Written for Jill Kirby as a present in the "While We Tell of Yuletide Treasure" challenge for 2004. If you haven't checked out the Yuletide archive, you should -- there's some incredible fiction there, in fandoms that don't have much in the way of fic otherwise.
Many thanks to my betas: Therienne, elynross, and Merry. Any remaining mistakes are solely my own.

written December 2004; posted January 2005



by Arduinna


Johnny lost the thread of the conversation as heat from the vents stung his skin through his jeans. He hadn't realized he'd been numb with cold. The thought flitted through his mind that he was going to pay for that chill later, but he banished it. Whatever happened, it was worth it. Sitting in a moving cocoon of warmth and laughter on a bitter night, the light from the dashboard just enough to watch the play of expression across Bruce's face as he helped JJ weave a retelling of the game they'd just been to, the game they were all still flying from -- it didn't get much better than this. Okay, so it was high school hockey, but it had been one hell of a good game, and they'd shouted themselves hoarse cheering Cleaves Mills High on to a 2-1 victory. JJ was glowing in the back seat, leaning forward against his seatbelt to go over every major play again, hands sketching out the action, with Bruce barely remembering to keep one hand on the wheel as he echoed JJ's motions.

Sure enough, his hip gave a tentative twinge, like it was thinking of stiffening up on him. Not tonight, you don't, he thought at it, shifting his position slightly to stretch the muscle out, rubbing at it surreptitiously, superstitiously. Nothing was going to ruin tonight.

Bruce, ever aware, glanced over at him, eyebrows raised in a silent question as JJ chattered away, oblivious to the byplay in the front seat. Johnny shook his head, smiling. Bruce flicked his gaze to the road then back to Johnny, studying his face for a second. Whatever he saw must have satisfied him; he smiled back like he couldn't help it and patted Johnny's near leg as he turned back to the road.

Happy indignation caught Johnny's attention and he tuned back in as JJ held forth on the linesman who'd missed the icing call in the third period. "Oh, man, could you believe that?" Johnny agreed. "Guy musta been blind."

By the time they arrived at the Bannerman house, the three of them were in perfect agreement about the relative merits of the ref and linesmen for the game, and had sorted out any questionable calls to their mutual satisfaction.

"Here you go, JJ," Bruce said cheerfully. Warm yellow light spilled across the walk toward them as Sarah opened the front door.

"Thanks, Mr. Lewis, thanks, Johnny! This was the best."

"Think maybe you'd want to go again?" Johnny asked.

"Can we?" JJ asked eagerly. "When?"

Johnny laughed. "We'll figure something out. Go on, your mother's waiting now."

"Okay," JJ agreed. He got out of the car and started for the door, waving at his mother, who instantly waved back.

Johnny's vision went blurry for a moment, and he had to blink hard to clear it. Bruce's hand settled on his shoulder, squeezing through the thick fabric of his coat. Johnny blinked again and blew out his breath softly, then rolled down his window so he could wave to Sarah. He winced a little, grinning, when he could hear the impact of JJ barreling into her all the way across the yard. She wrapped her arms around him and leaned down, then let go. "Uh-oh."


"He's coming back. Did he leave something in the car?"

Bruce flicked on the interior light and glanced in back. "Not that I can see."

"Hey, sport," Johnny said as JJ skidded to a halt beside the car. "What'd you forget?"

"Nothing. Mom said to make sure you were coming tomorrow, and said I couldn't yell because it's late and people are sleeping."


Bruce leaned past Johnny. "Of course we're coming. You tell your mom we'll be here with bells on, right on time."

JJ grinned. "Great! See you then!" He waved and ran back to the house, vanishing inside. Sarah gave another wave, waiting for Johnny to return it before she followed JJ.

Johnny looked at the closed door for another few seconds, then rolled up his window and turned to look brightly at Bruce. "So, uh..."

"You forgot, didn't you? Man, I can't believe you sometimes."

Johnny sighed. "Okay, clearly, I suck. What did I forget?"

Shaking his head sadly, Bruce said, "You know, you'd think a psychic wouldn't have this problem." He put the car into gear and pulled away from the curb.

"You'd think. And yet. What did I forget?"


An image of Walt instantly formed in his mind's eye, relaxed and comfortable, looking straight ahead with eyes that never missed anything. Affection surged through him, as always overlaid with a hint of wonder. Walt had stepped into Johnny’s life and made it his own, winning wife and child and white picket fence, leaving Johnny to wake up from his coma alone, with a bum leg and an empty house. But they’d reached past that, and somehow, Walt had become one of his closest friends. Johnny's lips quirked. "No, I'm pretty sure I remember Walt."

Bruce smacked him in the arm. "Wiseass. Walt's birthday party. Tomorrow. Big bash? Surprise? Family and friends? Cake? Any of that ringing a bell?"

Johnny stared at him. "Oh my God. Tomorrow?"

"Duh, John. I can't believe you forgot the party."

"I didn't forget the party. I just... forgot the date of the party. I thought it was next week." His head thumped back against the headrest.

"Do you even have a present yet?"

Johnny shut his eyes. "Present."


"This was such a good night," Johnny complained. "Everything was perfect. How could it all go so bad, so fast?"

"Because you're an idiot," Bruce said helpfully.

"But at least I'm surrounded by supportive friends."

"Hey, I tell the truth because I care, man."

"Uh-huh." Johnny sighed and sat up straighter, automatically mindful of his bad leg. "Hey, what'd you get him?"

"Those fishing lures he was talking about last time we were all out on the lake."

"That's great!"


"It's not great? Okay, man, if you don't want to give them to him --"

"Nice try, John. No, you can't go in on it. Get your own present."

Johnny looked sourly at Bruce's profile, which was giving off a strong hint of 'smug'. "You know, a real friend --"


He sighed. "Fine. I'll come up with my own. I've got time, right?"

"Sure. The mall opens at nine tomorrow. Sarah's expecting us by two, and we can't be late. If we ruin the surprise...."

Johnny shuddered. "No fear. So that's... four hours to look for something, then an hour to get it wrapped and get to the house. No problem! I can do this."

Bruce chuckled.

Johnny glared. "But a little support wouldn't hurt."

"Sorry, man," Bruce said, grinning. "I'm sure you won't have any problem at all. How hard can Walt be to buy for?"

Flannel filled Johnny's mind. "So, uh -- what are you doing tomorrow morning?"



Bruce's grin got so wide it looked like it hurt. Johnny took what little comfort he could from that.

He pondered gift ideas the rest of the way home. After the first couple, he stopped saying them out loud; Bruce had laughed so hard at the last one that he'd nearly driven off the road. Clearly, he had no appreciation for practical things. A rechargeable flashlight that gave off an emergency light in a power failure was a very useful thing. Walt was a practical guy, he'd appreciate a useful gift like that!

Okay, maybe not. Johnny kept thinking.

"John. Hey, John!"

"Oh, you're not laughing at me now?"

"No, I'm still laughing at you. But we're here."

Johnny looked around, surprised. That had been fast.

"You need to get out of the car now," Bruce said, slowly and carefully.

Johnny glared. "I know that."

Bruce chuckled. "This really has you thrown, doesn't it? Listen, don't worry, Walt will like anything you get him. It's the thought that counts, right?"

"Right," Johnny muttered. He unhooked his seatbelt and reached for the latch, turning in surprise when he felt a hand settle on his arm. "Bruce?"

"Hey, straight up, before you go -- how's the leg? Don't think I didn't see you squirming around before."

"I was not squirming, I was just... bastard. I'm fine, really."

Bruce grinned at having scored a hit, but the worried wrinkle between his eyebrows smoothed out. "Okay. I know you're not lying to me, because if you are, you're the one who's going to pay for it tomorrow."

Johnny rolled his eyes, but couldn't completely stop the smile tugging at his lips. It was a good feeling, knowing that he had friends who cared that much about him. "I'm just a little stiff -- hard seats, cold arena, not the best combination for me. But it's nothing a hot shower and a good night's sleep won't cure."

"You mean a hot shower, a set of the stretches and exercises your incredibly talented, not to mention good-looking, physical therapist worked out specifically for you for just such a situation, and a good night's sleep, of course."

"Oh, of course. Except for that good-looking part." He ducked away from the swat Bruce aimed at him, laughing, and opened the door. "Really, I'm fine. I'll do my exercises, I promise." He got out carefully, pleased when nothing hurt beyond a slight ache. "See? No problem."

"Okay. You want me to pick you up tomorrow?"

He started to say sure, then thought about his timeline again, and winced inside. "Nah, that's okay. I'll drive myself."

Bruce chuckled knowingly. "Just in case you have to go straight from the mall, huh?"

"Good night, Bruce." Johnny closed the door firmly and stepped back.

Grinning, Bruce put the car in drive and headed out into the night, flashing his headlights once in farewell.

Johnny shook his head and walked inside. Hot shower first. Definitely.


He really had taken the time to do some of Bruce's exercises after the shower, and it had paid off. He couldn't even tell that he'd stiffened up the night before, which was a damn good thing, since he was starting to think he'd slipped into an alternate dimension where he'd be walking around and around the mall forever.

By noontime, he was starting to panic. He'd looked at and discarded dozens of things. Everything was either too personal, not personal enough, or too damn weird. A moss-green sweater in a window display had caught his eye early on as something Walt would wear, but -- giving him clothes? Definitely not.

He'd caved and bought the new bestseller at the bookstore, figuring that if all else failed he could use that, but even that was sort of generic. "Here you go, Walt -- it occurred to me I have no idea what you read, so I bought a book that lots of other people liked and crossed my fingers." Thanks to the flash he’d gotten when he picked it up, at least he knew Walt would be pleased enough with it, but still -- he hadn't picked it because he'd seen the title or author and thought of Walt. It was a desperation gift, plain and simple.

The sporting goods store had had possibilities, but a quick jaunt through it had offered up mainly things that Walt already had. Besides -- it might look weird, Johnny and Bruce both giving him outdoorsy stuff. Especially if Bruce was giving him something that Walt specifically wanted, and Johnny was guessing. There had to be something else, somewhere.

He'd ignored the electronics store and the gadgets-for-grownups store, since anything he bought in there would be too expensive and would just make Walt uncomfortable. But he was about ready to give up and go for it.

He sighed. One more circuit, then he'd check the electronics place out fast, see if he could find something fun for under a hundred he could claim to have found on sale, and if not, the book would do.

He started walking again, his cane a familiar counterpoint to his tread, the metal head a comforting warmth in his hand.

House o' Cheese. No.

House o' Candles. No. He held his breath as he walked past, not wanting a repeat of the sneezing fit from last time. How could anyone walk into that place? House o' Girly Bath... Things. Definitely no.

House o' Lingerie. Johnny admired the display again, grinning at the thought of getting Walt a lace teddy. It'd be fun watching their expressions, whether it was Walt-sized or Sarah-sized, but then he'd be banned from the house, probably without even getting any cake. Not to mention he'd be the one forced to explain to JJ why it was funny. So no.

House o' Kids Toys. The old-fashioned train set running in the window drew him yet again, but he looked at his watch and resisted.

House o' Books. Already taken care of.

House o' Fudge. Oooh, fudge. The crowd had been too big the last couple of times he'd gone past, and he'd ignored it in favor of keeping things moving, but this time there were only a handful of people standing there. Johnny walked over and inhaled deeply, blissing out and wondering if it was possible to get a contact sugar high. There were only four people ahead of him; he could afford to get a piece or two for himself. A man needed fuel in a situation like this.

"And... I think... one of the peanut butter ones... and one of the almond... no, wait, not the almond, um, make it... damn, what do I want? It all looks so good!"

Johnny looked at his watch again, sighed, and moved on.

Gap for Women.

Gap for Men.




No, no, no, no, no. And people were worried that Wal-Mart was taking over the country? Yeesh.

The real problem, of course, was that this was a big party, with all kinds of people, friends and family from both sides. If it had just been a small gathering -- say, them and Bruce, maybe Rebecca or Dana -- he could have just gone for the sweater. There might have been an odd moment, but Walt would have liked it, and it just would have been one of their weird, extended-family moments that they'd all learned to accept and deal with, and that were slowly getting less weird. Walt would make a joke, Sarah would chide him and tell him to go try it on, Walt would put it on and like the way it looked, and everyone would have cake. Simple.

But in front of everyone, especially now that the truth about him being JJ's biological dad had started to get out... it would just be too strange. He had to find the perfect close-but-not-overly-intimate-friend gift, so no one started getting any hinky ideas about him and Walt and Sarah, but at the same time, he didn't want anyone thinking that he didn't like Walt. Because he did. Like Walt. A whole lot, actually.

And dammit, he deserved something better than a generic bestseller. Johnny kept walking.

Lord & Taylor. He'd skipped it on every round so far, but he could see tables set up with what looked like gift-things on them. Sure he was making a mistake, he walked in and poked cautiously at the first table.

Did people really buy this stuff for people they cared about? A nose-hair trimmer packaged in an attractive gift box... yeah, that would go over well. Especially after Walt spotted the "also trims ear hair and eyebrows!" on the side of the box.

"Can I help you, sir?"

Good God. He blinked at the perfectly coiffed and made-up woman in front of him, smiling a perfect smile and without a wrinkle or speck of dandruff anywhere. This was the creepiest store he'd ever been in. "Um. I need a, um, present."

"Shopping for your wife?" she asked, sympathetically, subtly steering him further into the store.

He looked back over his shoulder at the table full of gifts for men, wondering just how incompetent this woman thought he was. "No, no. No. For a friend. A man."

"Oh, I see!" The steering got a little less subtle for a moment as she shifted him away from the women's areas, then stopped at a spot where several aisles crossed. "Why don't you tell me a little bit about him, and we'll see if we can't sort something out for you."

Johnny looked around helplessly. Hadn't he been in control, a minute ago? "Well, he, uh... it's his birthday, he's forty, and, um... he likes outdoorsy things..."

"Good, good, that's a good start," she said approvingly. "Is he a close friend, or more of a casual acquaintance?"

"Close," Johnny said, smiling. It had taken them a long time to get there, but Walt definitely counted as a close friend now. The saleswoman was still looking at him expectantly. He blinked. "And, um -- well, it's complicated, really. But he's a good friend, a close friend. Like family."

Her eyebrows flicked up about half a millimeter for an instant before her face smoothed out again. "Oh, I see! In that case, you're going to want something special." She started steering again.

Johnny balked. "That's perfume."

"Cologne, yes. It's Armani, very nice." She sprayed some on his hand before he could object. "See?"

He looked from her to his cold, damp hand, and sighed. "I really don't think cologne is what I'm looking for, but thank you very much for your help."

"But it's Armani!"

Johnny grinned. "Yeah, but he's more... Old Spice. I think I need to keep looking."

"But --"

"Thank you!" He waved and walked back out into the mall. Where the hell was the bathroom in this place? If he walked into the party reeking of Armani cologne he'd never hear the end of it.

Hands washed, then washed again after he decided to make use of the facilities while he was there, Johnny returned to the main floor of the mall, wondering what to try next.

The carts in the middle were a lost cause. Jewelry, hats, generic paintings, "Your picture on a mug or t-shirt while U wait!" -- all useless.

Although it would be kinda fun, giving Walt a mug with his picture on it and admiring it every time he visited the office... Heh. But not in front of thirty other people at a party Sarah'd been planning for weeks.

Sears. Johnny looked at it, thinking. He'd avoided this one, as well, on his previous rounds, but it might have more going for it than the unlamented Lord & Taylor's, if he could get past the perfume-sellers near the door. Sears had good, practical things, like appliances, and electronics, and tires.

And tools. Tools were a possibility. Everyone could use one of those laser level thingies, or -- drill bits! Walt had mentioned something about losing a couple of drill bits in the fall, Johnny was sure of it. A new set of drill bits could be perfect. He chewed his lip lightly. After getting trapped in Lord & Taylor, he was running short on time. If he went in now, he'd have to give up on the rest of the mall. He'd be committed. But if he kept going around the mall, and then happened to leave by going through Sears, he could look over the tools on his way out.

Cane swinging jauntily through its arc as he tapped it along, he kept walking down the other side of the main aisle, dismissing stores as he went. Shoes, no; sneakers, no; stationery -- yeah, right, just what Walt needed, note cards with matching envelopes.

His cell phone rang as he passed Williams-Sonoma. Somehow he doubted Walt was looking for a nice new set of pans. "Hey, Bruce." Johnny grimaced as a flock of teenagers settled on the benches near him, and moved down one of the offshoot corridors to be able to hear better.

"Hey, John, just wanted to see how you were doing."

"Oh, fine, fine."

"You're still at the mall, aren't you? That is so sad, man. Do you realize it's 12:30?"

"Yes, thank you, Bruce, I do realize that. But I still have time --" Johnny broke off, staring in disbelief. "Listen, I gotta go, I just spotted something. I'll see you there at 2:00, okay?"

"You want me to leave room for your name on the card for the lures? I'm not going to be able to watch if you actually hand him a flashlight for his fortieth birthday."

Johnny grinned. "Thanks, my friend, but no. I think I'm going to be all set."

"Okay, if you're sure. See you there -- and don't be late!"

"Yes, Mother."

"Smartass," Bruce said cheerfully, and hung up.

Johnny laughed softly as he put the phone away, and crossed the aisle to the video store, eyes glued to the display where Godzilla was busily stomping around all over everything.

It had been back in those early days when they'd been trying to find something, anything, in common besides Sarah and cheeseburgers, serial killers and kidnappers. An hours-long car drive one day had finally done the trick, forcing them to keep reaching for conversation or sit in hideously awkward silence.

"Yeah, Saturday morning cartoons were okay, but what I really miss is Creature Double Feature on Saturday afternoons."

Walt's head snapped around for a second to stare at Johnny, then he turned back to the road. "I used to watch that."

Johnny blinked. "With Godzilla, and Mothra --"

"And Gamera, yeah. All the classics. Man, those were fantastic."

And that had done it. They talked monsters and cheesy effects for almost the entire drive, remembering more than either of them had thought possible. Better yet, Sarah hated monster movies.

They'd never really talked about it again, but it had helped lay a foundation between the two of them that they could build on, one completely separate from Sarah.

And now here was classic Godzilla, on DVD. This was a sign of some sort. It had to be.

Five minutes later, the perfect gift swinging in a bag at his side, he was striding back through the mall, whistling. Not just Godzilla, but Gamera, too! Both classics, the same ones he remembered. He'd only gotten a flash of a vision when he touched it, but Walt had looked very, very pleased. Johnny allowed himself a smug moment or two.

As he approached the picture-mug cart he slowed, almost unbearably tempted. No line. And -- he checked his watch again -- he had the time to spare. Just.

The devil snickering on his shoulder was too much to resist, and he dropped into the chair, grinning as he thumped his cane squarely down between his knees. "A mug if you would, my good man!"

"Yeah, okay," the kid replied, setting up the camera. "Hold still, and... smile!"

After all, nothing said he couldn't leave the mug on Walt's desk to greet him on Monday morning.


He turned onto the street a block over from Walt and Sarah's at 1:57, feeling very pleased with himself indeed. He'd had time to get home, change his shirt to something that didn't smell like every random bit of scented air in the mall, and wrap the present. Humming cheerfully, he went around the corner and parked behind the row of cars filling the street -- looked like a good turnout, if everyone was here for the party. He grabbed the present and headed for the house, arriving on the doorstep at 2:00 on the dot.

Sarah opened the door, smiling sweetly at him.

"Wow, Sarah. You look great!" She really did, all soft curves and jewel tones, and wearing heels that did fabulous things for her legs.

"Why, thank you, Johnny."

Her tone was enough to jerk his gaze up to her eyes, and he blanched slightly at the glint in them. She yanked him inside. "Cutting it a little close, aren't you?"

"You said two o'clock!" he protested.

"No later than two."

"Oh. Well. It's no later than two now..." He trailed off at the glare she aimed his way, impressed at how she pulled it off while never losing her smile -- from a distance, this probably looked like a friendly conversation. "I'm sorry. I screwed up. I didn't ruin the surprise, did I?"

She sighed and visibly let it go. "No, you didn't, and you're the last one to arrive so it should be safe now." She raised her voice as they walked into the crowded living room. "Okay, everyone -- Walt should be here sometime between 2:15 and 2:30, so if you have to hit the bathroom, do it now."

Johnny shook his head slightly as everyone chuckled. She really must be nervous, if that was the best she could manage.

"As I'm sure you can all see, there isn't really room for people to hide, so we're not even going to try."

Johnny had to raise a hand to his mouth to cover his laugh at the very clearly muttered "thank God" from the middle of the room. Sarah ignored it, smiling brightly.

"I just want you all to stay very still and very quiet as soon as he's spotted, so he doesn't hear anyone in here, okay? That's all there is to it, though. Till then, help yourselves to whatever you want -- drinks are in the kitchen."

People started moving, the hum of conversation starting up again. Johnny waited a minute until everyone's attention had shifted away, then leaned in slightly to Sarah. "You okay?"

She blew her breath out and smiled at him for real. "Yes. I am. This was the hard part, getting everyone here and making sure they knew what to do. But from here on out, whatever happens, happens, and I'm not going to worry about it."

"Good for you. Um -- where should I put this?" He waved the present.

"Oh! There, by the coffee table. Can I get you something to drink?"

"Nah, I'm fine. Go mingle."

She touched his arm and was gone.

Johnny squared his shoulders, ready to excuse-me his way through the minor crush of people between him and the coffee table, but a quiet "he's so cute!" caught his attention first. He glanced around and smiled at the sight of JJ, neat as a pin and walking very carefully with a small tray holding a handful of drinks. He was totally focused on where he was going, unaware of the indulgent smiles aimed his way by most of the adults who spotted him.

Drinks delivered, JJ looked around and spotted Johnny, his face lighting up in a big grin. He headed over, weaving effortlessly between people with polite murmurs. "Johnny!"

"Hey, JJ. Helping your mom out, huh?"

JJ nodded. "I'm taking coats, too," he said, holding his arms out.

Johnny blinked. "I forgot I was still wearing it." He started to slide out of it, balked by the present he was still holding. He mock-glared at JJ's muffled giggle. "Am I amusing you?"

JJ just grinned more broadly, then giggled again when Johnny plunked the present into one of his hands. "Here, don't drop that." He slid out of his coat, dropping it across JJ's arms and taking the gift back in one smooth move. "There you go. Thanks."

"No problem," JJ said cheerfully as he headed upstairs.

Johnny shook his head and waded into the living room, greeting people he knew but not letting himself get sidetracked, and added the DVDs to the pile, crouching to place it more carefully when it slid right off.

"You swear that's not a flashlight?" Bruce murmured in his ear.

Johnny bit back a yelp and twisted around to glare up at him. "Give me a heart attack, why don't you?" He stood up, tugging his sweater into place. "I don't understand this strange prejudice you have against flashlights."

Bruce grinned and handed him a glass of beer. "Just checking."

Johnny took a long swallow. "Man, I needed that. Thanks."

"He's here!"

The noise level rose sharply as people moved to positions where they could see Walt's entrance and sorted out drinks and cameras, then dropped off to nothing. Johnny wound up crushed between Bruce and a man he didn't know, who clapped him on the back and whispered, "Won't be long now!"

Johnny smiled and nodded. It was sort of a pity that Walt would never know the effort that the guy had made to make this a special day, but Johnny sure as hell wasn't going to be the one to tell him that his friend had worn his favorite silk panties in Walt's honor.

Damn good thing he hadn't bought the teddy as a joke -- it could have gotten dicey if this guy had tried to bond with Walt over women's underwear.

The living room thrummed with anticipation as Walt opened the door, calling Sarah's name.

"In here!" she called back, her arms wrapped around JJ from behind.

"Sorry, honey, I couldn't find -- oh my God!"

The "surprise!" got a bit lost as everyone cracked up, but it didn't matter; the look on Walt's face was priceless. JJ rushed over, beaming, explaining how everything had been set up. Walt hugged him, still flabbergasted. "I can't believe this."

Sarah moved to his side, reaching out to embrace him. "Happy birthday, Walt." He held her tight for a moment before easing his hold and kissing her soundly, to the laughing approval of everyone in the room.

Walt spent the next few minutes making the rounds, with a kiss or a hug or a backslap or a handshake for everyone. He saved Johnny and Bruce for last, and by the time he made it over to them, he was flushed and his eyes were gleaming, laughing a little in embarrassed pleasure. "I'm gonna get you guys for this," he threatened warmly.

Johnny held up his hands. "Nuh-uh, not our fault -- this was all Sarah and JJ. We're just here to celebrate."

"Well, thank you. Really. Thank you." He wrapped his arms around Johnny in a bear hug, murmuring, "This means a lot to me, John, I mean it."

Johnny hugged back, smiling as he breathed in the comforting scent of Old Spice. "You deserve it, man. Happy birthday."

Walt tightened his grip and let go, turning to Bruce. "And you! C'mere."

Bruce looked a little startled but moved easily into the hug, patting Walt on the back. "Happy birthday, Walt." He pulled back, slapping Walt lightly on the arm.

"Listen, guys --"

Singing interrupted him, as Sarah walked in holding a blazing birthday cake, with the whole crowd joining in. Walt groaned too softly for anyone but Johnny and Bruce to hear, plastering a smile on his face for everyone else.

Walt managed to get all the candles out in one blow. After he’d made the traditional first cut, Sarah took over -- to Walt’s obvious relief -- handing out slices as fast as she could cut them. JJ snaked his way through the crowd to Walt’s side as soon as everyone had a piece, jiggling impatiently.

"What's up, JJ?" Walt asked, tousling his hair.


Everyone in hearing range chuckled, but there was enough general agreement that Walt was settled in a chair in short order, with JJ happily fetching gifts for him to open and Sarah leaning over the back of the chair.

"You all didn't need to do this," Walt said, turning the first one around in his hands. "Really, the party alone -- you didn't need to bring presents."

"Just open it, already!" Roscoe said, from his spot near the window.

Everyone laughed, including Walt, and he tore into the paper.

Johnny shifted his position to something more comfortable, eyes fixed on Walt's expression as he opened present after present, clearly touched at the attention. Sometimes he laughed, sometimes he went serious, but underlying it all was a look that wondered that so many people cared about him.

Ridiculously, Johnny's stomach tightened as JJ worked his way through the pile. If Walt didn't remember, the DVDs were going to look like a stupid joke, or a lucky guess. Johnny knew he'd be pleased enough because he'd seen it, and he knew Walt loved the movies, but he wasn't sure he could stand it if that wonder got erased because Walt thought he'd just grabbed the first thing he saw.

Bruce's voice from yesterday echoed in his head, saying, "You'd think a psychic wouldn't have this problem." Man, if only.

He relaxed a little when Walt got to Bruce's fishing lures, clearly delighted, making plans to go out on the lake as soon as it thawed. Johnny patted Bruce's thigh, parked beside him on the arm of his chair. "Good call, man."

Bruce beamed. "I was worried he'd already gotten them without Sarah knowing, but I guess not. Can't wait to see how they work."

"This one's from Johnny!" JJ announced, handing it to Walt.

Walt glanced over to catch Johnny's eye, smiling; Johnny raised his glass in a silent toast and tried not to tense up so far that Bruce would be able to tell.

He watched as Walt unwrapped it, unable to take his gaze from Walt's face, even as part of him registered Sarah's quiet groan. Walt touched the DVDs with one finger, seeming lost in thought, then looked straight over at Johnny, his entire face alight. Johnny breathed out and grinned at him.

He remembered.

Before either of them could say anything else, JJ had handed Walt his next present and the moment was gone, leaving behind a glow in Johnny's middle.

"Whatever those were, man, they really were a perfect choice," Bruce said quietly, leaning in toward him.

Johnny smiled up at him. "Monster movies. Walt and I used to watch the same ones when we were kids. I saw those and just knew."

Bruce grinned. "Cool."

The rest of the party passed in a warm blur of contentment, with Walt beaming through the presents and everyone milling around afterwards chatting happily. Johnny lost track of most of what was going on when a few of Walt's elderly aunts trapped him on the sofa, feeding him cake to help him build up his strength, apparently feeling that the cane meant he was helpless and frail.

Not that Johnny objected to the extra cake. It would have been rude to refuse it, after all.

He did notice Bruce chatting up Sarah's cousin, and shook his head in admiration. The man never gave up trying. Looked like this time it was paying off, too; every time he spotted Bruce after that, Anne was standing near him, and they were deep in conversation. Johnny raised a cheerful glass to him in salute when Bruce caught his eye, laughing at the happy grin he got in return.

After an hour or so, the crowd started to thin out, with JJ almost constantly on the run up and down stairs to fetch people's coats. When Bruce and Anne discovered a mutual interest in jazz and decided to head out to catch a combo at a new club in Bangor, Johnny took that as his cue. He sent JJ up for his coat while Bruce and Anne said their goodbyes, leaving on an invisible wave of silent good wishes from everyone who knew them.

“Stay out of it,” Johnny murmured into Sarah’s ear as she looked wistfully after them.

She looked up at him indignantly. “I wasn’t going to do anything.”


“Oh, God, is she matchmaking?” Walt asked, glancing out the window near the door. “For who? Bruce and Annie? Sarah…”

“All right, fine, I’ll stay out of it,” she huffed. “Is it my fault that they make a perfect couple?”

Johnny and Walt grinned at each other over her head. “If they’re a perfect couple, they’ll figure it out without your help,” Walt said calmly, dropping a kiss on her forehead.

Johnny held up both hands and backed away as Sarah turned to him. “I’m with Walt, but I am not getting in the middle of this.”

JJ arrived with his coat just in time to save him from whatever Sarah was going to say next, and Johnny breathed a sigh of relief, tousling his hair. "I'll see you later, champ." JJ grinned up at him.

He glanced over at Sarah and Walt, sliding into his coat. "I'm on my way, too -- unless you want me to stick around and help clean up?"

"Oh, Johnny, that's sweet. But no, I've got it," she said.

"Of course, if you want to stick around to watch movies later..." Walt grinned happily at him.

"Oh, no, not those terrible things," Sarah complained lightly. "Gamera and Godzilla, honestly, Johnny."

Walt reached over and patted her hand. "You don't have to watch them, honey," he said. He looked at Johnny, eyes very bright. "Really, thank you, Johnny, those are perfect."

Johnny beamed. "I couldn't believe it when I found them. Did you see which ones they are?"


"I can't believe you both love those things," Sarah said, shaking her head. "They're just awful."

"They're classics!" Johnny and Walt chorused.

"Well, they're classics that you can watch at Johnny's place," Sarah said firmly. "I don't want JJ watching them, at least not until he's older."

"We were JJ's age when we watched them," Walt protested mildly.

"Yes, and look at you now, you both think they're good! You're not warping JJ's mind like that, and that's final."

Walt sighed. "Okay." He brightened as he looked at Johnny. "You know -- I don't have plans for next Saturday. I could bring them over..."

Johnny laughed. "Perfect. I'll lay in some beer, we'll get pizza." He gripped Walt's shoulder. "Happy birthday, man," he said.

"Oh, please," Walt said, and hugged him. "Who'd'a thought, back then, huh?" he said quietly into Johnny's ear.

Johnny tightened his arms. "I know. I'm glad, Walt."

They pulled apart, smiling at each other, and Johnny leaned down to kiss Sarah on the cheek.

"You throw a heck of a good party, Sarah."

She shook her head at him fondly. "Flatterer. Go on, before I decide to take you up on that offer."

Johnny grinned and opened the door, stepping through with the comforting touch of Walt's hand patting his back in farewell.

~ fin ~

Feedback of any sort, from one line to detailed crit, is always welcome, at arduinna at trickster dot org.


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