25 Dec 2012

Christmas Night

Ding! Roger's phone produced a musical chime as it rested on the dresser.

He didn't need to check the phone to figure out what the chime was for. He set an alarm to remind himself of tonight's event, which he had already been preparing for during the week. Finding some proper clothes, searching for an appropriate present, thinking of fresh conversational material to work with... it had been such a long time since Roger attended a party event with other unfamiliar guests. He dared not make a fool of himself.

A little dab of the cologne here and... done! He looked proper in his suit and tie, hair in place. Nothing wrong in the appearance department, though it looked like he put on some weight in his face... or did he actually lose weight before?

It still felt weird to Roger, going for an event that he had been invited to on what seemed like a whim by a fresh face. Maybe Dominic was one of those people who went through a dramatic life-changing experience that left him with a hyper optimistic view on life? Then perhaps he'd still be happily content with the bottle of wine Roger would bring along to the house. After all Roger had absolutely no clue on what Dominic might like, apart from... well, Christmas itself really.

Finally Roger was ready to set off to the glittering house, still dazzling thanks to the decorations he helped Dominic put up not too long ago. Although it did look like he added extra touches to the exterior, because it seemed like the house grew younger. Odd.

But that wasn't the only odd observation.

There was a crowd of people gathered in front of Dominic's porch, looking eager to get the party started. Apparently all the other guests were already here, but they couldn't enter. What's going on?

Roger went up to one of the women in the group.

"Excuse me, are you here for the..."

"Oh yes!" she exclaimed, flipping her long auburn hair back. "I was the first one here, but it's been about twenty minutes. I've knocked on the door and rang the bell a few times already, but there's still no activity in there..."

"Have you tried calling his number?"

"That's the problem. Nobody here has his number for some strange reason. I bet you didn't get it either."

Another man overheard her and chimed in. "That's because he doesn't use telephones at all."

Roger and the woman turned their gaze towards him, visibly perplexed. "Dominic doesn't have a phone at all?" she asked.

"Nope. It's been that way for a long time. We went to school together, and I know his family never had phones ever, and yet still managed to maintain communication where it's important. He never really explained why they abstained from phones though..."

"You went to school with him?" Roger asked.

"Yeah, it was quite fun hanging around with him, both during classes and outside of school. I lost touch with him when we graduated, but fortunately I bumped into him two days ago. And so here I am, hoping to make up for lost time!"

"Heh, you sure sound like you had a good relationship with him!" Roger commented. "I'm only just his neighbour, and yet I'm also here too..."

"You're not the only one." the woman replied. "Almost all of us only met him for a brief moment and found ourselves invited to this party too! I met him at a hospital where he helped me through a tough moment, so I'm here to repay the favour."

Now this was new to Roger. Apparently Dominic had quite a penchant for doing altruistic acts to strangers.

"Yeah, I was quite surprised too when I chatted with the other guests here!" the woman continued. "I assumed I was the only odd guest in his party where he would have old friends and close relatives attending, but I guess this guy is quite an interesting fellow..."

"Heck, even I wouldn't have expected him to do something like this!" the man said.

Roger looked around a bit. It doesn't seem like anything exciting was going to happen soon, so he might as well chat with everyone here to familiarise himself.

"While we're waiting, we might as well get to know each other. I'm Roger."

"I'm Terry, nice to meet you." The man responded.

"And I'm Sylvia, it's also nice to meet you both!" The woman cheerily replied.

And so the mingling and conversation went for quite a while more. This certainly wasn't a small party, considering there were about eleven other guests here. And they all don't seem to have any direct relation with one another. They all came from different walks of life, and the only common thing is that they all happened to meet Dominic by chance.

Roger took some time to remember the names and faces of the other guests. He couldn't risk embarrassing himself in front of so many people...

The woman he met briefly was Sylvia, a slender woman with quite a sense of fashion. She certainly flaunted her assets really well, and you almost couldn't tell that she had to deal with a heavy loss recently. Almost, because there was still a hint of remorse in her eyes... "...but I'm okay now, nothing to worry about. I'm here to have a great time, and to put my worries behind!" she assured him.

There was Greg, a smart-looking man who worked as a cashier, and managed to get a Christmas break from his incredibly busy occupation. It was his first time spending Christmas with unfamiliar faces, but he didn't seem to mind it at all.

Rebecca looked like a sweet young girl, but seemed just as awkward as himself. At least he didn't feel alone in that aspect. She looked a bit worn out, which she explained was due to the hectic weeks she spent planning a separate Christmas Eve party at her own house for her class. "Well, did everything go as planned?" "Yeah, it was such a blast! Things went absolutely great!"

Matt also seemed like a reserved guy, but he was willing to make small talk. He said he was a bit reluctant to leave his daughter with the babysitter at home tonight, not only because the daughter wouldn't be able to come with him, but also because it inconvenienced the babysitter on Christmas. "The babysitter just kept insisting it wasn't a problem, saying that she had already dealt with the celebrations in the early morning," he said. "I hope Jane could learn from her example."

Rose was arguably the one who radiated the most positive aura in the group. She helped out a lot in volunteer work for this cancer foundation. She couldn't stop talking about how grateful she was for having received the kindness from a stranger like Dominic. "I just wish more people could be as selfless and empathetic as he was," she lamented.

Chris was doubly excited about this party, "not just because it was Christmas, but also because he promised something extra special for my birthday tonight!" he explained. "Is that why Dominic's taking a bit longer to get ready?" Great, now Roger couldn't help but feel guilty about not bringing an extra birthday present for this lovely fellow.

There was a slightly more familiar face that belonged to this particular woman. "Hey, I saw you at the play last night! You were fantastic as the lead role!" "Why thank you so much!" Denise replied. "I was just so relieved that I could recover in time and get on with the act! Actually I've got a recording of the performance that we can watch later inside... if he lets us in soon..."

Frank was a slightly portly guy, jolly as he could be. He was so happy that he could finally take a breather from his mall Santa stint. "Sitting in that chair with the blasted costume on is no joke," he complained. "however I take pride in knowing that I'm not just sustaining the wonder and magic in children's lives, but also setting them on the right path."

Bertha was the oldest of the group, but no less as lively as the rest. She said she came along just to break away from the drab monotony of the previous Christmases she had the past few years. "This kind young man was as close to an angel as you could get. If he had worn wings I would've sworn he was sent from above to give me a blessing!" she joked.

Rick was quite an interesting person, with his spiked hair and tattoos completely contrasting Roger's own formal look. He was apparently a very popular DJ (frankly Roger couldn't care less about the music scene) and came here to have fun after the wild performance from last night. "If you're interested, you could come along to the New Year's countdown party that I'll be performing at next!" "...thanks, I'll consider it."

And of course, there was Dominic's friend, Terry. He was getting a bit impatient, pacing around near the porch steps. "It's just so unlike him!" Terry observed. "Snowy's always punctual and organised in everything he did, as far as I could remember. Is something holding him up?"

It's been about half an hour already, and still nothing stirred from within.

Roger stepped up to the front door. "No harm in trying again I suppose." He was about to go for the doorbell–

The white door suddenly swung inward, revealing a well-groomed tall man with snow white hair behind, ready to start.

"Welcome! So terribly sorry for the delay, there were quite a few adjustments I had to make at the last moment. Do come in, all of you!" Dominic waved them into his house.

Roger was the first to step in and admire the interior at last.

There was nothing needed to be said other than it was simply beautiful. The warm orange lights illuminated the furniture in the living room, including a gorgeous coffee table and a really long leather couch. Many cute and tiny ornaments were positioned around the large widescreen television screen. The other guests that entered concurred with Roger's opinion, judging from the "ooh"s and "aah"s that followed.

"It was such a huge task setting everything up inside for the party tonight!" Dominic said. "Two weeks ago this place would have looked as though a tornado messed up my stuff!"

Now the party got livelier. Apart from the obvious commenting on the inside of the house, everyone was having fun in conversation and jokes. Even Roger finally felt at ease; he felt more in the company of close friends rather than strangers. He nearly forgot what it was like to make new friends at a gathering, but fortunately this night helped him re-experience it all over again.

"Alright everyone! Food's all ready in the dining room, help yourself!"

Goodness. The dining room was certainly on par with the living room! The mahogany table shined beneath the dazzling crystal chandelier dangling above. All the food laid on the table looked and smelt delicious! Spaghetti with meatballs, baked salmon, roasted chicken and turkey... even the logcake for desert was tempting. Either Dominic was a really good chef, or he was really good at finding catering services. When Roger turned to Dominic, the latter looked unwilling to divulge, cheekily revealing a small grin.

It was such a lovely sight: every guest helped themselves to the food happily, enjoying themselves as they feasted and listened to the Christmas playlist that Dominic prepared. At least somebody here had good taste in music. The scene of the cheerful guests dining and laughing in the dining room was something out of a storybook. Roger wasn't so sure anymore if he was dreaming, but he certainly didn't want to wake up now!

Then came the birthday surprise. Dominic walked out the dining room a bit later, only to return with a nice simple birthday cake with candy cane candles planted in it. Needless to say Chris was pleasantly surprised. Everyone merrily sang the all-too-famous birthday song, finally giving the birthday boy the recognition that he deserved.

A few hours later, all the food and desserts were wiped clean. Roger felt extra full this night, but he didn't care. It was a time to feel content and happy, and feeling guilty about weight issues certainly was not of his concern right now. The other guests probably felt the same way, Roger thought.

Suddenly he heard the tapping of glass and metal.

"Excuse me, it's half past midnight, which means it's time! I'd like all of you to follow me, if you don't mind!" Dominic announced, as he continued tapping a small fork on the side of his champagne glass.

Hmm? Was he going to show us something really awesome? A home cinema? A collection of family heirlooms???

The guests huddled around a plain brown door, slightly peeling at the corners. Wasn't this the door to the backyard? Roger didn't recall anything special about the backyard, and judging from the confused looks on the other guests, neither did they.

Dominic took quite a deep breath, then began:

"My fellow friends, I didn't tell any of you this before, but I've invited all of you here not just to enjoy the festivities that I've hosted. There is something I want to entrust you all with."

He paused for a while, as his eyes narrowed and his tone softened.

"I want to trust you all with keeping a very huge secret. A secret so large, if crucial details of it were leaked, it could render my job useless. Yet I feel somebody must spread the message. Don't worry, you will NOT be in any life-threatening danger, this I promise. However, it is quite a huge secret. If you don't think you'll be able to keep it to yourself, then I can escort you out temporarily so you can wait outside."

Terry raised a hand and asked: "If it's such a big secret, why are you telling us? For me it's different because I'd do it as a friend, but the others barely knew you."

"You'll understand once I reveal the secret. So... anybody want out?"

Nobody objected. In fact all the guests seemed quite willing to help, considering it as a way to pay it back to Dominic.

"...very well. Are all the curtains and doors closed?"

Everyone looked around, then nodded as a confirmation.

"Alright. Let's go."

Dominic took out a shiny golden key from his pocket, and inserted it into the keyhole of the door. It didn't look like the key belonged to that old-looking door, but the click indicated otherwise. He gave a good twist on the knob and pushed.

This wasn't the backyard at all.

It was a long staircase. There were lots of glowing lights on the walls and ceiling, yet the stairs led off into the darkness. Nobody said anything, and just followed Dominic down the creaking stairs.

What exactly did Dominic want to show them that was hidden so deep in here? A treasure room? In any other situation Roger would have instinctively ran out, fearing that he would be kidnapped and trapped down there, but somehow he felt safe despite not knowing the destination. Was it because there were quite a number of other people next to him?

The stairs were much longer than they thought. It felt like a good couple of minutes and he had yet to see the end. How could there be such a deep basement be built here??? Surely they would have encountered utility lines by now...

Then a light appeared.

A shimmering golden door signalled the end of the long journey downwards. Dominic patiently waited for all his guests to arrive safely at the bottom, before he took the same golden key to unlock this door.

"Remember, what I'm about to show you is a highly guarded secret. Anybody having second thoughts can still go back upstairs."

Again, no objection.

"Right then."

Dominic gently shoved the door open. More golden light shone through from the other side...

"Wait a min– is that...?"

A big tall man was standing behind the door, dressed in red, sporting a white fluffy beard and white snowy hair.

"Hold on, is this...?"

"Is he the real thing?"

"How do we know he isn't just in costume?"

"Who are you?"

It was getting noisier as all the guests were quite distraught. There was a big man in front of them who resembles a certain character, with certain discrepancies like the missing hat and the less-than-expected roundness. Was he an impersonator? That wouldn't be so much of a big secret, would it? But if that man was such a highly guarded secret surely he must be the real thing, which sounded crazy because he wasn't real–

"All right, all right! Calm down, all of you!" The large man spoke. "My son explained to me everything he had been doing, and I'm agreeing to his plan, so please, all of you calm down and cooperate!"

"Wait... Dominic's your son???" Sylvia asked.

"We will explain everything in this room on the left." The man smiled as he pointed at what appeared to be a large meeting hall. "I believe fully that this is as crucial as my son makes it out to be, with good reason. I rushed all the way here for this, when normally I would be sleeping now! So you know this is important!"

The man let out a jolly chuckle.

This was certainly a much larger secret than expected.





Both Dominic and his father patiently waited for the guests to settle down in the hall room. It was understandable to feel nervous in such a large and bright room, where everyone was seated on ornate golden chairs at a golden circular table, underneath a huge candlelight chandelier that seemed to be impossibly floating above them. What was so deadly important that all of them had to come down here to learn about it?

At last, when the crowd became more or less silent, Dominic's father leaned forward in his red velvet high chair reserved for him.

"Well," he began, "you'd be quite right to suspect that I might be the real Santa Claus. The thing is you're only partially right."

This just made the guests even more perplexed than before, seen from the frowns and creased eyebrows.

He licked his lips briefly before clarifying: "Santa Claus was never one person, but there still IS a genuine line of people who take on this role. Santa Claus is a title, not a name. We never started as Santa Claus in the first place. In the beginning, we were just a small anonymous group that worked in secret, to bring blessings to deserving individuals worldwide on each Christmas. Then someone down the line was careless and got spotted by some children, and the legend of Santa Claus started. So we adopted that name as we continued with our usual business. It was pleasant knowing that the people believed in us, and even helped us in spreading joy and love on the occasion.

"However... as the world grew more advanced and more complicated, people became jaded more easily. It became increasingly hard for them to believe that somebody so magical could exist in the real world. Soon they just assumed that 'Santa Claus' was merely an excuse cooked up by adults to surprise their children on Christmas Day, and the magic slowly waned. More and more people just took Christmas to be a day for buying and giving things mindlessly. The figure of Santa Claus got disfigured and shaped in the hands of many greedy money-minded folks, and does not accurately represent what we strive for.

"The reason I have cause for concern is that I won't be playing my role much longer. My son Dominic has to be the next in line, the next 'true' Santa Claus. But given the way modern society is changing, I fear our tradition may hit a dead end at Dominic. To let such a long and treasured practice die out will be a great loss..."

Dominic stood up from his seat, next to his father. "...and that's why I've come to gather you all here. I want all of you to spread the word that Santa Claus is real. That he really does deliver blessings to well-behaved and deserving people. That he does have a sleigh pulled by reindeer in the sky."

There was silence in the room, apart from the tense breathing sounds. Clearly everyone in the audience was still skeptical about all of this. How could those two white-haired men prove that they were telling the truth?

Dominic sighed. "I know you still doubt us, which is why we brought you down here. This is our home base."

Some eyes widened.

"This is the actual place where all the operations behind the scenes occur. All the gift-wrapping and sorting, all the organising of information on the recipients, all the grooming and training of our employees and reindeer... we're giving you full access to all of that."

Were they hearing things? Surely this couldn't be the the place of legends that was only heard of from fictional tales. No way was this real. Still, many couldn't help but let their jaws drop.

"Don't worry," Dominic said, "I've already gained full permission from my father to let you see the real thing for yourselves. Just don't tamper with anything! We'll lead you to the factory first!"

Oh my.

Perhaps this was real after all.

Suddenly the guests grew excited, not because of cynicism, but due to the recent realisation that for once, the stuff of legends was quite possibly real. They were actually in Santa Claus' home base!!!

Dominic smiled. He earned their trust again.

"Everyone else is off work now, so you won't be disturbing anybody in the workplace. Follow me!"





The exploration totally beat a trip to Disneyland by miles.

It was like seeing a storybook come to life before their very eyes. The rumoured factory machines involved in the preparation of gifts, the office where Santa deals with administrative work, the other offices where the employees toil away on advanced computers, even the stable where the reindeer were kept together with the sleigh... all of that was within their reach! Rebecca especially liked petting and feeding the reindeer. Sylvia... not so much. She murmured something about her experience with a dog when she was young.

Of course other rumours were dispelled along the way. At the stables, Dominic clarified: "There wasn't one particular reindeer that had a glowing red nose. That's actually a light that we always attach onto the nose of the lead reindeer! Sorry to burst your bubbles."

All in all, it was such a blast. Even Rick, who had seen some crazy stuff in his career as a travelling DJ, wasn't prepared. But he would have to brace himself once more...

"Sorry Rick, could you come with us for a moment?" Dominic motioned Rick to come forward.

"Uh... sure. Why me?"

"There's something important to you that I'd like you to know. The rest of you can hang around for a while in the gallery!" Dominic said to the rest of the guests.

Now this was even odder. First a special secret to all twelve of them guests here, and now another secret that was only relevant to him?

Soon, Dominic, his father, and Rick were in front of a red door.

The father began: "Many years ago, on Christmas, my son chanced upon a little girl in the middle of a deserted town. She was cold, bitter and lonely. My son, unable to ignore a poor soul like that, took her in. I was initially furious at him for letting a person get into our tightly guarded base, but I too couldn't turn the girl away now. In the end we cared for her, even up until now. She grew up into a fine example of a lady, even helping out at our operations on Christmas Eves. The other employees have taken a liking to her already..."

Wait, who was this girl even, and what had she got to do with Rick?

"...however I knew we couldn't keep her here forever. She still had to go on with her life in the world out there, where she rightly belonged. But she can't go out there alone. She needs someone to help protect her, to guide her back, to give her a new direction in life... which is why you're here."

Rick raised his eyebrow. "Why me? I don't know this girl."

"Actually I think you might."

"Huh???"

The father pulled open the red door.

Inside the small waiting room behind the door, a beautiful lady was sitting anxiously, hands on her laps. Upon hearing the door open, she glanced up at Rick.

"...Rick? Is that you?"

"You know me? H-how?"

"Oh Rick! I still recognise you! I can't believe it!"

"Wait wait wait... let me think... your voice...! No way!"

"Finally you're here! All these years, I get to see a familiar face again!"

The two rushed towards each other and locked in a tight embrace. Time stood still as they enjoyed the warmth and presence of the other friend. It really seemed fated that they would meet again, despite the years of separation.

Then she slowly let go and backed away. "...but... I'm still not sure if I can go..."

"Huh? Why not?"

"...there are still many people out there who hate me and my family... I don't want to go through that again..."

Dominic stepped into the room.

"You don't have to worry about that anymore, Madison."

"H-huh? Why are you so sure? How do you know I'm still not being treated as an outcast or–"

"Because your family has been cleared of accusations. It had been resolved quite some time ago."

Emily didn't quite understand.

"You may have been too young to understand at that time, but now you can comprehend the truth. Your father was wrongly accused of embezzling money from the company he worked at that time. That was why your family was under such harsh scrutiny by the public. But your father investigated in secret, and discovered who the culprit was. Unfortunately that culprit also found that he was about to be exposed, so he sent somebody to... create an 'accident'..."

"Wait, you mean the house fire was...?"

"Somebody started the fire to wipe the evidence away. They thought they succeeded by killing your father. Your mother and brother were never meant to be involved. But eventually someone else also uncovered the truth, and the culprit was prosecuted. Your family name is clean now."

That was it. Madison could finally walk the streets a free woman, just as she should have.

"Maddie? Are you... crying?"

"I-I'm sorry, Rick. I'm just... it's that... I'm just happy I can go back. But I'll miss all the people that I've interacted with all these years here. I thought I'd just help the guys here out for a while since I was around with nothing to do each Christmas Eve, but then I started liking it. I loved it. I loved knowing that what I was doing is all part of the plan in helping out people all over the world. I loved knowing that I was helping people to believe. And... and if I leave now, I won't be able to do all of that again..."

"Nonsense!" Rick objected, grabbing her hands tighter. "You can still help out people as a normal person. You don't have to be physically helping out Santa and his crew in the factories or offices! Even spreading the joy of the holiday through simple acts is good enough!"

Dominic nodded. "That's true. We certainly can cope just fine even when you're gone, though we will miss you. It's not fair for us to coop you up here for the rest of your life. Don't fret about us! You can still help out in your own way."

Madison, comforted by these words, smiled faintly.

"Come on, it's about time you should go. The place will close up!"





At last all fifteen of them were back in the living room.

"I really hope you had a wonderful time here. It was such a pleasure having this moment with all of you friends." Dominic said, to which the guests responded with nods and verbal agreements.

He continued: "Remember, you're now tasked with the mission of spreading the word. Don't reveal my identity or my father's, just let people know that Santa's real. And you can say that for sure now!"

Dominic's father added on: "You know, you lot seem pretty good fellows. And for that, here are your rewards!"

With a wave of his hand, presents suddenly materialised into each guest's hands! They were all neatly wrapped with colourful paper, adorned with carefully tied ribbons.

The guests were extremely shocked! Santa really did possess some magic!

Catching one of them overly eager to start unwrapping, the father suddenly interrupted.

"Not yet! These are all personal gifts, and I'd much prefer if you do it in your respective homes. I don't want to do more cleaning up here, haha! Anyway, here's my way of thanking you for helping us, and of wishing you a very merry Christmas! Ho ho ho!"

That laugh! That signature chortle, not forced like those phony Santas, but a genuine laugh that expresses real joy and content. This really was Santa Claus. Well, a "true" Santa Claus, technically.

"All right, I really hope to see all of you soon! Good night." Dominic opened the front door, the portal leading back to the familiar world outside.

"Wait!" Rebecca suddenly interjected. "How would we hear from you in the future? You don't have phones, so you can't call us!"

Dominic just smiled. "I have other means. I'll still be able to meet all of you in person."

"When will we meet again?" Greg questioned. "Not all of us live in the same areas, so we'd be all over the place..."

"Like I said, I have my methods. How do you think Santa can deliver his presents to the right places so efficiently?"

"No matter how you reach us," Bertha joined in. "I just wish we could all meet again soon. I enjoyed the company of all you ladies and gentlemen, but some of us may not be around for as long as others..."

"Don't worry," Dominic replied, as he rested a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "It won't be too long before the next one. Perhaps not in the next year or two, but I guarantee we will meet as soon as I can. We all will be able to meet again for an event like this."

"Why not the next year? Is something going on then?" Matt asked.

"Well... as you heard, my father won't be Santa for much longer and is considering retiring. I'd probably be in the transition of receiving the baton from him... which is actually much more complicated than it sounds, really!"

"Hmm..." Rose wondered out loud. "What's your father going to do after retirement?"

"Me?" The father thought for a moment. "Ah... I certainly would like to just roam the streets seeing how people celebrate Christmas. All these years I had been so incredibly busy that I never got the chance to settle down and appreciate the festivities that people nowadays engaged in. Oh, and I'd like to pick up some hobbies like cooking! Without the luxury of getting free snacks from children, I have to feed myself!"

Everyone giggled. The laughter died not long after though, because the guests knew they had to leave soon. And nobody knew when they'd meet again for sure.

Chris finally broke the silence. "I don't really care too much about when or where we will meet again. I'm just glad that we managed to get together for this wonderful moment. This Christmas party – and my birthday party! – is one that I'm glad I got to experience."

"You're right," Terry agreed. "I'm already grateful that I got to see my friend again, let alone enjoy a moment like this! This memory is itself more valuable and precious than any material present. Money alone cannot provide such a priceless gift."

The atmosphere within the living room lightened a bit.

One by one the guests reluctantly greeted Dominic and his father as they left by the front door. Some got a simple handshake, a few got a comforting pat on the back, and others were so emotionally moved that a hug felt more appropriate.

Then Terry was the next guest to leave. "Snowy, I wish we could meet up more often, when you're not busy during the Christmas season. There's still so much I want to share with you!"

Dominic sighed. "Sure, why not? I don't have to work for the entire year long. We really should hang out together and chat over coffee in the afternoons."

"Yeah. You promise?"

"Promise."

"That's good to hear. See ya!"

And with those parting words Terry pranced out, towards the main road to hail a taxi back.

Finally Rick and Emily came up to the father and son.

"Dominic..." Madison spoke up. "...thank you for all these years that you looked after me. I learned quite a lot in my time here, and made connections with people who could trust in me for once. I'm really going to miss you and your crew."

"I'll miss you too, Madison." Dominic replied, before giving her one last tight hug. His father did the same.

Dominic then turned to Rick. "I hope you do take good care of her. She deserves you."

"I will. Thanks for everything you've done for the both of us." Rick smiled back.

"Good night, and merry Christmas." Dominic's father said.

"Good night."

At last the couple stepped out back onto the cold concrete sidewalk.

The door behind them closed shut.

Nothing else stirred.

Only the two of them were left, holding each other's hand firmly under the light of the lamppost.

"What now, Rick?"

"...I think we should head back to my hotel room. It's a fifteen minute walk."

"Sounds good."

And so the two of them quietly strolled off into the distance, the late night fog masking their presence. Madison once ran away from death and tragedy, towards what she thought was an uncertain future for her. Now, she knew that this future she walked towards was a bright one.

Because Rick will share that same future with her.