PERFECT STRANGERS characters are trademarks of Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.  Fan fiction for entertainment purposes only, no claim to copyrights intended or inferred.

Feel free to share these stories with your friends, but please don't repost on the web without asking the author's permission first. Thanks!!


I'll Be Home for Christmas

Written by:
Cousin Paula Wilshe

Larry Appleton carried the last two suitcases down the steps and placed them by the wooden door.  Impossible to believe, he thought, that a five day trip should necessitate all this luggage.  But then again both he and his bride of three months were notorious planners and list makers, and neither would be at all pleased if they had neglected to pack some necessary item.  This was to be their first real Christmas together, and no one was leaving anything to chance.

Larry picked up his overcoat from the back of the couch and pulled out the three airline tickets to Iowa, checking them carefully for any mistakes.  Finding none, he slipped them back into the inside pocket and carefully lay the coat back down.

This was to be a real old fashioned family holiday.  Larry and Jennifer, along with Larryís cousin Balki, would be spending Christmas with Jenniferís parents, grandparents and brother at Jenniferís grandparentsí farm.  Their other house mate, Mary Anne Spencer, would be joining them later that evening, Christmas Eve, after she finished stewardessing a flight from London.

Everything was going to be perfect, Larry thought, as he idly checked to make sure that the living room windows were locked.  He wasnít even nervous, really, about spending a few days with Jenniferís parents.  Despite their shaky first meetings, he felt that actually being married gave him a credibility that enhanced his position in the family.  And besides, the grandparents had opened their hearts to him and Balki, and he hoped that they would act as buffers if things got tense.

Between the holidays and some ruthless editorial deadlines, Larry and Balki had put in an inordinate amount of overtime at the paper in the last two weeks.  Balki had been fighting a cold for the past couple of days, and although heíd tried to disguise how badly he was feeling that morning, it was obvious to Larry that his cousin was still very much under the weather.  Selfishly, Larry hadnít said anything for he was afraid of any complications that might upset their holiday plans.  But at breakfast when Jennifer heard how Balkiís cough had worsened during the night sheíd clucked over him like a mother hen, and insisted on making the appointment for him.  Larry felt ashamed of his single mindedness, and vowed to make this Christmas, Balkiís first as an American citizen, the best heíd ever had.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Balki Bartokomous switched off the engine but made no move to get out of the car.  He waited for the waves of disappointment to stop breaking over him, but they would not.  Being sick was bad enough.  It was something he rarely faced, being blessed with a strong sheepherderís constitution.  But for it to happen now, with Christmas so near was a double blow.  He dreaded going in the house to relate the doctorís edict to his cousin, who did not deal with changes in the best laid plans.

Balki rubbed his eyes tiredly. Heíd been up most of the night, not able to sleep. He couldnít remember the last time heíd felt so sick.  And yet he hadnít let Cousin Larry know.  He hadnít even mentioned the earache at breakfast, but Jennifer with that undefinable feminine instinct, had taken one look at him and called the doctor.

As thrilled as he had been for his cousin when Larry and Jennifer were to be married, there was a small place inside Balkiís heart that had been filled with sadness that things were about the change forever.  Heíd felt as if he was going to lose Larry, and although heíd known intellectually that they would still see each other every day at work heíd realized that when they no longer shared the apartment on Caldwell Avenue, things would never really be the same again.

But somehow once they were all sharing the new house life was not just different - it was better.  He and Larry had retained their closeness, and now there were Mary Anne and Jennifer to spend more time with as well.  It reminded Balki of his childhood - a house full of family - and he enjoyed a special closeness with each of his co-dwellers, and basked in the times when they were all together, especially for the holiday.

But not this time.  Balki sighed sadly, feeling the heaviness in his chest, and pulled the key from the ignition.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"What do you mean, you canít go?" Larry was saying as Jennifer came down the stairs.  "You have to go."  He paced behind the couch.

Balki winced slightly, hoping that Larry would not be launching a full verbal tirade.  The situation was bad enough without having his cousin become angry with him.

Jennifer rounded the corner of the sofa and sat down next to Balki.  "Whatís going on, Balki, what did the doctor say?"

Balki smiled shyly at her.  "He - he said that I canít fly because my ear is infected.  So I guess I wonít be able to go with you and Cousin Larry."

"Oh, Balki," she said, taking his hand.  "What are we going to do?"

"Weíll drive," Larry broke in.  "Weíll just get in the car and drive."

Jennifer shook her head.  "No, Larry, that wonít work.  Itís too far.  We just wonít go, Balki.  We can stay with you and have Christmas right here."

"No, I donít want you to do that," Balki replied, squeezing her hand.  "You mustnít have your Christmas ruined because of me."  And he really meant it.  The thought of spending Christmas alone was not an appealing one, but Balki knew that he would feel much worse if he were the cause of upsetting the plans for Larry and Jenniferís first married Christmas.

"Jenniferís right," said Larry in a firm voice.  "Weíre not going to leave you alone.  Iíll go out and get a tree, weíll make some eggnog, itíll be fine."

Balki was touched that Larry was so quick to jump to his aid, and for a moment he almost considered accepting Larryís words.  But he realized that he must stand firm on his point.  "No, Cousin, because Jenniferís grandparents have been spending their time getting ready for you, and waiting to see you.  I wonít let you disappoint them.  Iím a big boy.  I can cope.  Really," he said, affecting a smile for emphasis.  With that, the telephone rang, and Balki jumped up to answer it.  For a fraction of a second he entertained the thought that perhaps it was the doctor, relenting on his decision that Balki should not fly, but he realized that was unlikely, and given the way he was feeling, it was just as well, for he probably wouldnít be good company anyway, and he certainly didnít want to be a stick in the mud.  For the moment he was simply glad to escape the uncomfortable conversation.

When he was out of earshot Larry sat down on the couch and began speaking softly to his wife.  "I donít want to upset your family, Jen, but I canít leave him all alone at Christmas."

"Of course not.  I wouldnít want to either.  And besides that, heís sick.  He shouldnít be alone."

Larry kissed her lightly, pleased that she was so understanding.  "How about if I go out and get us a tree?"

"That sounds great.  As soon as Balkiís off the phone Iíll call my family and let them know."

Larry stood up and began to put on his overcoat as Balki returned from the kitchen.

"Cousin, youíd better hurry.  Youíre going to miss your flight."

"Balki, I already told you.  Weíre staying here."

Balki grinned.  "Thatís the best news I have for you - you donít have to stay here."

"No, no, Balki, we want to - - " began Jennifer.

"That was Mary Anne," Balki interrupted.  "She said to tell you to go to Iowa.  Sheís going to switch her flight to Chicago, and sheíll be here tonight.  Sheíll be here with me, I wonít be alone, and best of all, you can have your Christmas with your family."  Mary Anne had been wonderful.  She had picked up immediately that something was wrong, and hadnít minded in the least changing her own plans, so anxious was she to ease Balkiís worries.

"But - - "

"Itís what I really want. Please."  Balki looked up at Larry sincerely.  "Please."

"Well, I guess it could work," said Larry doubtfully.  "We could have our own Christmas when we get back.  I guess."

"Of course it could work.  Itíll be great."

Jennifer stood up and looked Balki in the eyes.  "Are you absolutely sure?"

"Absolutely positively," he said, reaching down and touching her cheek.

She pulled him into a quick hug.  "Okay then.  And thank you." She turned around to Larry.  "Youíd better hurry if youíre going to get Balki a tree before we leave for the airport."

"Yep.  Be back soon," he said, as he hurried to the door.

"A tree?" asked Balki, puzzled.

Jennifer pushed Balki down on the sofa.  "Yes, a tree.  By the time Mary Anne gets home all the nurseries will be closed.  And I donít want you going out.  Itís too cold.  Now you sit here and Iím going to make you a cup of tea."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Balki sat on the couch sipping slowly at the mug of soup that Jennifer had made for him.  That had followed the cup of tea, the hot chocolate, and the cookies sheíd brought in to him over the last hour.  It was a good thing she was leaving soon, he thought with a smile, for if she continued to feed him at this rate he would surely explode before he could decorate the tree, which now stood unadorned in the window.  It was a little embarrassing that she should go to all the trouble for him, but in a way he had to admit that he enjoyed the attention.  Usually he tended to wait on everyone else, being ever anxious to let his friends know how important they were to him.

His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of his cousin, who had been loading the car for the imminent departure.  "Okay, the carís packed, weíre right on schedule.  Whereís Jennifer?"

"Iím right here," she said, as she came through the kitchen door. " Now, Balki, hereís some tissues, and some more cough drops.  Did you take your medicine?"

"Yes, I did," Balki said solemnly.

"How does your ear feel now?"

"Better.  It hardly hurts at all."  Which wasnít exactly the case, but Balki excused the white lie by reasoning that the truth would only complicate things further.

"Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"Yes," Balki said, setting the mug on the table and rising.  You can take Cousin Larry and get out of here before you miss your plane."

"Okay," she said distracted.  "Now thereís plenty more soup and juice if you want something before Mary Anne gets here.  And make sure you tell her that the freezerís full and that I left a roast defrosting in the refrigerator for tomorrowís dinner.  And your pills are on the kitchen counter.  Youíll need to take two more today, so donít forget."

"Okay.  Thank you.  And youíd better get going."  He put his arms around Jennifer and led her toward the door.  "Please donít worry about me. Iíll be fine."

"I canít help it.  I donít like leaving you this way."

Balki looked helplessly at Larry.  "Cousin . . . "

"Okay," Larry said, pulling Jennifer closer to the door.  "Weíre going."

Jennifer turned to kiss Balki, who turned his head away from her.

"Donít kiss me.  Youíll catch my cold."

"Balki, donít be stupid.."  She turned his face back around, kissed him lightly on the lips, then hugged him.  "You take care of yourself, and you and Mary Anne have a nice Christmas, okay?"

"Okay.  Tell your family Iím sorry I canít come, and you have a nice Christmas too."  He pushed Jennifer out the door, and turned to his cousin.

Larry pulled Balki into a long hug.  "Wish you could come with us."

"Me too."

"Take it easy, and feel better.  Weíll call you tonight."

"Okay."  Balki gave him an extra squeeze.  "Merry Christmas, Cousin."

"You too, Balki.  Bye."

Balki closed the door after the lingering Appletons, walked back to the couch and flopped down, feeling suddenly lonesome.  Which was ridiculous, because he had been the one to push them out the door, but this would be the first Christmas since his arrival in America that he would not be spending with Larry, and he knew that he would miss their usual traditions.  He glanced up at the empty tree and brightened.  At least he had Mary Anneís arrival to look forward to. He planned to have the house decorated by the time she arrived, but the farewells had taken their toll, and he thought heíd just rest a moment before he carried down the boxes of decorations that were stored in the attic.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Balki awoke with a start.  He hadnít intended to fall asleep, but heíd gotten so little rest over the past two nights that as soon as heíd allowed himself to relax he had dozed off. He could tell by the dim light filtering through the window that it must be late afternoon.  He felt appreciably worse than he had that morning, a fact which he found odd, since he had been to the doctor and begun to take the prescribed medication.

He swallowed with difficulty and tried to shake off the lingering drowsiness that seemed to envelop him.  As soon as he stood up the pain in his ear became intense, and he pressed a hand against the side of his head in an attempt to alleviate the hurt.  He walked slowly to the kitchen for some juice, stopping at the counter to select some pills from the neat array of bottles that Jennifer had left.  Two aspirins, one cold capsule, and one Amoxil from the small prescription bottle heíd picked up at the pharmacy.

He checked the clock, and realizing that he only had a few hours to decorate the tree and prepare for Mary Anneís arrival, quickly gulped down the pills and the juice.  Since they hadnít planned on leaving until Christmas Eve, the rest of the house was already decorated - - a strange mixture of candles in the windows, lights and garland over the doorways, and Balkiís own Myposian touches on the walls.  Therefore the only thing missing had been the tree, and Balki was secretly glad that there was to be one after all, as it was the American Christmas tradition of which he was the most fond.  He knew there would be one at the Lyonsí, but had felt badly to have no tree in their new house, even though he agreed with Larry that it would be foolish to go to all the trouble when they wouldnít even be home for the holiday.

Balki walked back through the living room, switching on the stereo as he passed.  Most of the local stations were playing nothing but Christmas Carols now, which he liked a lot, and he hoped perhaps the music would take his mind off the congestion and aches he was feeling until the medication began to kick in.  He carried several large boxes of decorations down from the attic in three trips and began sorting through them.  Before he actually got any tree trimming done he wanted to catalogue everything available so that he could place everything exactly where it should be on the tree.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Is anything wrong?"

Larry turned slowly from the window where heíd been looking out on the snow covered view from the guest bedroom belonging to his grandparents-in-law.  "Did you say something, Jen?"

Jennifer smiled at him from the doorway.  "I asked you if anything was wrong."

"No, of course not.  I was just thinking how much Balki would like the view from here right now."

Jennifer joined him at the window.  "Youíre right.  He never gets tired of snow, does he?"

"Never," Larry chuckled.  "You know the first time he ever saw snow was Christmas Eve his first year in America.  We were supposed to go to visit my family in Madison and . . . "

" . . . and you got snowed in and had to stay in Chicago.  I remember."

"Itís not quite the same without him here.  You know?"

Jennifer squeezed his hand.  "I miss him too, Larry.  Did you call him yet?"

"No. Iím going to, though.  Soon."  Larry felt embarrassed trying to explain to Jennifer that he felt kind of homesick, and he knew that hearing Balkiís voice would make him feel worse.  In his head he knew Balki would be fine.  Mary Anne was on her way home, and Balki would be feeling better in a couple of days.  Everything would return to normal soon.  But he found it difficult to shake the picture of Balki waving goodbye as theyíd driven down the street that morning.  And though Balki had been the one who insisted that they leave, Larry knew him well enough to know that the huskiness in his voice when they were saying goodbye had nothing whatsoever to do with his cold.

Maybe itís just Christmas, Larry decided.  As cynical as he could be at times, he still regarded Christmas and everything having to do with it in the rosy glow of childhood.  Which more or less described Balki on any given day, but he suspected that Christmas had a similar effect on his cousin as well.  And though Larry knew that the day after Christmas brought the resumption of normal life, and the same unresolved problems that had been there on December twenty third, he always expected everything to be perfect for the actual holiday.  He chided himself for feeling so foolishly, and went off in search of the telephone.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Balki sat on the sofa dejectedly.  The boxes heíd brought from the attic sat in front of him, unopened.  Heíd been just about to begin when the telephone had rung.  It was Mary Anne and sheíd sounded so upset that heíd been frightened for a moment that something had happened to her.  His relief that she was all right quickly turned to plummeting spirits as she explained to him that Heathrow was blanketed under a thick layer of fog that was not expected to lift until sometime late the next day.  All the planes were grounded.  Many of her co-workers were similarly stranded, and they were planning to go back to the hotel and have dinner together.  Mary Anne sounded close to tears, not for herself, but for Balki, and he was careful not to let his voice betray the disappointment he felt.  He assured her that he was fine, not to worry, and that heíd see her the day after Christmas.

When he hung up the phone he sat still for a few moments, blinking back the tears that were threatening to spill.  He dashed them away impatiently and told himself that he was behaving selfishly.  Mary Anne was fine.  Cousin Larry and Jennifer were having fun in Iowa.  Theyíd all be home in a couple of days, and things would be back to normal.  It was just that Christmas would be over by then.  And that right now, on Christmas Eve, he felt so very much alone.  He pushed the cartons of decorations away, and sat back, feeling one warm tear course down his cheek unchecked.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"I can hardly hear you, Balki.  Can you speak up?"  Larry put a finger in his free ear to block out the sounds of merriment coming from the living room.  It wasnít exactly that the Lyons were being overly loud.  Balki was almost whispering.

Balki cleared his throat carefully and tried to make him voice sound a bit more audible.  "Is that better?"

"A little bit.  You sound awful."

Balki tried to deflect the conversation.  "Iím glad you got there safely.  I was worried when it started snowing."

"Is it snowing there?  Why does your voice sound so terrible?"

"I donít know.  Itís just snowing a little bit.  Whatís it like there?"

"There was a storm yesterday - thereís about eight inches of snow on the ground.  The roads were fine coming in from the airport, but I think weíre supposed to get another few inches tonight.  How are you feeling?"

"Okay.  How are Jenniferís parents?"

"Fine.  Everyoneís fine.  They were all sorry you couldnít come.  They all send their love, and they want us to come down for a week next summer."

Balki smiled, feeling for a moment that he was somehow part of the festivities, even though he was miles away.  "That would be great.  Hang on a minute."  Balki put his hand tightly over the mouthpiece in an attempt to muffle a painful series of coughs that he didnít want his cousin to hear.

"Balki?"

Balki willed away the continuing tickle in his throat.  "Iím right here.  I was untangling the tree lights."

"Oh, youíre decorating the tree.  Howís it look?"

Balki looked up at the empty tree.  "Iím almost done.  It looks great."

"Good.  Donít forget thereís extra bulbs in the hall closet."

"Okay."  Feeling suddenly cold, Balki located his sweatshirt, which he had earlier dropped on the sofa, and pulled it over his head.

"What are you doing?  Whatís that rustling sound?"

"Nothing.  I was putting on my sweatshirt."

"Do you have the heat turned up high enough?"

Balki had to smile at Larryís concern.  "Yes.  Itís fine."

"Are you still running a fever?"

"Cousin, youíre starting to sound like Mama.  Iím fine.  Everythingís okay."

"Iím sorry.  Is Mary Anne there yet?"

"No, not yet."

"When should she be coming?"

"Iím not sure," Balki said evasively.  "Whenever she gets here, I guess."

"I called a while ago, the phone was busy."

"It was?  Well, Mrs. Schlegglemilch called earlier to say Merry Christmas before she left for her sonís house," Balki said vaguely, not mentioning that the phone call in question had taken place that morning before the Appletonsí departure.

"Okay."  Larry paused for a few moments, not quite sure of what he should say.  "It feels strange to be here without you, Balki."

Balkiís stomach tightened.  "Me too, Cousin."  He gripped the telephone receiver tighter, willing himself to remain in control.  "Are you having fun, though?"

"What?  Oh, yeah, itís great.  Jenniferís mother even gave me a hug."

"I guess thatís progress."  Balki felt as if he couldnít keep the conversation going much longer.  Sooner or later he was going to blurt out that he was alone and lonely and that Mary Anne wasnít able to get home, and that wouldnít change things at all, except to make Larry feel bad, and he wasnít about to do that.  "You know, Cousin, I really should get going.  Iíve still got so many things to do."

"Oh, right, of course.  Take your medicine?"

"I already did."

"Okay.  Iíll let you go then.  Give Mary Anne my love, and Iíll call again in the morning, all right?"

"Okay."

"Drink lots of juice."

Balki laughed softly.  "I will.  I promise."

"Miss you, Balki."

"I miss you too, Cousin.  Merry Christmas."

Balki hung up the phone slowly.  He checked his watch and noted that it was only seven thirty.  Suddenly he felt exhausted, and wanted nothing more than to crawl into his bed and sleep through the holiday.  The stereo still played softly, and Bing Crosby was singing "Iíll Be Home for Christmas."  Balki quickly walked over and turned off the radio.  No sense rubbing it in.  He walked around the living room, turning off the lights, made sure the door was locked, and dejectedly made his way up the steps.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jennifer hung up the phone in the kitchen and tried to collect her thoughts before she called Larry in from the living room.  Before she had a chance, her husband came through the door.

"Do you know if thereís any more cocktail sauce?"

Jennifer moved automatically to the refrigerator.  "I donít know.  Iíll look."

"How was Mary Anneís flight?  Iíll bet Balki was glad to see her."  Taking his cues from Jenniferís manner, Larry sensed that something was not right.  "What is it, Jen?  Heís okay, isnít he?" he asked, feeling a nervous flutter in his stomach.

"Larry, Mary Anneís not home.  She was calling from London."

"Sheís still in London?  I thought sheíd be home an hour ago," Larry asked, confused.

Jennifer nodded.  "She was supposed to be, but thereís a lot of fog, and the whole airport is closed down."

"Oh god . . . "  Larry felt his spirits deflate.  "Does Balki know?"

"Mary Anne said she called him three hours ago.  Before you talked to him."

"But he didnít say anything.  Why wouldnít he say something?"

"You know Balki.  He probably didnít want to upset you."

"Well . . . " Larry was flustered, and didnít know how to proceed.  "Well what are we going to do?"

Jennifer took the empty cocktail sauce bowl from his hand.  "I donít know about you.  Iím going upstairs to pack, and I suggest you call the airport and try to get us on a flight to Chicago tonight."

Larry swept her up in a hug.  "Youíre really terrific, you know that?  But what about your family?"

"Iíll explain to them.  Maybe we can all come down for New Yearís Eve or something."

"Are you sure?"

"Of course I am."  Jennifer handed him the telephone directory from the desk under the phone.  "Now call."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jenniferís parents had been none too happy about their leaving, Larry reflected to himself as he looked down on the lights of Illinois from the window of the plane.  Her father had gotten huffy, and her mother remarked over and over that she didnít understand all this fuss - did the foreign boy actually celebrate Christmas anyway?  Jenniferís grandfather had shushed them all, insisting that theyíd have a wonderful New Yearís party instead, and offering to drive Larry and Jennifer to the airport.  He told Larry with a twinkle in his eye that family looking out for family was a longstanding Lyons tradition - although sometimes it seemed to skip a generation.  For the first time Larry felt himself to be a very real part of Jenniferís family - at least a part of part of the family - and he vowed to think of something he could do to thank the old man for his kindness.

When they arrived at the airport they were told that all flights to Chicago were overbooked, but there had been two cancellations on a flight that was leaving within the hour, which would enable them to be home before midnight.  They had run quickly back to the car for the remaining luggage, and with the luck that seemed to be plaguing them this Christmas, were almost run over by a snowplow.  They managed to get out of the way just in time - Mr. Lyonsí car, however, was not so fortunate.

The elderly man was visibly shaken, and again Larry and Jennifer were faced with a dilemma of what to do.  Finally, Jennifer pulled Larry aside.

"Larry, thereís only one thing we can do, and donít say no until you hear me out."

Larry sighed deeply.  This was all too much for him, too many upheavals, too many problems.

"Iíll call my brother and heíll come out to get Grandpa," Jennifer continued.  "I know he wonít mind at all.  But thereís no way he can get here before that flight leaves.  And I donít want to leave Grandpa alone."

"I know, I donít either," Larry said wearily.  "I guess Iíll call Balki and tell him that we tried, but we just canít get home now.  He wonít be too disappointed, I guess, because he didnít know we were coming home anyway."

"Larry, I want you to listen to me.  I want you to take the flight, and Iíll catch one in the morning."

"No.  Absolutely not.  Weíll either go, or not go, but weíll do it together."

"Look . . . itís Christmas Eve.  Weíve been together all day.  Tomorrow is Christmas and Iíll be home sometime early in the day, and we can be together then.  But I think for the next few hours you need to help Balki, and I need to help my grandfather."

Larry looked skyward and wished things were different.  He wished theyíd never left Chicago in the first place, he wished London werenít fogged in, he wished Balki werenít sick.  He wished . . .  "Oh, Jen, I donít know what to say."

Jennifer kissed him on the cheek.  "Just say goodbye and Iíll see you tomorrow."

"But . . . "

"You know how stubborn I can be, Larry.  And make sure you call me when you get home, so I know you got there safely."

"I love you, Jen."

"I love you too, Larry."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It was after eleven when Larry pulled up outside the house.  He grabbed his suitcase from the back seat of the car and located his house key on his keychain.  It was snowing lightly, and he could see several of the neighborsí Christmas trees shining brightly through their windows.  All the windows of their own house were dark, and Larry reasoned that Balki must have already gone to bed.

Upon entering, Larry found the house silent, and as dark as the night outside.  He flipped on the light switch and was slightly unnerved to see the undecorated Christmas tree, and the piles of unopened boxes that lay around the room.  For a moment he was strangely afraid, and he dropped his suitcase and looked around the downstairs for Balki.

Taking the steps two at a time he hurried upstairs, pausing at the open door of Balkiís room until his eyes adjusted to the dim light given off by the streetlamps outside.  Balki lay sound asleep, curled up on his side.  He was breathing noisily, but at least he was breathing, and Larry felt foolish for having flown up the steps like a crazy person.  He reached down and felt Balkiís forehead.  Still pretty hot.  Balki stirred a bit but did not awaken, so Larry gently pulled up the covers around his cousin and tiptoed from the room.

He came down the steps slowly, wondering what he should do next.  Heíd come home to be with Balki, but he didnít want to wake him, knowing that he desperately needed the rest to get well.  Suddenly the idea came to him.  He shrugged off his coat, hung it in the closet, and rolled up his sleeves, ready to work.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Balki awoke slowly.  For the first few moments he was disoriented, not quite sure where he was, or what had awakened him.  At first he thought perhaps Larry or one of the girls had called him, but then he remembered he was alone in the house.  It was still completely dark outside.  He squinted at the clock on the bedside table, noting that it was nearly four in the morning.  He closed his eyes and tried to doze off again, but sleep eluded him, and he sat up slowly and ran a hand through his hair.  All the sadness he had felt the previous night was back, in addition to which he felt congested and his head hurt.

He padded to the bathroom to get some aspirin, but realized that Jennifer had brought the upstairs bottle down to the kitchen the morning before.  He debated for a moment whether he should venture downstairs to get them, or just try to go back to bed and sleep.  Deciding that he couldnít do anything about being sad, but might as well try to abate the headache, he slipped back into his room to retrieve a bathrobe and walked to the top of the steps.

Just before he started down, he was startled to see light filtering up from the living room.  He was sure he had checked all the lamps before heíd gone to bed.  Cocking his head to one side he listened carefully.  The radio was playing.  Maybe heíd missed a light or two, but he was positive he had turned the stereo off.  Could someone have broken into the house?  Stealthily he crept down the steps.

What he saw when he reached the bottom was more than he could take in at a single glance.  At first he thought he must be dreaming, but he was pretty sure that he was awake.  Frowning, he felt his own forehead to see it he was delirious, but detected no more warmth than had been there the night before.  He closed his eyes and shook his head gently, careful of the headache, and opened his eyes again.  The picture was the same.

The boxes heíd left strewn about the room were gone.  The tree stood glowingly decorated in the window.  There were piles of presents everywhere.  Looking to his left, he saw a blazing fire in the fireplace.  The four stockings that he, Larry, Jennifer and Mary Anne had hung last weekend over the fireplace now bulged with brightly wrapped packages.  The stereo played Christmas music softly.  He didnít know what to do, so he simply stood behind the couch, trying to make sense of what he saw.  The room looked so beautiful, so inviting, but his eyes kept drifting back to the tree in the window.  He couldnít ever remember seeing one more wonderfully decorated.

Slowly his eyes swept the room again, at last coming to rest on the doorway of the kitchen.  Leaning against the doorway, smiling, arms folded across his chest, was Cousin Larry.

"Merry Christmas, Balki."

"Cousin . . . "  Words escaped him, and he flew across the room, throwing himself into Larryís arms with a hug that nearly knocked them both over.  "Cousin . . . Cousin . . . "

Larry hugged Balki back tightly, laughing, knowing that his efforts had been the correct thing to do.  He pulled Balki away from him, holding him by the shoulders to get a look at his face.  "Like it?"

"Itís wonderful! It looks perfect!  I canít believe you did this!" He looked behind Larry.  "Where is Cousin Jennifer?"

Still smiling, Larry led Balki over to the sofa.  "Sheís still in Iowa."

"But . . . "

"Itís a long story.  When we found out that Mary Anne couldnít make it home in time - - "

"How did you find that out?"

"Mary Anne was worried about you.  She called Jennifer at the farm - - anyway, we decided to come home, but Jenniferís grandfatherís car was hit in the parking lot, so she stayed with him Ďtil her brother could come, but she missed the flight.  Anyhow, sheíll be home sometime in the morning.  Balki, whatís the matter?"

Balki had put a hand up to his mouth and he was shaking.  The magnitude of what Larry had done, and had sacrificed for him, was overwhelming.  "I . . . I canít . . . "

Concerned now, Larry put an arm around Balkiís shoulders.  "Balki, what is it?  What hurts?"

"No . . . no . . . "  Balkiís voice trailed off and he blinked his eyes, sending a cascade of tears down his cheeks.

Larry shook him gently.  "Balki, tell me," he said in a firm voice.

Balki wiped the tears from his cheeks, and sniffled.  "Nothing hurts.  Itís just - - I . . . "  He smiled shyly at Larry and tried again.  "I canít believe that you would go to all this trouble for me.  I cannot believe that you and Cousin Jennifer would change your plans so that I wouldnít be alone.  Thank you, Cousin, thank you . . . "  Balkiís voice trailed off as he pulled Larry into a tight embrace.

Larry blinked his own eyes which were suddenly wet.  "Didnít seem like Christmas without you, Balki. Iím glad I came home too."

Finally Balki let go of his cousin, and sat back.  He wiped his eyes again.  He looked over at the tree again, then back at Larry.  "How long did it take you to do this?"

"A couple of hours," Larry shrugged.  "I came home before midnight and you were already asleep.  I didnít want to wake you, and things in here didnít look very Christmassy, so . . . "

"I didnít have the . . . feeling to decorate after Mary Anne called."

"But why didnít you say something when you were on the phone with me?"

It was Balkiís turn to shrug.  "I didnít want to upset your Christmas."  He sighed sadly.  "And now I have anyway."

"Balki," Larry began seriously.  "Donít you ever say that.  The look on your face when I came through the kitchen door was worth anything."  He leaned in close to Balki, and spoke in a confidential whisper.  "And just between you and me . . . I was just as glad to get away.  Jenniferís mother makes me nervous."

Balki considered this for a moment, then dissolved into laughter. Jenniferís mother made him nervous too.  Almost immediately, however, his laughter turned to a harsh cough that left him breathless and teary eyed again.

Larryís own smile left him at once.  He patted Balki on the back while his cousin tried to regain his breath.  "You sound terrible."  He reached up and felt Balkiís forehead.  "Youíre really warm.  Howís the ear?"

"Okay."

"Sure it is," Larry said as he disappeared into the kitchen, returning quickly with a thermometer and a glass of water.  "Let me take your temperature, then you can have a drink."  He shook the thermometer down and popped it into Balkiís mouth.

Balki mumbled a string of unintelligible syllables around the thermometer.

Larry looked at him strangely for a minute, then said, "Yeah, I know what you mean - it is miserable to be sick at Christmas.  One year I had the chicken pox and it was just awful."

Balki uttered another garbled observation which ended in a question.

"No, I got them the day before Christmas Eve.  My mom let me come downstairs to open my presents, but I donít remember much of what I got that year.  Mostly I remember just wanting to hide in a closet and scratch," he finished, scratching absentmindedly at his chest in remembrance.

Balki gave a lopsided grin and mumbled again.

"Yes it does, and stop talking.  The thermometer wonít register right."  Larry checked his watch and said, "Okay, I think thatís long enough."  He removed the thermometer from Balkiís mouth, handed him the glass of water, and leaned over to the light in order to read the tiny numbers on the instrument.  "Itís a hundred and one.  What was it this morning?"

Balki drained the water glass and set it on the coffee table in front of him.  "A hundred and one."

"Then it didnít go down at all," Larry frowned.

"But it didnít go up either," Balki said with a smile.

Larry had to smile at Balkiís optimistic outlook, which often irritated him, but this time seemed just one more reason to be glad he was at home.

As for Balki, all the uncharacteristic feelings of depression had vanished into the night air.  He didnít even mind being sick any more - the aches and sniffles seemed like a minor annoyance in comparison with the prospect of spending the holiday by himself.  And he had to admit that he found Larryís concern for his well being very comforting.  He knew that his cousin cared for him deeply, but often words of caring were hidden under layers of Appleton brusqueness, besides which he knew that Larryís emotions did not reside as close to the surface as his own.  The effects of the fever and the interrupted sleep, however, were still very much a part of Balki at the moment and he shivered slightly, an action that did not escape his cousinís careful scrutiny.

"Cold?"

"A little," Balki admitted.

"Itís still the middle of the night.  Why donít you go back to bed?"

"I donít want to.  I would rather just stay here and be with the tree.  Is that okay?"

Larry touched Balkiís shoulder lightly.  "Of course it is."  He pulled the afghan from the back of the sofa and draped it around Balkiís shoulders.  "Here you go.  Maybe this will help."

Balki pulled the covering tight and leaned his head back on the sofa.  "Thatís much better.  Thank you, Cousin."  His eyes strayed to the heap of presents under the tree.  "Where did all the presents come from?"

"The closet.  Those are all of our presents for each other, you and Mary Anne.  We didnít take them with us because you couldnít go and Mary Anne wasnít going to be there.  We thought weíd open them when the four of us were all together."

Balki buried his head in the blanket and coughed again.

"Balki, are you sure you shouldnít go back to bed?"

Balki shrugged his shoulders.  "Itís worse when I lie down.  I cough more and my head gets stuffed up."  He looked over at Larry.  "But why donít you go to bed, Cousin?  You must be exhausted."

"Thatís all right.  Iím not tired at all.  How about we toast Christmas with a cup of tea and a chaser of Nyquil?"

"That sounds just about right."  Balki pushed the blanket away.  "Let me get it."

Larry pulled the blanket back up around Balki.  "No, Iíve got it.  You stay here and keep warm.  Larry stood up and stretched.  "Iíll be right back."  He walked to the kitchen and put the kettle on to boil.  While the water heated he poured out a measure of decongestant into a small plastic cup, and took down the mugs and teabags from their appointed shelves.  He then stole a glance into the living room.  Balki has burrowed deeply into the afghan and was rubbing his eyes, and Larry knew, as had become Balkiís custom over the past few days, that he felt much worse than he was letting on.  Larry checked the label of the bottle of medicine, glad to see that it would most likely make Balki drowsy, knowing that sleep was probably the most valuable asset the medicine could provide.  When the tea was ready he placed the mugs, medicine, and a heaping plate of cookies on a tray and walked slowly back to the living room.

Balki accepted the steaming mug gratefully, his hands closing around its warmth.

"Medicine first," Larry warned, holding out the small cup.  "If you drink it all you can have a cookie," he grinned, indicating the plate of chocolate chips.

Balki drank it all in one gulp, then held out his hand.  "Yuck.  Whereís my cookie?"

Larry passed the plate as he sat down, taking a handful for himself as Balki began munching.  Larry took a bite, but stopped mid-chew, and looked down at the cookie suddenly.  "Balki, um . . . did you make these?"  His many encounters with Myposian cuisine had made him more wary over the years.

Balki swallowed his mouthful and looked at his cousin solemnly.  "Donít worry, Cousin.  Mary Anne made this batch."

Larry nodded, relieved.  "Just wondering."  He took another bite of the cookie, feeling suddenly ravenous.  He realized that as heíd left the Lyonsí before dinner was served, and only had a handful of salted peanuts on the plane, this was very understandable.  He finished the first cookie, and started on the second.

Balki took a few sips of his tea and set the mug down.  "Cousin?"

"Mm?"

"I would like to thank you again for . . . " he indicated the room with a toss of his head, "for all of this, and for caring enough about me to come home.  I know you must miss Cousin Jennifer."  Despite his joy at Larryís return, Balki felt quite guilty for being the cause of the newleywedsí forced separation.

"Sheíll be home in a few hours.  And thereís no need to thank me, Balki.  This is what friends do.  And you know what else?"

Balki shook his head.

"This is one year that I donít have to search to find the Christmas Feeling.  Itís just here inside," he said, touching his chest.  "And it will still be here when the girls get home."  He was silent for a moment, then he said softly, "And you know what, Balki?"

"No, Cousin, what?"

"I have a feeling that this year it may stay with me long after the holidays are over.  And thatís partly because of all the great things that have happened to me this year.  And partly because of you.  Thank you, Balki."  It was never easy for Larry to express his feelings, but he truly meant this, and was glad heíd not missed the opportunity.

Balki smiled shyly, patting Larry on the knee.  "I think itís mostly because of you, Cousin."  He sneezed then, and fished in the pocket of his robe for a tissue.

"Bless you.  I really think youíd be better off in bed."

"No, Cousin, I want to stay here."

"All right, but how about closing your eyes for awhile?"

"But Iím not sleepy at all," Balki murmured, stifling a yawn.

"Humor me," Larry replied, and he got up and turned off all the lights, leaving the room illuminated only by the tree and the fireplace.  He settled back down on the couch next to Balki, who had turned toward the tree, obviously still fighting to keep his eyes open.  Larry could feel Balkiís back, warm against his arm.

Balki yawned again, then looked over his shoulder at Larry, eyes drooping.  "Iím just wide awake, Cousin.  Thereís nothing I can do about it . . . . "

Larry smiled, knowing that Balki would soon doze off.  He tucked the afghan tighter around Balkiís arm.  "Thatís okay. Just rest a while."  After a few moments the weight of Balkiís back against his increased, and the deep and even breaths indicated to him that Balki was, at last, asleep.

Larry sighed softly and allowed himself to relax.  He lay his own head back against the couch, contented, and gazed at the fireplace, awaiting the dawn.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Merry Christmas, Larry."  He heard Jenniferís voice, speaking softly in his ear, and opened his eyes slowly.  Jennifer was leaning over the back of the couch, and she reached down and kissed him on the cheek.  "Weíre home.  Wake up."

Larry couldnít believe his eyes when he turned around and saw Jennifer standing behind him.  He was thrilled, for he hadnít expected her until much later in the day.  "Oh, Jen.  Iím so glad youíre home!  Howís your grandfather - did you say Ďweí?"  Larry looked around and saw Mary Anne, standing next to Jennifer, grinning.  "Mary Anne!  How did you get here?"

"The fog lifted.  I called Jennifer, and we were able to meet up at the airport and ride home together.  Howís Balki?"

Larry looked down at Balki who was still leaning against him, sound asleep.  "Heís going to be fine," he said with a smile.  He carefully extricated himself from behind his cousin and leaned over the sofa back, kissing first Jennifer, then Mary Anne.  "Iím so glad you guys are home.  Letís go get some coffee and let him sleep," he said, indicating Balki.

Despite his efforts not to wake his cousin, Balki stirred on the sofa.  Larry leaned down to speak.  "Balki?  You awake?"

Balki opened his eyes sleepily.  "Good morning, Cousin," he said, pushing the hair back off his forehead.  "What time is it?"

"Time for you to get up," Jennifer said softly leaning over.

"Merry Christmas, Balki," added Mary Anne.

Balki jumped up, ran around the sofa and hugged the girls tightly.  "Youíre home, youíre home!"  He finally released Jennifer, who squeezed his arm, then went to stand by Larry.  Balki continued to embrace Mary Anne for a long moment.  He felt his heart bursting with joy.  Last evening things had seemed so bleak and lonely, and now in the room with him were the three people that he cared about most in the world.  "Iím so happy that you are home."

"So are we," replied Mary Anne, stroking his hair.  "I felt so bad when I talked to you last night."  She looked around.  "The house looks beautiful, Balki.  Did you do all this?"

"No, Cousin Larry did.  I was so sad that you couldnít come, I didnít want to decorate the tree any more.  Didnít he do a wonderful job?"

Larry shrugged, embarrassed.  "I got home and Balki was already asleep so I decided to surprise him."

Jennifer looked at him with pride.  "Sometimes, Larry, you just amaze me.  Everything looks great."  She turned to Balki and looked him over appraisingly.  "And how are you feeling?"

"Much better, because youíre all home with me," he answered, putting his arm around Mary Anne.  "Nothing else matters."

"Well, it matters to me," Jennifer began in a business-like tone.  "You get back on that couch while Mary Anne and I fix us all a Christmas breakfast.  Larry, take his temperature, and then go get him some medicine while we cook."

"But - -, " Balki began.

"Yes, maíam," Larry said crisply, and led Balki back to the couch, pushing him down.  He picked up the thermometer from the table where he had left it the night before and popped it into Balkiís mouth before he could protest.

Balki let forth a string of unintelligible gibberish.

"What?"

Balki repeated his syllabic concoction.

Larry nodded his head in perfect understanding.  "Yes.  Yes it is," he said evenly.

Balki rolled the thermometer to the side of his mouth.  "Cousin, you couldnít possibly have understood that."

"Well sure I did."

"What did I say?"

Larry pointed to the window.  "You said itís a good thing the girls came home when they did because itís snowing harder now."  Balkiís mouth hung open in disbelief and Larry reached over with one finger and popped his cousinís chin closed.  He folded his arms across his chest, pleased with himself.  "So there," he intoned, unable to resist.

Balki shook his head in wonder.  "Just when you think you know someone," he thought, "you spend Christmas Eve on a couch with them and find out all kinds of things you never suspected."

Jenniferís voice filtered in from the kitchen.  "Howís his fever, Larry?"

Larry squinted at the thermometer, thinking to himself that even in daylight the thing was difficult to read.  "Itís just over a hundred," he said over his shoulder in the general vicinity of the kitchen.  He turned back around and frowned at Balki.  "Itís not normal yet," he said.

"But it didnít go up, it went down," Balki replied, "so thatís a good thing, donít you think?"

Larryís frown turned to a grin.  He reached over and tousled Balkiís hair gently.  "You know, youíre right. Thatís a very good thing."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Thank you again for the bathrobe and slippers, Mary Anne," Balki said.  He quickly fluffed a tissue from the box on the table and sneezed.

"Youíre welcome, Balki.  Wear them in good health," Mary Anne replied, then looked up at him.  "I mean . . . "

"I know what you mean.  And thank you."  He smiled gently at her, then looked over at Larry who was sprawled in front of the fireplace.  "Are you okay, Cousin?"

Larry looked up at him.  "I knew I shouldnít have eaten that last piece of pie.  I feel like Iím about to burst. I canít ever remember a Christmas dinner as good as that, can you?"

"No, I canít.  Iím just sorry you wouldnít let me help you, Cousin Jennifer, that was too much work."

"Donít be silly, Balki," she replied.  "It was no trouble at all."

Balki was quiet for a few moments, reflecting on the day that was now drawing too quickly to a close.  He really was feeling better, and his ear hadnít hurt since early in the day.  Perhaps the antibiotic was finally beginning to take hold.  He was still running a slight temperature, but only enough to make him sort of sleepy and sluggish.  In spite of everything, he couldnít remember a time when he had felt more contented.

They had stretched the gift opening process out over the day, and spent the afternoon playing games, laughing, and best of all, simply enjoying each otherís company.  There had been phone calls from Iowa, phone calls to Mypos and Christmas greetings from Madison.  The only thing that troubled Balki at all was the feeling that he had upset the holiday for Jennifer and Larry, and he hoped that somehow in the days ahead, he could show them how sorry he was for messing things up.

His thoughts were interrupted by Larry, who had managed to roll himself into a sitting position.  "Digdah for your thoughts, Balki."

Balki grinned.  "I was just thinking how very much you all mean to me," he said, taking Mary Anneís hand and playing with her fingers, "and how wonderful it is to be together like this."

"I feel the same way, Balki," Larry said, his smile taking in the entire group.  "This has turned out to be a wonderful Christmas, hasnít it?"

"It sure has," offered Mary Anne, "even if it didnít start out that way.  And I want you all to know that I feel the same way as Balki."

"Thanks, Mary Anne," said Jennifer softly.  "And thatís the way I feel too."

Balki smiled at her, then looked down at his lap, blinking his eyes several times.

"Whatís the matter, Balki?  You okay?" asked Larry, concerned.

"Oh, yes, Iím okay.  Thereís just one thing that keeps bothering me."

"Whatís that?"

Balki looked over at his Cousin-in-law.  "Jennifer, I want you to know how very, very sorry I am to have upset your plans."

"Balki, it certainly wasnít your fault that you got sick.  Thatís not something you can control."

"I know that.  I really do.  But I cannot help but feel bad that you all have gone to all this trouble for me."

"But we didnít mind.  We wanted to do it."

"But . . . but you wanted so much to spend this Christmas with your family."

Jennifer nodded.  "I did."

"I know you did.  And Iím sorry."

"No, I donít mean ĎI did want toí.  I mean I did spend Christmas with my family."  She looked at Balki for long moment, then at Mary Anne, and finally at Larry.  "See, this funny thing happened to me when we were in Iowa.  Suddenly when I thought of Balki here alone, and Mary Anne trying so hard to get out of London . . this strange feeling came over me."

Larry swallowed hard.  "You - youíre not trying to tell me youíre pregnant, are you?"

Jennifer laughed.  "No, donít panic, Larry.  Iím not pregnant.  That I know of," she added, wiping the relieved expression immediately from Larryís face.  "No, thatís not what Iím trying to say.  What Iím trying to say is that I was homesick."

"But you were home," said Balki, puzzled.  "How could you be homesick?  You were with your family."

"With some of my family," she continued.  "Because thatís when I realized that this is my home."  Her gaze took them all in.  "And you are my family.  And this is where I wanted to be."

Balkiís heart filled with happiness.  He no longer felt uncertain about his place in the household.  In that moment he realized that Larry and Jennifer had not come home out of a sense of duty, but because they had wanted to.  "Thank you, Cousin Jennifer," he said in a soft voice.  "And I understand because when I went back to Mypos my thoughts were only filled with pictures of the three of you.  You are all my family, and I love you all."

"Ditto," intoned Mary Anne, reaching for a tissue from Balkiís box.  "My eyes are watery all of a sudden.  Do you think Iím catching Balkiís flu?"

Larry looked around the room.  He had come very far from being the eldest of the Appleton brood in Madison, Wisconsin.  In a quick moment, he relived the past six years since he had up and moved to Chicago, and he thought about these three people who had forever changed him.  He slowly got up and went over to hug Jennifer.  "Merry Christmas, Jen."

"Merry Christmas, Larry."

He made his way over to the sofa, where he put an arm around Mary Anne, pulling her close.  "Merry Christmas, Mary Anne," he said.

"Merry Christmas."

Larry paused a moment to look at Balki, then hugged him tightly.  "Merry Christmas, Balki."

Balki returned the hug with equal emotion.  "Merry Christmas, Cousin."

Larry slowly walked over and sat down on the arm of the chair in which Jennifer was sitting.  He looked around at his family.  He doubted he had ever been happier in his life.

THE END