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Diamonds in the Snow

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Posted to the RoswellSlash mailing list January 7, 2001

Diamonds in the Snow (1/1)
AUTHOR: loki / loki@fangurl.com
DISTRIBUTION: my site - www.fangurl.com/fic.htm - and if you've been archiving, feel free. if not, just ask...
SUMMARY: takes place in the "not even the rain" universe... it's the second christmas after michael has left.
RATING: PG DISCLAIMER: no one belongs to me. not at all. they play in my head, and i refuse to stop them. the lyrics at the end are by the pretenders
FEEDBACK: yes please
AUTHOR'S NOTE: this is my favorite christmas song, ever. For Elizabeth and Shimi - they have permanently etched the idea of maria and kyle in my head. For Fionna - who mentioned a few things and made the hamster in my brain start running. For willa - because because because :)



Christmas Eve.

Most definitely Maria's least favorite holiday, just ahead of Labour Day. Labour Day always signaled the beginning of school, cutting short her much-needed mental vacations and bringing forth another year of stress and stupid memorization. But Christmas Eve was different... it reminded her of a different kind of ending, and one that she still wasn't so prepared to deal with. The cost of paper, pencils and notebooks paled in comparison to the cost that her heart was already paying.

Her mother was at the store, staying open late for last-minute shoppers. This was fine with Maria. In all honesty, she preferred being alone on this night. She could avoid all the Christmas programming on television, turn down the lights and pretend to ignore the inevitable carolers. If she could, Maria would sleep through the next two days. It was easier that way.

Actually, this year hadn't been as bad as she expected. The year - the holiday, it somehow ended with Maria just this side of the edge of the mental cliff she'd been camping out on. Her life was drastically different from a couple of years ago... and that place was something she would have never foreseen a few years before that. If she stopped to think about it, Maria would start worrying about what drop-off she'd hit three more years down the road. But she stopped thinking about the future a while ago.

She had just pulled her grandmother's crocheted blanket over her when there was a knock on the door. Carolers, she assumed, and flicked on the television. They'd go eventually. A minute or so later, another knock. And then another. Annoyed, she got up and walked to the door. Maria decided to peek out the curtain and hope that none of the traveling "joy-bringers" would spot her. But she saw only one person, with his back to her. Sighing, she opened the door.

"Kyle?"

"Hey, Maria." He turned around and dug his hands into his pockets. There was something about him... something that Maria couldn't quite put her finger on. "Merry Christmas."

Maria grunted in response, rolling her eyes. "Home for the holiday?"

"Yeah," he nodded. "But dad has to work tonight and I didn't feel like being home."

"So you came here? Seems like an odd choice."

An embarrassed smile brushed across his lips. "Well... you know..."

"Liz sent you?"

The boy lowered his head sheepishly, then met her eyes again. "She was just worried. Especially since she's out of town."

"I told her I'd be fine," Maria snorted, shaking her head.

"I know... but you know Liz."

They stood on opposite sides of the doorway, sharing a smile.

"Your dad really working tonight?"

"Yeah. He usually works on Christmas Eve so he can be home on Christmas morning." Kyle looked off to the sound echoing down the street. He squinted his eyes. "Carolers?"

Maria stepped out and checked it out for herself. "Oh God. I thought they would have been done by now. I <I>really</I> don't want to deal with them. Do you want to come in?"

Surprised by the invitation, Kyle nodded quickly and was pulled into the house a second later. Maria slammed the door shut and locked it. She walked toward the kitchen, turning off every light in her path. The boy stared after her in confusion for a moment, then started after her - bumping into just about every piece of furniture he tried to avoid.

"They can be annoying, yes... but I've never found them to induce flights of terror." Kyle slumped against the kitchen doorframe and watched the girl at the stove.

"Huh?" Maria asked, lighting a match under a pot.

"Carolers," he explained. "I've never seen someone slam the door and run from them. And I would think that you, as a singer..."

"I, as a singer, do not have to subject myself to this ritualistic massacring of traditional holiday songs." She sneered. "And besides... I did not flee in terror. I just didn't want them to think I was home and needing a little 'Christmas cheer.'"

"Oookay." Kyle took a seat at the table and rubbed his bruised shin. Coffee table. The couch checked his hip. He turned and peeked over into the darkened living room. There was a small smattering of blinking colours - very faint and easily missed. "Christmas lights?"

"Mom complained about the lack of decorations around the house. I told her she could put all her trashy stuff up in her store... around this time of year she's there more than she's here." Maria pulled two mugs from the cabinet. "Hot Cocoa?"

"Sure."

The blonde poured the hot milk into two mugs and stirred in chocolate. She brought them over and sat next to Kyle. "So, lights. And a tree... even though you probably couldn't see that. I~"

An inquisitive doorbell interrupted Maria. She pulled back in shock and whispered, "Don't say anything. Don't even move."

"They won't come in." Kyle whispered back teasingly.

Shooting him a nasty look, Maria held her breath until it seemed as if the visitors had left. As she slowly exhaled, Kyle shook his head at her.

"Okay, I'll bite. What's this about?"

"I don't understand."

Leaning forward, Kyle spoke softly. "You used to love Christmas more than anyone I knew. The first to round up a bunch of people to go caroling. Now you're sitting in a dark house, lit only by a few strings of lights in a couple rooms and hiding from singers. What's up, Maria?"

"Nothing." She took another sip of cocoa.

"Maria."

"Nothing, okay, nothing. Why is it such a fucking crime to not be so gung-ho over Christmas?" She got up and began pacing in the kitchen angrily. "Do I need to convert to Judaism, or..." Maria stared pointedly at the boy. "...Buddhism for people to respect my feelings and accept that I have my own personal reasons?"

Throwing his hands up in supplication, Kyle sat back and let out a slow breath. "I didn't mean..."

Maria sank down to the floor and covered her head in her hands. "I know, I'm sorry. It's just been..." She looked up. "I'm just tired of everyone asking me how I am, what I want for Christmas, why I'm not more cheery, why I haven't decorated." She leaned back against the wall and the boy could see that she was on the verge of tears. "I just want to sit in the dark, maybe watch a movie and try to forget it's Christmas."

Kyle walked over and squatted down. He placed his hands out for her and smiled. "That we can do."

~*~*~

Two hours later, the two still sat all swaddled up in blankets on the couch. Maria curled herself into a ball on one side while Kyle was sprawled out in the middle. They had flipped through sitcoms, infomercials and several shows on every educational channel they could find. Kyle insisted on having control of the remote at all times, but he proved to be a very conscientious navigator. He quickly clicked past commercials that had even the slightest holiday reference and somehow managed to find actual programs of interest to hold their attention. At one point, he paused on a channel and before he could keep going, Maria stopped him.

"Wait... I know this. What is this?"

Kyle stared at the television for a moment. Scrooged. It's a Christmas flick," he warned.

"But... is it funny?"

"Yeah, it's funny. It's Bill Murray," he laughed. "I thought you wanted~"

"Shut up," Maria slapped him. "Is it mostly funny? Or does it get sad?"

"There are sad parts."

"Is there some big mushy love story?"

"Kinda."

"Is there~"

Groaning in frustration, Kyle snapped his head at her. "Look, why don't we just keep it on? If you want, I'll change it later. Just let me know."

Maria nodded and he settled back into the cushions. It wasn't until the movie was over that he realized that he had heard nothing but laughter and a few grumbles - but no protests. Kyle looked over and studied the girl on the side of him. Her eyebrows were furrowed and she was staring intently at the screen.

"Whatcha thinkin' DeLuca?"

"Huh?" Maria shook herself out of her daze. "Oh, I dunno." She rested her head on a pillow and pursed her lips. "Do you think he felt better?"

"Who?" Kyle turned on the couch and faced his friend.

"Bill Murray. Frank. Whatever. Do you think he felt better after he said all that stuff?" She started to pull at the frayed pieces of yarn in her blanket. "Do you think it made a difference?"

"I think so," the boy nodded. "They say confession is good for the soul."

"But what if she didn't come back? What if he said all that stuff and nothing happened? What if Claire didn't want to have anything to do with him?"

Kyle smiled, trying to determine to just what conclusions the little wheels in Maria's head were spinning. "I don't think that's what it's about. He confessed to stuff he didn't like about himself. Or maybe some of it were things he didn't want to keep bottled up anymore. It just felt better saying it and not carrying it alone anymore."

Maria closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around her knees. "I miss him," she whispered, barely loud enough to hear. Kyle didn't say anything, but he reached over and placed one of his hands on hers. "I miss him, and I think about him, and I want him to be here."

"When my mom left..." Kyle paused, searching for the right words. "When she left, I wanted her back more than anything. I thought it would stop my father from being so sad, and she would make the house clean again and there would be real dinners to eat again. In time, it started to be okay. My father started to laugh again, my grandmother came and did laundry and dad learned to cook. We did what we had to."

"Oh, I'm not talking about~"

"I know," he affirmed. "You know, I went through something similar when Liz broke up with me. I spent days - weeks - months, trying to sort everything out. I couldn't mentally accept that someone else left me, so I had to put it on Max Evans. I had to figure out what he was up to ... it was easier to do that than deal with Liz ending things. We all have our thing - I got angry. You," he reached over and pressed on Maria's nose. "You hide in the dark from renegade Christmas carolers."

"I told you, I'm not~" Maria caught herself mid-sentence. Her protests were hopeless, she knew that. And what would be the point of getting some things off her chest if she was only going to start lying again? She edged herself in, digging her feet between the cushions. "Sometimes I catch myself, and I realize that a whole day has gone by and I haven't thought about him. And I feel guilty." She shook her head. "I don't know what's worse... living in such pain, or starting to forget what such pain feels like."

Leaning forward, she rested her forehead on the boy's shoulder. He ran his fingers through her hair lightly. Maria's lips turned up for a moment, her body truly beginning to relax. "He used to do that, you know. Just like that..."

"Do you want me to stop?"

"No," Maria said, sitting up. "It's nice. And it's a nice memory. It actually doesn't hurt." She laughed softly and glanced up at the lights strung around the ceiling. "He used to come, every Christmas Eve. Even when we weren't together, he'd stop by. Say hello, sometimes give me something. One year he gave me white lights... they looked like icicles. He put them up in my room as a surprise."

Kyle continued brushing Maria's hair, watching a half-smile form on her profile. She really was a beautiful girl, and the more he knew about her, the more beautiful she became. There was not one emotion that he hadn't seen her experience in the time he knew her, and most of the time it was a matter of four or five within minutes of each other. The anger-filled, nervous Maria from earlier had been replaced by a pensive one which gave way to a melancholy, longing one. Now he sat next to an awed one, still feeling the pain of loss but slowly moving on to the joy of remembrance. And this Maria was just as beautiful.

"Last year... well, the last year he was here, he never showed. I went to bed around one - exhausted from a day spent at the store and the inevitable Wilson's annual Christmas party - which I managed to avoid this year, thank you very much."

Maria turned and smiled at the boy, who had been in attendance at said party more times than he could count. This year he stopped by briefly before hitting the DeLuca's, explaining that he was simply exhausted after a rough semester at school and he needed to catch up on last-minute Christmas presents. The guilt only lasted a few minutes. The television screen was filled with a blue screen - perhaps the cable had gone out - and it lit Maria's face with an indigo hue. Somehow, it seemed fitting.

"I woke up around six or something, and I couldn't move. At first I was really freaked out - you and I both know that in this town very, very strange things can happen." She rolled her eyes and laughed again. "But I was warm, really warm. And even though I couldn't move, I felt safe. Then I felt his breath on the back of my neck... and I realized that he came to me after all." Maria paused, closing her eyes in a futile attempt to stop the tears that were filling them. "That's what I remember when I think of him. Not the mean, awful things he's said and done. Not the stupid "warrior" and "destiny" bullshit. I remember that he came to wake up with me on Christmas morning. And I remember that I have never felt like that since."

Sliding off the couch and onto his knees, Kyle held Maria's face in his hands. He delicately wiped the still-streaming tears with his thumbs. She began to sob, her body growing weaker with each shudder. "I haven't... not like this. Only once before. I'm sorry..." Kyle simply kissed her head as she collapsed to the floor beside him, clutching at his shirt. He wrapped his arms around her and fell against the couch.

*~*~*

When she started to recover her normal breathing, Maria sat up and rubbed her cheeks with her palms. She covered her face in embarrassment. "Oh God, Kyle... I'm so sorry. This is so not a way to spend Christmas Eve. You should be with people who are having a good time."

"Who? Like the Wilsons'? You and I both know that's no one's idea of fun. Anyway... this is much more interesting and exciting. Kinda like a new toy... Manic Maria. Wind her up and watch her go... a new emotion every two minutes, every two seconds if you're lucky." Kyle smirked at her, smoothing her hair down. In spite of herself, Maria found that she was giggling which only gave more credence to his comment and that made her only laugh harder. "Oohh... laughter. Giddiness. I can't wait to see what comes next - I think Manic Maria is due for a pot-smashing tantrum of sorts."

Folding over in hysterics, Maria conceded defeat. She stuck her tongue out and taunted the boy. "Your turn."

"My turn?" Kyle asked, taken aback.

"I've just made a complete ass out of myself. Your turn."

"You didn't make an ass out of yourself." Eying Maria suspiciously, he pondered all the potential secrets he'd been harboring. "Besides, what if I don't have anything to say?"

"Confession is good for the soul."

"My soul is content. At peace with itself and the universe."

"Nope."

"What if I had secrets that would blow your mind?" Kyle drawled out, fully knowing that he was digging himself a very deep hole.

Maria leaned in closer and matched his mischievous tone. "What if I do, too?"

They sat back into their respective corners and pondered the implications of their pissing match. Had they gone too far? Could they just chalk it up to being silly and obnoxious, and the other would forget it? It would be easy to laugh innocently and retreat into the kitchen for more cocoa. The blinking lights ticked away seconds... one, blue, three, green, five, white...

Confession is good for the soul. And they both had things to confess, things that they had not told another person. They had secrets that weighed them down each day, every turn they took on their daily paths reminding them of the consequences of their actions. Maria knew the hell that would reign down if her secret got out, but at the same time she wanted, needed to speak the words so as to get them out of her head. Sometimes it had gotten so bad that she had to make a conscious effort not to grab everyone she came across and tell them. But right now, she thought she could tell Kyle.

Kyle, on the other hand, didn't know what the outcome of his admission would be. He wasn't even all that sure of what he wanted it to be, or what he thought of it himself. He figured everyone would have their own opinion on the subject and would most likely subject him to a lengthy discourse on their take of the situation. But Kyle didn't want that, he just wanted to say it. Out loud. In front of someone else. To remind himself that it happened - somehow proving it. And then he could take it from there. Maria... Maria was strangely safe. Not in his immediate circle of friends, and lord knows she could keep a secret when it was absolutely necessary.

"This goes no further than this room," the boy stared straight ahead, avoiding Maria's gaze.

"I certainly don't want this getting out," she conceded.

"Okay," Kyle took a deep breath. "At the count of three - at the same time..."

Maria nodded, and joined in as he counted off. As his third finger appeared, they both looked at each other and told their deepest, darkest secret, their words tripping over each other's.

"I kissed a guy." "I slept with Max Evans."

*~*

Two jaws dropped simultaneously, two pairs of eyes bugged out in unison. Kyle clamped his mouth shut and looked up at various spots in the ceiling. Earth-shattering secrets, indeed. The Sheriff - the symbol of rugged masculinity - his son kissing another boy. And the ultimate betrayal - a girl sleeping with the love of her best friend's life.

Colour was taking its sweet time returning to Maria's face. She breathed in too quick and ended up in a coughing fit. Taking sip of water, she addressed the room. "Want some popcorn?"

"Uh huh..." Kyle nodded, still staring off.

With that, Maria jumped off and ran into the kitchen. She fumbled around the cabinets until finally coming across the box of popcorn in one of the drawers. She tossed a package into the microwave and leaned against the opposite counter. For the first time in her life, Maria was actually willing it to go slower. The seconds were ticking by way too quickly and she wasn't too sure if she was capable of returning to the living room.

Unable to move, Kyle remained on the floor. He could almost hear the words echoing in the room - as if the walls had decided to bounce them around for further consideration. They needn't do that - he was already drowning in a state of deep pondering. Even with the blood pulsing in his ears, he feels relieved. Lighter in some way. And he was still breathing.

The oven beeped and Maria reluctantly pulled the bag out and poured it into two bowls. What had she done? Why did she tell Kyle? How did she know that Kyle wasn't going to run and tell Liz? Was he was even telling her the truth about himself? For all she knew he had made it up just to see what she said. And, Maria supposed, he was thinking that she made it up for his reaction. That was it, she decided. She would just play it off as if it was a joke. Not act all nervous and afraid - just be nonchalant. She could do nonchalant...

"In some alternate universe," the blonde grumbled to herself. She took a deep, courage-building breath and grabbed the popcorn and headed out of the kitchen.

Kyle had managed to drag himself back to the couch when he heard the timer go off. He sat there, mindlessly flicking at the channels, only minding Maria when she sat down a few feet from him and handed over a bowl of popcorn. He mumbled a 'thanks,' then proceeded to stuff his mouth as a preparatory strike of spilling more secrets. But he ventured a quick glance over and saw the girl sunk into the cushions, looking more deflated and miserable than before.

It wasn't fair - that's not what their little exercise of exorcism was supposed to be about. They were supposed to feel better, not worse. Not crawling into opposite sides of the couch, hoping to God or whatever that they could erase the past ten minutes. Confession is good for the soul, right? His soul definitely felt better... maybe Maria just needed to go a little further for hers to heal.

"Does Liz know?" A braver question than he realized, and Kyle was responded with silence. "Stupid question." He paused. "Ok... was it a drunk thing?"

"No." A firm voice came from the darkness. "You?"

"No."

The low murmur of some sports commentary show filled the space between them. Maria snatched the remote and started to flip through random shows. Kyle tried again.

"What about Michael?"

"What *about* him?" Maria snapped, and angrily flew through more channels.

"Nothing," the boy said apologetically. "I didn't mean... I just - I thought you loved him..." The words fell, and Kyle immediately wished he could snatch them back and swallow them whole. He wasn't trying to hurt Maria, not at all - but it didn't seem like his being there was helping anything. Kyle glanced towards the door and thought about leaving before he shoved his foot even further down his throat.

"And I thought you liked girls."

"Touché." Kyle smirked, both relieved and amused by the comment and the fact she hadn't killed him.

An airy chuckle floated across the room and Maria found herself smiling, breathing a little easier. Kyle took advantage of her ever-so-slightly-lowered wall and turned on the couch.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Maria shook her head vehemently. The boy nodded and moved back.

"Okay, it was in August..." Hurried words were followed by a short pause. "Max and I were at some dumb party that Alex and Liz dragged us to. We left and took a walk and ended up at his place and I was fine until I realized that it had been a year since any of us heard from Michael, and..." Her voice slowed, dropping to a near-whisper. "It just hurt, Kyle. I was holding in everything for so long and trying to stay numb and... it just hurt. And I think it felt good to hurt. I was crying, and Max just... kissed me. And it felt good to be kissed, by him. And... and... and if Liz knew, she'd hate me forever."

There it was. It was all out there and Maria couldn't pretend that it hadn't happened, and truth be told, she didn't want to. In many ways, Max was the closest person to her - the one who understood what was in her mind and heart the best. And she didn't want to deny herself, or him, that.

"Do you regret it?"

Maria thought long and hard. It was a secret that was weighing her down- a constant reminder that her life could never return to what it once was. And lying to Liz made her feel bad about what had happened. But when Maria thought about it, it was the only thing that made her feel bad.

"No. You?"

"No." Kyle leaned back into the couch and slouched down. His hands slid down his thighs in a concentrated rhythm as he stared at the television.

"So, uhm..." Maria didn't quite know what to say. "Are you two together now?"

"No... I, well, I don't really know." He offered her a tentative smile. "Matt, this guy - uh, he was in one of my classes."

This wasn't as easy as Kyle had originally thought and he had a newfound admiration for Maria's admission. At this point, he was absolutely sure that she wasn't going to say anything - but he was still trying to figure out what was going on with him, between him and Matt, that he wasn't sure if he was ready to tell someone else. He tossed some more popcorn in his mouth to buy him time.

Maria reached over and brushed her fingers against his hand. "It's okay... I don't - you don't have to if you don't want to."

Now that he didn't have to say anything, all Kyle wanted to do was say everything. About Matt, about his issues, about his feelings, about his confusion. More than that, really - everything that had ran circles in his mind yet had not quite found its way to his mouth. He opened and closed his jaw a few times, letting the words find their own way out.

"We, uh..." Kyle took a deep breath. "We were in Eastern Philosophy together... we just got along. Hung out, studied - played football and stuff. It was just cool having someone who, I dunno, just got me. I didn't have to defend my personal philosophies, and I didn't have to explain why I still sat in front of the television every Sunday for all the games. One night..." the boy shrugged. "One night we were out at the lake, coming out of meditation and talking. And, I just... he just... it just..."

"Seemed like the right thing to do?" Maria asked. A knowing tone betrayed her own memories. "Like, at that moment, nothing else could make more sense?"

"Yeah," Kyle said softly.

"Are you happy?"

"In general, or that it happened?"

"Both."

Kyle thought about that. He didn't regret it, that he had already determined in his numerous ponderings. But it threw him into something new - a whole different set of emotions and questions. He still didn't know where he fell in, but he knew that he liked where he was. "Yeah," he repeated, more firmly this time. Smiling at Maria, he squeezed her hand. "Yeah."

"Confession good for the soul?" She asked teasingly.

"I think so."

"Me too."

*~*~*

Maria was in the kitchen making more popcorn when a small tree bustled through the doorway. Kyle pulled the tree along, allowing Amy DeLuca balance the rest of the packages in her arms. She placed them on the floor and yanked her jacket off.

"Kyle honey! Merry Christmas!" She kissed him on the cheek and gave him a quick hug. "Dad working tonight?"

"Of course, Christmas Eve," he answered. Looking down at the tree he was supporting, the boy arched an eyebrow at Amy. "How long do you think this will last in this house, with the Miss Maria Merry Moratorium?"

"I know, isn't it awful?" Amy whispered conspiratorially. "I know she took Michael's departure hard, but on Christmas... I mean, two Christmases in a row have barely managed to scrape by." She glanced toward the noise in the other room and shook her head. "I was kind of hoping that if I brought this in now, on Christmas Eve, she wouldn't fight me. What do you think?"

"I dunno..." Kyle sighed. "Maybe a 50-50 chance? She seems a little more calm tonight - but still not all that thrilled with the idea of celebration. We'll just have to wait and see~"

"Wait and see what?" Maria walked out, wiping her hands on a towel. "Hey Mom." She sat on arm of the couch as two guilty looks shot back at her. "Wait and see what?" She repeated, more suspiciously.

Kyle moved out of the way so that she could see the small, pathetic little Charlie Brown tree that had been standing behind him. Amy smiled hopefully at her daughter, petting a few branches.

"It's a Christmas tree, honey. I was thinking that we could put it in the corner - maybe on the table."

Maria's lips formed a pensive pout and she cocked her head to the side. "Okay," she shrugged and went back into the kitchen.

Kyle and Amy stared at each other in a bit of shock. They looked at the tree, then toward the kitchen, then back at the tree.

"Well, I guess that's it. I'll go get the stand from the closet." Amy brought over a small metal contraption and helped Kyle put the tree on the small corner table. "Thanks."

"Not a problem," he said. "It wasn't all that heavy."

"No," Amy shook her head. "Thank you for being here. I wish I knew what to do - but I don't. And aside from Max, Liz and Alex - she won't really let anyone in. I don't even know how much she lets them in." Sniffing, she rubbed her eyes. "I'm worried, Kyle. She's my... she's my baby."

"I know," Kyle said tenderly, placing a hand on her shoulder.

Amy smiled up at the boy. "Thank you for coming by... for checking up on her. You didn't have to do that."

"I~"

"I know, I know. But the fact that you're here - that she's let you stay here... that gives me hope." She kissed the boy's cheek again. "I'm going to finish wrapping some presents. You two have fun."

Kyle watched the woman haul a few bags into another room, his daze broken by a crashing sound in the kitchen. He ran in to find Maria sitting on the floor, helplessly staring at the pieces of ceramic mixed in with popcorn that covered the floor.

"Are you okay?" He sat down across from her. "Did you cut yourself?"

"I'm fine." Maria responded - still not making any move to clean anything up. "The bowl - I wasn't paying attention and I knocked it over."

The boy made a small pile between them. "I think you're just tired. You should go to sleep."

"No, I'm okay."

"Maria... you look exhausted. I'll clean this up and you can go to bed."

"No," she repeated, almost angrily.

"Maria."

"No no no no no." Maria scratched her nails deep into her scalp. "I can't go to bed. I can't. I can't go to sleep... not yet."

"Okay..." Kyle said soothingly. Something had spun her out of the calm emotional waters and back into dangerous territory, and he didn't quite know what to do. "What do you want to do then?"

"I don't care. Just - not sleep."

"Okay."

"I~" Maria choked. She reached for the glass above her and took a sip of water. "I can't sleep. Because, I can't wake up and not have him here." Sighing, she leaned back against the cabinet door. "It sounds pathetic - and I swear I'm not waiting up for him, hoping in my heart of hearts that he'll show up. I know he left, and I understand why and I'm learning to let him... but right now - right now I can't stop thinking about my last Christmas with him. And I can't bear the thought of waking up on Christmas morning without him. So I can't sleep."

"Then we'll stay up."

"Oh, Kyle... you don't have to~"

"I don't have to do anything. What am I gonna do - go home and get into a comfy bed and wake up well-rested and open presents? Please - when I can hang out with the Anti-Christmas Chick and be all overtired and grumpy tomorrow? I really don't think it's a fair contest." Kyle wrinkled his nose, blatantly taking much pleasure in mocking Maria.

She narrowed her eyes, then grinned at him in sincere gratitude and respect. Kyle was, well he was certainly not the boy that Liz had dated long ago. He was much more than the football-lovin' Buddhist he had mentally pigeonholed himself into. Three years ago, she could never have imagined that she'd be sitting on the floor with Kyle Valenti on Christmas Eve - letting him help her get over a broken heart. And he was - helping her, by simply being her friend. "Well, what are we gonna do?"

Kyle looked down at the mess between them. "Popcorn strings."

"What?"

"You've got a sad, naked little tree out there and a bunch of uneatable popcorn in here." He tossed a piece at her. "You get the needles and thread, I'll pick out the usable ones, and we'll decorate your tree."

"With popcorn strings."

"Yup."

"Ooookay."

*~*~*

Two hours, and two more packages of microwaveable popcorn later, Maria and Kyle sat on the couch admiring their haphazard handiwork. Several strings rounded the tree, accompanied by random items they'd found around the kitchen. For a skimpy little tree - it was doing a remarkable job of holding up cheese graters and pie-cutters on a string. There was the occasional napkin snowflake and some tinsel made from tinfoil. Maria had nixed the ginsu-knife star Kyle was proposing, but he countered with an ice cream cone/ maraschino cherry tree topper.

It was beautiful.

And it was Christmas.

Maria looked at Kyle, almost nervously, then back at the tree. He caught the action and nudged her with his elbow.

"What?"

She bit her lip and glanced down, then back at him. "Do you want to see something? It's in my room."

"Does this involve funny robes that don't close in the back, and you calling me doctor?" Kyle wiggled his eyebrows at her.

"Smartass." Maria slapped his arm then stood up. She took his hand and pulled him down the hall to her room. Inside, she told him to sit as she rummaged in the back of her closet.

Maria emerged with a small red box that she cradled delicately. Before joining Kyle on the bed, she turned off the light and lit a few candles scattered around the room. She sat next to the boy, her hands trembling. "He... Michael. Michael brought me this on that Christmas. You know... the last one?" Her thumbs caressed the crimson fabric covering the box. "I haven't shown it to anyone, and I haven't taken it out since he left..."

Kyle watched as she opened the gift and lifted up a small, glass ornament. Maria held it in front of a couple of candles and they watched as the flames illuminated it. At first he thought it was frosted glass, but the more he studied at it, Kyle realized that something white was swirling around and around inside.

"It's a perpetually snowing... ball." Maria said, still obviously awed. "I have no idea how he did it - but it never stops. I've stared at it for hours and hours, and it never stops. Sometimes it's like a little snowstorm-y blizzard thing. Sometimes it's just a peaceful snowfall." She moved over and hung it from the window latch - letting the moonlight let it glow. "He told me that it was my own personal White Christmas. No matter where I was, I would always have Christmas." She leaned back into the boy, and they watched silently as the snow fell.

*~*~*

The next morning, Amy came out into the rather strangely decorated living room. She laughed to herself, placing Maria's gifts under the tree. After a couple of cups of coffee, she decided to check up on her still-sleeping daughter. She found Maria and Kyle, fully-clothed, curled up on the bed with a blanket half-pulled over them.

Any other time, Amy DeLuca would have let out an ear-piercing scream that could wake a nation. But on this Christmas morning, she saw something, felt something almost forgotten - her daughter was at peace.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"In these frozen and silent nights
Sometimes I dream you appear
Outside under the purple sky
Diamonds in the snow sparkle
Our hearts were singing
It felt like Christmastime

2000 miles
Is very far through the snow
I'll think of you
Wherever you go"

-- The Pretenders, "2000 Miles"

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