Disclaimer: The poem (in italics) is not mine.

'Twas the night before Christmas

"Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;"

Erica nearly laughed aloud at the words. The sound choked up about halfway through her throat, not able to pass the lump. She swallowed once and continued reading.

"The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her 'kerchief,"

"Mamma in her 'kerchief," Erica said aloud. She swallowed once again and blinked several times. This time, she did not go on reading. Instead, she put the tattered book down and staggered out of the bedroom. She pushed the sheet that passed as a door out of her way and staggered down the steps. A few groans met her ears but she did not hear them. They were the groans of people with no hope of tomorrow; they wouldn't move. 'Not a creature was stirring.' Erica shook her head, nearly falling when the world spun. She needed something to take the edge off, to ease the pain and make her forget.

Erica got to the kitchen and lurched towards the cupboard under the sink. She fell to her knees clumsily and started rooting around. Strong hands grabbed her wrists.

Erica glowered at the man who had stopped her. A tall man with skin so dark it had purple highlights stared back at her, eyes mild. His clothes were as ragged as hers were, his hair was knotted into dreadlocks as thick as her wrists, and he was so thin he appeared skeletal. Yet there was something commanding about him nonetheless. Erica wrote it off to his size.

"What are you doing?" he asked, voice deep and resonant.

Erica jerked her wrists out of his long bony hands, knowing she only got away because he let her. The Earl's grip was like iron.

"What does it look like?" she snapped, praying she could get him angry. People got violent and stupid when they were angry. The Earl was incredibly strong. If Erica got him angry enough, she could get out of this place, away for ever to somewhere else. No one would blame him. Erica was getting everybody angry these days; the bruises that sprinkled and swelled nearly every inch of bare skin proved it.

The Earl didn't get angry though. He just looked at her through those mild, mild eyes.

"I was getting a drink, okay? Is that alright with your majesty?" she sneered.

He just looked at her for a moment longer before slowly shaking his head, dreadlocks swaying. "No," he said. "No it is not."

Erica just glared.

"You're pregnant," he said, voice soft. It made Erica think of butter. Mm, butter, she thought to herself. How long had it been since she had eaten real butter? Or anything really that wasn't fast food or ramen? She couldn't remember it. Her stomach growled on cue and she turned her back on the Earl, rooting for the alcohol she knew was in there. It was Luke's and he would be pissed off when he found she had taken it, but she needed a drink.

The Earl sighed and captured her wrists again. "Come on," he said gently. "I'll find you something to eat."

Erica tried to jerk her hands away again. "Fuck you!" she yelled. "You don't have anything more than I do! We're both homeless, you dumb fuck! Where are you going to get food? Drop the act, you can't provide for anyone!"

The Earl recoiled. Erica kept up her angry front, but it was a struggle. That had been a cheap shot. She didn't know the Earl's real name- no one did that she had met- but everyone here knew his story. He had been engaged to a girl and had a daughter. But he had lost his job because of drug problems. He hadn't been able to find another one, not that he had looked. One sober day after all his savings had ran out and his girlfriend's paycheck had been spent, he had realized he was hurting them. He had ran away, coming here, to the slums of this city, to this abandoned house. Since, it had become a kind of safe haven for homeless people. When Erica had been thrown out of her house because of her pregnancy, the Earl had found her and led her here.

And now she had just made him draw back in shock. The surprise slowly morphed into the despair they all held. The Earl turned and left, moving slowly, hunching over as if he had been hit.

Erica stubbornly resisted the urge to call him back and apologize. She turned and finally found the bottle of whiskey. She grabbed it defiantly and stomped upstairs. The Earl was standing by the door of the room she had claimed.

"Merry Christmas," he murmured as she went inside. Erica didn't say anything, just let the curtain fall behind her.

She settled back into the corner once again and set down the bottle. She didn't much feel like it anymore. She picked back up the book and began reading again. Her eyes were drawn to a passage a little lower on the page.

"When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick."

Erica stubbornly ignored the tear as it trailed down her face. St. Nick wasn't coming for her. He wasn't coming for any of them.