The first Christmas stood out later in contrast to all that followed. Even J'onn's discomfort with the open affection among the Kent family was, in retrospect, calming to his memories when held against the awful days which came after: the invasion, the betrayal, the loss of yet another home in burning ruins. He often thought back to the pleasant winter visit with Clark and his parents, recalled the cold snow falling silently around him and the warm light spilling out into the night, and even on the hardest days, he smiled.
The second Christmas came in a sudden flurry amidst the construction of the new Watchtower.
"You've got to come," said Superman. "Ma and Pa insist." His bright smile accompanied a strong yet gentle hand on J'onn's shoulder, distracting him from his work as he reprogrammed the new monitoring systems. J'onn nearly shook the hand away, but could not bear the growing disappointment on his friend's face.
"You're coming!" said Supergirl an hour later in the roughly-decorated large area they would soon convert to a canteen. Her excitement filled the echoing space, and carried him down the transport beam to Kansas.
The Kents welcomed him with as much kindness as they did last time. J'onn had noticed many humans stood away from him now, just another alien on a world who'd grown tired of being kicked around by tougher planets. But this family was home to aliens, and always had been. Kara flew through the hallways to her own room as Clark flew into his parents' arms, and even J'onn was pulled into hugs he did not know quite how to reciprocate.
Over cocoa, while Clark and Kara had gone out to throw snowballs at each other, J'onn sat with Mr. Kent as they gazed out into the cold light. "How are you holding up? Clark had a rough time after the invasion. I can only imagine it hasn't been easy on you, either."
J'onn hesitated. He'd long grown accustomed to the lonely counsel of his own thoughts. Opening up to others no longer came as easily as it had back home, back when he and My'ria'h but had to think and know the depths of one another's feelings. Perhaps he should relearn.
"The world has changed," he said. "I have always been a stranger here. Humans have ever been afraid of those not born on these shores." He glanced at the man beside him. "Most humans," he corrected himself. "It is more difficult now that they have even more reason to fear."
"You will always be welcome here," said Mrs. Kent, coming in from the other room. She dropped another marshmallow into his cocoa and patted his hand. "You will always have one place to be where no one is afraid." Anger radiated from her, a red-hot pulse covered by her smile, and directed towards any who would cause one of hers any kind of pain.
"Thank you," he said after a long moment.
The third Christmas was crowded. Kara was on another trip with Barbara. "And some young men," said Mr. Kent with a frown mirrored on his son's face.
"She's an adult," Mrs. Kent scolded both. "She's capable of making her own decisions. And if necessary, of shoving any too persistent young fellows through a brick wall."
"You only need to do it once to get their attention," said Diana, grabbing half the hefty logs from Clark's arms as they got the fireplace ready. She looked radiant even now, covered up in warm flannel and jeans. Wally zipped out to the wood pile and back in an instant, covering the floor with a sheet of melting snow.
"Are you sure about this?" J'onn said to Clark, as their friends bustled around the Kent home. He tilted his head ever so slightly to indicate Batman sitting quietly in the corner, not sure if he should break into the usual charming demeanor he wore when he didn't have his mask. J'onn did not have to point out the other two members of their original team were spending as little time as possible even looking at each other. He only wondered which one would make up the excuse to leave faster.
"It's going to be great," said Clark. "We need this." In his thoughts, spread open for J'onn to read, Clark saw the bonds among them splintered and shredding. Shayera was back among them, but that didn't mean their team was repaired from the break she'd caused. They had to find out who they were now.
"Who wants to make s'mores?" asked Mrs. Kent.
There were no more Christmases with the Kents for some time. J'onn went among the humans to find himself, and he fell in love. Lianmei didn't celebrate Christmas. He learned her traditions instead, molding himself into the image of a new man, a created human who understood the ways of other humans.
"You're pining," she said. It was December 24th, and J'onn had idly thought now would be when they'd sit down to Christmas Eve dinner. Mr. Kent would say a prayer, and Clark would make sure J'onn got extra helpings of the best food, and after they ate Mrs. Kent would go through the family albums showing J'onn photographs of people Clark didn't know and wasn't related by blood to but nevertheless considered his family. As they waited for midnight, they'd go for a walk, or tell stories.
"I have a friend. I miss him tonight."
"Tell me about him."
J'onn could not tell her everything, but he sat back with her on their sofa and told her what he could.
It was a stroke.
Mrs. Kent called right as the team was finishing up with a situation in Metropolis. J'onn casually touched his mind as the expression crossed Superman's face.
"Go," he said. "We have things covered here." A moment passed, and J'onn turned to Mr. Terrific. "Superman and I have been called away. I will be on my comm if you need us." In another moment, he was at Clark's side, speeding through the air.
"You need a friend now."
Smallville Memorial Hospital had the best medical care available outside of a major city, thanks to a grant Bruce thought Clark didn't know about from the Wayne Foundation. The doctors were the most highly-trained in the world. The staff were all consummate professionals.
None of this mattered.
J'onn called Lianmei from the waiting room, letting her know where he would be. He walked into the ICU shrouded in invisibility; he was not considered a family member no matter what human face he wore. Mrs. Kent sat beside the hospital bed. Clark stood, flexing his fingers. The most powerful man on the planet had never been the best suited for situations over which he was powerless.
"Wake up, Jonathan," said Mrs. Kent, her eyes wet. "Please. Wake up and talk to me. Don't go."
J'onn let himself grow more substantial. Mrs. Kent's face went lost in confusion. Clark only nodded as J'onn placed a hand on his shoulder. "He is thinking of you," he told Mrs. Kent. "His thoughts are thready, but he is still here."
"J'onn, please?" This was from Clark, his face broken like a little boy's. His thoughts were wide open.
J'onn went to Mr. Kent's side and placed his hands against the soft white hair on his head. He closed his eyes and filtered out the sounds of the machines keeping the man alive, reaching in for the fading thoughts still flickering through his dying brain. He changed his shape from the human form he'd worn here to the same friendly smile he remembered.
"Martha, I'm here."
"Don't be afraid. I don't think I can hold on much longer. But I'll be with my girl one more time. Will you hold my hand? Can't seem to open my eyes right now."
Mrs. Kent took his hand. Clark stepped closer and touched his father's arm away from the I.V. tubes.
"Clark, I'm so glad you came. So glad."
"Of course I came, Pa." His voice broke. "I love you."
The funeral was cold and gray, but funerals always were, even on the brightest June day. There was no question but that J'onn would stay and help. With Kara lost to the future, the Kents needed another hand to organize the banal realities of death as they processed their own griefs.
"I'm not going," said Lianmei, but she kissed his cheek. "This is your friend, not mine. He's better with you there."
J'onn placed his hand over hers. "You should come. Mrs. Kent has said over and over you would be welcome."
"I'm going to visit my sister. We're going to spend the week in Metropolis. She's always wanted to stay in one of those swanky hotels and go shopping and out to dinner." Her face lit with amusement at her sister's whims. Lianmei herself would happily stay in every night and curl up with a book, but she was glad to be pulled behind any passing whirlwind, be it her silly sibling or her alien spouse.
J'onn arrived at the farmhouse alone, and saw Mrs. Kent's face fall. "She didn't come?"
"She sent her regrets. Family obligations."
"Well, come inside, J'onn, dear. We'll just have to eat her share of the pie ourselves. If Clark doesn't get home soon, we'll eat his share, too."
J'onn was ancient. For the past decade, he had little reason to focus on this and remember his own history. Earth was too full of faces and thoughts and lives, and he drank them into himself, finally a part of the rushing whole. Years passed as years did, though. Beloved faces grew wrinkled, and sweet-smelling hair grew grayer. Humans aged as swiftly as Martians did not.
He buried her next to her parents. Her sister covered her head, a bride to her own sorrow. His friends came, those who could come in somber disguise. Batman sent a wreath. Clark stayed with him as much as he could, his kind support and his face also untouched by time the steadying rocks to which J'onn clung in this white-capped river.
Loved ones died. Friends aged. Diana retained her youth, but Diana was a goddess. The rest were mortals, and J'onn must relearn how to spend millennia alone.
The farmhouse seemed colder this winter than in years past. Without Mrs. Kent there to keep the fire burning in the stove, and with Clark needed in the city, this warm home had fallen into chilly disuse. The rooms needed airing out. The food J'onn had brought needed to be dealt with, put away, or cooked.
J'onn had spent more Christmases here than anywhere else. Clark no longer needed to invite him, merely asked when he'd be arriving. He knew where the wood pile was, and how to set the fire. The pile was getting low despite the farmhands Clark paid to keep the farm running. He made a note, and got to work.
A cheerful fire blazed in the hearth by the time Clark walked through the door, shaking off the snow. He took a deep breath. "Something smells good."
"It isn't your mother's recipe, I'm afraid. I can't get the seasonings right." He'd spent years trying to replicate the dishes Mrs. Kent had cooked, and had no more success than he had of replicating his own favorite meals from Mars.
Clark dipped the ladle into the bubbling pot. He poured a tiny drop onto his finger and tasted. "It's close. Mind if I add?"
"Not at all."
The fire crackled, and the house filled with the aroma of good food simmering on a hot stove, now with a bit more garlic. J'onn wasn't prone to belief in supernatural beings. The superbeings he encountered were quite sufficient. Nevertheless, were he more sentimental, he'd choose to believe the shadows in the Kent farmhouse lifted with the heat and the food and their presence. Could Mr. and Mrs. Kent be here with them, their spirits surely held hands in the corner, smiling kindly to see their beloved son home.
"I didn't know if I should make enough for everyone. Otherwise we'll have a lot of leftovers."
Clark shrugged. "Diana might come by tomorrow. She wasn't sure. John says Rex is teething."
"That doesn't seem so bad?" J'onn picked up a thread of amusement in Clark's mind. "I'm missing something."
"Picture if you will a ten month old miniature ballistic weapon who bites everyone and everything within reach. They may not leave the house until summer."
"I've promised to drop by Wally's for New Year's. And well, you know Bruce."
"I do. Have you spoken with him?"
"Not lately. He'll come around when he wants to, and not before." Clark had dropped his voice into a mockery of Batman's deep tones. He returned to his own speaking voice, the genial, friendly Clark Kent rather than the savior of the world. "It's just us this year." He sighed. "Ready for dinner?"
They ate and spoke of light matters. J'onn didn't ask after Lois, not now, not after the cloud that had hung over his friend's head for months after the pair had finally parted ways for good. Clark didn't pry as to how much contact J'onn kept with his former in-laws. Old conversations and old wounds lay at their feet like cats.
"We should have a snowball fight," Clark said as they washed up the supper dishes.
J'onn paused before handing another dish for Clark to dry with his heat vision. "I'd prefer a walk, honestly."
"We can take a walk. I won't guarantee that I won't throw a few snowballs, though."
"I'll take my chances." He shifted his shape into a human form, the dour face he'd worn in the years before he'd met Lianmei. The Kents had kept their secrets well, and he would honor their memories by protecting them still.
Winter had come in with a bite. The clear sky stretched above them with no moon to block out the celestial view. Out of long habit, J'onn scanned the horizon and up until he found what he was looking for. Clark followed his gaze.
"You always know where it is?"
"No. I always find it."
"You never talk about Mars any more. You used to." It wasn't an accusation, merely an opening.
"I've talked myself out. The good times were good. The bad times lasted too long. This is my home now."
"I'd say the same, but I don't remember Krypton. I know faces, and I know stories. Feelings. But it's not the same." Their shoes crunched over the cold ground. "Tell me about Mars." Inside the request, J'onn felt his friend's sorrow, not of the lost homeworld, but of the loss of his family and the growing acknowledgement that he must soon pack up what was left of his life here in this comforting place and sell it. Another home, his real home, would soon be taken away.
J'onn opened his mind and let Clark see the red vistas of his planet in its prime. "Mars was a jeweled ruby, glittering and perfect in every construct."
They walked for hours in the freezing air, speaking of dead worlds far off in the sky. Around them, the humans who also called this town their home went about their own preparations for their holiday, their celebrations of the light even in the darkest days of winter. J'onn felt them, miles away and surrounding them, as he told Clark story after story of the best days back home.
At last, around midnight, their wanderings found them back at the Kent farm. Inside would be warm and snug, but the swing on the porch invited a sit and a stargaze under the overhang. A quilt had been tossed there months ago, now stiff with leaves and cold. Clark shook it out over the rail and placed it beneath them to act as a cushion. "All we need now are some cold drinks and for the temperature to be about fifty degrees warmer."
"Someone with heat vision could warm us up some coffee," J'onn teased as Clark grimaced.
"Spoken like a man who's never tasted heat vision coffee. Trust me. Not worth it." He sat on the swing beside J'onn and looked out into the night. "I'm going to have to sell the farm. I can't keep it up myself, not and keep my job in Metropolis, and it's costing me more to pay for farmhands than it's going to bring in."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"I grew up here. I was a baby when I came to Earth. This is my home. When I found Kara, I brought her here, too. I thought she'd grow to love it as much as I did."
"She did. She may not have said, but she felt this was her second home."
"I'm never going to see her again. I try to tell myself she's just gone away for a while, but as far as matters, she's dead. You might live long enough to see her. I've already asked Diana to look her up in that future she's gone to. But I won't."
"You might." But there was a discord in Clark's words. "Unless...."
"Found a gray hair the other day. I wasn't sure they'd come in. I didn't know if the magic meant I'd live forever, too." He made a fist. "Guess not."
"None of us are truly immortal. I am aging as well."
"You don't look it."
J'onn smiled. "Shape-shifter."
Clark laughed, a genuine and unfiltered peal that played out into the still night around them. Under his amusement, J'onn caught another thought, one he'd glimpsed before many times over the years they'd known one another. In times past, the random thought had appeared in Clark's mind and had been quickly buried under guilt riddled with other names. But there were no names to bury the returned idea this time, and there was no guilt.
J'onn kissed him. He'd become very good at kissing humans, and lacked the awkwardness of his first curious tries. He neither pushed too hard nor pulled back too quickly, but allowed their breaths to mingle as he pressed his lips against an accepting mouth. He tilted his face back and met Clark's steady gaze.
"Um," said Clark, which was not the best thing to say.
"It has been in your thoughts for some time. Apologies if it was not meant to stay there."
"I don't mind that you read my thoughts. I don't," he reiterated, letting the open ranges of his mind stay free under J'onn's careful inspection. "A little warning would be good, though." A touch of humor underlaid that thought, and J'onn met it in kind.
"Of course. A warning next time would be appropriate. Perhaps I should set up a signal, like a wristwatch or that spotlight Batman is so fond of."
Clark snickered, and tried to cover the snicker, and failed. "Something like that."
"I could ask. Would you like me to kiss you again?" The thoughts already said yes. J'onn could wait for an answer out loud.
Clark sighed. "You're one of my closest friends. You're the only other person on this planet who understands what it's like to be the last of your kind. I treasure our friendship."
"As do I." He leaned a little closer to Clark on the swing, catching his radiant heat. Clark was the sun, and J'onn was more than a little bit plant. Part of him felt he'd been drifting this way ever since he first sent out his mental cry for help and his plea was answered by this good man.
"I wouldn't want to do anything that would jeopardize our friendship. If you … kissed me," there were more thoughts under the word, thoughts he'd kept even more tightly shuttered away whispering of tangled shapes in the night and two beings of great power locked in an ever-shifting embrace, "we wouldn't be friends any longer."
"That doesn't have to be the case." He stood, and took Clark's hand, leading him reluctantly into the farmhouse. The fire burned low, unattended. The air held the heat from earlier, cozy and intimate. J'onn nodded to the photograph on the mantle: Clark's parents on their wedding day, Martha beaming, Jonathan not believing his own luck. "Who was her best friend?" J'onn asked.
"Well, Pa was, of course."
J'onn took his other hand. "Of course," he echoed and he leaned in, letting Clark close the last inch between them for another kiss.
There would be time for more, much more. There would be time for Clark to offer the farm to J'onn, and for J'onn to surprise himself when he accepted the gift. There would be time to allow the rest of their created family in on the news. There would be time for J'onn to pick a human face to keep whenever the door knocked, or when the newest stray alien or otherwise stood on the porch of a home that had known the tread of many orphans. The face would always smile, just a little, like someone who'd discovered a wonderful secret, and would smile wider as the wind whipped up suddenly heralding a blue and red star flying like a comet towards home.
But now was saved away special as time for just the two of them, here in front of the dying fire in the wee hours of Christmas Day.