The moment he knew without a second's doubt that he needed her in his life forever or that it would be no life at all, she had a whipped cream mustache over her mouth.

Her nose was Rudolph red from a winter cold, there were dancing sheep on her flannel pajama pants, and coming from her feet, tucked halfway underneath her where she sat on the couch, the curious stare from two fuzzy bunny slippers should have been the final straw to completely unnerve him.

Instead Fritz Howard was completely, absolutely, and emphatically in love with her.

The lights from the Christmas tree, the first which they shared together, were reflected in her eyes along with memories of holidays past and, he hoped, dreams of the future that might include him.

While she sat in the dark, oblivious to his observation, he saw the light of what he needed to do to make this magical night complete.

Earlier…

The night outside was cool and filled with the kind of still clarity and deep blue shadows that would have brought talk of snow had they lived further north in the state. Fritz had rescued Brenda from the depths of post case paperwork at the station and had offered to take her out to a late night fancy dinner so that they could celebrate Christmas Eve in style, but she waved away the suggestion, anxious to go home instead. Not one to argue with the thought of having her all to himself, he nodded agreeably, and he had not seen any cause for initial concern at her declination, assuming that she was simply of the same mind.

His Brenda-honed radar did start to flash a warning to him soon after. She was quiet as they settled themselves in the car, and she remained that way well after they pulled out of the parking garage. It was a sharp contrast to the excited animation that was her norm after closing a tough case with such a triumphant outcome as her latest, one which had consisted of one long series of interrogations that she had to carry right down to the wire. It demanded especially long hours, several sleepless nights that ran right into insanity filled days, nerves of steel, and all of the stops that she and her team could pull out, but in the end, she had most definitely secured an open and shut case with a guilty verdict that would limit the career, the freedom, and most likely the lifespan of a serial killer in the making.

Still, navigating the roads through the downtown area with the interior of the car still drenched in a noticeable silence, he shot worried glances at her.

No doubt, she had every right to be exhausted, he mused to himself.

Taking a close look at her, she did seem tired to him, but more than that, she seemed pretty down for a holiday that he thought she was pretty fond of. He waffled between asking her if something was bothering her and giving her time and the patience to lean on his trust and offer it to him in her own time and in her own way. When she reached forward and turned on the radio to some soft holiday music to overtake the silence and turned her focus to the decorated streets passing by, he opted for the latter for the time being. He had learned the hard way that if you pushed her too hard right from the get go, she built up defenses that were only harder to break through down the line when she might be more willing to let him in.

His attempt to fill in the spaces with small talk about this home's simple and elegant display and his jokes about that one's garish reindeer filled tragedy in lights only drew half-hearted responses from her, so in the end, he left all of the entertainment up to the softly crooning Nat King Cole and the cringingly annoying Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Forced to park the car a block and a half down from their house, they walked side by side down the street together. Fritz wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and she moved towards him immediately and leaned into him. She seemed to want his closeness, so he breathed a silent sigh of relief that hopefully he had not done something to upset her that brought about the heaviness that he sensed in her.

The release of that tension was quickly replaced by another. If he was not the cause of the apparent weight on her mind, had someone else hurt her? He probably held her to him too tightly at the thought as they approached the front steps.

His protective nature now stronger than his patience, he finally put words to his building thoughts.

"Are you okay, Brenda? You seem kind of quiet tonight."

"Hmmmm? Oh, no, I'm fine. Just fine. I'm just a little tired tonight, that's all."

Fritz looked down at her with a perfected scrutiny, and he was not completely convinced. She raised her head and smiled at him, but he noticed that it didn't quite reach her eyes, and she must have known that she had not quite pulled it off, either, because she quickly started digging in her bottomless bag for her house key even though he was quicker to get to his every time.

He opened the door for her, and she scooped up the flying flash of fur that was Kitty attempting an escape plan to get beyond her legs. She rubbed her face in his (her) fur for a minute, and released the bundle of energy again once Fritz had safely closed the door.

Touching her shoulder lightly, he persisted.

"Are you sure? I know this case was hard on you. Do you want to talk about it?"

She huffed a bit, and he tilted his head, studying her carefully without meaning to in that way that made her crazy.

"No. No, I don't." She paused, and sighed at the anxious look on his face. "It was long, and it was ugly, but now, we've got the guy, and…it's over." She shrugged as if to indicate her indifference to the coup.

"Okay." It still wasn't coming together for him, but he did not think that her mood was open for further interrogation.

Instead, he moved to help out of her coat. It was not far from his thoughts that it had been far too many days since they had been alone together, so he could not resist the desire to move his head down to kiss the sensitive spot on her neck, just under her ear, once her hair was pushed aside and had revealed it to him. Brenda turned into him and rested her head against his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her and rocked her a bit, still sensing her need for…something, even if he could not define it completely.

"Want a glass of wine?" He whispered the question into her hair, which smelled of magnolia blossoms. Fritz breathed the scent that was her in deeply and embraced her closeness as he tried to warm her up from the chill that the night had marked her with.

"No, not tonight."

"Want me to make some pasta ala Fritz for dinner?"

"Nope, I don't think so."

"Anything in mind that I can whip up for you?"

She bit her lip for a second and then raised her eyes up to the ceiling as if asking for a decision from somewhere beyond, and he had to smile at the image. When she combined those actions, he had the sense that she was taking him back in time to what she might have looked like when she was a child, contemplating what she wanted from Santa Claus while sitting on his lap.

"Hot chocolate," She came up with triumphantly, and added a decisive nod for emphasis.

"For dinner?"

"Mmmm-hmmmm. With marshmallows. And maybe some whipped cream, too." She rested her head against him again, and her hands found his back pockets.

"No solid food?"

"That's where the marshmallows come in." Though her voice was muffled against his chest, he detected a note of stubbornness coming into her tone which was more like her, and he was pleased at that.

"You should eat, Brenda. You've been eating way too many meals out of a box or bag these last few days." Silence. He could not hide the concern in his voice. "Is that cold getting worse, is that it?" He put his lips against her forehead, testing for a fever, but she brushed him away.

"Quit it, Mother Hen, I'm okay. I'm just…not very hungry. And…"

"…a little tired, I know." Fritz put up his hands in surrender. "Okay, hot chocolate I can do. Just one thing..."

"Hmmm?" She asked, distractedly.

"Are you sure we didn't use up all of the whipped cream the other night?" He braced for what he knew was coming. "Ow!"

He defended himself against her punch to the arm and had to smile at the natural flush in her cheeks that came out when he teased her about anything even remotely sexual, even when they were alone.

"Listen, why don't you go get out of the uncomfortable work stuff and into something warm, and I'll get your liquid diet ready when you're ready."

"You're one of a kind, Fritz Howard, you know that?" She reached up to kiss him lightly on the lips, and then she moved in to accept his longer response, and it was almost enough to convince him that he had just been imagining that something was off with her.

Those lips felt very, very right to him.

When they broke away from each other, he smiled down at her.

"If that's the way you see it, Brenda, then I'm a happy man."

As he listened to her bustling around in the bedroom, followed by the sound of the shower running, he went into the living room and turned on the CD player, adjusting the tuner until he found some soft holiday music. He lit a few candles for gentle lighting and a soft scent…he detected something that smelled like a cinnamon bun in the set he found, which he figured would work for Brenda…flipped a switch that resulted in automatic dancing flames in the fireplace, and switched on the lights on the Christmas tree to add to the soft holiday ambience.

He stepped back to look at the tree, a grin lighting up his face at the memories surrounding it.

Since he had spent the last several holidays alone in small bachelor pad of an apartment, Fritz had felt one with the table-top fiber optic tree. When he had revealed this to Brenda, she had gasped in horror and then had an entire conversation with herself about how fake and plastic was just so LA of him, and how could he be so surface and trite, before starting a thread about men and how they lacked any right to hold any authority on Christmas decorating that occurred in the interior of a home. Then she had grabbed his hand, dragged him out to the car, and demanded that he drive them to the nearest Christmas tree farm, which turned out to be quite the day trip outside of LA and up north, where she would show him how this was properly done.

Once they had located a farm, it was all one big argument from there.

First, she wanted a huge tree that he knew would never fit through the doorframe of their house and would engulf the entire room in pine needles, something he made the mistake of pointing out to her.

She simply rolled her eyes at him, unconvinced of the truth in his reasoning, and continued to argue her case.

"Mmmm-hmmm. So what you're trying to say is, size does matter, is that it? And are you not the one who lectured the walls earlier this morning about how it should be what is on the inside that counts? Not to mention, there is no way that thing is going to ride on top of my car. 'Look at me. I'm with the guy with the huge tree.' Isn't that really what it is all about, Brenda?"

She blushed, and then abruptly turned and marched away in defeat.

Next, she chose a ridiculously tiny tree because 'she felt sorry for it.'

"Look at it," she had crooned, bending down on one knee and caressing its rather pathetic branches. "It's so cute and so small!"

"Too small," he had interjected with a scrutinizing eye.

"No one else is going to take it!" She had her hands on her hips by the time she stood up, and she was making 'that face' at him.

"That's right. Because these are also people who recognize that it is too small. It is obviously an underachiever in the world of Christmas trees to put it in PC terms, Brenda."

"So what now, just because this isn't some huge, honking, beast of a tree, you have an issue with it? Does it challenge your pride to be seen with a small tree? Have you no heart? Where is your compassion?"

He pointed a finger at her and started waving it around.

"You're the one who mocked my tabletop tree for being small…"

"Fritzy, it had the lights built in. Could there be anything more tacky than that?" She marched up to him and stood on her toes to get closer to looking him in the eye in challenge.

"Yes! Yes there is! This insanely small Charlie Brown tree! By the time we get this thing home, it will be a twig, and I didn't drive all the way up here on my day off for a twig! You told me that I was coming up here for a tree, and…."

He stopped in mid-sentence when they heard someone attempt to clear their throat in an attention getting way nearby.

They both turned to see a boy of around ten standing off to the side, watching them intently.

"My dad sent me up here to see if everything was kosher with you two. He says the only time people take this long to pick out a Christmas tree is if there's some kind of 'indulging of hanky-panky going on', and if there was some kind of hanky-panky, I was supposed to put a stop to it cause that's bad for business and this is a family place. So are you? Indulging in hanky-panky, that is."

Fritz looked at Brenda, and Brenda looked at Fritz. His lip was twitching, and her face was flaming. They both turned to a neutral tree off to the side, the same tree, and said in unison, "We'll take this one."

They managed to stand by the side of the car solemnly as the owner contributed some rope and some additional familial manpower to the proper securing of the tree to the roof, before closing themselves in the car.

They had barely cleared the rustic gate of the tree farm when they both looked at each other and burst out laughing. They laughed until they cried, recounted their antics to each other for much of the journey, and they only stopped long enough to pull over to give in to some quick but absolutely amazing backseat make-up lovemaking on the side of a fairly deserted highway.

It had been a memorable day---and it was not over yet.

When they got home, and it was time to decorate the tree. Fritz waited for her to point him in the direction of the Christmas decorations, and she just bit her lip and looked solemn.

"I don't have any decorations, Fritz. This is a new house, and every new house gets its own traditions and its own decorations. Mama's got the decorations from the old Atlanta home for her tree now."

"Okay, so…we go to Target and pick up a few boxes of ornaments."

At that moment, Brenda had looked at him as if he had suddenly sprouted seven heads.

"You can't buy your Christmas tree ornaments in bulk, Fritz, and you -don't- buy them at Target." Once again, she had grabbed his hand, and they were off and running, this time with the destination of a Hallmark store in her sights.

On the way, she explained to him that in the Johnson family, each person in the family buys one new ornament every year, a special one, that represents something they want to share with everyone who will see the tree. The selection was to be very meaningful.

Standing in front of a rack of collectible ornaments, he had watched in amusement as Brenda bit her lip, squinted her eyes, put her glasses on, and interrogated almost every ornament in the display before them. Finally, she found the one, and held it up, victorious.

"And now it's your turn," she said, looking at him expectantly.

He made a quick move, selected his ornament, and held it up for her inspection with a satisfied smile.

"Fritz Howard, you put that back."

"What? This is my choice."

Her mouth opened and closed for a second, and then she closed her eyes before gathering her words.

"That is a lamp in the shape of a scantily clad woman's leg."

"Oh come on, Brenda, this is classic! You know, 'A Christmas Story?' 'Fra-geel-ay. It's a major award!' That's good stuff." He looked at her.

She looked mad.

"It happens to be a great holiday movie, one of my favorites. I watch it every year." He continued to lobby for his case. Her face unchanging, he was getting a little insulted.

"Let's see. That would be you and your fiber optic tree, right?"

He shook his head but stood his ground.

"Fine. Go on and buy that ridiculous ornament."

When they got home, she had poured herself an enormous glass of wine and he had taken a long, hot shower, and then they both met in a rather thick silence in the living room to hang their ornaments on the tree.

Then they both stood back and looked at their work.

"Brenda?"

"Hmmm?"

"Our tree is…pretty…naked."

Her lip had started to twitch.

"Yes, yes it is."

"Maybe we should have gotten that tiny tree after all. It would have looked much more filled up with just two ornaments on it. Fully decorated, really."

"You think so?" she asked her voice dripping in sarcasm, one eyebrow raised.

"Yes, yes I do."

He had noticed that she was trying hard not to laugh.

"Do you want to go back there and do a little exchange…or we could just go back there to indulge in some hanky panky."

That had done it. She snorted, and then she looked at his stupid leg lamp ornament beside her own, and then she leaned against him while he doubled over himself. When they recovered, he had wiped her tears of laughter from her cheeks with the back of his hand.

One gentle caress had led to another, and before long, the tree was not the only thing that was naked in the room.

Before giving over to sleep later that night, he had whispered to her, "Brenda, do you like to cause trouble just because the make-up sex is so great?" He had felt her smile against his chest.

"And here I thought that was your game, Special Agent Howard." She had thrown her leg over his, and they soon decided that the night wasn't quite over and done with yet, and that there was more making up to be done.

Thinking back to the wonderful fiasco as he gazed at the tree now, he thought about how much he loved making memories with Brenda, and what it meant to him to have them to hold on to.

Fritz pulled himself abruptly from his musings as he heard Brenda's shower come to an end. He left the tree and the memories with them and turned into the kitchen to make two cups of the desired hot chocolate.

Brenda put her hairbrush down on the dressing table, and when she did, her eyes fell once again on her phone. She didn't have to look at it again to know what she would see when she flipped it open.

Six messages from her Mama interspersed with two from her brother, Jimmy, and finally, one from her father telling her that it was hard enough not to have her home with the family, but was it too much to ask that she wasn't too busy to talk to her mother for even a few quick minutes, when her mother obviously was missing her on Christmas Eve?

Knee deep in her interrogations while each and every call came in, by the time she had broken free of the interview room and noticed the slew of messages, had even come out of her driven fog to be reminded of what day it was, it was late even by California time, too late to call and to be with them even in some impossibly small way on Christmas Eve.

Her mama never let on with her words; each message was just 'another little note' in he usual chirpy manner, but she knew better. Beneath it all, she sounded hurt. Willie Rae Johnson never did understand the obsession she had with work and how she could ever let it get in the way of family, not on your average day, and the Christmas holiday was sacred to them, sacred to the family, and it always had been.

It was steeped in tradition, and she had trampled outside of it once again. She had many pages in her book of Christmas memories that included pressing her nose to the glass as a small child, looking out into the dark night on Christmas Eve waiting not for snow or Santa Claus like most kids that age, but waiting for some glimpse of her father who just had to return home from this military task or that one in time for Christmas Eve tradition. Behind her would come her mother's voice, filled with false cheerfulness that would tell her not to worry, that he would surely make it, when a glance at her mother's face told her that she wanted nothing more than to set her own eyes on her husband coming in from the darkness, pulling the family into one big whole again.

Then, they would become each other's company, surviving the waiting by reveling in their own bond, their own closeness.

Biting her lip, her chest ached in that way that it had ever since she was that same little girl trying to fight back tears so that no one would see.

Her mother had probably been waiting at the proverbial window tonight in her own way, this time for her, and she was a part of this life that was so far away now that she had not even had the chance to call her.

It was one o'clock in the morning there, now. She would have given up and gone to bed long ago. She threw the phone down so hard on the table, upset with herself, distance, circumstance that she had let carry her so far from them sometimes, that she chipped the glass top.

"Brenda?"

She heard Fritz call to her from the other room, a question in his voice.

"It's fine, honey. Just dropped something, that's all."

She bit her lip a little harder as she threw herself together, needing his company in the biggest way to make her feel less alone on this day without her family.

Fritz found her in the living room, staring at a picture of her family on the mantle that was taken last Christmas at their Atlanta plantation house. Brenda was included in it, for last year, she had been miraculously free of cases long enough to go home long enough for the holiday weekend, and he had been forced to stay in LA to remain on top of a long and intense investigation.

Watching her as she gazed at the photo, her noticed that her eyes were shining, and her body language was tense. Suddenly, he thought that some of the pieces of the puzzle of her mood this evening were coming together. He felt like a fool for not putting it together earlier, and yet, he did not have the same experience of family that she had and so he was not as quick to come to it as he should have been.

She startled when he walked up behind her, pulled from her deep thoughts.

"Easy, Brenda. I didn't mean to scare you, sweetheart," he said, handing her a large mug of hot chocolate.

"No, you didn't, really." She could not quite swallow a sigh. "I'm fine."

"Okay, that's it. That is one 'I'm fine' too many for me. You're not fine, I can see it in your eyes, and you've bitten your lip raw by now, and I know that trick of yours. What is it, Brenda? What's bothering you? You can tell me, you know."

"Stop now, really. Stop worrying. I just want to spend a nice, quiet evening with you, Fritz. Can't we let it go, please?" She looked at him, her eyes imploring.

In response, he took the mug back out of her hands, placed it on the coffee table, and guided her over to the couch.

"Sit down, please."

"Fritz, really…"

"Sit." Finally sensing his own resolve and not feeling up to pushing against something so strong tonight, she gave in. She settled onto the couch, and he sat down on the coffee table across from her.

"Christmas is a time for family, and you have really been missing yours tonight." He decided to lob his theory at her in the form of a statement with the hope that he was right, and that it would free something in her to talk about it.

Her eyes grew wider as she stared into his, and then she looked down at her hands, embarrassed.

"No, I don't…"

"Of course you do…"

"I'm here with you…"

"But there are some other people missing from the holiday, and you miss them. You're spending Christmas in a new place, steeped in a new life, and you miss the holidays that you've known and the people that you can't be with."

She looked up at him, her expression less set, but still tentative.

"You're not hurting me to say that, you know. I wish there was no doubt in you that you could tell me that and it would be okay." He reached over and took her hand in his, running his thumb across her the softness of her skin, and he watched her, waiting patiently, as she gathered herself.

"Last year, I was home for Christmas, and I was missing the chance to spend the holiday with you. This year we're here together, and instead of being free to celebrate that with you, I feel like…well…like I've let my family down by not getting home to them, and I'm having trouble getting past that. Am I just one of these annoying people who can't be satisfied unless she has it all?"

"I don't think that is too much to ask when it comes to family and tradition; both mean the world to you, and that is just one of those things that I love about you, that I admire about you, Brenda. I wish that I could have given that to you this year, to have taken you home for the holidays to be with your family. If it hadn't seemed like your case was going to have you tied up through the holidays this year, if I had known, I…"

"Do you think that I put work before my family, too?" She interrupted him, her face glowing with shame at the thought.

"What?"

She told him about the phone calls, and how it might have at least stood for something if she had not missed the chance to talk to her parents earlier in the evening before their Christmas Eve was over.

"It's not the first time that I've let them down before, you know, that I've let it consume me and missed something really important because I get so lost inside my work. Mama already can't stand what I do because of the whole…dead bodies and danger thing…but throw in missing our holiday dinner the night before Christmas every other year or so because of it, and I really stand apart from everyone else in the Johnson Clan who knows not to miss it for the world."

"What you do is such a big part of who you are, Brenda, as much a part of you as anything coded into your genes, and everyone who loves you can see that about you. It drives you, but so does family. No one can miss how much you love them, and all the ways that you love them not just on one special day of the year, but every day. Loving someone means loving them for all that they are, and your family and I love you for your passion, your drive, your need to seek justice for those who need you to be their voice and their strength, even if it means sacrificing some time with you to it all. We couldn't ask you to be anything different than exactly who you are because that would be asking you to deny yourself. We can't split you in, two either. So all that you can do is the best you can, and that's exactly what you do."

"So you don't resent me for…"

"For what? For being you? Brenda, I miss you when the job carries you away with it sometimes, but it only means that the time that we're together is that much more."

Fritz reached out and caught the tear that formed in response to his words on his finger before it trailed down her cheek. Then he stood up and grabbed the spot beside her on the couch, where he put his arm around her and pulled her towards him, and she moved into his invitation and put her head on his shoulder, reaching up to nuzzle his neck in wordless appreciation of his sentiments.

"I love you…so much. You know that, right?" She whispered into his ear, sending warmth through his body with her words and her closeness. "Thank you for being here with me tonight, for sharing this night with me, for being my family."

At the last part, Brenda sensed something go through him, and her curiosity about exactly what it was peaked when he gave her a wordless squeeze before getting up off the couch to walk over to the Christmas tree, his back to her.

Had she said something wrong?

"Fritz?" She walked over to put a questioning hand on his back, and she was alarmed when she felt him shaking a little under her touch.

"What is it?" He looked at her in response to her query, and she could see that he was trying hard to shake something off. "What's wrong?"

He was quiet for another minute or so, and she gave that to him, waiting, listening to his breathing which he seemed as though he was trying to steady. Brenda jumped a little when he finally did break the silence, his voice gruff with emotion.

"I've been alone for a long time, Brenda, and family isn't something that I've ever known. Not like you. Not like the sense that you've given me. That overwhelms me sometimes."

She kissed his shoulder, and stood with him in silence for a minute, before tentatively giving voice to her thoughts.

"Fritz? What happened to your family? I only know that you don't like to talk about your mother or father, much. Not ever, really."

"Maybe we should leave it that way."

She stiffened a little at the edge that marked his words, and feeling her tense, he turned to look at her, regret instantly filling his gaze.

"I'm sorry. That wasn't meant for you." He kissed her quickly, attempting to convince her of that truth. "I'm sorry."

"You're never quick to anger, Fritz, and you've got to be one of the most gentle, forgiving men to live and breathe, and yet they make you –so- angry. What did they do to you?"

He glanced at her, a wry smile on his face.

"The interrogator in you is back, and as usual, you're a force to be reckoned with in that mode, aren't you?"

Brenda walked around in front of him, and he willingly invited her inside the circle of his arms.

"Mmmm-hmmm. You know there is no getting one by me when I get like this."

Her words were mildly teasing in nature, but her tone gently kneaded at him to talk to her about the serious subject which had been such a closed door to her and which was apparently a huge weight that he could only hide so well for himself.

"Another time?" He tried one more time to avoid the issue.

In response, she pulled back from him and disappeared into another room for a moment, leaving him wondering after her. When she returned, she came bearing a spare comforter which she spread out with great ceremony on the floor in front of their Christmas tree. Then she walked over to the couch and grabbed some of the throw pillows in her arms, walking over to the spot that she was designing for them and dumping them haphazardly.

"Are you kicking me out of the bedroom and not even granting me the couch?" he asked, his eyes following her actions as she arranged the stubborn pillows.

"No, I'm telling you to lay down, here, with me now. And I'm asking you again to tell me about your family." She sat down, leaned back against the mountain of pillows, and looked up at him expectantly, waiting. "Please?" she added, her eyes soft and imploring. When she reached out her hand to him, he moved towards her, unable to resist moving to be with her in that moment. He settled down beside her, and they lay facing each other.

Brenda let her fingers play over his features, running them through his hair, past his temples, over the strong set of his jaw, gently letting them trail across his lips. He closed his eyes in response, enjoying the feel of her touch, feeling the love she held for him in every gentle motion.

His own hands found the gentle curve inward of her waist, running them under her t-shirt to feel the warmth of her skin beneath his touch. He traced her body, running his hands over the rise of her hips, pulling her closer to him.

She responded, moving closer for him, propping herself up a little to lean forward and kiss his eyes, his cheeks, his lips.

"I hope this isn't the way you make everyone talk…" He whispered to her, fighting the urge to forgo conversation entirely.

"Just for you," she whispered back. "Talk to me?"

The look in her eyes, the lights on the Christmas tree reflected in their softness, melted all remaining resolve to leave the past buried as he found history pushing its way up to the surface, for her.

"My family wasn't like yours, Brenda, not ever. I can't ever remember a time when the walls of The Howard apartment knew anything that looked like love, not even at our best times. It was just my mother, my father, and me, and it was loud, and it was angry, it was drunken, it was bitter and manipulative, and it was resentful."

Fritz stopped for a minute, struggling with specific memories of the worst examples of each of those things. In the pause, she wrapped her arms around him, holding him to her as if that hold could keep him from going too far inside the past.

She could feel his tension, and she could hear the pain behind his words.

"Was it violent, Fritz? Did they hurt you?" She choked on the words as she forced what she suspected from within her thoughts past her lips.

"She never hurt me with anything except her obliviousness to my existence. To be fair, she spent a lot of her time dulling anything like an emotion with pills so that she wouldn't know what he did, and I could understand that. He would…he hurt her first. When she didn't respond like he wanted her to, he'd leave her to her state of numb, and yeah, he'd look for me."

"For how long was it like this for you?"

"It went on like that for a while," he answered tentatively, wanting to keep specifics and extremes under a veil, though he knew that she would see through it to the truth in her own way.

She kissed his chest, wishing that it was enough to heal the heart of the little boy that he had been once, of what she suspected that he had to endure.

"I tried to protect her whenever I could. I got really good at finding ways to have him turn it on me first, after a while. I just wanted him to keep his hands off of her."

"Why did he hurt you…your mother?"

"Because the sun was shining…or because it wasn't. He stayed moderately wasted…alcohol." he answered the question in her eyes, before continuing. "Frederick Howard was an angry drunk, and he was really good at it. My father would start early in the morning and continue on during the day, he would go to the bar in the evenings after work…when he could hold down a job…and then he would come home and hit his stock there, too. Tanked was so much better than moderately drunk, though, because then he'd just call it a day and pass out before finding something wrong with her, sometimes me, that required 'straightening out.'"

"Nobody ever heard?"

He shrugged.

"Nobody ever came, if they did."

"Fritzy…" Her heart ached for him.

"It wasn't all bad. I learned how to take care of myself early on, to be independent, to be the wonderful washer of dishes, the wonder of laundry, and the pasta chef extraordinaire that you have here today," he tried to revert to a lighter mood, but the depth of sadness in her eyes let him know that he hadn't even touched her ability to see right through him whenever she needed to.

"Did it go on like that, always? Was there ever an end to it?"

"The second that I was old enough and big enough to look him in the eye, I fought back. I took him on anytime he went near her…my mother, I mean. He didn't like it. And you know something? You know what was the really weird thing? She didn't like it, either. I fought him, and she'd beg me to stop. To leave him alone. She would defend him. Then she'd pick up another bottle of pills and go back to hiding behind a locked door somewhere in the house and stay there until it was quiet again."

Her hand on his chest, she could feel him struggling for breath, his heart pounding. She laced her fingers through his, and rested her forehead against his. She had to struggle to hear his words after that, forcing their way out of a throat which sounded as though it was closing up on him.

"The summer that I turned fourteen, my father…he got the better of me pretty good with an old piece of pipe one day. My mother went behind the usual door while it happened, but I guess comfortably numb didn't happen on its own with the usual amount of pills that time. She took one…or thirty…'too many' was the number that the coroner decided on, and she never came back out alive. That was it."

Brenda could taste the salt of tears when she gasped. She couldn't see it in the darkness, but she knew that they were his own mingled with hers.

"I'm so very, very sorry, Fritz." He just squeezed her hands in response.

"Frederick disappeared less than a year later. He blamed me for what happened. I haven't seen him, and I haven't heard from him since. Son of a bitch could be dead for years, or maybe he's still alive, but you know what, Brenda? I don't care either way, and I've never looked. He's rotting in hell one way or another, whether it is a hell here on earth or the real one, and I don't give a shit."

He trembled with the rage that he had tapped that was always held deep below the surface, and she worried about what that must do to him---to carry it all as he must. Fritz was the most kind-hearted, gentle, patient, forgiving man that she had ever known, but to ensure that it never ate away at others, she feared that it must eat away at him more than he would ever let on.

She could feel the tremors running through herself in response, born of hatred of a monster, disdain for a mother who would allow a child to take responsibility for everything while she wore her own version of blinders and let it happen, who then took the easy way out and completely abandoned him, and sorrow for the boy that Fritz had been and the life that he had known while she had been surrounded by love and traditional family.

"You were still so young, Fritzy. What did you do?" The voice that he loved broke through both the silence and his anger.

"I got shuffled around by the courts to a couple of relatives for a few years to make things neat and official, but by then I was used to looking out for myself. As soon as I hit eighteen I got out on my own, and made my way to the Academy. I knew that was something that I wanted to do, like I was always meant for that path. The NYPD was my first shot at family, the routine was good, and the outlet was good, you know? Gave me a chance to channel some stuff for something positive."

"Trying to keep the peace, to protect and serve, something that you had done all of your life by then, honey. Now I know why it suits you so well. Fighting for justice…getting the bad guys before they try to destroy anyone else."

The two shared a long silence in which each tried to come to terms with their own thoughts, one where they listened to the crackling of fire behind the glass and the night activities of Kitty on the prowl. Fritz turned over onto his back after a while and stared up at the ceiling. Brenda moved with him, resting her head on his chest, relieved that the rhythm of his heart was returning to the slower, more steady sound that she was used to.

"Are you okay?" She released her anxious question into the darkness. "Maybe I shouldn't have pushed you like I did."

"Or maybe I shouldn't have told you. I could have made up a great fairytale with a heroic end and really knocked your socks off, huh?"

"Please don't say that, Fritz. Please don't even think that. I'm glad that you told me."

"No one knows about…that part of me…about my family. I think I needed someone to tell, and I think maybe I knew that someone would be you for a long time now."

She trailed her hand over his chest in the kind of reply that needed no words, gently caressing as if by touch alone she could soothe the wounds within.

He kissed the top of her head and then paused there, taking in the scent of her hair, the natural curl of it still damp from her earlier shower.

She propped herself up over him, her eyes seeking his; his desire filled gaze in reply to her own stole her breath for a moment, as it often did, and yet this time, it somehow held an even stronger pull. Leaning down towards him, crossing over him, she kissed one side of his mouth, then the other, gently teasing.

Brenda's hair fell around his face, a soft curtain of magnolia scented curls. Fritz reached up with hands so gentle and ran them through her hair, pushing it back from her face, anticipating the moment when her lips fully claimed his own, smiling gently against her kiss when the moment came and filled him with a warmth that was stronger than anything he had ever known before. He deepened the kiss and she eagerly responded as he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her across him so that he could run his hands down her back to trace the arch of her body as she moved slowly against him. His touch, deliciously glancing with gentle yet strong hands, moved up her back to her neck to draw her to him and to support her when he turned, taking her with him, laying her back against the pillows.

Now Fritz studied her from above, taking in her eyes that were aglow with need and the reflection of the flames that leapt against the glass and bathed them both in soft, orange light.

His heart literally ached with love for her in that moment.

"I don't think that I can ever find the words to tell you what you mean to me, Brenda Leigh Johnson."

"That's okay. Words can be really overrated sometimes, don't you think?" She smiled at him.

"Thank God for you," he whispered to her, his voice gruff with emotion.

She reached for his t-shirt and pulled it off in quick motion, and then tugged at her own, letting him help her, each one reveling in the feel of heated skin coming together, revealed, no more barriers.

"Fritzy…come here…"

He complied, bending his face down to her for a long, engaging kiss before lowering his mouth to the hollow of her throat, trailing teasing kisses from that sensitive spot to one that he knew she anticipated even more, the one just below her ear. Teasing her there was always guaranteed to get a huge response, and she gave herself over to him, throwing her head back to grant him access while he nuzzled, kissed, scraped his teeth against the sensitive skin, and then soothed it with his tongue.

When she found her control again, she took it back, putting her hand against his cheek to bring his face towards her lips seeking his skin in return once again, marking across his strong jaw line with kisses. She paused when she reached his ear.

"I love you, Fritz. I will be your family now…always," she whispered once she reached the source where she knew her words would be felt and heard.

The tickle of her breath against his ear was enough to send delicious chills through him, but her words…they warmed him to his core with a heat and a power that spread through him and seemed to overcome everything else.

"I love you, so much, Brenda. I've never needed you more than I need you right now."

"I'm right here. Only for you."

He shuddered in response, she felt it run through him, but knew that it was not response to fear or anger anymore, but to something more intense than anything either had ever known before. His skin was on fire beneath her touch, and her own was so sensitive that she could barely handle his attempts to tease her body into additional readiness for him. When he raised his hips up, she automatically reached for his belt, rushing, feeling clumsy in her own need to release him and to feel him inside her.

Rushed motions soon had all of their clothes tossed to the side and found them wrapped fully in each other.

Once he had joined them as one, as she moved eagerly to meet him in the union of bodies and souls, each gave in to the unspoken promise between them to draw out the moment, to try to slow down, to feel every movement and every emotion of something that went so far beyond being a physically powerful hallmark of their days together.

Their words of love throughout were constant, whispered, and triggered waves of passion that ran through them even more deeply than those born of touch, and taste, kiss and heated skin on skin.

Fritz lost track of knowing the point where he ended and she began, all lines and boundaries blurred. They moved in perfected unison, synchronized in one moment and opposing each other only to be more complete in each other in the next. Space and time were lost, completely transcended.

Brenda felt as though time must have surely stopped, like she was floating above them even as every nerve in her body screamed at her that she was most definitely in the moment. Darkness started to creep in around the edges of her consciousness until she felt sure that she was part of another world. He brought her to the edge so many times, only to carry her back down, lifting her even higher the next time until she rode the ultimate crest with him, urging him to let go with her, their cries of release mingling, more than challenging the jazzy sound of an instrumental holiday classic that tried to work its way in from the CD player.

Each of them was incapable of speech for a long time, but they talked to each other through gentle touches, soft kisses, and a closeness that neither one was willing to break. When the only stars that she was seeing was the one on top of the Christmas tree, Brenda finally trusted herself to speak.

"I have never known anything like that before, Fritz. That was absolutely amazing."

She struggled to find the words to say that it felt as though he had filled everything in her until nothing was held back, no part of her had gone untapped, no part of her was held back from him. He had broken through all of her boundaries, and a vulnerability that should have scared her to death somehow felt right instead.

What she did not know was that she did not have to fight to define what she was feeling because he was trying to wrap his mind around exactly the same experience. She had lifted this need to live with the weight of a secret constantly bearing down on him, and what he had come from had not frightened her, made her doubt him, made her fear his own ability to suddenly become his father as he had always lived in fear that it might. Instead, she opened herself up to him fully, she trusted him, and she somehow held him above all of the demons until he felt more safe with her than he had ever felt in his lifetime with anybody.

His wounds had bled openly in front of her, and she wanted only to heal him and to surround him with a new truth of life and what love was supposed to be about.

From the first time that he had seen Brenda all those years ago, he had been instantly drawn to her. Something in him begged him to keep seeking her out. Now it felt as if they had been on some fate designed path connected by an invisible thread all along, not because they were so perfectly similar, but because each was able to provide the other with what they had been missing in this life all along.

"You're so much more than I ever had the right to ask for from this world, Brenda Leigh."

Leaning over her, he moved to overtake her lips once more, a bit shaken by how quickly his desire reawakened for her. They were just about to lose themselves to each other again when Brenda's stomach demanded that its presence be known again and its own agenda be tended to, growling so loudly that it couldn't be ignored or overlooked in the silence all around him.

They broke from each other, the natural glow on her face reddening with embarrassment while he could not resist a good laugh nonetheless.

"You never did get to that hot chocolate, did you?" he asked her once he had recovered.

"Probably not so much with the 'hot' anymore, huh?"

He shook his head, smiling down at her as he stood up, pulling on his boxers as he moved. He saw disappointment in her eyes.

"Later, I promise, but for now, you get dressed, get warm, and I'm going to get you a hot chocolate refill, and to come up with something for you to eat."

"You're such a nurturer at heart, Fritz Howard."

She hit him with a pillow in the backside as he walked by her to head for the kitchen.

He returned after a few minutes, two steaming cups of hot chocolate topped with clouds of whipped cream in his hands as promised, which he put before her on the coffee table. Then he disappeared again to go seek out a plate of Christmas cookies which he knew would be impossible for her to resist.

That's how it came to be that the moment he knew without a second's doubt that he needed her in his life forever or that it would be no life at all, she had a whipped cream mustache over her mouth.

Her nose was Rudolph red from a winter cold, there were dancing sheep on her flannel pajama pants, and coming from her feet, tucked halfway underneath her where she sat on the couch, the curious stare from two fuzzy bunny slippers should have been the final straw to completely unnerve him.

Instead Fritz Howard was completely, absolutely, and emphatically in love with her.

The lights from the Christmas tree, the first which they shared together, were reflected in her eyes along with memories of holidays past and, he hoped, dreams of the future that might always include him.

While she sat in the dark, oblivious to his observation, he saw the light of what he needed to do to make this magical night complete.

Delivering the cookies to her, he was rewarded with a huge smile and her eager pouncing on the plate. Sitting down beside her, he was antsy now, as he waited rather anxiously for the moment when he could put his plan into action. When the only evidence of cookies were mere crumbs, and satisfied, she leaned against him and rested her head on his shoulder, he started to worry that the opportunity that he was waiting for might never come. He racked his brain, trying to come up with some random errand that he could send her on to remove her from the room long enough so that he could work a little bit of magic.

"Hey Brenda?"

"Mmmm?"

"Where's Kitty? I haven't seen her since we got in before, and I haven't heard her for a long time. You don't think she escaped again, do you?"

Brenda stared at him with wide eyes.

"Tell me that at no time tonight you left the door open, Fritz. Tell me that you didn't let him get away."

He tried to look confused.

"I don't…think. Did I go outside for anything? Wait a minute. I.."

She bounced up like a spring in response to his act and bolted from the room, her voice shrill with panic as she started to call for the cat.

Fritz felt a minute of regret at causing her to panic, but he hoped that later on it would be forgotten and dismissed as 'for the greater good.' He bolted in the opposite direction to the top secret location of something that he had kept hidden from her for a long time.

"Yooooohoooooo! Kitty?" Brenda's voice came to him a bit muffled, probably from somewhere under the bed, or perhaps in the deepest recesses of the closet.

He grinned as he worked on the world's quickest arts and crafts project. Kitty was a great partner in crime. He had no idea where the cat was hiding, but she was playing the role that she did not even realize would be requested of her to the hilt. She was giving him just enough time to…

Fritz threw his secret work of art into the drawer behind his back as she stormed through the kitchen on her way to the back patio. She threw a look at him as she walked by.

"She's not…in the dishwasher," he said, fumbling to look as though he was just as intently searching for the cat.

That stopped her in her tracks, and gave him a really interesting look.

"Why…would there even be any suspicion…that he was in the dishwasher?"

He stared at her.

"Because –she- can be kind of a strange cat sometimes, Brenda."

She opened her mouth to say something, and then closed it again, shaking her head, and disappearing out the back door to the patio.

Victorious, he grabbed his Christmas gift to her and went to place it in the perfect spot. When it was in place, he did his own quick surveillance of the house which finally led him into the bathroom, where he found Kitty blinking at him accusingly from her place in the bathtub.

"Of course. Why didn't she think of that, huh, Kitty?" Fritz scooped that cat up into his arms and gave her a squeeze for being the perfect decoy, and then he went back into the living room where he almost crashed into a frantic Brenda.

"Look who I found? Turns out she was just taking a bubble bath, which she happens to love. Like mother like…cat."

He handed the cat over, giving her some time to recover and properly scold her fur child for giving them such a scare once again.

"Well, if that little episode didn't give me more than enough excitement for a Christmas Eve…" she huffed a bit, and then smiled sheepishly at him for her whirlwind of panic that they both knew was probably about to turn on him.

"Hmmm. Okay then. If you're sure you've had enough excitement…" He started to walk away from her, shrugging, struggling to hide the smile that was threatening to take over.

"What? No…Fritz…what?"

"While you and Kitty were playing all kinds of reindeer games, I think…or I could have sworn anyway…that Santa might have been through here, that he might have left something for you."

Her eyes widened, and then narrowed again with suspicion.

"Fritz Howard, what have you been up to?"

He shook his head.

"No, it wasn't me. I told you. It was Santa Claus. I was just…in on it."

"You conspired with Santa Claus? As an FBI guy, you know what kind of sentence that brings, and you know that by Los Angeles law, I can't stand by without turning you over to proper officials."

"Are you proper officials? Because then I'm more than willing to turn myself over."

"I think that depends on the full nature of the crime, special agent."

He hung his head in mock shame.

"So…you might have to let me review the evidence." Her eyes were glowing with anticipation. "Is it…bigger than a breadbox?"

Fritz reached for her hand, and started to walk her over to their Christmas tree.

"Nope."

"Is it…a vegetable?"

"If it was, you wouldn't eat it. Uh-uh, no."

"Animal?"

"Not as long as you were telling me the truth when you said you went to have Kitty spayed." He moved behind her and covered her eyes as he played her game, and they continued to cross the room. When they reached the Christmas tree, he stopped her, and removed his hand.

She automatically looked down under the tree for where Christmas presents were traditionally supposed to be, her eyes filled with a child-like joy.

"Is it a mineral?" She threw the next thing in the game out rather absently, scanning the tree-skirt, looking from one side to the other.

"You could say that." He could hardly get the words past the heart that was now lodged in his throat. He stood beside her, put his hand under her chin, and tilted it up, watching her face intently.

The ornament that she had chosen for their tree was still hung where she placed it, the graceful form of a heart in silver, with a red heart dangling from the arch noting the year. Engraved into the silver were the words "Our First Christmas." She thought it was more fitting than ever, more perfect than on the day she had chosen it.

Kitty's ornament (chosen for her, since she was not available to do it herself) was still in place, too, nothing off there…there was the mischievous ceramic cat, still knocking over the cookie jar full of catnip.

Something was definitely amiss though. Where was his ridiculous leg lamp ode to A Christmas Story? The space was empty. Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

Fritz stood back, watching her.

She was adorable, but the way time seemed to be standing still when his heart was pounding out of his chest was killing him.

"Look in between those branches right there," he guided her.

She looked where he had indicated, and then she gasped, her heart rate tripling itself in mere seconds as she handled the new ornament on the tree with trembling fingers.

A piece of red ribbon was tied around one of the branches, and at the other end of it, there was the most incredible diamond engagement ring.

She looked up into his hopeful eyes, a look of awe gracing her own features. .

"Oh, Fritz…"

Before she could say anymore, he put a single finger against her lips to quiet her. Then he took the newest ornament off the tree, fumbling a bit with his own hands shaking to untie the red ribbon that had held it in place.

"See, the other one really was just for laughs, because this…this is the real thing. This is the memory that I wanted to go hand in hand with our tree, just as I want to be hand in hand with you this Christmas and every one here after."

He cleared his throat, his voice filled with emotion that he could barely control. Then he knelt down on one knee before her, taking her hand in his. She felt him shaking, and she loved him all the more for it.

"Brenda Leigh Johnson…Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson…" He paused to correct himself and make this as official as possible, "I have known in that place where deepest truth lives since the moment that I met you that I wanted to share all of my days with you, all of my thoughts, all of my love, all of myself with you. You are the light in my days, the warmth in my nights, you're my joy, and the one that I can go to when the going gets tough. You make me laugh like no other, love like no other, live like no other, and you, Brenda, are the one that I can't live without. Tonight, the way you gave yourself to me, the way you held on to me, took me inside yourself and let me inside of you, that was more powerful than anything I have ever known before. You take me to new heights of being, and you make me so much more than I have ever been before."

He paused, fighting for breath as he searched her face and as always, the beauty that was her seemed to steal all of his oxygen away. Her cheeks were damp with tears, and he stood up to wipe them away and to be able to look into those eyes that he loved when he officially asked for her hand.

"If you let me, I will cherish you and try to repay you for everything you are to me, for all that you give to me, all the days of my life. I will give you everything that I am and everything that I want to be. I want to be your confidante, your soft place to land, your escape, the one that you run to when you need me. I would offer to be your knight in shining armor, but you…you are nobody's damsel in distress. You are the strongest, bravest, most incredible woman that I've ever known. I want to be bonded to you for always. Brenda, will you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?"

He had done the one thing that everyone who knew her would have pegged as impossible; he had rendered her completely speechless. She tried to push sound past her lips immediately in response, but her throat was so tight with emotion that all she could do was look into his eyes and nod feverishly. He broke out in the world's biggest (and most relieved) grin in response, and that was enough to free her voice.

"Yes, Fritzy…a thousand times, yes!" They both laughed a little as she could not still her trembling fingers enough to make his task of slipping the ring on her finger a simple one. Once he managed it, he looked up at her and smiled.

"A perfect fit."

"You are my perfect fit, Fritzy. Do you know that? You are the sanity to my insanity, the rational to my hysterical, the reminder that I need everyday that there is more to life than work, the rock that I need to lean on when my own strength starts to shatter. You are my gentle, loving, patient, forgiving, sexy, perfect fit of a man, and I don't deserve you…"

"Don't say that…" he said, admonishing her gently.

"I don't, it's true. But every day I am going to live with deserving you in mind. What you are willing to put up with when it comes to me…"

"You mean the unique things that make you the woman that I love more and more everyday?"

She stomped her foot and then looked up at him with pleading eyes.

"Stop being difficult, Super Special Agent Howard, and kiss me?"

"You don't have to ask me twice about that second part…"

Fritz pulled her to him, and she held on to him as if her life depended on it as they came together in a kiss that seemed to be the perfect seal to everything. They became lost in each other, and then instantly carried away by the moment in a flurry of caresses and instantaneous desire to have each other again. Sensing her need and answering his own, he swept her up into his arms and carried her off to the bedroom.

Later, still wrapped up in the sheets and in each other's arms, Fritz stroked her hair as they lay in mutually sated and awed silence.

"Fritzy?" She was the first to break it, and he smiled down at her.

"Mmmm?"

"I feel as though this night just carried us into the most incredible place. I know on some level that I've been living all along, but it is as if there is a time and place ahead of us that is so new, like we're beginning all over again. Does that make sense?"

He kissed the top of her head, moved.

"Perfect sense, sweetheart."

She snuggled against him, her eyes falling on the ring that adorned her hand in silent wonder. Once upon a time she had vowed that she would never let herself fall to another proposal of 'happily ever after' again, but she knew in her heart that this one was different. She was scared, yes, but at the same time, there was not a second's doubt nor a moment's hesitation that this was the real thing, that this was the man that she would spend the rest of her days with.

"Brenda, I wanted to let you know that Santa is not finished with you, yet."

"Santa has apparently been eating way too many Wheaties lately. I don't think I can keep up with you and your intentions," she laughed, and then nuzzled his neck affectionately.

"That's not exactly what I meant, but…now that you mention it…"

She sat up and swatted him, and then settled back in his arms again, too perfectly content to move. When Kitty came and struck her own claim on her favorite twosome, stretching out across their intertwined legs, she thought that this place and time was as close to heaven as she would ever come, and she vowed to remember it for always.

"Seriously Brenda, I took care of a little something before, and I hope that making a quick decision about this without you won't upset you."

She turned a pair of questioning eyes up towards him, and he traced her cheekbone with his finger before continuing on.

"If you don't mind the thought of dragging ourselves from the bed before New Year's arrives, then I have us booked on a flight to Atlanta first thing tomorrow morning. It will take us a while to get there so we'll miss the Johnson Family Christmas morning, but…we should be there to surprise everyone by early evening or so." He paused for a second, regretting only one thing about the order of things.

"I know that things are a little backwards as far as this goes now, and I'm sorry that I wasn't patient enough, but…I want to go ask your father for his blessing, to officially ask for your hand. That is, if I'm allowed to –meet- your father, now? I want to take you home for Christmas."

"Fritz…Fritzy, I have been home here with you. I realize that now, but…to be with both you and my parents, my brother tomorrow, and to share you with them…" she trailed off, her face the perfect portrait of bliss. "You incredible, incredible Fritz! When…how…when on earth did you do this?"

"I'm a man of many secrets and many talents," he quipped.

"Both of those things have been duly noted tonight, Special Agent," she smiled, and he grinned back.

"There's something else..." He handed her the phone. "It's just minutes away from being Christmas morning there. Why don't you give your mom a quick call? I think it would probably mean the world to both of you, and then we'll top it all off later by surprising her in person."

"I think this might just make up for at least one tenth of the family holidays together that I've missed over the years," she looked at him, her face still showing signs of unresolved shame.

He brushed his thumb over her lips, then replaced it with his own for a quick kiss.

"You're too hard on yourself, Brenda. Every one of us that are part of your life, we all love you for your passion as much as anything, and loving that about you means understanding how it drives you but also how it will always bring you home, too."

"What am I going to do with you?" She looked into his face, too overwhelmed to get much further with her thoughts.

"We'll figure that out later," he teased. "Right now," he indicated the phone again, "call your mother, Brenda."

She laughed---how he loved that sound---and then she sat up against the pillows, picked up the phone, smiling at him, and she dialed the number that plagued her phone more than any other with a huge feeling of anticipation. Fritz moved to get up and to give her some privacy, but she grabbed his arm, pulling him back down beside her, letting him know that he was welcome to stay.

Fritz sat back and watched her, smiling, trailing his fingers up and down her side with a gentle, grazing touch.

"Mama? Merry Christmas, Mama. No, dearest, calm down, everything is okay, I promise. I'm so sorry, it's so early there, and I knew that I would startle you and I didn't mean to, I just…I needed to tell you that I love you…so very much. And I miss you, and I wish that I could be with you." She paused, listening to her mother's equally loving reply, one that seemed to instantly ease all of her fears about having alienated herself from the family she loved, and Fritz noticed as she chewed mercilessly on her lip. He reached out for her hand and he intertwined his fingers with hers, gently squeezing, and he smiled gently at her when she stopped holding it back and let a few tears fall without such a struggle instead.

"And Mama? I wanted to tell you something," she started, looking up at Fritz, who nodded encouragement at her. "It's still a secret, still really new, but…well, I wanted you to be the first to know. Fritz asked me to marry him last night, and I said yes. We're getting married."

Fritz could hear her mother's squeal without the phone being anywhere near his own ear, and he grinned at her.

"Now Mama, he really wanted to ask Daddy for his permission, be traditional and official and all, but it just…kind of happened…and it was perfect and right anyway, and well…maybe we could try to keep this between us just a little bit longer until we can fly down there, and…yes, I know you're dying to tell him, Mama, but please, for us, if you could just…yes, I know there's so much to do and no time to waste…"

She shrugged her shoulders helplessly at Fritz, and he just leaned forward and kissed one of them in silent support .

They talked for a little bit longer, her mother obviously asking for every single detail of the proposal and then making her repeat the story in triplicate, and then she promised to 'call again later' so that they could talk some more about it. Then she urged her mother to 'for heaven's sakes, put down the bridal magazines and go kick off their Christmas morning.' She wished her one final Merry Christmas, to which Willie Rae squealed about how could it be anything but with news like this, and Brenda struggled to bring her back down to earth again before they hung up.

As soon as she got off the phone, she cupped Fritz's face in her hands, rubbing her nose, then her cheek against his.

"Thank you, Fritz," She kissed him soundly, and he tasted the salt from her tears.

"For what, sweetheart?"

"For being here with me. For understanding me and what I need. For being you. For showing me all the time that it is okay to be vulnerable, that it is okay to reach out. For even considering the thought of being able to put up with me and all of the crazy that I'll bring you---and I swear, it is not my fault, it is inherited---when I become your wife."

"Thank you for being my family, Brenda. For sharing what that means to you with me, reminding me what it's supposed to be about. For giving yourself to me, for trusting me. Thank you for saying 'yes.'"

"This Christmas was our own, Fritz, and it was perfect."

"It's not over yet, Brenda. It's only just beginning. We still have a few hours before we need to throw some things together and go catch that flight. Do you want to get some rest?"

Brenda turned the ringer off on the phone and placed it on the bedside table. Then she scooted down on the pillows, looking up into his face.

"That's what long plane rides are for, Fritzy. Besides, sleep is overrated." She shrugged up at him, and smiled coyly.

"Mmmm-hmmm. Sleep is for girls," he answered, nodding.

"Not this girl. Not now, anyway," she volleyed back, smirking.

Fritz rolled over her, holding himself above her on locked arms.

"Bren…" She forced him to cut off the end of her name by raising her head to capture his mouth.

"What?" She pulled back when she heard him attempt to finish his sentence anyway.

"Will I have to sleep on some sort of twin bed with you all the way across the room at your parent's house?"

"You think my daddy is going to let you even be on the same floor of the house with me?"

He dropped his head in mock defeat.

"That's kind of what I figured."

"I'll have to make sure that I can give you enough to remember so that we survive the weekend."

"Mmmmm," he tried to get back to her on that one in English, but she was nibbling on his shoulder and it was doing him in.

She paused for a second, capturing his attention instantly with the twinkle in her eye.

"Did I ever tell you what a rebel I've been known to be, Fritz? And how I have ways to get from one end of that house to the other without ever being spotted?"

"Merry Christmas to me," he said, cheered up by her inside knowledge and her enthusiasm for trouble.

She turned serious, splaying her fingers across his lower back and guiding him down on top of her, needing his skin against her own.

"Merry Christmas, Fritz."

"Many more, Brenda. Many more."