The bedroom door swung open a very small crack.
Stephen, acting on the sixth sense he had acquired since Kit had sidled into his and Ryan’s lives, stealthily removed Ryan’s hand from a sensitive part of his anatomy and pretended to be asleep. Ryan muffled a laugh in his pillow.
“It’s snowing,” Kit announced in a hushed whisper.
“Mm,” Ryan said, without opening his eyes. “It’s also six o’clock.”
“But Ryan. It’s snowing.”
“Yes, Kit, we know,” Ryan said patiently. “We also know it’s six o’clock.”
“Can I go out?” Kit said hopefully. “Just into the back garden? Pleeeease?”
Stephen saw Ryan’s eyes snap open. “Not up your tree-house.”
There was a guilty silence from the end of the bed, which Kit had crept up to. Stephen could see only a mop of pale brown hair and a pair of large, imploring grey eyes over the small mountain of duvet covering him and Ryan. “Will you come with me?”
Stephen could feel Ryan wavering, and tightened his arms around him warningly. Kit had ears like a bat’s, and if Stephen pointed out aloud that Ryan had promised him a lie-in this morning, Kit would hear and look terribly disappointed.
“Please?” Kit begged.
Ryan sat up. “Kit.”
Mentally, Stephen cursed, and subsided into the pillows, waiting for the summons to get up and jump around in the snow before there was even light in the sky.
Oh God, Stephen could hear the hope in Kit’s voice, and any minute now he was going to get up and suggest a snowball fight of his own volition.
“Come and give me and Stephen a hug,” Ryan said, “and then go and annoy Liz and Juliet. Or go to bed for another couple of hours. Whichever seems like a better idea to you.”
Stephen was temporarily stunned. Ryan liked getting up at horrible hours of the morning. He really, really enjoyed having a son who also liked getting up at horrible hours of the morning, even if that had a lot to do with that son being only ten and not yet old enough to appreciate sleeping in.
“Aww,” Kit said, contriving to sound devastated, but scrambled onto the bed anyway, sharp elbows and knees going everywhere, a picture of innocence and Spiderman pyjamas, and duly received a cuddle.
Kit scrambled off the bed. “But can’t I…”
“Not the tree-house, Kit,” Ryan said implacably. “Not without one of us there. You know the rules.”
“Yes,” Kit mumbled, and pattered out of the room.
Ryan collapsed back into bed, almost flattening Stephen. Stephen made the obligatory air-going-out-of-a-balloon noise, and kissed him. “For a minute there, I thought there might be a mandatory snowball fight.”
“There will be a mandatory snowball fight,” Ryan assured him. “In two hours’ time.”
“Plenty of time,” Ryan said. “And Kit will now be occupied elsewhere.”
“Yeah, doing what, I wonder…”
“Watching cartoons, probably.” Ryan, clearly having second thoughts about CBBC’s ability to keep Kit mesmerised for the period in question, got up and bolted the door. “Now that I’ve got your attention…”
There was a loud thud, as of a shoe hitting the opposite wall down the corridor, and a distinctly Kit-like giggle.
Stephen and Ryan both paused. The spare room was located just down the corridor, and was currently being occupied by Liz Lester and her girlfriend, who had been forced to break their journey in Bristol late last night, on the grounds that the Severn Bridge was closed and the motorways had come to a grinding halt. Kit, who was supposed to have gone to bed before they arrived (cold, apologetic and obviously still thrashing out which of them was responsible for the unexpected snowstorm) had been quietly excited to see them; he had watched their arrival through the banisters at the top of the stairs, goggle-eyed, until Liz had spotted him and one of her bright smiles had burst over her face. That had meant Kit had got to stay up another hour, cuddled up next to Liz being made a fuss of while Juliet explained the pickle they’d got themselves into and thanked Stephen and Ryan yet again for letting them stay the night.
Still, although Liz liked kids and Juliet thought Kit was the last word in adorable, neither of them was likely to be pleased if he woke them at six o’clock.
“Our son is a very literal-minded boy,” Stephen said, feeling the same jolt of astonishment he did every time he was reminded that they had finally managed to adopt Kit. “And you did just tell him to go and annoy Liz and Juliet.”
“I’m almost positive that hit the wall above his head,” Ryan said weakly, but opened the door again and stuck his head outside long enough to read Kit a short lecture on the difference between jokes and actual instructions and the importance of not disturbing guests before sending him away to watch all the cartoons he liked.
Stephen, having satisfied himself that Kit hadn’t been brained by a sleepy ballet dancer whose sense of humour was seriously impaired by involuntary early mornings, snuggled back into the duvet. “Bet you that was Juliet’s shoe…”
“Are you sure you want to make that bet?” Ryan slid back into bed and squeezed Stephen’s arse with one very cold hand.
Stephen yelped and took a swipe at him.
“Better start thinking of a forfeit, Hart. The day Juliet Sayers stoops to wearing red patent Doc Martens will be a cold day in hell.”
“I understand the terror woke you up,” Ryan said, sliding a cup of coffee under Liz Lester’s nose. They were both lounging in the kitchen dressed in outdoor clothes; Liz’s jacket was hanging over a chair to dry, and Ryan’s hat was dripping into the radiator, draped next to Liz’s hoodie. Kit was still outside, constructing the world’s most complex snowman with some of Stephen’s old Olympics 2012 kit.
Liz’s brown eyes glittered mischievously, cheeky as ever, and she stretched out her legs under the kitchen table. “No harm done. I slung a shoe at the wall and he ran away giggling, which is usually kid-speak for ‘I knew that was going to go badly and it was just as funny as I thought’. Anyway, Juliet’s probably using up all your hot water, so I think we’re even.”
“Am not either,” Juliet said indignantly, entering the kitchen. “Just because you take showers faster than is humanly possible.”
Liz twisted in her seat, grinning up at Juliet. “That makes no sense.”
“You make no sense,” Juliet retorted, and kissed her soundly. “Mm, coffee.”
Liz passed Juliet her coffee-cup. “I checked the roads,” she said to Ryan. “We’ll be able to get out of your hair as soon as you need us gone.”
“It’s not a problem,” Ryan said.
Liz just rocked back on her chair, leaning back into Juliet. “It’s kind of you to let us stay.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Ryan said. “It was you who got up at seven o’clock to deliberately lose a snowball fight with Kit.”
“How was the battle royale?” Juliet asked, emerging from Liz’s coffee and passing it back to Liz mostly empty. “I could hear it from the bathroom.”
Liz stared into the cup, muttered something that might have been ‘It’s a good job I love you, isn’t it?’ and tossed back the remains. Ryan put the kettle on again.
“Liz lost,” he said. “Or at least, she lost round one, but then Kit graciously offered her the chance to team up and beat the shit out of me.”
“So once we had Ryan on the floor,” Liz said, taking up the story, “Kit leapt onto my back and stuffed a giant snowball down my shirt.”
“Kit two, grown-ups nil,” Juliet said. “That explains why your hair’s wet.”
“Yeah, sorry about that…”
Grown-ups nil, Ryan thought, and nearly laughed aloud. In his mind, Liz was still the sharp-edged, suspicious-minded teenaged girl he’d first met, Juliet her sweeter, smarter other half. Looking at the thirty-somethings sitting at his kitchen table, still fitting together as perfectly as pieces from a jigsaw, he could hardly see the adults for the adolescents.
Kit crashed through the back door.
“Boots,” Ryan said automatically, but Kit had already come to a halt and was tugging his wellies off.
“Can I have a carrot?” he said imperatively.
“A what?” Liz said, and Juliet pretended to faint into Liz’s lap. “Don’t tell me you eat your greens now?”
“Carrots are orange,” Kit said pedantically, “and I want it for the snowman.”
“Say please,” Ryan said.
“Go on, then.”
Kit was already rummaging through the fridge. Ryan rolled his eyes at Liz and Juliet behind Kit’s back, and made another pot of coffee.
Kit hurtled back outside again, barely stopping to hop back into his boots.
“It’s worryingly hard to say no to him,” Ryan admitted. “Under the circumstances.”
Liz’s faint smile twisted, and Juliet’s arms perceptibly tightened around her girlfriend. Both of them knew about Kit’s mother. “A carrot here and there won’t wreck him,” Liz said. “Even if he isn’t eating them. He’s a good kid.”
“Yeah,” Ryan said quietly.
Juliet cleared her throat. “Can I help with breakfast?”
Ryan blinked. He’d never seen Juliet in a kitchen unless she was eating or washing up. “Er-”
“Hell no,” Liz said, flailing out of her seat in an uncoordinated fashion that in no way did justice to years of specialised training and perfectly honed skills. “Ju, you can burn toast. Ryan, how do you feel about pancakes?”
“We love them,” Stephen said without hesitation, finally making it downstairs. Ryan wondered what’d kept him – unless it was possibly changing the sheets? “But given that Tom stuck the batter to the ceiling last time, maybe not.”
“You flipped a pancake onto the ceiling?” Liz said disbelievingly, shook her head in horror and swept over to the fridge. “Never mind. I can make them, if you’d like?”
“Don’t let us stop you,” Stephen grinned, and got a sideways smile from Liz.
“Amazing how nobody ever objects to me cooking for them,” she remarked, whisking batter together. “And how Julie thinks her attempts to manipulate me into cooking for her are in any way subtle.”
Juliet, who had stolen Liz’s chair, laughed out loud. “Well, I get what I want, don’t I?”
“No thanks to you,” Liz said fondly.
“I could get used to this,” Ryan remarked. “Guests who cook for us.”
Liz grinned. “Well, we had to say thank you somehow.”
“You’ve said thank you,” Stephen said. “You keep saying thank you. And we keep telling you it wasn’t a problem. Where are you going, anyway?”
“It was going to be the Mendips place,” Juliet said, folding her arms and snuggling into a very thick pink cable-knit sweater. “And then Jamie and his new girlfriend took the place over, and who are we to stand in the way of young love? And then it was going to be Cara and Darren’s holiday cottage, but they already had guests staying there. But they passed us on to a friend of theirs in the same business who has a nice little place in Wales, so presuming we can get there, that’s where we’re going.”
“Jamie has a girlfriend?” Stephen said, astonished. Liz’s younger brother was notoriously single.
“Jamie has several girlfriends - and boyfriends, for that matter, he gets through them a bit. He just doesn’t tell our parents,” Liz said, fighting the hob. Ryan reached over and turned it on for her; there was an awkward knack to it. “I’ll be pleased if this one lasts; I keep forgetting their names.”
“You do it on purpose,” Juliet accused.
“Lies.” Liz poured batter into the frying pan, which started to sizzle. “Do you and Kit have plans for the day? We can leave whenever, essentially, but preferably within the next couple of hours. I want to leave plenty of time to get over the bloody bridge.”
“No, no plans.” Ryan took a seat at the kitchen table, next to Juliet. “Other than possibly taking his lordship to the park. We don’t need to throw you out of the house, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s what I was getting at,” Liz acknowledged cheerfully. “Also, do you want us to strip the bed?”
Juliet made a choking noise and disappeared headfirst into Liz’s second cup of coffee.
“I don’t know,” Stephen said, giving Liz a narrow-eyed look. “Do we want you to strip the bed? Bearing in mind that the sheets were clean on yesterday?”
“Yeah, you do,” Liz said. Stephen had seen that shameless grin on Lyle’s face a hundred times in the last two decades.
Juliet extricated herself from the cup, as pink as her jumper. “I’ll just, um, get on with that, then.”
She headed out of the kitchen rather hastily, and Ryan shook his head at Liz, smirking. “Keep it clean, Lester.”
Liz bit her lip on a snigger, and Stephen rolled his eyes at her. “Poor Juliet,” he said, and opened the door to yell for Kit.
“She’ll take it out on me later,” Liz said, sliding the first pancake onto a plate and pouring more batter into the pan. “Besides, you two can’t talk, I remember all through my teenage years you were –”
Ryan trod on her foot as Kit skidded to a halt just inside the house, eyes lit up at the sight of pancakes, but Liz didn’t need the warning – she’d already cut off her indiscreet sentence. “Wash your hands,” he said sternly to Kit, and when Kit hurtled off to the downstairs bathroom added to Liz, “OK, point taken. It’s just hard to stop thinking of you as an innocent kid.”
“Ha,” Liz said. “It was hard to stop thinking of you and Stephen as all-powerful conquering heroes, and then you gave my best friend a minor sexual identity crisis.” She flipped the pancake. “I think this one is yours.”
“Make it Juliet’s. Or Stephen’s, if she doesn’t get down in time. I’m not sure who you remind me of more, your dad or Jon.”
“The smart mouth could come from either parent,” Liz said thoughtfully. “The shamelessness is probably Jon.”
“You have your dad’s smile, though.”
“Given that you spent years referring to my dad as the Witch King, is that a good thing?”
“Contrary to popular opinion, your dad wasn’t always a wanker at the ARC- oh, sh- sugar.”
Kit and Liz giggled in sync. Ryan dug in his pockets and dropped a pound into the swear jar. “I’m blaming that one on you,” he told Liz, and passed Stephen the next pancake.
“Mea culpa,” Liz said without looking up from the frying pan, and turned up the heat on the hob.
“Don’t set yourself on fire,” Juliet said mildly, re-entering the kitchen in time to see the gas flames catch at a dribble of batter and lick up the sides of the pan.
“Don’t worry,” Liz reassured her, turning out another pancake in record time and slicing more butter into the pan.
Juliet handed over the pancake to Ryan, resulting in a brief tussle between Juliet’s good manners and Ryan’s bloody-mindedness, which Juliet’s manners lost. Liz finished off the batch, passed Ryan his plate and sat down with her own. Stephen turned on the radio, and through breakfast and Kit chattering they listened to the news – Stephen, Juliet and Ryan all pretended not to notice how carefully Liz listened to the item on Mali – and the weather, which told them that south Wales was expecting more snow in the afternoon.
Stephen glanced at the kitchen clock. Nine o’clock.
“I know,” Juliet said, catching his eye. “Liz, I’m ready to go when you are.”
“Leave the washing up,” Ryan said. “The roads are going to be hell.”
“Probably,” Liz said ruefully.
“We’ll manage,” Juliet said, touching Liz’s arm.
Liz took her hand. “It can’t be that bad.”
“Don’t jinx us!”
Stephen collected empty plates together and stood up. “I’d like to see the jinx that could stand up to the pair of you.”
At the park that afternoon, Ryan’s phone buzzed and he ducked behind a tree. The snowball aimed at his head shattered on the other side of his trunk, and he slipped it out of his pocket. The text was from an unknown number, signed xJ; he saved the number to his phone as ‘Juliet Sayers’ and read the text.
Made it safely. Thanks for taking us in – and sorry about Liz’s sense of humour! xJ
He got as far as Have a nice weeke before Kit nailed him in the face with a snowball and Stephen tackled him into a drift.