i.

"You must have come

From out of the blue

No other color would do"

"Out Of The Blue," Katie Pruitt, Expectations (2020)

...

Josef's Bar was more crowded than usual. Not that Georg minded- the large crowd simply meant that there was a wider variety of women for him to choose from. His practiced eyes scanned over the mass of people. Which lucky lady would end up in his bed? Or, rather, a bed in the hotel down the street? He had come to the bar to escape his family; he had no desire to sneak a companion into the villa and then sneak her out again before the sun rose. Not only would that potentially involve his parents, but it would involve an awkward goodbye in the morning. He much preferred the ability to wake up early and slip out completely unnoticed.

At the thought of returning home, Georg let out a sigh. He was home on leave and could not enjoy a second of it with his mother and father around. The two of them were nearly constantly bickering, and when they weren't, his father was complaining about his son's failure to climb the ranks of the Imperial Navy. If it hadn't been for Hede, always a loyal sister, acting as a buffer between them all, Georg would have stalked off far earlier. Tonight, however, after both of his parents had drank too much and the belligerence was relentless, he had left.

In desperate need of a drink himself, Georg wedged his way through the crowd and sat in the only empty stool at the bar. Finding a seat at all was a miracle, and he quickly asked for his customary whiskey neat. It had been over a year since Georg had been to Josef's, but the bartender's face lit up with recognition at the sound of his voice.

"Georg, my boy!" He greeted with a large, toothy smile. "How have you been? How is the life of a navy man?"

"I'm quite well, Hans, thank you," he responded. "Just home on leave for the holiday."

"Ah," Hans chuckled, "and you, like everyone else here, are wishing you were still stranded out at sea?" He slid the glass of amber liquid across the counter with practiced ease.

"Something like that." Georg grinned into the rim of the tumbler before taking a drink. He thanked Hans and watched him move quickly to the next customer, and then to the next. The skills that man possessed were truly something to marvel at.

The bell above the front door opened, alerting those inside that another patron had arrived. With a glance down to his wrist, Georg noted that it was just after nine o'clock. The bar would be closing at midnight to celebrate Christmas Eve. Whoever was arriving had odd timing- not quite early enough to be a walking disaster as he was, but not quite late enough to be slipping in for a quick drink before the holiday. Curious, Georg turned around to look at the stranger walking through the door, dressed in a stunning blue dress under her thick winter coat. As she took off her coat to hang it on the rack near the door, Georg knew.

Her.

She would be the one tonight; there was no doubt in his mind. She was stunning, probably the most attractive woman he had ever laid eyes on. And, like him, she was clearly spending her holidays alone. He wasn't sure if he could sense it out of empathy or from the melancholy expression she wore, but he knew in his heart that she would understand his desperate need to escape.

Not caring for social niceties, Georg shooed the cadet sitting on the stool next to him to make room for the mystery woman who had entranced him without so much as breathing in his direction. Thankfully, her eyes were already searching for the bar and lit up at the sight of an open stool in the middle of such a large crowd. How convenient. Georg tried to contain his satisfied smirk. The rest of the night would be routine from here: they would talk a bit over drinks, maybe staying until the bar closed if the conversation was good, and have an absolutely rapturous night together followed by his hasty exit before the sun rose.

Ever the gentleman- at least in the beginning- Georg pulled the stool out slightly to make it easier for her to sit down. She gave him a small smile of thanks and studied him for a moment. Georg resisted the urge to shift uncomfortably under her scrutiny and wondered what exactly she found so intriguing. It wasn't that he was unused to the female gaze or the appraising glance of a woman; it was that this woman seemed to be looking straight through all his pretenses and to his core.

"You look just as miserable as I do," she said finally. Without another word, she turned to the bartender and ordered her drink. The red tones in her hair caught the dim light as she moved, but Georg did not allow himself to focus on it. She had given him an in, and he was not one to waste such an opportunity.

"I don't think you look miserable at all," he replied, turning on as much charm as he could muster. "Quite the opposite, actually." When she gave him an exasperated look in response, he shrugged and gave her the half-smile that had always won over even the most stubborn of women. Still, she seemed unimpressed.

"There's no need to lie." The woman let out a dry laugh and accepted the pint that the bartender slid to her. She took a small drink before looking at him again. "I can see it in you just as you can see it in me."

Georg leaned in, wanting to be as close to her as possible.

"See what?"

"The misery." She shrugged and took another sip. "The sorrow. The wish to be both part of a large crowd and completely invisible in a place where no one knows you or your problems."

"What if I did want to know you?" Georg inched himself closer again, trying not to let the accuracy of her words cut too deep. After all, she hadn't been wrong, he had seen all those things in her from the moment she had set foot in the door.

"Do you really?" The role of her eyes and tone of her voice told Georg that she did not believe a word out of his mouth.

"Of course I do!" He blustered. At the very least, he certainly felt that she was worth getting to know, even if there would not be time for that tonight. And she would certainly need to warm up to him a little more before there was any talk of tonight. "I'll even start: I'm Georg. I'm home on leave from my service in the Imperial Navy."

If she was impressed, she didn't show it, but she did grant him a small smile.

"I'm Maria."

"And what brings you to Salzburg, Maria?" Georg was sure that she was not from the area. He had grown up here and spent his teenage years gallivanting around recklessly. He would have met her, and he absolutely would have remembered her.

"University," she responded. She took another drink. "I want to be a teacher."

"Is this your first Christmas away from home, then?" He asked. Perhaps she missed her family dreadfully but was unable to return home. Her derisive snort let him know that quite the opposite was true.

"Oh, I wish," she laughed. "I'm afraid I don't have any pleasant family Christmases in my memory."

"Me either." Georg raised his tumbler to her pint and let the glassware clink before draining the last of his whiskey. "What made you want to become a teacher?"

"Oh, I don't know," she sighed. "It just felt like what I was called to do. I had so many wonderful teachers that changed my life for the better, and I want to do the same." Georg nodded his understanding and went to ask another question when Maria cut him off. "What made you want to join the navy?"

"Hmm?" Georg took a moment to process the question. "Oh, well, the ocean, I suppose. I have always loved the sea more than anything." As always, once he had begun talking about the water, he could not stop. He rambled on about his travels, his love for the ocean, the tranquility that surrounded him on the open ocean, and how the navy had given him the opportunity to be constantly at sea. There was no more respectable way to escape his family, nor was there any career more appealing than the life of a navy man. To his surprise, Maria had remained genuinely interested in his tale throughout.

"But," he said sheepishly, realizing how long his monologue had gone on, "in short, I joined the navy for the ocean."

"It sounds wonderful," she breathed.

"It sounds like nothing you've ever heard before," he said softly. "The waves are powerful but they are peaceful, and the noise of it all is the most calming thing in the world."

"I've always dreamed of seeing the ocean," she admitted, "it seems so grand that I'm sure even my wildest imaginings don't do it justice."

"You will see it one day," he assured her. "You'll be able to walk in and swim and see the glory of it all for yourself."

Maria gave him a cheeky smile, as if she could read his thoughts.

"And drown my life's miseries in the water just as you do yours?"

"Perhaps. Though that is a long time to wait." He returned her grin, allowing the moment to linger before pouncing on the opportunity he could not throw away. He leaned closer, allowing his face to linger mere inches from her own. "Though there is a way we could both end our misery for tonight, don't you agree?"

The look on her face was rejection enough.

"I don't think-" Maria made to stand up, but Georg grabbed her wrist.

"Maria, wait," he pleaded, "I'm sorry."

She looked at him hesitantly and waited for him to continue.

"I never meant to make you uncomfortable, I just thought- I don't know what I thought. Perhaps I wasn't thinking at all." Georg allowed himself this little white lie- he knew full well that he had come to Josef's tonight with all his thoughts focused on one thing, but Maria had shifted that. He hadn't even realized the change until that very moment, but he didn't particularly care if Maria didn't want to sleep with him. He was curious as to why she would reject him- he was not so humble to deny his attractiveness, and she clearly was not repulsed or uninterested in him. She wasn't a nun, for heaven's sake! Still, he respected her wishes.

He couldn't pinpoint when or why his motivations had changed. At some point, he had stopped speaking with her just to end up in her bed, but had become genuinely interested in her as a person. He wanted to know not just about her miseries, but about her joys and her triumphs, about her studies and her dreams. She dreamed of being a teacher and seeing the ocean, but what else? He would not deny that he was attracted to her, and that he was sure they could share an exquisite evening together if she had said yes, but there was so much more to her.

"I only asked because I am so used to that being my one connection to another person. It is the one comfort I can offer myself and a woman in my short time off duty," he explained, noting the red tinge her cheeks took on as he spoke. "If that is not what would be a comfort to you, then I deeply apologize. Truthfully, I rather enjoy talking to you, and I find our conversation delightful in and of itself."

Maria sat back down, slowly perching herself on the stool with trepidation. She had been completely taken aback at his proposition- she had been so entranced by him, thinking him to be a decent man, when he had really only wanted one thing. His reasoning seemed fair enough, but she was wary.

"And what is it about me that makes you think I… That I would-"

"Nothing about you!" He insisted. "I tend to assume that most women only want one thing from me."

"Because you're so irresistibly handsome?" She smirked and cocked an eyebrow at him.

"Something like that," he grinned.

They sat in silence for a moment, neither sure how to proceed.

"What if we start all over?" Georg asked. He extended his hand to her for a formal handshake, which she accepted with a small laugh. "I'm Georg. I'm home on leave from the Imperial Navy."

"I'm Maria," she giggled, "here for university."

"And what are you studying?"

Maria delved into the contents of her courses without a second thought, and Georg was relieved to be forgiven. He could not believe how positively idiotic he had been to nearly ruin it all over his selfish habit of using sex as a coping mechanism. He hadn't even bothered to consider that her own ways of dealing with her problems might be different, or that he would make her uncomfortable by offering. He thanked God for her ability to forgive and move past his boorishness.

And that was how they stayed until closing time was announced, content in each other's company and sharing Maria's pints of beer. She was positively fascinating, and the more she spoke the more enraptured Georg became. He could listen to her speak forever. In addition, it seemed that she was equally interested in his own stories, always listening intently and asking him to explain things in further detail.

They did not notice the world around them for some time; patrons came and went and the band played on, but it was all secondary to their conversation. It wasn't until Hans came and cleared his throat that they looked away from one another and halted their discussion.

"They're playing one last song," he nodded to the band, "and then we're closed."

Georg nodded his understanding and thanked the man for all his service over the evening. He paid for both his and Maria's drinks- it only seemed fair after his earlier behavior- and helped her to stand. Gently, he placed a hand on the small of her back and guided her to the front door, where he helped her into her coat. It was a shame, he thought, that she would ever have to cover up her blue dress- a garment she had made herself, apparently. Just as they stepped outside, the band began their last song of the evening.

"Oh," she breathed. Her eyes became glassy and for a moment Georg worried that he had made another unthinkable mistake. "I love this song."

They stood in silence then, allowing the musicians to end the night with a heartfelt rendition of Stille Nacht. It had been far too long since Georg had allowed himself the simple pleasure of focusing completely on a beautiful melody. He watched Maria as she stood with her eyes closed and hummed along, wondering how he had ever denied himself the ability to indulge in enjoying music, that most basic of human impulses. Of course, he was not completely focused on the band- Maria herself was the most captivating person he had ever known. She was completely captivating. He couldn't imagine ever tiring of hearing her voice, her musical laughter, seeing her smile, or the sight of her shockingly blue eyes. Hell, even the sight of her standing contentedly with her eyes closed was one he could happily look at for hours.

With the end of the song came the close of Josef's. Georg helped Maria out of the doorway and away from the building that had become such a welcome refuge for the both of them. They walked to the sidewalk together and stood for a few moments enveloped in an awkward silence.

"Maria," he breathed, "are you sure you don't want to come with me?" There was no sense of urgency or expectation in his question as there usually was. He desired her more than anything, but he was concerned with her comfort and her respect for him first and foremost.

Her affirmative nod was small, but it was resolute. Georg reached for her hands and squeezed them, not wanting to let her go.

"Meet me here," he blurted impulsively. "In a year, when I'm back on leave for Christmas."

"Are you crazy?" Maria couldn't contain her laughter. Who was this man- and why was she going to say yes?

"Probably." He grinned and her laughter intensified. He watched her breath linger in the air for a few moments before continuing. "But I do mean it, Maria. If I survive until next Christmas, nothing would make me happier than to spend it with you, away from all of our problems."

At the mention of the danger he would be returning to, Maria's face softened and her eyes filled with concern. She pulled one of her hands from his and reached up to stroke his cheek. She wasn't sure what had compelled her to do such a thing- it was certainly the most intimately she had ever touched a man- but she desperately needed reassurance that he was here, he was alive, and he would be alright. Somehow, she felt that he needed it too.

"I'm sure you say that to every woman." Though her tone was jesting, Maria's expression told Georg that she was touched at his sincerity.

"Only one."

How was any woman supposed to resist him?

"Next year," Maria conceded with a smile, "I'll be here."


ii.

"Blue

Songs are like tattoos

You know I've been to sea before

Crown and anchor me

Or let me sail away"

"Blue," Joni Mitchell, Blue (1971)

...

Georg had never experienced any problems falling asleep. Until Maria. Before, the gentle sway of the water had been calming. Now, he was haunted by the rhythm of it. At whatever tempo the ocean set, the gentle chorus of Stille Nacht would sing along in his mind, and she would appear. Sometimes she was humming along, just as she had that night. Other times, she was simply with him, smiling at him in that way that assured him he was worthy, that he mattered, even if just to her.

Eventually, plagued by thoughts of her, Georg would fall asleep. That was when the trouble really began. In his waking hours, he was able to control his mind. There were always distractions- exercise regimens needed to be done, chores were neverending, and war raged on constantly. His subconscious, on the other hand, was quite insistent that Maria was the only thing that mattered. They were always together in his dreams. Sometimes it was innocent, and other times less so. But she was always there, always with him.

At first, Georg had been sure that the madness would end the minute he was with another woman. And he did try- the first port they docked in, he could not get on dry land and into the bed of another fast enough. He had blazed his way through the small port city in no time at all, earning many a congratulatory slap on the shoulder from his fellow officers. This time, however, he took no pride in their praise or satisfaction in his encounters. Worse yet, his whirlwind rendezvous had not cured him of the chronic thoughts of Maria.

Georg tried to rationalize the lingering feeling of emptiness that followed him as he went back to sea. Perhaps he was still shaken by the odd feelings Maria had stirred in him, or the muddled mind he always suffered after spending time with his family. Maybe Maria had affected him so because he was already bewildered by being home after being away for so long. No matter what the cause of his new infatuation, Georg promised himself that he would resolve it the next time they docked.

When he stepped onto shore in Italy, determined to put a stop to the thoughts that haunted him, Georg quickly found that his problems would not go away as he had hoped. If anything, they were worse. Now, instead of feeling empty in the throes of passion, he felt euphoric- but it was because he could not stop himself from imagining that it was her. It was never intentional, it simply happened. He felt awful afterwards each time, taking showers to cleanse himself of the disgust he felt. It was as if he had invaded her somehow in the way his mind had disrespected her wish to refrain from physical intimacy.

It was after the disastrous experiences in Italy that Georg had stopped fighting. If Maria was going to invade his mind, then so be it. Once he had accepted her presence, he found it actually became quite a comfort. Thoughts of her were a pleasant distraction, and soon Stille Nacht became a sweet lullaby instead of a haunting melody. In a way, she anchored him while he was adrift, away from home and solid ground. She was his connection to his homeland even more than his family was. In moments of pure terror and pure joy, he could almost hear her voice encouraging him, pushing him on. He fought for his homeland, yes, but now he fought for her, too.

Sex had been an escape from his memories, but it had not replaced his need for genuine human connection. Maria had been the first person in so long that he had cared about, and he knew deep down that she cared for him, too. Even if she wasn't constantly filled with thoughts of him as he was her, she cared enough to meet him again at Josef's. That was enough to get him through.


Maria, an ocean away, could not rid herself of Georg. She felt silly for it, but she could no more control it than she could control the weather as seasons came and went. There was just something different about him, something that drew her to him with a force she could not even begin to comprehend. It was mad, surely, to feel such a way about a man she had known for only a few hours, but she did not fight it. Thoughts of him were a comfort to her on lonely, hungry nights, as she lay awake wondering what he would be doing at that exact moment. Was he looking at the same stars? The same moon? Was he fast asleep? Was he alive?

She tried not to dwell too much on the last question. Georg was strong, smart, and capable among a crew of equally capable men. Instead, she focused on their short time together and the possibilities for their reunion. Though it was completely ridiculous and irrational, her intuition told her that they would indeed meet again at Josef's. It was as much a fact in her mind as the sky being blue. Her close friends at school had passed it off as madness, and she had gone along with their laughter, secretly harboring her true feelings.

Time passed her by rapidly. Her courses and homework kept her plenty busy, a distraction from the world around her that Maria was quite thankful for. She could hardly wait to have a classroom and students of her own, things she often fantasized about. There would be endless bookshelves and walls covered in the artwork of her pupils. There would be an environment to foster a love of learning within everyone who entered.

Occasionally, darker thoughts would take over. She had heard whispers about what might happen if the empire should fall. Who was to say that there would be an Austria left after the war, let alone the education system within it? If they were subject to new leadership, would they continue to allow the education of young girls that was currently mandatory? Austria had quite a progressive system of education, one that some would surely like to do away with. Was she putting in her time, energy, and heart only to have it ripped away at the end of this terrible war? What would she possibly do then?

If Maria allowed herself to imagine such a scenario, the answer was quite simple: she and Georg would escape, would sail away together, and he would steer her far from everything and everyone she had ever known. Neither of them would have any reason to stay in a homeland that had ceased to exist. And though she had never been on a boat and never seen the ocean, it was hard to imagine disliking something that Georg described with such enchantment and devotion. He seemed to be the type of man that refused to get attached to most things, but was fiercely passionate about the things he did dedicate himself to.

The question was whether or not he would ever feel such a way about her. They had shared an intense connection, yes, but it had been borne of their shared misery and poor familial relationships. And while she was sure that they would meet again on the night before Christmas Eve, would it mean anything to him? Or would it be the fulfilling of an obligation he had made after having too much to drink? There was no way for her to know, and it was futile to approach the question with any sort of logic when the entire situation itself was completely illogical. Instead, she remained at sea in her thoughts, sailing away with him to a land with no such worries to burden her mind.


iii.

"As I was walking away
I heard her say over my shoulder
'We'll meet again someday on the avenue'
Tangled up in blue"

"Tangled Up In Blue," Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks (1975)

...

The twenty-third of December had arrived faster than Georg could have ever anticipated. The past year had flown by in a flurry of activity and action- and, of course, the thoughts of Maria that had perpetually plagued his mind. Georg wasn't sure what had possessed him to ask her for a second meeting when they had met the year before. There was something about her that was different, something special that he could not quite put his finger on. Clearly, however, it was real, as it had haunted him so spectacularly that his entire year had been spent looking forward to this very day, to seeing her again.

Georg had spent his first day home on leave anxiously awaiting the dawn of the twenty-third, when he raced to downtown Salzburg and wandered aimlessly until Josef's opened. No shop displays drew his attention and no carolers held his ear as he meandered through the early hours of the morning. His shopping was all done, and he had heard Stille Nacht echo through his mind enough for a lifetime. Months ago, he had debated getting a Christmas gift for Maria- would she expect it of him? Would it be odd for him to give her something? Would it make her uncomfortable? Ultimately, he had found the perfect gift for her, and decided to throw caution to the wind. He was meeting up with a woman he had met once a year ago. There were already plenty of oddities involved- what was one more?

The moment Josef's opened, Georg took his seat at the bar. It was far too early for whiskey, so he began the day with water. By lunch, he had moved to beer, and had begun to wonder if she would appear at all. He looked at the small gift box that sat on the countertop and sighed. He had been so sure that they would meet again, just as they had promised a year ago. Perhaps he had been foolish to believe it. After all, so much could have happened in that time.

By three o'clock, Georg had the fleeting thought that perhaps Maria had been a figment of his imagination, something he had conjured up to cope with his dysfunctional family and solitary life at sea. At the same time, his memories were far too vivid to be fake. She was real, whether or not she showed up today. She had provided him so much comfort; he regretted that she would never know how much she had helped him, even from afar. She had brought him peace, had made him see the value of human connection, and had given him hope. She had anchored him while he was adrift. Even in just a short few hours, she had turned his world completely upside-down.

And then, like the song of a siren, he heard it. His heart raced its way into his fluttering stomach.

"Georg."

He could not turn around fast enough.

"You're here," he breathed. His eyes were wide as he tried his best to take in her appearance. She was far too thin- a consequence of wartime shortages and rations. But by God, she was still the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. A vision before him in the same blue dress she had worn a year ago. A frail hand reached out to him and he stood up to take it.

"I'm here," she whispered.

At the sound of her voice, so much more melodic and bright than the Maria of his dreams, a triumphant cry escaped him. Throwing caution to the wind, he picked her up by the waist and spun her around, reveling in the sound of her laughter as she floated above him. Georg set her down, not wanting to make her dizzy, and not wanting to waste any of the precious time they had together.

To his surprise, Maria was pressing her lips to his the moment her feet touched the ground. He nearly stumbled back from the force of it, having been caught off-guard, but quickly caught himself and returned her kiss. She smiled against his mouth and giggled.

"I should have done that last year."

"Yes," he laughed, "you should have!" Unable to stop himself, Georg gave her a smug grin and received a groan and eyeroll in return. He guided her onto the stool beside his own and waited for her to order her drink before launching into his tirade of questions. How was she? How were her studies? What had happened in his absence? He wanted to hear all of it.

"Slow down!" She laughed. "I think I should hear about your grand adventures first."

"We'll take turns," he insisted, happy to see her agree to the compromise.

And so it went for hours, slowly filling one another in on the goings on of their year. Georg left out the less desirable details of war, and he was sure that Maria omitted some of the hardships she had gone through living through war on the home front. Their reunion was a time to be joyous and focus on their shared happiness, not burden one another with unnecessary sadness.

It was only when her stomach rumbled that they paused their conversation and discussed the idea of dinner. Rather quickly, they decided to return to her apartment for a meal. When she warned him that there would not be much to eat, Georg shrugged it off. More than anything, it was her company that was sustenance. He was curious to know more about her, and her apartment seemed like a good place to start.

"Don't get any ideas," she warned, half-joking. He held up his hands to proclaim his innocence, making her laugh before they set off. Georg stopped briefly at his family's villa to pack a bag, not bothering to explain where he was headed to anyone, and then the pair made the journey to Maria's home.

Dinner passed all too quickly, and it was decided that it made the most sense for Georg to spend the night on the sofa so they could spend Christmas Eve together. It was an idea they had briefly discussed last year, when the current day had seemed so far away, and now neither was willing to part from the other. Christmas Eve was the day of celebration for families all over Austria, and a day of mixed emotions for those without families to celebrate with. It was decided over dinner that they would form their own family unit for the holiday. Georg could not ever remember so anxiously anticipating the festivities he usually ignored.

Christmas Eve passed in a blur- they had woken up at their own pace and enjoyed a late breakfast, something Georg's family would have never stood for. And nothing, not even a late morning portion of sausages, could have paralleled his joy upon seeing that Maria had gotten him a gift, as well. It was a validation that she really had thought of him as much as he had thought of her- something they had already discussed at length during their time together. What a relief it had been to discover that he had not been alone in the incessant invasion of his mind by their time together!

As was tradition, they opened their gifts together before Maria needed to leave for Midnight Mass. They sat together on the floor of her living room and exchanged presents, both quite nervous for the others' reaction. Georg had been enchanted by his gift- a collection of drawings and sketches of what she imagined the ocean, shore, and submarines to look like. Some were quite fantastical in their imaginings, and others were far closer to the real thing. All of them were immediately his most precious possessions.

For her part, Maria gasped with delight when she unwrapped her gift and pulled out a conch shell. He had seen it lying on the shore while docked months ago and instinctively known it was perfect for her.

"Oh, Georg, it's beautiful!" Without a second thought, she reached over and pulled him into a hug. "Thank you," she whispered. She kissed his cheek gently as she pulled away. "It is as close as I might ever get to the ocean!"

"Put it to your ear," he encouraged, "and you can hear it, too." He watched, utterly entranced, as she put the shell to her ear and closed her eyes as she absorbed the sound of the ocean she so desperately wanted to see. The image was reminiscent of her enjoyment of Stille Nacht, though Georg was sure that she had become more beautiful since then. After a few moments, she carefully set the conch down beside her and kissed him with the most passion she could muster.

"Nobody has ever done anything so thoughtful for me," she said softly. "Thank you."

"Thank you," he responded, "for allowing me to enjoy Christmas again. For getting me through this past year."

"I didn't do anything." Her modest blush only made her more endearing.

"But you did!" Georg insisted. He grabbed her hands and pulled her closer to him. "Even if you didn't intend to. Even if neither of us intended for any of this to happen as it did. I am so glad for all of it." He kissed her softly before getting to his feet. He reached down to help her up, watching with glee as she took the conch to her bedroom and placed it carefully on her bedside table.

"I need to be going for mass," she sighed. Normally, she looked forward to Midnight Mass, but this year she dreaded the prospect of going. Midnight Mass marked the end of their time together. Georg was not particularly religious, and his family had insisted that he at least spend Christmas Day with them.

Just as he had the night before, Georg helped Maria into her coat and led her outside with a protective hand placed on the small of her back, though this time his other hand held his small bag of belongings. As promised, he walked with her to the church. They strolled along in silence, not wanting to break the contentment that had settled over them for the past day and a half. Heavy snowflakes began to fall just before they arrived at their destination, settling peacefully on her nose and eyelashes. When they finally stopped on the steps leading to the church doors, Georg turned to face her.

How many goodbyes had he said in his life? How was this one so much more difficult than the rest?

"Maria," he breathed, "when will I see you again?" The thought of his imminent departure hung heavy in the air, and her eyes welled with tears. Still, she tried to keep the mood light.

"We'll meet again someday," she gave him a watery grin. She willed herself to be strong and let him go without showing her emotions. "At Josef's."

"Someday?"

"Same time next year?" Maria threw her head back and laughed. He marveled at the contrast between the relatively carefree woman before him and the downtrodden woman he had fallen for on that first fateful night.

He gave her a final kiss, hoping to express how hopelessly infatuated he was with her through his actions, and she responded in kind. When he pulled away, Georg took her hands in his and held them to his chest to make a solemn vow.

"I'll be there."

...

"Blue

Here is a shell for you

Inside you'll hear a sigh

A foggy lullaby

There is your song from me"


I hope you enjoyed! This story was way out of my comfort zone and in the future I'll likely come back and fix it up. Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan are some of the greatest lyricists of all time, and Katie Pruitt is one of my favorite artists. I would recommend listening to them if you haven't!

I am wishing everyone safe and happy holidays as we go into the New Year. Thank you all for making this past year so much brighter!