It's a little late for Christmas, but I think I can just squeeze it in as a New Year 2016 pressie.
I tried to sprinkle with a smidgeon of all Anne's prompts: winter nights; Christmas gifts; keep me warm.
Noah loved the Snyder family, loved them with all his heart, and he thanked God for them every single day; every single, damned day. Theyād taken him in, no questions asked, and wrapped him in the warmth of family, of familiarity, of acceptance, and heād found a home, something heād never had before. That they came wrapped around Luke Snyder only made his life that much more perfect. Yet, sometimes - just sometimes - he found their noise, their closeness to him, just too much to take. It was overwhelming, pressing down on nerve endings that had no family history; like memory foam with no memory. Noah knew that sounded totally stupid, and heād have a hard time explaining it to anyone other than Luke, but thatās just how he felt.
Noah shivered, suddenly realising, in his haste to escape, heād left without a jacket, and his thin baseball jersey was no defence against the biting cold. Thank god it had stopped snowing earlier in the day, or heād be soaked through already by now. He checked his watch before shoving his hands deep into his jean pockets. No worries. By his reckoning, he had about four and a half minutes before Luke came out to find him, and Noah just knew heād bring a coat, hat, scarf and gloves with him. No half measure for Luke Snyder.
Noah grinned to himself, his earlier panic receding slightly as he warmed from the inside out at just the thought of his husband. If anyone had told Noah, even a year ago, that he could be this happy - this contented - heād have laughed and called them deluded. Yet, here he was, married and surrounded by a family whoād welcomed him back, after nearly four years apart, with open arms, no recriminations or guilt trips. Just love. If only he didnāt now have that niggling doubt that it wouldnāt be enough; that he wouldnāt be enough.
Suddenly aware of how cold his toes were becoming as he stood on the veranda, Noah stamped his feet several times before turning slightly so he could pace. What he really wanted to do was walk, fast and far, so he could process his thoughts without fear of being interrupted. One comment. One little comment. Thatās all it had taken for all his insecurities to come rushing back. He couldnāt blame Lucinda. It was the kind of question all parents and grandparents asked newlyweds, he supposed, and he knew it had been entirely innocent, tongue in cheek, even. It wasnāt even directed at him.
āSo when will be hearing the patter of tiny feet, Luke?ā
Noah came to a halt, staring sightlessly towards the pond, completely oblivious to the wintry beauty surrounding him, the gold-streaked sky heralding another beautiful sunset. Children. Heād never really given the idea much thought. What the hell kind of father would he make, for godās sake? Heād certainly had no father to model himself on, his own a walking manual on how not to raise kids, surely? Yes, heād seen other parents - other dads - in action, yet, looking back, Noah now realised heād watched their interactions from a position totally outside those experiences. He was like a kid staring through a window on Christmas morning - watching the family gather to open presents, shared smiles and laughter, unheard but seen on happy faces, thanks and kisses exchanged with abandon - whoās never experienced a family Christmas for himself. Noah had seen these interactions, but heād never been part of them; never shared in the joy and laughter of family, only the pain and loneliness of abandonment and rejection. It had left a very deep wound, and with those innocent words, Noah wondered how healed he actually was.
So deep in thought was he, Noah didnāt hear the porch door open and close, or the creaking footsteps across the snow-free veranda. He was suddenly jolted from his reverie by the feel of an arm snaking round his waist and a warm body plastering itself to his back.
āJesus, Noah, five minutes out here and youāre practically freezing,ā Luke exclaimed.
āYeah, I know. But I have you to keep me warm, right?ā Within moments, Luke had a scarf wrapped around Noahās neck and was pulling hands from pockets and forcing arms into a thick jacket.
āVery funny. Now put this on before your ears freeze.ā A hat was pulled down haphazardly over Noahās ears as Luke homed in on the jacket zipper.
āHey! Get off! I can do that for myself,ā Noah laughingly squirmed away, reaching up to set the hat more comfortably. āYouāre not my mom, you know.ā He stilled, the laughter dying from his face, a stricken look replacing the smile.
āDonāt. You donāt have to say anything. I know. I know,ā and Lukeās arms were around him, holding him tight, keeping him grounded. Noah held on, eyes squeezed tightly shut, his face buried in the padding of Lukeās shoulder. Luke did know, even though it was something Noah was only just realising for himself; knew how heād react to Lucindaās comment; knew Noah had a lifetime of unresolved issues heād need to work through before he could even consider a family; knew how little-boy Noah had watched and wished from the outside, those families with two parents - moms and dads. Moms and dads holding tiny hands and pushing swings high, wiping tears and runny noses, soothing skinned knees and sharing laughter. Luke knew that Noah had watched all these things, yet had experienced none of them or, at least, none he could remember.
Taking a deep breath, Noah lessened his hold on Luke, the storm of emotions having calmed within him. He needed Luke to know exactly what he was thinking right now. Stepping back slightly, he looked into Lukeās clearly concerned eyes, his own slightly red-rimmed, yet steady and true.
āI never even thought, neverā¦even considered children,ā he started to say, desperate to voice his fears and make Luke truly understand. āI guessā¦I guess I just didnāt consider Iād ever have that, being gay and allā¦ā Luke began to interrupt, but Noah couldnāt let him. āI know, we can have children of our own, butā¦I only ever really thought about families with moms and dads becauseā¦ā
āBecause thatās what you wanted - what you never had,ā interjected Luke softly, his gloved hand coming up to cup Noahās cheek.
āI feel so stupid, to be blindsided like that,ā Noah whispered, leaning into Lukeās touch.
āOh, Noah.ā Luke reached up and kissed him tenderly, his lips warm and familiar. āWeāre family. You and me. Weāre all we need right now, arenāt we?ā He paused to kiss Noah again. āWeāve got years and years to decide about adding to it. Besidesā¦ā He grabbed Noahās arm and pushed up his sleeve to look at his watch, āwe have about forty-five seconds max before we get ambushed by Ethan. He wants a snowball fight before it gets too dark.ā Luke smiled wickedly. āIf we have any chance of winning, we need to be prepared. That kidās a freakinā menace.ā
Noah laughed delightedly, his mood lifting even further,
āOh my god, we donāt stand a chance. We should probably just give up right now.ā Noah lifted his arms in mock surrender. Luke was right; Ethan had definitely grown into a snowball menace. He somehow managed to combine a wicked right arm - there was surely a professional baseball career in his future - with the stealth of a special ops Navy Seal. Heād totally whupped their butts earlier in the day, and Noah didnāt hold out much hope for a victorious rematch, darkening skies or not.
āI am not letting him beat us again,ā spluttered Luke indignantly, moving towards the veranda steps. āItās darker now, so Iām gonna go hide and plan my ambu-u-shhhā¦ā The snowball hitting him directly in the face cut him off, and the sound of Luke spitting out snow the funniest thing Noah had heard in a long time. His scream of frustration was even funnier, and Noah was laughing hard as a second snowball caught him in the chest, icy cold seeping into the space where his zipper wasnāt done up all the way. He turned, scanning the darkened area that fell outside of the veranda lights. Oh, that kid was really gonna get it. This was war.
More that half an hour later, Noah was hunkered down behind an array of bushes, a pile of snowballs at the ready. It was full dark now, though the rising, almost-full moon cast an eerie light, painting everything in shades of blue. He was soaked, and the word cold had ceased to have any meaning for at least the last twenty minutes. He was seriously beginning to wonder how long it took for toes to develop frostbite.
Deciding to give it another few minutes before moving towards the house, Noah listened carefully for any signs of ambush. He knew Luke was somewhere over to his left, but Ethan was as elusive as ever, seeming to be in more than one place at a time. You had to admire the kid, difficult as that feeling was to muster in his present frozen predicament.
Having really had enough of staying in one place, Noah began to stealthily work his way along the bush line, keeping low to the ground and trying not to disturb the bushes too much. He stopped for a moment, pulling his scarf tighter in a bid to stop the snow that sprinkled on to him from seeping down his neck. He checked to see where he was, relieved to note he was almost at the bushes closest to the house. If he were lucky, heād be able to make it on to the veranda and inside without being spotted.
At the closest point to the house, yet still shielded, Noah was ready to make his move. Heād heard a muffled yell, which sounded like it came from the other side of the house, so he felt pretty safe at leaving his hiding place. All set to stand and run, Noah suddenly realised he could hear something quite close by. He held his breath, listening intently. There it was again; a faint mewing sound? Noah couldnāt be sure, but it seemed to be coming from somewhere a little way off. Getting down on to his knees - and boy, wasnāt that uncomfortable - Noah carefully made his way towards the noise, trying to be quiet, as well as not to move the bushes too much. He didnāt want to frighten it.
Within moments, Noah could tell the mewing was coming from right in front of him. Too dark to see what was there, he slipped off a glove and fumbled his cell phone from his pocket, his frozen fingers not wanting to work. The screen light cast just enough of a glow for him to be able to see right under the bush and there, shivering and mewing piteously, was the tiniest kitten Noah had ever seen. Working on instinct, he kept his voice low and soothing, murmuring nonsense, as he slowly slipped off his other glove before reaching for the tiny scrap.
The kitten continued itās wretched crying, until Noah unzipped his jacket to half way and slipped the furry bundle into the warmth inside. Almost instantly, the crying stopped and it snuggled against him, rooting with its mouth as if looking to suckle. Noah touched its tiny little head with a finger,
āYou wonāt find anything there, sweetheart,ā he murmured, the rumbling of his chest obviously having a soporific affect, the kittenās eyes closing into sleep. Humming lightly, Noah typed a quick message into his cell and put it back into his pocket before rising carefully. He had no idea what to do with the little scrap now nestled against his chest, but he needed to do something fast. The thought of it not surviving - small and frozen as it was, he knew its chances were probably not very good - was not something he really wanted to contemplate.
By the time Noah was climbing the steps of the veranda, Luke had appeared from the other side of his house, calling back to an obviously disgruntled Ethan, whose grumbling tone carried, even though his actual words didnāt. Noah waited, a hand cupped lightly against his chest.
āWhat is it? Whatās happened? Are you okay?ā Lukeās concern was cute, although Noah didnāt really have time to make the most of that right now. He shushed Luke as he came close, bending slightly and pulling the zip down a fraction so Luke could see his precious load. Luke was reaching forwards, still silent, eyes wide, when Ethan caught up with him, still grumbling, although heād obviously intuited something, as his voice was at least quiet.
āIt was under the bushes. There.ā Noah pointed to the spot heād found the kitten. āHeās freezing and so fucking tiny. Sorry Ethan.ā He had the grace to look slightly guilty at his language use, even with his focus totally elsewhere.
āHey, no worries, man. Iāve heard worse,ā Ethan snickered.
āWhere? Who the fuckās been swearing around my kid brother?ā Luke bit out. Ethan just looked at him, eyebrows raised, waiting for Luke toā¦
āOh. Okay, wellā¦ā he said, floundering for something else to say.
āGuys?ā Noah interrupted, before Luke could dig himself in any deeper, āI hate to break up this touching moment, but donāt you think we have more important things to do, here? Like, ya know, making sure this little guy survives.ā He couldnāt help the sarcasm, really he couldnāt. The others at least had the grace to look abashed before turning their focus back to Noah.
āSo. What do we do?ā Noah asked, a touch of panic entering his voice. āIāve never had a kitten before. Can they survive without their moms when theyāre this small?ā He looked down, slipping a gently hand into his jacket opening to check the kitten was still warm and breathing. He could feel its heart beating so damned fast.
āItāll need feeding.ā Luke was quick with the advice. āWeāll probably have to take it in turns, ācause itāll need milk every few hours. Even thenā¦ā He looked directly into Noahās eyes, his voice softening, āā¦it may not survive.ā
Noah could feel his face tightening in distress, but he didnāt want to even consider that outcome. Heād do whatever it took to ensure this kittenās survival. In just the few minutes it had laid against him, it had crept under his skin and into his heart. It had to survive, this little Christmas present; it had to. He looked at Luke, his determination evident.
āLetās get inside, then,ā he said, moving towards the door.
āWait!ā Ethan stepped in front of Noah, blocking his path. āIāve got a better idea. Come on, we need to go to the barn.ā He was already stepping off the veranda before the others had even turned. It was Luke - big brother Luke, who was programmed to question everything coming out of his baby brotherās mouth - who totally surprised Noah by not questioning Ethan.
Grabbing Noahās arm, Luke tugged him gently, motioning him to follow in his brotherās wake, ignoring the stuttered objections.
āIf Ethan says heās got an idea, then heās got an idea. Heās pretty smart, you know. Runs in the family,ā and he laughed self-deprecatingly as they moved swiftly forward.
Entering the barn was like walking into a world totally different from the wintry outside. The Snyders cared a great deal for their animals, so the barn was independently heated, as well as being clean and fragrant. Muted lighting cast a gentle glow in each of the stalls, and Noah could see the various horses awaiting their final feed of the day. Maybe Ethan just wanted help with his chores, he suddenly wondered, immediately discarding that notion as nonsense.
Reaching the rear of the barn where Ethan was now standing, Noah and Luke looked into the last stall. Laying on a plaid blanket on the warm straw, a golden Labrador was surrounded by a number of tiny pups, some of them suckling at her swollen teats, some asleep against her warm body.
Ethan turned to look seriously at Noah.
āI think Oreoāll look after the kitten for you. Sheās got plenty of milk,ā he said quietly. Noah just stared at him, suddenly feeling like what he was about to say might be incredibly stupid. Fortunately, Luke got there first.
āUm, Ethan? Oreoās a dog. Sheās not gonna give milk to a kitten, for godās sake.ā
Ethan looked at Luke with that typical teenager mien, the one that said, did you really say something that stoopid? Duh! Luke just looked chagrined, aware heād personally invited his younger brother to ridicule him. He motioned a āwell, go on, thenā to Ethan, obviously not wanting to say anything else. Ethan turned to Noah,
āIāve seen it before,ā he said earnestly. āThereās loads of cases where nursing animals have taken on other kinds of baby animals. Honestly.ā
Noah knew they had nothing to lose by giving this a try, and it wasnāt like there were many options open to them. He just wanted this little kitten to survive. He nodded acquiescence to Ethan and, carefully unzipping his jacket, he reached in and pulled the kitten out. It mewed piteously, suddenly jolted from its warm resting place.
āYou do it,ā Noah said, handing the squirming bundle to Ethan. He watched then, as Ethan stepped into the stall, murmuring to Oreo as he got closer to her. Oreo watched him, thumping her tail slowly.
āHere, you go, sweetie. Hereās another little one who needs you,ā Ethan whispered. He picked up a handful of the straw the puppies had been laying on and gently rubbed it across the kittenās fur. Kneeling slowly, he then held the kitten out for Oreo to sniff. She did, snuffling gently before licking it with her warm tongue. The kitten mewed softly, its little face reaching out towards the dogās. After just a few seconds, Ethan placed the kitten at a teat, rubbing it across its mouth and encouraging it to suckle. It took only a few swipes for it to latch on, and Ethan pulled his hand away, watching as Oreo brought her face close to the kitten again, nuzzling it as it suckled. Within just a few moments, Oreo lay back, relaxed and happy.
Noah watched all this with a feeling of awe mounting in his chest. Heād been so worried, wondering whether Ethanās plan was even viable, yet how easy it had been for the mother dog to take in a tiny waif who needed her. He couldnāt take his eyes away, watching as the kitten fed, surrounded by puppies and a new āmommyā who wanted him. He reached for Lukeās hand, squeezing it tightly. Theyād just created a new family - a different kind of family - and it felt so right. He turned, catching his husbandās gaze and grinned at him.
āSee?ā Luke smiled back, āFamilies can be anything you want them to be.ā
Noah was beginning to believe it.
Thank you for being such a good friend x