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With Painful Steps And Slow

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"Stephen?" Jon rapped on the frosted windowpane. The room beyond it was dark except for the flicker of firelight, and not even Stephen would leave a fire untended where it might wreck something of his. "Stephen, I know you're in there. Open up."

Squinting into the gloom didn't make anything clearer, so he jumped when a hand pressed against the diamond-shaped glass. "Jon?" asked a muffled voice.

"Yeah, I—"

The door was thrown open, accompanied by the sizzle and flash of a lightsaber. "Get in!" shouted Stephen, grabbing Jon's arm and wrenching him across the threshold with one hand as he brandished the weapon with the other.

Jon stumbled over the welcome mat, nearly crashing into the table. "What are you doing, Stephen?" he stammered, as the lightsaber arced back and forth in the direction of the forest. "Why aren't you in New York yet?"

Stephen slammed the door and, to Jon's complete lack of surprise, ignored his questions entirely. "How did you get here?"

"Walked. My cabin's only half an hour earlier than yours, remember?"

"And the bears didn't get you?"

"There aren't any bears in this forest, Stephen."

"Yeah?" snapped Stephen. "What do you think that is?"

He aimed the lightsaber.

That was when Jon spotted the shape looming at the edge of the firelight.

It was a bear, all right. A very large, very shaggy, very dead bear. It was mostly in one piece, but the silhouette wasn't quite right, as if chunks of it had been gouged away, and bits of it were glistening, the curves of muscles and organs catching the light, and holy fuck was that a human hand in the middle of it all?

"If you're going to throw up, do it in the sink," said Stephen. "This flooring was expensive."

Christmas cabin

After rinsing with a third glass of water, Jon realized it wasn't the reappearance of that afternoon's BLT he was tasting, but the smell of the corpse.

The thought made him retch again. Mercifully, there was nothing left to come up.

Taking a very small swallow of water, Jon turned to take in his companion. The other man was still keeping vigil by the door, lit with an eerie neon tint by the weapon still in his hand. His eyes were wide and hard-edged, every muscle taut.

Drops of blood were spattered across his turtleneck and knitted cardigan, one sleeve of which was rent and unraveled, the frayed cream-colored threads matted with dark red.

"S-Stephen, are you okay?" stammered Jon, voice cracking.

"What, the arm?" Stephen shrugged, though Jon noted that he only used one shoulder. "It got in one good swipe before I ran the lightsaber through it. Teach that bear to mess with opposable thumbs."

"It looks pretty bad, though. Do you want to call for help, or—"

"Don't be a pussy, Jon. A real man doesn't need help to survive one night in the wilderness with nothing but his wits and an electronic weapon of the future to protect him! Besides, the phone's out."

"Why is—" Jon stopped. "You don't have power."

"I think the bears took out the generator."

Right. The bears took out the generator. There were bears around here, and they had eaten someone, so why wouldn't they kill the lights while they were at it? And of course they were out of cell phone range. How was Stephen (Stephen, of all people!) keeping so calm about this?

"There's a landline back at my place," said Jon slowly. "If we could just get over there—"

"NO!" In two steps Stephen was in front of him, volume ratcheted up to maximum. "These creatures have no mercy, Jon! The only reason you're alive now is because they wanted to lure me out! They're godless killing machines, that one ate Elvis Costello, they would love to get their teeth in your juicy pink man-flesh, and I'M NOT LETTING THEM TOUCH YOU!"

The walls seemed to ring with the echo.

"I-I'll stay," promised Jon.

Christmas cabin

"Where's your first aid kit?"

"Don't have one. I needed the space in the bathroom closet for extra ties."

"At least tell me you have a flashlight."

"Lanterns. On the mantel."

Christmas cabin

Stephen refused to go near the fire. The smell of the bear was stronger over there.

Jon didn't push him, choosing instead to focus on getting a pot half-full of water and shoving it as close to the flames as he dared, between the two stockings labeled STEPHEN and COLBERT.

"We should cover...it...somehow," he said haltingly, trying and failing to look at the body for more than a few seconds at a time. "Do you have...garbage bags or anything?"

Now that he had the lightsaber off, Stephen was only visible as a silhouette against the faintly lit windowpane. "Under the sink," he said shortly.

Jon ended up covering the animal with four layers of black plastic, weighing the bags down with jars of flour and sugar and the globe from the bookshelf (which, true to form, didn't hold a single book) and the tacky eagle sculpture that hung over the fireplace and whatever other hefty knicknacks he could find. He used the little green-handled lantern to search for them, but tried not to shine too much light on the body until it was safely concealed.

Stephen paced the three feet between door and window.

Christmas cabin

Someone would come.

People knew where they were. People expected them to be somewhere else. Sooner or later someone would try to reach them, and find the lines unanswered or dead.

After that it would only be a matter of time until the rescue party showed up. Hopefully armed with actual bandages. Not to mention antibiotics.

They were basic cable television personalities, damn it. People would notice that they were missing.

Right?

Christmas cabin

When the pot started to bubble, Jon edged it away from the fire and approached Stephen.

The temperature dropped tangibly as he moved away from the hearth. How long had it been the only source of heat in the cabin? An hour? Two?

"Stephen, leave the door for a minute and come over here. You need that arm cleaned."

"I'm fine, Jon," growled Stephen. His teeth were clenched, but Jon was fairly sure he was shivering.

Time to pull out the big guns.

Jon looked demurely away. "So Manilow was right after all," he said, as if to himself.

He resisted the urge to look up at the sharp intake of breath behind him. "What? What does that Emmy-stealing hip-gyrating out-of-date hack singer have to do with this?"

"Well," said Jon, trying to sound nonchalant, "we were talking about disaster survival, and how cleaning injuries can really sting, and he said if you ever got hurt you probably wouldn't be brave enough to sit through the first aid. Then he said something about how you wouldn't be comfortable enough with your heterosexuality to take off your shirt, even if it was necess—"

"Shut up and get over here, already," snapped Stephen's voice from a new direction. Jon turned to find him by the fireplace, struggling with his cardigan.

Christmas cabin

Stephen winced so much in trying to shed the turtleneck that Jon finally told him to hold his arms above his head. There was a soft sound as the fabric pulled away from the wound; Jon couldn't tell if it was from the cloth or the man. Maybe both.

A couple of bruises where claws hadn't broken the skin were flowering across Stephen's chest, but the only open cuts that Jon could see were the ones on the upper arm. It was hard to see how deep they were under the dried blood, bristling with red and cream threads in a kind of demented parody of festivity. At least they were shallow enough that the bleeding seemed to have stopped.

Jon tried not to gag. "You can get a little closer to the fire," he said, for Stephen was definitely shaking now. "You're not going to need this shirt again, right? Can I use it?"

Jaw set, Stephen glared at the flames. "Do what you have to, Stewart. And next time you see Manilow, you tell him I said that."

"I will."

At first Jon tried to tear a piece out of the turtleneck, the way they always did in books, but either the book heroes were a lot stronger than he was (a distinct possibility) or this fabric was far too expensive to put up with being ripped. In the end he just dunked an unstained corner in the water, knelt behind Stephen, and dabbed at what looked like the upper edge of the scratches.

With a strangled whimper Stephen yanked away. "It's hot!"

"It's...boiling, Stephen."

"Well, make it stop!"

"I can't! It won't be sterile otherwise! Unless you have alcohol around here." (That was a safe bet. Stephen always had something alcoholic within reach.)

"You're not touching my Vintage Colbert," snapped Stephen.

"Then this is what you get. I'll warn you before I start next time, okay? But you have to hold still. You can do this." He stopped just short of saying You're a big boy.

Stephen considered this, then muttered, "Hand me a pillow."

There was a red-and-white one lying on the couch, a large C stitched on its front. Jon handed it to Stephen, who set it in his lap and rested his forearm on top of it. "Ready?"

"Do your worst."

This time Stephen didn't move, except to grip the edge of the pillow more and more tightly, as Jon daubed the excess blood away.

He had to scrub a little more vigorously at the layers encrusted with fuzz. One of the cuts split open and began bleeding afresh.

Stephen didn't make a sound.

Christmas cabin

When there didn't seem to be any cleaning left to do, Jon finally managed to tear the sleeve from the turtleneck. Pressing it against the gashes, he unwound his own scarf and tied it tightly around the makeshift bandage.

The fire was starting to get low. Jon tossed on some newspaper and scanned the immediate area for more logs. If they were out of firewood....

"I should get back to the door," said Stephen, trying to stand. "Where's my coat?"

"Stephen, don't. You'll freeze over there."

The bulky red coat was slung over the back of the couch; Stephen tried unsuccessfully to swing it one-handed over his shoulders. "Someone's got to keep watch, Jon. What if the forest rangers show up and pass right by?"

"That's why I left the lanterns in the windows. They'll come. Please, Stephen, just stay here."

To Jon's surprise, Stephen looked down at him with—was that amusement? "You're scared, aren't you?"

"What? No!" Jon let out his best dismissive laugh. It sounded pretty pathetic, even to him.

Stephen sat down, a little too quickly. "That's okay," he said, scooting nearer to Jon and to the fire. "Of course you'd be scared. Another bear might show up and get you, and then you'd be dizzy and cold and easy prey. But it's okay, Jon. It's okay."

He was gazing absently at the floor now. Jon took the coat and settled it on his shoulders, pulling the fur-lined hood up over his head. Stephen didn't look up.

"I'll take care of you, you know," he continued. "Even if...if by all rights I should let you die, if you're not strong enough...I'll protect you. You don't have to be afraid."

"Thanks." Jon put a cautious hand on the other man's knee. "I'm...glad I'm with you, Stephen."

"Of course you are," mumbled Stephen. "Who wouldn't be?"

Christmas cabin

At some point Jon remembered the food in his pocket. His own stomach was still churning too much to want it, but that was no reason to let it go to waste. "Are you hungry? I brought latkes."

Stephen perked up. "What are those?"

"...Potato pancakes."

"Oh," said Stephen. "Never mind."

Christmas cabin

They smashed one of Stephen's chairs and tossed the pieces on the fire. The smell of burning resin helped to mask the smell of bear.

The decorative blanket from the couch, entirely too small but mercifully thick, ended up draped over both of their shoulders, pulling them together.

Jon tucked the pot between them, putting it back in the fire every so often to keep it hot. Stephen leaned over it, breathing in the steam.

Christmas cabin

"I'm impressed," said Jon. "Did I tell you that?"

Stephen made a small noise in the negative.

"You taking on that bear, all by yourself," continued Jon. "And winning. That's impressive."

The reply was almost too faint to hear. "'smyfault."

"What?"

"It's my...." Stephen gulped, voice catching. "I knew it was out there, but I wanted Elvis Costello here anyway, and he was unarmed, and it...."

"Elvis Costello's in New York."

"Was," corrected Stephen. "The angel brought him here, so I could do my Christmas special...but then the bear...and she had already done her miracle for the night, so...so...."

"The angel," repeated Jon in disbelief.

"You didn't believe me about the bears either," Stephen reminded him.

Christmas cabin

Stephen fell asleep sitting up, head resting on Jon's shoulder.

At least, Jon hoped it was sleep. He didn't think it was cold enough yet to be some kind of hypothermia-induced coma. But then, Stephen wasn't wrapped as warmly as he was; and the man had lost a lot of blood.

Jon had never been a praying kind of guy. It didn't make sense that there would be a God who answered individual requests, like some kind of heavenly tech support center.

But hey, at this stage, it couldn't hurt, right?

"Listen, if anyone's up there," he began, softly, so as not to disturb his companion, "take care of this one. I know I haven't been very devout recently—or, y'know, ever—but if I still have any Chosen People cred left, I'm calling it in now. Take care of Stephen. Please."

He must have been half-asleep himself, because Jon thought he heard, as if from far off, the sound of gentle singing.

The last thing he thought before he drifted off completely was that it sounded kind of like Feist.

Christmas cabin

"Jon! Jon, look at me. Can you do that?"

It seemed to take a herculean effort to lift his eyes open, but Jon managed it. He didn't quite trust what they were showing him, though. "...John Legend?"

"That's me. Can you stand? Lean on me. Come on."

"Where's Stephen?" asked Jon, as Legend helped him to his feet.

"I've got him," said a reassuringly deep voice. "Let's get these boys to the hummer."

With an effort Jon focused on the broad-shouldered man cradling Stephen in his arms. "Toby Keith," he muttered, beyond surprise now. "Careful. His arm...."

"On it, partner."

"And the bears...the lightsaber...the angel...did you see an angel...?"

"Jon, you're delirious," said Legend. "Don't try to talk. Toby and I have everything under control. Just walk with me."

Hanging unsteadily from the man's shoulders, Jon started to move. Every muscle was stiff with cold, but they were still working. And it wasn't far now.

As Jon stumbled towards the door with painful steps and slow, he caught sight of Stephen's decorated tree. It was surprisingly tasteful for Stephen, a plain golden angel perched on its topmost bough, the rest hung with a classic assortment of colored balls and popcorn strings.

Maybe Jon was really was seeing things. Just before they left, he could have sworn the angel winked at him.