-fishing spear if he doesn't behave like a gentleman, but I'm joking. I'm not opposed to a little naughtiness at this point… or a lot.

Our tour into the caves is strenuous, climbing steep, steel ladders into the soaring heights of the chambers, where extraordinary limestone formations continue to drip and grow. The underground river is blue, casting an eerie glow and strange reflections. The whole experience is amazing.

However, I think Masen taking me on panoramic walking trails, telling me about the legends of the Gundungurra people and their Dreamtime stories, is a million times better than any guided tour. Masen Edwards continues to fascinate the eager learner inside me with his vast knowledge of their heritage, while the woman inside me feels more drawn to him with every passing minute.

Coming back to the room at dusk, exhausted yet energized from our explorations, I collapse on the comfortable bed, leaving Masen in the lobby, explaining to a couple of tourists that the birds making the raucous sound outside are called kookaburras, not "laughing jackasses." By the time he comes back, I'm already in bed, halfway to dreamland.

I hear him in the bathroom and again when he puts on soft music. Then I feel him touching my wrist ever so lightly. Lying still for a few moments, I look over, seeing Masen on his side, with eyes closed. Though there is a respectable gap between us, his fingers are tracing my snowflake-reindeer tattoo. I stare at him in the faint glow coming in from outside, memorizing the face I might not see again in my life. The thought evokes a searing pain in my chest, and I close my eyes to ingest it. When I open them again, he's staring at me.

We move to each other wordlessly, and I melt in his warmth and kisses full of a hunger that wasn't there in the desert. We soon find ourselves bare—skin to skin, heat to heat—holding each other as Masen's slightly calloused fingers trace my body like an explorer mapping an unknown terrain. His mouth discovers my ridges and valleys with the eagerness of a traveler in a newfound land. My body responds to his touch, every nerve ending burning with a primitive fire as he worships me. The sound of our heavy breathing and desirous moans float in the air as we make love. Tears of sheer fulfillment wet my closed eyelids as I fall over the cliff, and Masen's arms hold me tightly when he lets go. Tangled in the web of our limbs and overwhelmed thoughts, we drift off to sleep.

When I open my eyes to the soft morning light, Masen is nowhere to be seen. The man in question returns with morning sustenance, namely coffee, a few minutes later. Finding me still rumpled and naked under the sheet, a mischievous and sexy smile appears on his face.

"Well, this... is what I call a Merry Christmas." He leans down to capture my lips and his hand finds its way under the sheet to caress and fondle, waking up more than my sleep-clouded brain. After a few moments of breathless exploration of hands, lips, and tongue, he pulls back and rubs his nose against mine—a gesture so gentle and happy.

"Should I say Merry Christmas to you, then?" I ask, still catching my breath.

"How about good morning?" Chuckling, he hands me the coffee and sits down on the bed.

"Okay." I inhale the aroma before taking the sip.

Just like my delicious wake-up, the day turns out to be wonderful. Although exploring with Masen takes a different path from the tourist trail, I have to go to the famous Three Sisters at Echo Point, and he is happy to take me there. The highly significant three rock pillars, worshipped by the Aboriginal people as their ancestors, are magnificent. With the endless green valley lying at their feet, the peaks look like guardians of a pristine world.

As we're leaving Katoomba, Masen points out the old-world Paragon Cafe and says we must visit when they reopen tomorrow to sample their amazing chocolates.

The huge flat rock of Kings Tableland holds the memories and history of forty thousand of years Aboriginal culture, for this is the part of Australia where the earliest record of human settlement exists. The top of this unique rock bears witness to primitive men in the form of grooves and markings made by Aboriginal people. Under the platform, lies a natural shelter used by the earliest men of this country. Standing in the awning of this ancient rock cavern, Masen strokes and traces the rock art with reverent touches, a solemn expression clouding his handsome face. His voice is far away when he speaks again.

"They are the true owners of this land, Bella. I wish the British had been humble enough to acknowledge that when they came here, and wise enough to nurture and keep our culture alive, instead of trying to destroy the black in our blood."

My mind starts to reel with images and words from the past few days.

Our blood. Our culture.

He speaks more than one Aboriginal language. His knowledge of their history and culture is remarkable. He treats them with utter respect and admiration. Thinking Christmas is an over-hyped colonial tradition, he doesn't celebrate. He has watched how I've reacted to these people and told me I could do justice to the subject in my article…

I finally realize that he must bear a part of their soul within him.

Stepping closer, I place my hand on his arm and look up to him in a new light.

"How far back does your aboriginal blood go, Masen?" I ask softly.

His gaze burns into me for a long moment—calculating and searching—then a wistful smile breaks in.

Cupping my face with a sudden urgency, he kisses me hard. I can feel his overwhelmed emotion in that urgent, desperate kiss.

"Will you tell me about it?" I ask. Gently prying his hands off my face, I hold them tightly when he rests his forehead on mine after pulling back.

Sitting on the ancient stone platform under the late afternoon sky, he looks out over a land he cherishes with contentment on his face, and I witness the moment when the real Masen Edwards emerges from the mask.

"My mother grew up on a sheep station, just outside Cootamundra. She was an orphan, adopted by the owner and his wife, and their Aboriginal housekeeper, Clarice, took care of her until she went to boarding school in Sydney. She met Dad there when she was at university. Mom has pictures of Clarice with us in Sydney, but I was too young to remember it. What I do remember is that Clarice always treated Mom like a daughter, and she spoiled me rotten when we visited them at Christmas. The smell of baked lamb still brings those memories back. Clarice used to make a steamed chocolate pudding with custard for dessert, and she must have passed down the recipe, because Mom served it to me the other night."

Masen has the sweetest, most peaceful expression I've ever seen right now, and I can't take my eyes off him.

"Every time we went to Cootamundra, there was a dark-skinned woman who used to hang around outside. She never came into the house, but Clarice would always make up a meal for her and send me out to deliver it. She spoke no English, except to say thank you, but one time I asked her who she was and she answered, 'Gunny.' I thought that was her name, so I used it whenever I saw her. She taught me to say 'Guwayu,' which meant, 'See ya later.'

"When I was sixteen, we went on a school trip to an Aboriginal settlement in Taree, to help rebuild some houses. The media at the time was portraying them as drunks and wife beaters, so I was dreading going into a black community. What I actually found were warm and caring people who welcomed us and loved to share their memories and legends.

"After I told my own story about Clarice and Gunny, one of the elders said that Clarice was probably one of the 'Stolen Generation,' where the government took black children away to missions and then placed them with white families. He also said when the girls grew up, they became a temptation, and some of them got pregnant to a white man who lived or worked with them. Since the government's intention was to breed out the blackfella, everyone turned a blind eye to it.

"I hadn't said anything about Mom being adopted or the fact that Clarice treated her like a daughter, but I came back home with a million questions for my mother."

He chuckles darkly as I sit there, spellbound from his story. "It turned out that Mom was unofficially adopted by her biological father when Clarice gave birth to her. The word 'gunny' was actually 'gunhi,' their word for mother, and Gunny had been trying to identify herself as Clarice's mother and therefore my great grandmother."

"Wow," I respond, unable to stop staring at him.

He just nods. "Clarice could have gone back to her people, but she was terrified she'd lose contact with Mom. Seeing each other at Christmas was the way they connected until she died."

"Have you ever tried to find the community your grandmother came from?" I have so many new questions now.

"Yeah, but years later, when I let go of the anger. It took the Australian Government a ridiculous amount of time to apologize for the stolen generation. What I learned about that tragedy and the secrets it caused in my own family screwed up my whole idea of Christmas. I couldn't believe my grandfather made Gunny stay outside in the heat, and I never went back to visit them again. I did find the records of Clarice entering the Training School for Aboriginal Girls in Cootamundra and traced her back to the local Wiradjuri tribe. When I went out there, they accepted me without question because I was one of them. I still try to go back once a year.

"So you don't celebrate Christmas at all?" I ask, wondering how deep this goes.

"For years I wouldn't celebrate. I hated the idea that Christian people could believe that taking a child from its mother was the right thing to do. Christmas is hard to avoid when it's in your face for months before the day, so I guess I tolerate it now, even though it lost its magic a long time ago."

It takes me a minute to digest the story and add it to everything I already know about him.

"You truly are a remarkable man, Masen Edwards. You carry the true essence of creation in your blood and I'm honored to know you. Thank you for telling me about your heritage and legacy." I can't help myself from wrapping my arms around him and resting my head on his shoulder. His arm holds me tight as we sit in silence; listening to the wind blowing over the green valley lying beneath us—it speaks of the unforgivable sins of the past and the agony of years of stolen dreams.


Back at the hotel at dinner time, they serve us a delicious meal of baked ham, roasted turkey and cranberry sauce with walnut and apricot stuffing, their Christmas special. Masen insists I try their traditional plum pudding with brandy custard.

"Sure! I love Christmas food." I sing happily and watch the spirit of Christmas flowing around the room. From the outfits of the servers to the big bright Christmas tree in the corner, it's a merry time all around. Sensing his curious eyes on me, I turn and smile knowingly. "I should tell you my Christmas story, too."

"Only if you want to tell me, Bella." His sincere eyes and serious expression make me want to tell him about my own special Christmas. However, I get distracted when Deacon Blue drifts in from the speaker, carrying my favorite song for this time of the year: "You'll Know It's Christmas" and the first taste of the rich pudding explodes in my mouth, reminding me of home again.

"This is so good!" I moan appreciatively, humming the tune as I eat.

Finally, we finish eating and retire to our suite. Closing the door and seeing my stuff around the room, it suddenly hits me that while I want to go home, this might be the last night I get to spend with this amazing man. Separate continents, demanding jobs—the odds are not in our favor.

After a much-needed shower, I pack and tidy while Masen takes his turn. Standing in front of the window after switching off the lights, I touch our small Christmas tree with its beautiful red and white strings of lights. They have decorated the rooms for the festive season, but not overly so. Looking up, I find a bunch of mistletoe hanging from the windowpane, tied with a small bell. I hadn't realized I was humming and singing quietly until Masen speaks up from the other corner of the room, fresh out of the shower.

"You have a lovely voice, Bella."

Turning, I silently appreciate his beauty with my eyes. Without breaking his gaze, I softly sing as he walks slowly toward me.

If there is love in this world

If there is something worth struggling for

If there's someone you holding close

It can be Christmas


It can be Christmas


He stops close to me, toe to toe, as I whisper the last word. Leaning down, he brushes his lips with mine and pulls back with a curious smile on his face.

"What's your Christmas story, reindeer girl?"

I laugh lightly at the silly endearment, "You mean this?" I ask him, holding up my wrist.

He shrugs. "Well, it has to be important for you to etch it permanently on your skin."

"It is," I assert. "It's important to me."

Tugging my hand and taking me with him, he settles on the couch beside the tree. I straddle his thighs as his hands lightly rest on my hips. Looking up with expectant eyes, he waits.

"Have you ever seen a reindeer in a snow-covered valley under the Northern Lights?"

He shakes his head slowly, a contented smile showing he's fondly imagining it.

"I see that scene all the time at home, but it's not the reason I got the tattoo. I'm honoring a dear friend I made in Lapland." I hold up my hand and touch the design tenderly. "I know you wouldn't think I have a hankering for Christmas, but that's not entirely true. I do love my Christmas, but it's not the same one most people celebrate." I pause, remembering a place full of snow, twinkling lights, ice-cold wind freezing my nose red and making my eyes water, and the heavenly light filtering through the glass of a dreamlike room.

"Come back next year, Bella."

Masen tilts my face up with a gentle finger when I remain silent for too long.

"Where did you go?" he asks quietly.

I take him down the fondest memory lane of my life, telling him all about my dad's job, our trip to Lapland, the glass igloo, Russian Christmas, and Tanya; how it was the first time I came to know about different cultures and religions and how my father taught me the nucleus of life—love.

"He'd said, 'It's all decided here, not by any book or calendar.'" I place my hand over Masen's heart as I quote my father's words from all those years ago. "So with all our heart we promised each other to be friends forever like nine-year-olds do and I'd vowed to always celebrate the second Christmas as my special one.

"She gave me this beautiful pendant that I've kept as my most precious treasure, and tattooed the design to keep it with me always."

"Have you ever gone back to see your friend again?"

"I wish I could." I swallow the lump in my throat and try to hold back the tears I feel coming. "Their term ended in Belarus in the middle of the following year and Dad came back home. We didn't get the chance to travel the next year because he retired and got busy opening the hotel he currently owns in Alaska. Tanya and I kept in touch for a while, and then she stopped responding. When Dad used his old contacts over there, we found out that they went to Russia for a family function and there was a fire and…" I choke on my words and find myself enveloped in Masen's arms.

"Oh baby! I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." He soothes me softly, running his hands over my back and showering tiny kisses on my head.

Resting my head on his broad shoulder, I draw in a shaky breath. "I know I didn't promise her that I'd go back, but she is part of my best childhood memories, and I can still hear her telling me to come back next year. The nine-year-old me still misses my friend, so when I declared that I'd only celebrate the January Christmas, my parents understood. The next year, Dad built a cottage with a glass roof, applying the technology they used for the igloos in Lapland. He said I could watch the Milky Way and always keep Tanya's memory alive in my heart. So just like Dad told us, I go home and fill up my stock of love—no prayers, nothing else.

"Well, of course food," I chuckle, "You can't have Christmas without lots of food. Mom makes the same English pudding we had tonight and my dad will do anything to have it any time of the year."

We remain silent for a long time before Masen exhales heavily and cradles my face to look deep into my eyes. "I have never known a beautiful heart like yours, Bella Swan." His words reflect my admiration for him from this afternoon. "You can make a dream come true with its power. I'm honored that you shared it with me." His tone is so thick with such emotion that it makes my eyes water again, but I hide it by attacking his lips with my own passion.

That night, while I love him with my body, a tiny voice in the corner of my mind keeps telling me that I won't be able to completely fill up my stock of love this year because he won't be with me. That thought makes me equally sad and desperate, which I'm sure shows in the frantic way I clutch at him and dig my nails into his back. Though a part of me rejoices in the way he reciprocates under the flickering lights of the tree, I don't care anymore about what tomorrow or the future will bring and lose myself in the unbridled passion Masen ignites in me.


Standing in the international lounge of Sydney Airport the next day, I feel numb. Waking up to Masen's quiet touches, making love tenderly and avoiding the unspoken feelings coursing between us, has already felt like a farewell to me. In the past week, I've fallen hard for his heart, mind, and soul, and letting go seems brutally painful. We've been quiet for most of the day, conveying our feelings with subtle touches and fleeting caresses, trying not to think about my imminent departure and the end of the wonderful time we spent together. When they announce my flight, I stand in front of him, unsure about how to say goodbye.

Opening his backpack, Masen takes out a wrapped package and holds it out to me, his eyes silently pleading for me not to refuse. My whispered thank you gets lost when he wraps me in an all-encompassing hug and I carry his unuttered declaration on my lips all the way home.

January 6th, 2018 - Chugach State Park, South-Central Alaska.


"Winterzeit, Glatteiszeit, verschneite Autobahn.

Doch ein Trucker, der muss ja bei jedem Wetter fahrn…"

If Renee Swan hadn't organised for this bloody lunatic to pick me up from the airport, I would have told him where to shove his non-stop German Jingle Bells by now. He doesn't care that Christmas was twelve days ago and continues to wave an arm in the air like a conductor, trying to entice me to join in, when all I want is to arrive in one piece. After a day and a half and four airports, is it too much to expect him to keep both hands on the wheel?

"I know the tune, Lothar, but German's really not my strong suit." I look out the window when he starts explaining it's actually a trucker song about the weather and roads.

Even though he's driving me nuts, the music does go well with the white winter outside. It's not like I have suddenly developed an appreciation for Christmas, but I'm longing to be with a certain person on her special day. I can't wait to see her.

Isabella Swan.

"Beautiful," was the word that jumped into my head when I first saw her, crouched down on the carpet in Alice Springs, and it wasn't just because I thought she was gorgeous. I saw the admiration she had for the Aboriginal symbols and artwork. She not only knew her job, but had a passionate heart shaped by more than just education. The three days in the desert proved my instincts right, and I fell for her before I realised it was happening. The way she perceived the landscape, soaking up every piece of information I gave her, treating everyone we met with kindness, feeling the spiritual and mystical essence of my ancestors' Dreaming—she blew my mind with the appreciation and respect she had for our culture.

Her soft, subtle elegance only enhanced her inner beauty, and I struggled to resist from the moment I saw her face at the Field of Light. Embarrassed, I had a bit of a meltdown after I gave in and kissed her, knowing she was leaving the country in a few days. Saying goodbye was the last thing I wanted, and I bought her a tiny colorful bird called "Tjulpu" from the Alice Springs Tjanpi Desert Weavers as a memento of my ancestry, but I already knew she'd be leaving with a piece of my heart, too.

Then I couldn't bear to let her leave me in Sydney, and those few days were some of the happiest I've ever spent. While we carefully hid the feelings brewing in our hearts and didn't make any promises of a future together, the physical expression of what was developing was spontaneous and incredible. Sharing our very personal stories only made our relationship stronger. Unfortunately, her face when she had to board her flight home was something I'll also never forget.

I spent the rest of the holidays at my parents' home, wanting to be somewhere else. Extending my leave, I thought about driving up the coast, but that didn't feel right either. Listening to Bella's favorite Christmas song, the words she sang wouldn't leave me, and I knew I had to go to Alaska for her special Christmas Day.

Getting a visa wasn't a problem, but I didn't have Bella's parents' address, so I contacted Alice through my NG connections, who put me in touch with Bella's mother, Renee. After finding out who I was, she was very friendly and promised to keep my surprise.

As far as I know, Bella has no idea I'm coming.

We arrive at their Midnight Sun Resort in the Chugach State Park to find everything covered in thick snow. Tall evergreens line the cleared driveway and little birdhouses stand frozen alongside the road. My heart is beating out of my chest when Lothar points out the main reception of the resort. With icicles hanging from the edge of the roof, bright lights illuminating the glass windows, and the big red and green wreath on the front door, the building looks like something from a fairy tale.

Getting down from the truck, I instantly feel the arse-freezing cold. Minus ten is not an easy transition for this desert monger Australian. I walk up to the door and it opens to Renee Swan, whom I recognise from photos on their website.

"Mr. Edwards." She sticks out her hand with a warm welcoming smile and invites me in.

"Masen, please." I greet the woman, who looks just like her daughter, and whom I know has had a great influence on shaping the remarkable girl I've crossed the globe to see again.

"I hope Lothar didn't drive you crazy," she jokes and leads me to the couch in front of the huge stone fireplace in the middle of the room. "Coffee? Or something stronger?"

"Coffee would be great, thanks." I set my backpack down and she disappears through a door at the side of the big reception desk. I look at the decorations around the room—Alaskan native artifacts on the wall and unique wooden art hanging from the ceiling. Wreaths and garlands in red, green, and gold give the room a festive feeling, and the big Christmas tree overflows with ornaments in the corner. I walk over and smile, seeing a familiar colorful little bird holding a prominent place. Peeking out the window, I see an illuminated pathway disappearing into a wooded area behind. From the glimmer of lights, I assume those are the cottages guests are staying in. I turn when I hear the voice I've been fiercely missing.

"Mom! Why are there so many dung twigs hanging in my room?"

"Mistletoe, sweet pea, they're called mistletoe," Renee chuckles, coming through the door she disappeared into earlier, "Don't dissect everything with that researcher's mind of yours."

"Whatever, Mom!" I easily imagine the eye-roll Bella must be having at her mother's expense, and step around the fireplace.

"Why are they suddenly in my room?" Her back is to me and she doesn't hear my footsteps on the thick rug.

"Maybe you could find a use for them?" Renee's eyes flicker past her as she grins mischievously.

"What do you mean?" Bella asks, a little impatiently, looking over her shoulder only to turn sharply and freeze.

I sense Renee leaving the room after putting the mug of coffee on the counter, but I'm too engrossed in the woman standing in front of me to focus on anything else.

"Masen," she whispers shakily, before leaping into my arms with a force that knocks all the air out of me, but I'm not complaining. I cling to her with equal ardor, picking up her trembling body in the process.

"Oh, my God, Masen, I can't believe you're here!" She covers my face with eager kisses, laughing and crying at the same time. Placing her down to the floor, I return her kisses with equal fire. Finally coming down from the initial frenzy, our lips find each other engaged in a slow, all-consuming kiss.

Pulling back, I rest my forehead on hers and say the words I haven't said in a long time.

"Merry Christmas, reindeer girl."

Her watery eyes widen in disbelief. "Merry Christmas, Masen." Her voice quivers as she states quietly, "You really came to me for my Christmas. It's not a dream."

Before I can reply, there's the sound of a throat clearing, and we turn to face her father, Charlie Swan.

"My wife tells me we've been expecting a special visitor. I assume that's you, Mr. Edwards?" Holding his hand out, he greets me with cautious eyes.

"Dad!" Bella warns her father, but fails to suppress her smile as she wraps an arm around me.

"Hmmm," Charlie's mustache twitches as he shakes my hand firmly, "Welcome, then, Mr. Edwards."

That night, I revel in the most wonderful experience of my life. A cold arctic wind blows over the valley, carrying tiny snowflakes, and the sky glows with thousands of stars. The colored streaks of the Northern Lights illuminate the sky, transforming it into something magical. Standing with Bella nestled in my arms, a craving starts growing in my heart. Watching her face glowing with happiness makes me want to share my dreams, my hopes, and my life with her.

When we're back in the enchanting cottage with the glass roof, wordless moans and quiet whimpers fill the air around us as I love her with hungry lips, and eager hands. Breathless with desire, she encompasses me with a fiery passion, and once again, I lose myself in my reindeer girl.

Holding her sleeping form in my arms, I stay awake for the longest time, enjoying the glimmering Milky Way through the clear glass. We have logistics we need to discuss, but I'm determined to make it work. She has filled my heart with the magic of Christmas once again, and I'll never let her go.

I finally understand the meaning of the words she said in the Blue Mountains—the words Charlie instilled in her so long ago.

Christmas is not a date from any book or calendar. We hold the real magic of Christmas in our hearts.

Happy Birthday, Ipsita! As this is her chapter, please leave her some love over at fanfiction dot net/s/12767243/1/Christmas-Dreaming.

Chapters 2 and 3 will follow quickly, then we'll be into brand new stuff.