Judy Hoffs fixed the last ornament to the small, scraggly tree and stepped back to study the effect. A sigh escaped her lips. In the darkness of the deserted Chapel, the tree looked even more forlorn than it had when Doug first carted it up the stairs and plunked it proudly down beside her desk. She had struggled, with lights and tinsel and a variety of colorful ornaments, to conceal its fatal defects, but nothing could make it look other than what it was a sorry specimen of a Christmas tree.
Then again, perhaps it was not the fault of the tree at all. Perhaps her own mood infected the very air around her and made its branches sag in tune with her sagging spirits. She gave another sigh this one more tearful and self-pitying than the last and reached out to finger the nearest fringe of pine needles. Even in her current depressed state, even when everything she looked at drooped under her eyes, she could not give up the fight to make this tree into what it was meant to be. She could not give in and let the beauty of Christmas slip by her entirely.
Another ornament, perhaps. Another string of lights or handful of icicles. These bits and pieces might salvage the tree, though they could not salvage her Christmas. They could not bring her warring parents back together for one, precious day or revive the lost youth and laughter in her heart that would once have carried her through even this disastrous holiday season with a smile and a secret thrill of joy. No, even the most perfect tree could not do that for her. She would spend her favorite day alone, without the warmth of family and tradition, and every moment would be a reminder of what she had lost.
She arranged another few icicles, with careful precision, trying not to feel the tears slip down her cheeks. As she worked, listlessly, the quiet of the empty Chapel was broken by the sound of boot heels on the wooden steps. An arm settled across her shoulders and a familiar voice murmured in her ear,
"Hiya, Harry." After a brief pause, she asked, "What brings you here?"
"My car, same as always."
"Very funny." She swallowed the lump in her throat and reminded him, "It's Christmas Eve."
"So, you shouldn't be here on Christmas Eve."
Her voice took on a distinctly mournful tone. "Christmas is a time to be with the people you love."
Silence answered her. Harry dropped his arm from her shoulders and stepped past her to approach the tree. He studied it with curious, detached eyes, his hands shoved deep in his jacket pockets and his head tilted up to look at the slightly tired angel that graced the top. The silence seemed to stretch uncomfortably, as Judy reflected on what she had said and realized just how clumsy she had been in her selfish misery.
She was still trying to find the right words for an apology, when her partner spoke, his voice calm and thoughtful. "Christmas never made much sense to me. Everybody spends too much money and eats too much food and gets really depressed."
"Oh, no!" Judy exclaimed, involuntarily.
"I mean, what's the point? Who needs another excuse to be depressed?"
"No, Harry, you don't understand! Christmas is so beautiful...so full of joy and song... It's all about love and sharing and tradition. It's the perfect holiday!"
"Is that why you're here," he asked softly, turning understanding and faintly amused eyes on her, "alone in the dark, crying over this ratty old tree?"
"It's not the tree I'm crying over." She gazed wistfully at the drooping branches. "I'm sure, somewhere under all that ugly, it's actually beautiful."
"Here." Harry leaned over to peruse the mess of ornament boxes and icicles that littered the conference table. He deliberated for a long moment, then chose a single, frosted-glass ball - no different from a dozen others that already graced the tree - and held it up in triumph. "This is the one it needs."
Judy chuckled, in spite of herself. He approached the tree like an artist contemplating a canvas, the ornament poised between his fingers as he searched critically for the perfect spot. After a few feints, he suddenly reached up and hooked the ornament over a branch. Then he stepped back and admired the effect.
"Now it's beautiful."
She broke out laughing. "Yes, it is. Thank you, Harry!"
"So, why are you here?"
"To pick up the forensics report on our case. They were gonna fax it over today."
"God. You're working on Christmas Eve. Do you have any idea how depressing that is?"
"More depressing than what you're doing?"
Her shoulders drooped, and she looked away from the shining, twinkling tree to stare into the shadows of the empty Chapel. "I'll go home soon."
He put his arm around her again and gave her a squeeze. "I'm sorry, Jude. I shouldn't have teased you. And you don't have to go home at all, tonight! The tree's here, right? So this is where you should celebrate Christmas."
She shook her head. "This isn't Christmas. This is just...tinsel and junk."
"Hang on a sec."
Judy watched him head down the stairs, a question in her unsmiling eyes. He was gone for a few minutes, and she busied herself cleaning up some of the mess on the table, 'til she heard his feet on the stairs again. He bounced into the room, carrying a couple of large shopping bags, which he set on the table. Judy leaned over the nearest one and caught a whiff of hot cinnamon and butter. Her mouth started to water.
"What is all this stuff?" she demanded.
"Well, I sorta knew you'd be here..."
"...and I figured you didn't want to go home. So, I went to that coffee shop by the hospital - the one that never closes - and got some Christmas for you."
She watched, through a mist of fresh tears, as he pulled out two cartons of eggnog, a plate of fresh cinnamon rolls and a bag of hot chestnuts.
"Chestnuts! I love roasted chestnuts!" She pounced on the bag and inhaled the familiar scent eagerly. "How did you know?"
"Mmmmmm." Her eyes closed in appreciation, and her voice softened. "When I was a little girl, there was a street vendor who sold chestnuts on the corner outside my father's office. The whole month of December, he'd stand out there with his cart, and I used to ride the bus down to Daddy's office just so he'd walk me to the corner and buy me a bag. I always knew Christmas was coming when I saw that cart and smelled the nuts roasting."
"Cinnamon rolls make me think of Christmas."
Her eyes opened, and she turned a surprised look on him. "Why?"
"Grandma Bessie made them every year. I don't eat them much, anymore, because the smell always reminds me of her." He held out a napkin with a huge, sticky cinnamon roll on it. "Try one. Close your eyes and think of holly and snow and all that Hallmark stuff while you eat it. If you do it right, you can hear Bing Crosby singing in the background."
She accepted the napkin with a twinkling smile. "I knew you were a closet Christmas-lover."
"Hah! Not me. I'm a Buddhist Grinch, and I hate snow. I really came here tonight to steal your tree."
"How come I don't believe you?" Judy asked, as she settled, cross-legged, on the table and began to eat her cinnamon roll.
"Cause you're a hopeless romantic, and you want the whole world to go gushy over some dumb holiday." He sat down on the table, across the pile of food from his partner, and picked up one of the chestnuts, frowning suspiciously at it.
Judy laughed at his dubious expression. "Were you always a Grinch?"
"No. When I was a kid, I thought all the lights and music were cool. The Marines in Saigon would get roaring drunk and stagger around the city, singing. They were so big...and so loud. I'd go into the market and hide behind the booths to watch them, even though my mother punished me every time she caught me doing it. That's what I thought Christmas was all about, 'til I moved here - drunk Marines and bad singing and fake snow and tinsel on everything. But I liked it."
"And after you moved here?"
"Cinnamon rolls." He took a big bite and added, in a sticky sort of way, "It's all about cinnamon rolls."
"I'm gonna say something that will make you Grinch at me again, but this," she gestured to the food spread out between them, "is what Christmas is about."
"Right. Cinnamon rolls."
"No, my pig-headed partner. Doing nice things for the people you care about. Making a depressed friend laugh. Sharing a little bit of family tradition - or a cinnamon roll - with someone who's missing her own family." She leaned over to plant a kiss on his cheek. "You give good Christmas, Harry."
"Am I interrupting something?" a soft voice asked from the direction of the stairwell.
Both cops twisted around to see Tom Hanson standing just inside the Chapel. He had a dusting of snow on the shoulders of his overcoat, a large plate in his hands and a teasing smile on his face.
"I can come back later," he offered.
"Only if you leave the food," Harry said.
Tom chuckled and crossed over to the table. He paused to give Judy a swift peck on the cheek, then set down his plate with exaggerated care. "You may not feel that way when you see what I brought."
Judy peeled up the tinfoil to peer under it. "Fruitcake? Ugh!"
"I know. But my mom insisted. Mom still hasn't figured out that no one under the age of fifty likes fruitcake."
"Tom, what are you doing here?" she demanded.
"Harry called and asked me to come."
When Judy turned accusing eyes on her partner, he said, defensively, "I didn't know he'd bring fruitcake."
"But you should be home with your mom!" she insisted. "It's Christmas Eve!"
"Yeah, well..." Tom slipped his coat off and pulled out a chair. "I spend every Christmas Eve with my mom, and it's always the same. Fruitcake. Spiced cider. Endless photo albums full of really embarrassing pictures and prying questions about my love life."
Judy gave him a doubtful look, still troubled by his decision to come. Tom fired a warm, beguiling smile at her and added, "Come on, Judy, you know my mom. When she heard you were having a hard time, she practically threw me out the door...with the fruitcake, of course."
Judy felt the tears coming again and masked them by jumping up to hug Tom. "I can't believe you guys did this for me."
"Hey!" Doug Penhall shouted from across the room, "save some of that for me!"
"What is this? I hug somebody, and another somebody jumps out of the woodwork? What happens if I hug you, Penhall?"
"I show up." Captain Fuller climbed the last few stairs, wearing a wide smile and brandishing a bottle. He brushed past Penhall and paused at Ioki's desk to fit a cassette into the boom box. A moment later, the mellow voice of Nat King Cole filled the room. "Now that I've brought the music, and a little something to warm up the eggnog, this party can get started."
"That's my favorite Christmas song ever recorded," Judy whispered.
"Of course it is. You have taste. Speaking of which..." Fuller reached into his coat and produced a large cellophane bag full of something very, very dark brown. "Nat cannot be properly enjoyed without double chocolate fudge. With pecans."
Tom gave a ragged moan of lust and reached for the fudge, only to have his hand slapped away by Judy. "You eat the fruitcake."
"So beautiful, and so cruel! I think I'll go home to Mom and her photo albums. Hey, Doug, what'd you bring?" he asked hopefully.
"Beer and pretzels!" At the round of disbelieving looks from his colleagues, he clutched his grocery bags defensively. "What? You gotta have beer and pretzels on Christmas Eve, or it just isn't...Christmas Eve!"
"If you say so," his partner sighed. "I guess I'm stuck with fruitcake."
Doug's eyes lit up. He dropped his heavy bags on the table, oblivious to the cinnamon roll he squashed in the process, and reached for the despised, tinfoil-wrapped plate. "Man, I love fruitcake! Has it got those little red and green sticky things in it?"
"That's the fruit," Tom pointed out, patiently.
"Is it?" Doug paused with a hunk of cake halfway to his mouth. "What kind of fruit is it? I mean, everybody calls this fruitcake, and says those things are fruit, but nobody can tell me what they're s'posed to be. Have you ever seen fruit that color? Have you?"
"I think it's radioactive," Harry said.
"Yeah?" Doug shoved the entire piece into his mouth and started to chew. "Maybe that's why it tastes so good."
Tom buried his face in his hands, groaning, "What am I doing here?"
Fuller rose to his feet and tapped his coffee mug with a spoon for attention. The younger officers all fell quiet, turning curious eyes on their commander. He lifted the mug full of spiked eggnog and cleared his throat.
"As the senior officer present, I get to make the first speech."
Doug made a rude blatting noise and heckled, "Get rid of the old guy! We want the Babe!"
Judy slapped him in the back of the head, and Fuller frowned him to silence. "What you'll get is two weeks of traffic duty, if you don't watch it."
He grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. You were saying, Sir?"
"I was saying that...that this is a special night. A night to spend with special people." He stared at the tabletop for a long moment, then lifted his eyes to search the faces of each of the others in turn. "Most of us are missing our families, tonight. Maybe they're too far away or too wrapped up in their own lives to be here for us. Maybe they don't know how much we miss them. Maybe they're gone. Whatever the reason, we can't be with them, and that hurts. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself tonight, thinking about how much I wanted to be with my son on Christmas, and how unfair it was that I couldn't. Then I saw you guys all gathered around the table, laughing together, and I remembered that I have another family. A family that's always here when I need them and always willing to share some of their special times with me. I don't feel sorry for myself, anymore. I feel lucky to be part of this family. So, I want to say to all of you - my family - thank you. And Merry Christmas."
The young officers all murmured, "Merry Christmas," and touched their mugs together. In the following silence, they sipped their drinks, lost in private thoughts.
Just when they thought the mood might get too sentimental, Penhall chirped, "Now we want the Babe!" Laughter exploded around the table.
Judy smiled at the circle of her friends, blinking back tears. "I know you all came here to cheer me up, and I think that's the nicest thing anyone's ever done for me. I love you guys. But if Penhall ever calls me a babe again, I'll shoot off his kneecaps!"
"These liberated women don't know a compliment when they hear one," Doug groused.
The group relaxed and plowed into the food, drowning out Nat with their laughter. Judy waited until Doug was entertaining them with his fruitcake-eating technique, then she climbed off the table and motioned for Harry to follow her. He trailed her around to the far side of the tree, still munching on a cinnamon roll, and stopped when she caught his arm.
"Nothing. I...I know you did this for me...got everybody to come here, and I j..." Choking off her words, she wrapped her arms around his neck, gave him a crushing hug and whispered, "Thank you, Harry."
"Merry Christmas, Jude." He returned her embrace, then looked up at the ceiling and grinned impishly. "I knew I forgot something."
"The mistletoe. Oh, well. Next year."
She giggled and planted a kiss on his cheek. Then she linked her arm through his and started back toward the table. "You know, you're my favorite Christmas-hating Buddhist Grinch surrogate brother in the whole world."
"I bet you say that to all the guys."
As they stepped around the tree, they both heard Doug bellowing, through a huge mouthful of fruitcake, "See, if you do this, you can't even taste it! Then you wash it down with beer..." Tom muttered something that made him laugh. In the next breath, he inhaled his fruitcake and began to choke and splutter. "Oh, man!" he gasped, "I got candied fruit up my nose!"
This announcement was met with a chorus of groans from Fuller and Hanson.
Harry turned to his partner, lifted one eyebrow and asked, doubtfully, "Is this really what Christmas is all about?"
"Yeah." A wide, warm, happy smile spread over her face. "It sure is!"