The cabin door swung open, letting a cloud of smoke billow out into the frosty Boxing Day afternoon.
"Jon!" exclaimed the smoke. "Thank Kristol you're here. Come on in."
Kicking the snow off of his shoes, Jon hiked his scarf up over his mouth and nose and forged through the choking sootiness. "Everything okay in here?"
"Fine! Just fine! Everything is totally under control." The smoke began to clear, revealing a disembodied Cheshire-Cat grin. "Oh, and keep to the left, or you'll slip on the custard."
With baby steps Jon obeyed, blinking his stinging eyes until the cabin came into focus. The main room was bedecked with red and gold, strewn across the floor and slathered from every fixture, giving the general impression that some holiday had drunk too much eggnog and thrown up all over the walls. But at least it looked warm.
"So nothing's on fire?" he asked hopefully, unzipping his thick down coat.
"What? Oh, this!" Stephen waved the last of the fumes out the door and swung it closed with a festive jingle. "Mattie decided to put one of our nice holiday plates — the ones with the gold leaf around the edges — in the microwave. He's in his room now, of course, thinking very hard about what he's done. No, the only fire here is in the fireplace."
He jerked his thumb proudly in the direction of the crackling logs.
Jon followed the gesture, then let out a yelp. "JP!"
Stephen whipped around to spot the toddler: a wondrous smile on his face, one hand planted on the stone step, the other reaching for the dancing flames.
With a gasp Stephen took two flying steps towards his son — and planted one heel squarely in what could only have been the custard. In the next second he left a two-foot yellow skid mark on the floorboards before landing flat on his back with a painful, and somewhat squishy, thud.
Jon was already on the move. Still obediently bearing left, he made a wide circle of the room, rounding the table and the couch as quickly as he could with legs still packed in plush snow pants. The rug in front of the fireplace was thick and sturdy; he slowed, dropped to his knees, and scooped up JP without slipping an inch.
The toddler giggled as he was lifted into the air. "Hihi, Mistah D'on!"
"Hey, kiddo. Good to see you." Shifting JP's weight onto one hip, Jon returned to his fallen friend, taking care to stop short of the spill. "He's okay, Stephen."
"L-Lorrie was supposed to watch...." Stephen's trembling voice shot back up to full strength when he broke into a shout: "LORRIE! WHY AREN'T YOU WATCHING YOUR BROTHER?"
He was met with a matching, if slightly shriller, yell from somewhere upstairs: "THAT'S MOM'S JOB! IT'S NOT MY FAULT SHE LEFT!"
Stephen went very still.
"Tell you what," said Jon quietly. "You go change and get yourself cleaned up, and I'll wash the floor and keep an eye on His Holiness for a while. Sound like a plan?"
"What?" Stephen blinked a few times. "I...yes. A plan. That sounds like one."
JP chortled and pointed as his father headed for the stairs, back splotched with custard from his hair to the fur-choked rim of his boots. "Dada's a mess!"
"That's right, kiddo," murmured Jon, cupping one hand over the child's outstretched finger and drawing it back to his side. "Your dad's a bit of a mess."
Stephen paused on the top step, still toweling off his damp hair, when he heard an unfamiliar noise.
With practiced ear he ran down through a quick checklist. Did it sound like a bear? No. Did it sound like some other kind of threat? No. Did it sound like a cheering audience? No, but you can't have everything.
Halfway through his cautious descent, the source of the mystery became horrifyingly clear. Jon was on his hands and knees, crawling around on the floor, while Matthew straddled his back — hands grasping the ends of a scarf, which was held in Jon's mouth — and laughed. Laughed! (No wonder Stephen hadn't recognized the sound.)
"Hey!" barked Stephen, taking the rest of the stairs two at a time. "HEY! Off! You know better than to treat Mr. Jon like that!"
Matthew jumped from Jon's back so quickly that he nearly tripped; Jon rocked back into a kneeling position, spat out the scarf, and held up his hands. "Stephen, it's okay. We're just playing."
"Just because you're okay with it doesn't make it okay!" cried Stephen. "You can't go around letting people ride you like a fairground pony! It's — it's undignified!"
"Pleeeeeeeeeze, Mr. Jon?" interrupted Matthew, clasping his hands hopefully and bouncing up and down at Jon's side. "Please, can we play cowboys an' horses more?"
"Not my call, buddy." Jon patted the boy's shoulder. "What your dad says, goes."
"But you're his boss!" protested Matthew. "You can make him say it's okay!"
Stephen's blood turned to ice in his veins. Damn those kids' incessant logic! Why hadn't he asked Tad or Bobby over instead? Okay, the judge had made him sign that statement promising never to invite Tad to the cabin again, and Bobby was stuck as a ghost until they got that pesky time-travel snag sorted out, but surely there was someone he could have—
—except Jon was shaking his head. "At work, I'm the boss," he explained to Stephen's pouting son. "But at your house, he's in charge. So why don't you ask him what we should do next?"
And then all eyes were on Stephen. Even JP, who had been sitting safely out of the way of the impromptu rodeo, stopped sorting colorful shapes into a box full of matching holes to look up at him expectantly. (Stephen had always disapproved of that particular toy — if he wanted to put a triangular peg in a star-shaped hole, that was his right as an American — but at least it kept the kid busy.)
"Um," said Stephen. "How about if we...uh...bake cookies?"
The boys cheered in unison; Stephen let out a sigh of relief. (Only an internal one, though. You can't let kids see weakness.) "Great! Mattie, get the eggs, butter, and milk out of the fridge. JP, can you find a mixing bowl? Remember, they're in the bottom cupboard. Jon, the flour and sugar...actually, those are on a really high shelf. You'd better just help JP."
Once his underlings were in motion, Stephen turned to the bookshelf, digging through the plastic Santas and bottles of aerosol pine scent for the one genuine book of the lot. (It had been his grandmother's, and the only words in it were about old-fashioned home cookin', so he figured it was safe.)
As his fingers closed around the spine, he looked back up the stairs. "LORRIE! WE'RE BAKING COOKIES! DO YOU WANT TO HELP?"
"YOU SAID WE COULDN'T MAKE COOKIES THIS YEAR!" came the answering yell. "YOU SAID WE WERE ALL GETTING FAT!"
"I CHANGED MY MIND!" hollered Stephen. That was his prerogative, wasn't it? And why should anyone complain, when they got cookies out of the deal? "ARE YOU COMING OR NOT?"
Stephen took a few deep breaths, plastered on his broadest smile, and spun around to face the non-traitorous members of his family. "Guess it's all up to you guys, then. Pick a recipe. Any recipe. As long as it has enough butter and sugar to send a moose into cardiac arrest."
It ended up being Jon who did most of the baking. After vigorously mixing the dry ingredients, Matthew got distracted by the need to have a lightsaber duel; spotting an opportunity for father-son bonding, Jon urged Stephen to be his opponent. JP, meanwhile, ended up fully absorbed in the task of making handprints in the flour Matthew had spilled all over the table.
By the time the warm sugar-cookie smell began to waft across the room, Matthew was exhausted enough to sprawl in front of the fireplace. Stephen actually made it to the couch before going limp; he was still sitting upright, but barely.
"All right, Your Holiness, let's get you cleaned up." Jon scooped up JP from his booster seat and carried him over to the sink. The toddler dutifully started scrubbing his hands together under the running water, and Jon scrambled to add soap into the mix.
"Good job!" he said at last, swinging JP down to dry his hands with the nicely warmed towel hanging on the oven. "You want to go play with something now?"
The boy started to squirm. When Jon set him on the ground, he didn't head for the scattered toys on the far side of the room, but marched purposefully over to the rug in front of the fireplace and stretched out (as much as a two-foot-high child can stretch, anyway) in a perfect imitation of his brother.
Hiding a smile behind his fist, Jon gave the table a quick wipedown and joined Stephen on the couch.
"Mmrgh," mumbled Stephen, sliding down the cushions until his head landed on Jon's shoulder. "Smells good."
"That'd be the cookies."
"May want to save them for tomorrow, though," added Jon. "Don't want to get the boys hopped up on sugar just when they're finally winding down."
Stephen dragged a star-spangled pillow onto Jon's lap and draped his own arm across it: not exactly cuddling, but not too far from it, either. "'m sure we can handle it."
"Gonna be all on you for a while," Jon noted. "I've got to get back to my cabin soon."
"Wha—?" Stephen sat up a little, shaking his head and blinking cobwebs from his eyes. "I mean — of course, of course you do. No problem. Anything else happens, I can just deal with it on my own."
Jon rested a hand on top of Stephen's and squeezed. "I'm sure you can."
Stephen checked out the window while Jon zipped up his coat. "Not snowing yet," he announced. "But it looks like it got pretty cold."
"That tends to happen at night," observed Jon wryly.
"Well, I can't let you go out in that frail ensemble," declared Stephen, running a derisive eye over Jon's puffy blue coat, bulky black snow pants, tall boots, and padded gloves. "You'll turn into a Jewsicle three steps from the door. Hang on."
Rummaging through the front closet, he came up with a knit Colbert Nation hat (a design rejected by the US Olympic Speedskating Team for being "not aerodynamic") and an overlong woolen scarf (looking like something the Fourth Doctor would have worn, not that Stephen was the sort of geek who kept track of this sort of thing). Jon obediently held still while Stephen centered the logo on his head and carefully wound the scarf around his neck.
"It's not a gift," he added brusquely, looping the ends of the scarf around each other and letting his hands linger over Jon's chest for just a moment longer. "Only a loan. You have to bring them back."
The lower half of Jon's face was entirely covered by scarf, but the shape of his eyes told Stephen that he was smiling. "See you tomorrow, Stephen."
There was a sudden pitter-patter of little feet, and Jon's legs were accosted by two fun-size tornadoes. "Bye, Mr. Jon!" exclaimed Matthew, latching onto one knee. "Thanks for the cookies!"
"Bye, Mistah D'on!" echoed JP, clinging to the other.
While Jon was obligingly ruffling their hair, Stephen turned to the stairs. "LORRIE! MR. JON'S LEAVING FOR THE NIGHT. YOU WANT TO SAY GOODBYE?"
"NO!" came the answering shout.
Stephen was starting to run out of patience. "SUIT YOURSELF!" he snapped. "SEE IF WE GIVE YOU ANY COOKIES!"
Jon didn't even make it to the front porch the next morning before a snowball hit him in the face.
"Mattie!" snapped a half-finished snowman. "You apologize to Mr. Jon right now!"
"Sorry, Mr. Jon," said Matthew dutifully, as Jon swiped flecks of ice from his cheeks and eyelashes. "Daddy said I couldn't throw snowballs at JP, either, so we're makin' snowmen to fight with instead. Wanna help?"
"Don't worry," added Stephen, standing up from behind the snowman. "I've made sure he understands that this doesn't mean he can just go around throwing things at white people."
"Sounds good to me." Jon took a few more careful steps up the slippery walk, then gave up in favor of wading directly through the yard.
It was a morning straight off of a Christmas card, the forest awash in cold, clear sunlight. The recent snowfall was deep, clean, and just damp enough to pack perfectly; Matthew even managed to sculpt a snout and a couple of beastly ears on the round white head before Jon and Stephen hefted it onto the snowman's neck. JP was working on a creature closer to his own size; Stephen insisted it was going to be an eagle, though Jon privately thought it looked more like SpongeBob.
"There!" declared Matthew, sticking a couple of carrot sticks in just the right position to be snow-creature fangs. "He's scary! I'ma get 'im a pitchfork, too!"
He sprinted off with surprising agility across the yard, heading for the woodshed. With a whimper of frustration, JP toddled after his brother as fast as his legs would carry him.
It wasn't nearly fast enough to catch up — but it was more than enough for him to slip on the ice, going down with a wail of surprise and a terrific crack.
Jon had taken a half step towards the child when Stephen grabbed his arm. "Don't!"
"Needs to learn to pick himself up by his own bootstraps," muttered Stephen, barely audible over the sobs. "Can't do that if you run to him every time he cries."
His teeth were gritted, his voice wavered, and he wasn't meeting Jon's eyes.
"Stephen," said Jon softly. "Go to your son."
For a split second Stephen's face was a Jack Frost etching of heartbreak — and then he leaped across the snow to kneel on the path and fold JP into his arms.
Nothing was bleeding.
But of course, that was hardly unexpected. Given how well-padded JP was, he probably wouldn't even bruise. So what was the kid wailing about? He had probably hurt the ice a lot more than it had hurt him.
Still, as Stephen cradled the crying boy, one of the knots in the pit of his stomach began to untwist.
"Shh," he murmured cautiously, trying to figure out what emotions he was loosening in himself, and whether they were the good kind, the gut-kind, or the kind that you were supposed to suppress at all costs if you didn't want civilization to fall apart. "It's okay. You're okay. Daddy's got you."
JP's sobs rapidly dwindled to sniffles, and whatever this feeling was that Stephen was having, it was making the air feel less nippy.
Snow crunched behind them. "Don't look now," said Jon, "but somebody's finally come downstairs."
Stephen's head whipped up to see a blurry figure moving behind the frosted windowpanes.
This time it was Jon's hand on Stephen's arm, holding him in check. "She's probably just getting something to eat. Better not crowd her. She'll come find us if she's ready."
"I gotta pitchfork!" announced Matthew brightly, rounding the corner of the house with his prize in his hands. It was, technically speaking, a rake, but you could hardly expect a kid who had been raised by a leafblower enthusiast to be fluent in the finer points of gardening implements.
"Good going, Mattie," declared Stephen. "You help Mr. Jon set it up, okay?"
He turned back to the cabin, but Lorrie was already gone.
Jon balanced the tray in one hand and knocked lightly with the other. "Anybody in there?"
"Go 'way," snapped a sullen voice from inside the room.
"I brought milk and cookies."
"I'll leave them outside the door, then. Just in case."
He kept his ears pricked as he went back down the hall, but if Lorrie retrieved the offering, she waited until he was well out of range.
"When did you get so heavy?" muttered Stephen.
JP drooled on him.
Not that Stephen would have expected a more intelligent answer even if the kid hadn't been in the middle of his afternoon nap. Of course, the sensible thing to do would be to carry His Holiness up to the boys' bedroom and deposit him in his crib, which was built to take the weight. But for some reason Stephen didn't feel like letting him go any time soon.
The back of the couch creaked as Jon leaned his elbows on the afghan. "I've got to get back to my place early today," he said in a low voice. "Videoconference at four, and I promised my mother I'd call her after dinner. You want me to put anything in the oven before I go?"
"Hm? No, it's okay. I'll just make...sandwiches." Yes, that sounded good. Sandwiches were easy. You couldn't possibly screw up sandwiches.
"Good plan." Jon patted Stephen on the shoulder, then brushed a stray lock of hair (blonde, like his mother's) out of JP's face. "You get some rest too, you hear?"
"I'm sleeping fine, Jon," grumbled Stephen. "Don't forget your scarf."
Between the clank of dishes in the soapy water up to his elbows and the raucous chorus of "We Are Santa's Elves" from the TV that had the boys completely absorbed, Jon didn't hear the sniffling.
Then, as he glanced up to check how much counter space was left for drying silverware, he spotted the tear tracks streaking down Stephen's face.
"You want to talk?" he murmured.
Stephen shot him an angry look, opened his mouth, and promptly choked. Clamping his mouth shut, he grabbed a dishtowel and dabbed fiercely at his cheeks.
Jon let the washcloth fall into the sink and flicked the bubbles from his hands.
"Come upstairs and sit with me for a few minutes," he said. "You don't have to say anything. Just sit."
No sooner had they taken a seat on the edge of the guest bed than Stephen grabbed a pillow and buried his face in the softness, just in time to muffle the first of a rush of sobs.
Jon silently rubbed his shoulders, and Stephen had to battle the urge to cling to him instead of the pillow. Never mind that he was just as soft. And just as fuzzy. And probably a whole lot warmer.
Fight it, Col-bert!
"This can't be easy," offered Jon after a time. "But under the circumstances, I think you're holding up pretty well."
"No, I'm not!" wailed Stephen. "Everything's falling apart!"
"Oh, come on, that's an exaggeration—"
"Is it, Jon? Is it? My daughter's locked herself in her room, my boys are running wild — my baby would have caught on fire if you hadn't shown up — I don't know how to cook, I don't know how to clean, I don't know anything about kids — and I don't think she's coming back this time!"
He hadn't meant to say that last part. Crafty little bastard jumped off his tongue when he wasn't paying attention.
Jon was shocked enough to stop with the backrub. "You really think it's that bad?" he asked faintly.
"It's Christmas, Jon," croaked Stephen. "She wouldn't leave the kids over Christmas unless she meant it."
"Good point," admitted Jon. (The one time it was the last thing Stephen wanted to hear.)
At last Jon got back to rubbing his shoulders, and Stephen realized that this could be the end of it. All he had to do was keep quiet, and let Jon soothe him until his throat wasn't so choked and his face was presentable, and then they could go back downstairs and watch some holly-jolly stop-motion holiday specials until their brains melted into pleasantly unthinking lumps with the approximate consistency of figgy pudding.
"She thought I was having an affair," he said instead.
Damn those sneaky phrases. Ought to look into putting a border fence around his mouth.
When Jon replied to this one, his words were even slower and more cautious than usual. "Stephen...I hate to ask this, but...."
Stephen squinted at him in bewilderment, then realized he had left out an important detail. "Jon. She thought I was having an affair with you."
"Oh." Jon blinked several times. "Um. I guess you weren't, then."
"No," huffed Stephen. "And I wasn't with anyone else, either! One-night stands aren't affairs!"
Jon was speechless with agreement.
"I don't even know where she got the idea!" continued Stephen frantically. "Just because I talk about you a lot, and always call you first when I need something, and used to keep one of your shirts under my pillow until she found it and took it away, doesn't mean I'm letting you pound me into the wall after tapings!"
Too much, Col-bert! Way too much!
Shaking off Jon's touch, Stephen jumped to his feet. "Well, that's enough talking for today!" he half-shouted. "Better get back downstairs before the show ends. Sure, Rudolph managed to save Christmas every year before now, but you never know!"
Jon lathered up his hands with cinnamon-scented soap (he was getting so desensitized to the ubiquitous holiday cheer, he hadn't even batted an eye at the candy-striped toilet seat cover) and stared hopelessly into the mirror.
"What am I supposed to say to that?" he muttered. "Hell of a conflict of interest you've gotten yourself into, Stewart."
He took a couple of swipes at the towel (pine green, with a gold-and-white angel embroidered in the corner) and opened the door to find Matthew standing patiently in the hall.
"Whoa! Sorry, buddy, didn't realize I was keeping you waiting. It's all yours."
Surprisingly, the kid didn't barrel past him at top speed, or indeed any speed at all. He just stood in the hallway, fidgeting. "Mr. Jon?"
Sinking into a crouch, Jon met Matthew's eye level. "Something you want to ask, Mattie?"
"Uh-huh." The boy worried the hem of his Property Of Colbert Nation sweater. "Are you gonna pound my daddy into a wall?"
Jon smothered an incredulous laugh.
"Oh, geez," he stammered, running a hand through his hair. "That was...you weren't supposed to...ah-heh. Listen, Mattie, I, uh...I care about your dad, okay? I care about him very much. And the last thing I want to do is see him, or one of you kids, get hurt. So you don't have anything to worry about. All right?"
Matthew promptly tackled him in a full-body hug. "Thanks, Mr. Jon!"
Thus relieved of one burden, he scampered into the bathroom and slammed the door, leaving Jon alone with his whirling thoughts and Stephen's voice echoing up from the living room: "DON'T SLAM DOORS!"
"Stoppit, JP! That's my truck!"
"Wanna play wif you!"
"HEY! Enough! Or I'll take all the commercial vehicles away from both of you!"
As he wrestled the oblivious boys apart, Stephen sent up a silent prayer of thanks. Jon had just come back from the latest round of his cookies-for-Lorrie mission, and getting kicked in the ribs gave Stephen an excuse to not look the man in the eye.
"Need any help there?" called Jon over the scuffle.
"No, I'm — oof!" How was he going to do this when the kids got too big to pin? "Hey, Jon? How would you feel about a sleepover?"
"For Mattie!" interrupted Stephen, startling Matthew enough that he actually stopped squirming. "He's been asking about your place. Would you mind having him over?"
Tentatively he lifted the arm holding Matthew in place, and the boy left his brother alone to sprint across the room, a missile targeted at Jon's leg. "Can I, Mr. Jon? Can I, can I, please please pleeeeeeeeze?"
"All right, all right!" laughed Jon. "Go get your coat."
Matthew let out a whoop and tore off in the direction of the closet, while Stephen used his newly freed arms to scoop JP up onto his hip. "There," he muttered. "You might have run off with a scarf, but you definitely have to come back to return my son."
"You don't have to worry, you know," protested Jon softly. "I'll always come back."
Holding the halfheartedly-wriggling JP in front of him like a shield, Stephen turned his most defensive glare on Jon. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Jon appeared to be struck with a sudden case of the fidgets. "It means...we need to talk. Uh, obviously not right now. Tomorrow, maybe. Point is, in the meantime, I'm not going to disappear on you. Sound fair?"
"Fair," echoed Stephen. Then, under his breath, "Thanks."
Jon's cabin wasn't nearly as lavishly decorated as Stephen's, but as far as Matthew was concerned, it might as well have been a treasure trove. It was a good half hour after his scheduled bedtime before Jon finally managed to corral him into the guest room, and even then he insisted on inspecting all the dresser drawers first.
"There's nothing interesting in there, I promise," said Jon bemusedly. "Just a couple of old blankets."
"Can I use this one?" enthused Matthew, pulling out a swath of white fabric with an embroidered blue-and-silver candle print around the edges.
Jon was pretty sure that was actually a tablecloth, but he was equally sure that the kid couldn't care less. "All yours."
"All right!" exclaimed Matthew, dashing over to the big oak bed with the cloth trailing behind him like a cape. "All mine. My stupid lil' brother doesn't even get to know about it!"
"Hey now," chided Jon, untucking the quilt just in time to make a space for him. "Your brother's not stupid."
"Is so." Matthew bounced onto the mattress and folded his arms. "He's always followin' me around and copyin' everything I do."
"Well, that's just because he looks up to you."
"But it's annoying! Why can't he stop?"
"He'll probably get less annoying as you get older," Jon assured him, taking a seat at the foot of the bed. "But he'll never stop looking up to you. Look at me — I'm in my forties, and I still call my big brother for advice sometimes."
Matthew's eyes got very wide. "But you're on TV! An' Daddy says you can do anything!"
"Uh, that's a bit of an exaggeration," stammered Jon, trying not to get completely blown off course. "I can do...a lot of things...when it comes to, um, TV stuff." (Stephen said what?) "But my brother, he works in finance."
"It's...like banking. Stuff to do with money. Point is, earlier this year, I had an interview with a man who also works in finance. It was a really big important interview, and I knew I couldn't make any mistakes. So you know what I did?"
No studio audience had ever been this attentive. "What?"
"I called my big brother." Jon smiled as he tucked the kid in. "And he explained it all to me. I never could've done it without him."
"Wow," breathed Matthew.
Jon was about to say good night when the kid sat back up and rapidly scanned the room, with all the attentiveness of a prairie dog checking for hawks. Then he leaned forward and stage-whispered, "Can I tell you a secret?"
Bending down, Jon dropped his voice to match. "Sure."
Cupping his hands around his mouth, Matthew pressed them against Jon's ear. "When Mommy and Daddy are together, they yell a lot!" he confided. "I wish they were on their own more, so they would yell less!"
Stephen was listening intently to Matthew's account of the night ("an' the bed was this big an' he's got a big brother an' we had special pancakes!") when his phone launched into the Star Wars theme. "Hold that thought, Mattie. This might be important."
He didn't recognize the number, or the voice that greeted him as "Mr. Col-bert." "We don't want any," he said briskly, and hung up before the caller could get to her pitch.
Thirty seconds later, the music started again. "I told you," snapped Stephen, grabbing the phone, "whatever you're selling, we don't—"
"I'm your wife's lawyer, Mr. Col-bert," interrupted the woman on the other end. "Are your children present?"
Out of habit Stephen stuck out his jaw and squared his shoulders. "Of course they are, madam," he snapped. "And perfectly fine, no thanks to her."
"Is Mommy on the phone?" whispered Matthew loudly.
"Mommie?" echoed JP, who had been occupied with a game of his own under Jon's watchful eye.
Stephen waved for quiet, trying to follow the stream of legal jargon over the uneven thumping of the toddler's approach and the anxiety rolling off Matthew in nearly palpable waves. "I'll be back at my residence after New Year's. Yes, I have a lawyer. Well, how am I supposed to know that before I talk to him?! ...What? Yes, of course." He covered the receiver with his hand. "You want to talk to your mom, Mattie?"
Matthew did a perfect imitation of Stephen's trademark-pending grabby-hands, and Stephen's gut was flooded with a rush of pride so intense he thought he might break.
"Brought more cookies," announced Jon, leaning against the wallpaper. "From my secret stash. Your brothers tore through the rest pretty quickly."
"Don't want 'em," snapped Lorrie through the door. Earlier that day she had opened it a crack to let Jon pass the phone through, but it had remained shut fast before and since.
"Is there anything you do want, then?"
"Nothing you can get me."
"Are you sure about that?"
That touched a nerve — or maybe snapped one that had long been fraying. "Shut up! Of course I'm sure! Why do grown-ups always think they know everything? You don't! You have no idea what I'm going through!"
"My parents divorced when I was eleven," said Jon flatly.
The diatribe cut off mid-shriek.
"You're right," continued Jon, struggling to file the edge from his voice. "There's a lot I don't know. Sometimes...sometimes people fall apart, and I don't know how to put them back together. Cookies and milk sure as hell don't do the job."
He swallowed, ignoring the insistent burn in his sincerity muscles.
"But I do know they're better than nothing."
"One of my shirts, huh?"
"One of the grey ones," murmured Stephen. "Wasn't like you'd miss it."
Even without looking at the other end of the couch, he could hear the wry smile in Jon's voice. "Got me there."
The fire was roaring, lighting up most of the room all by itself, but it didn't seem to be making Stephen any less chilly.
"It's not...that I would mind," added Jon haltingly. "Leaving shirts at your place more often, I mean."
Stephen's heart skipped a beat. "But...?"
"But...I'm not going to be the other woman." Jon had picked up a candy cane from somewhere and was turning it over in his hands, red and white flickering at the corner of Stephen's eye. "I'm not getting involved until it's finalized. Besides, you have a lot of really emotional legal stuff to deal with...property, custody. You can't go starting a relationship while your focus needs to be on working that out."
"Won't take long," muttered Stephen. "She thinks all my favorite stuff is tacky. And I'll probably just give her full custody and be done with it."
"Whoa, hey, bad idea!" burst out Jon. "I know the past few days been rocky, but you're getting the hang of this — besides, you're not a quitter, you can't run out on your children just because things aren't perfect, you can't—!"
He broke off, shaking.
Stephen bit his tongue. He wasn't going to say it. He wasn't.
"...Sorry," said Jon at last, the words falling dully on Stephen's ear. "It's not my decision. I know. But, listen, no matter how this all shakes down, your kids are going to need you."
"They're not my kids."
Jon caught his breath.
Stephen tried to drown as much of himself as possible in the background noise: the crackling flames; the wind through the pines; the splashing in the tub upstairs. (No, the splashing only made it worse. Why was there never a cheering audience when you needed it?)
"JP definitely isn't," whispered the sliver of Stephen that was still in the room. "We hadn't, y'know, done it for months. The others were closer, close enough that I don't know for sure...Mattie could've been a fluke, and with Lorrie I just never did the math. But what if I put up a fight for them, and it comes up? If we do all the science, and then—? Better to let them go than find out I never had a right to them in the first place!"
He was dragged back to the moment by hands cupping his cheeks, turning his head to face Jon.
In desperation Stephen squeezed his eyes shut. It made no difference. Not with Jon using that Voice, the one that stalked Jim Cramer's nightmares and made everyone else come back to the television night after night.
"You have every right to them," he said, the words echoing through Stephen's heart like a bell. "Biological or not, I've been seeing you in them all week. JP has your eagerness, your need to keep up with everything and everyone. Mattie's open and outgoing and looks like he's all over the place, but he's learned from you how to keep the important things close to his chest. I haven't even seen Lorrie, and I can tell she's got your lungs. You've raised them. You love them. They're your children, Stephen, and don't think for a second that you're not allowed to fight for them."
(Jon's hands were warm.)
When he first heard the clatter of ceramics, Jon figured it was part of his dream. Then the giant crock pot attacking New York faded into darkness, and the dishes kept rattling.
Jon sat bolt upright. Someone was in the apartment.
Except that it wasn't the apartment. It was the cabin. Not his cabin, either. This was Stephen's cabin, with Stephen's very startled daughter gawking at him from over by the kitchenette.
"Sorry!" stammered Jon, sinking back onto the couch. "Don't mind me."
Lorrie pulled her trailing quilt closer around her shoulders, peering at him through a curtain of stringy brown hair. "How come you're still here?"
"Storm kicked up. Your dad didn't want me getting lost under a snowdrift on the way home." Jon slung an arm over his face, blocking out the glare from the bare bulb over the sink, the only light in the room except that of the omnipresent tree. "Seriously, you can pretend I'm not even here."
The quilt swished along the floor as the girl moved around, putting together her midnight meal. Something that involved a lot of clanking and pouring — canned soup, maybe. Tired as Jon was, even that racket blended together into a rhythm that was almost soothing.
"Where'd the microwave go?" demanded Lorrie abruptly.
"Hnh? Oh, right," mumbled Jon, jarred awake again. "Yeah, your brother broke that a couple days ago. You, uh, want me to work the stove for you?"
"I can do it myself." More of the kitchen-rhythm, this time with the added metallic ring of pots and pans.
"At least let me watch, then," he pressed, hauling himself into a sitting position and rubbing his eyes. Would have to thank Stephen later for the loan of a thick woolen modesty-affording robe, printed thought it was with a pattern of oversized reindeer. "Your dad would flay me alive if I let any of you get hurt."
Lorrie snorted, but didn't protest.
Jon kept a nervous eye on her as she poured her soup into a pot, switched on a burner, and set the timer, all with careful, deliberate movements. He noted with satisfaction that she even kept checking back with the directions on the can. (That, at least, she definitely hadn't gotten from Stephen.)
"Mr. Jon?" asked Lorrie, after giving the pot a few preliminary stirs.
Lorrie stirred the mixture again, not looking away from the stove. "Do you know how come your parents got divorced?"
Jon hastily double-checked his estimate of her age. Old enough to have gone through several years of sex ed; young enough that it would be skeevy at best to go into detail. He settled for the bare-bones version. "My dad ran off with his secretary."
She watched the timer tick down its last few seconds, switched it off manually before it could start beeping, and hefted the pot from the stove with the help of a couple of flag-patterned oven mitts.
"Did you forgive'm?"
"It's...complicated," hedged Jon, and immediately wished he hadn't. "I know, I know, that sounds like BS. It's too much for me to explain at three in the morning. Does that sound better?"
"Sure," agreed Lorrie dully, switching off first the stove and then the light, so that the only illumination in the room was the faint wash of rainbow glowing from the tree.
"Listen, don't let it get to you," insisted Jon, as the girl and her pot and her quilt shuffled for the stairs. "It's a long story, and nobody in it was perfect, but the short version is, he gave up on us. On my mom, and on my brother, and on me. And I wish every day that he hadn't."
Lorrie paused, silhouetted by a thousand multicolored points of light.
"Your dad has made a lot of mistakes," said Jon. "But he hasn't given up on you."
"Hold still, Your Holiness," chided Stephen, wiggling JP's foot into its boot. When had all the kid's shoes gotten so small?
"Are you sure it's clear?" asked Matthew, pressing his nose against the windowpane. "Are you sure we're not gonna crash? Are you sure we're not gonna go sliding around a curve an' zoom off the mountain an' fly a hundred miles through the air an' land inna river?"
"Stop it, Mattie, you're scaring your brother," snapped Stephen, as JP's lip began to wobble. "Don't worry, kiddo, the roads are fine. The park rangers said so." He turned toward the stairs. "LORRIE! WE'RE GOING INTO TOWN. DO YOU WANT—"
He stopped short, gave one of those knots in his stomach an experimental tug.
"Stay here a second, boys," he ordered, and clomped up the stairs.
Lorrie's room was still shut; Stephen gave the paneling a couple of businesslike raps. "Lorrie, honey?" he tried again. "We're going to the store to pick up some stuff for New Year's. Is there anything you—?"
His heart jumped into his mouth as the door swung open.
There stood his daughter, shoulders back, hair freshly washed, dressed in clean clothes from head to foot, and with a familiar determined expression on her face. There was no mistaking where she got it from. She even had the eyebrows.
"I'll pick it out myself," she announced. "You didn't think you could just leave without me, did you?"
"Thirty seconds!" cried Stephen. "Everybody find somebody to kiss!"
Matthew tried to scramble out of range, but too late: Stephen scooped him up and hefted the flailing kid up onto the couch beside him. Using the same move, Lorrie nabbed a startled JP and hauled him across the floor.
On the way over, one of the toddler's kicking feet hit a glass of sparkling grape juice. "I've got it," said Jon quickly, and sprang to fetch a towel.
The ball was beginning its descent by the time he flung the terrycloth over the spill, so he decided to save the mopping for later. Certainly the Colberts weren't paying attention — they had all launched into the countdown, in almost-perfect unison, albeit with JP taking a little artistic license with the order of the numbers.
"HAPPY NEW YEAR!" they chorused, the huzzahs dissolving into squeals from the boys as their respective captors pressed smacking kisses to their cheeks.
"No fair!" protested Matthew, pointing angrily across the couch. "Mr. Jon didn't hafta get kissed!"
"Yeah!" agreed JP, as Jon felt his cheeks go pink. "No fair!"
"I dunno," said Stephen, faux-mischievously, as he looked from one kid to the next. "Does everyone think Mr. Jon should get a kiss?"
Jon turned pleadingly to Lorrie for help. No such luck: the cheer was unanimous.
"The ayes have it!" Stephen shrugged helplessly, then slid across the couch and pressed his lips to Jon's.
He tasted like peppermint schnapps and freedom, and for a few seconds Jon was deaf to the world, even the shrieks of disgust from their thoroughly delighted audience.
The moment didn't last. In the next instant Jon let out a grunt of surprise as he was pushed onto his back, and opened his eyes to find himself at the bottom of a veritable pile of Colberts. Stephen wasn't doing much better; the boy wrapped around his shoulders proved such a heavy weight that his nose ended up smushed against Jon's ear.
"So far," mumbled Stephen, so close that Jon didn't hear it so much as feel the vibrations of the words against his jaw, "this is the best year ever."
As he knitted his arms into the unsteady but fervent five-way hug, Jon couldn't have agreed more.