Jen meets him at the door with Violet clinging to her leg. Her smile is one-quarter “I’m sorry you’re hurting” and three-quarters “but I’m happy to see you”. Matt sweeps her up in a hug.
“You made good time,” she says when they step apart.
“Yeah, traffic wasn’t too bad.” Matt holds out his arms to Violet, who shrieks as he swings her up into the air. “How’s my little flower?”
“I got a puppy from Santa,” she replies proudly.
“Oh yeah? Where is it?”
“Outside. With Daddy.”
“Well, let’s go see.” He sets her back on her feet and she runs off through the kitchen. He looks at Jen. “She’s getting so big. Just think, soon there’ll be boyfriends.”
Jen groans. “Don’t start.”
Matt laughs, and follows her through the house and out the back door. Ben is on the deck, watching Violet throw a tennis ball for the dogs to chase. He turns as they come out, his smile infectious, and hugs Matt tightly. “Hey Matty.”
“How’s it going?” Matt shrugs, and Ben squeezes his arm. “It’ll get better.”
"Yeah." He leans against Ben for a moment, and Jen slides her arm through his on the other side. Her hair whips around in the breeze. "Everyone keeps telling me that."
That night, Matt's awake in the guest room, looking at the blank moonlight on the white sheets, trying to clear his head enough to sleep, when the door opens and he sees Ben looking in. "You awake?"
"I've been awake for almost three days," Matt sighs. And he has – he didn't sleep the first night after Lucy left, and then he drove ten hours straight down the coast.
Ben sits down on the edge of the bed and his fingers brush over Matt's wrist. "I'm sorry."
Matt sits up. "You've got nothing to be sorry for, Ben."
"You know what I mean." Ben crawls in next to him and Matt breathes him in. "I hope you'll stay awhile."
"Not like I have anything to go back to." The words stick in his throat and Ben pulls him close. "Those are my kids, too, and she just –" he stops. Ben kisses his forehead, his temple, his cheek, the corner of his mouth, but it's Matt that finds Ben's mouth with his own, blindly seeking those few seconds where he can just stop thinking.
"Jen know you're in here?" he asks when the kiss ends.
"It was her idea," Ben murmurs, pressing kisses to Matt's neck.
Matt laughs and then says sternly, "Don’t you ever let her go."
"Don't plan on it."
Matt yawns, feeling like he can finally fall asleep. Ben's still holding him tight, close and true like they haven't been in years. "Thanks," he whispers.
Ben nuzzles his neck. "Sleep, Matty. I'll stay."
Matt hums against Ben's shoulder and falls asleep without thinking any more.
He spends most of the next day out in the backyard with Violet, bundled up in a sweater and a scarf borrowed from Ben because he'd left his behind in Manhattan, rolling around with the dogs and pushing Violet on the swing set. She's named the new puppy Oliver and insists he get to ride on the swing with her. Matt obliges but doesn't let them go very high, since Violet's holding on to the puppy a little tighter than she is to the swing.
Jen comes out to check on them a few times, bringing coffee and warm apple cider out to the picnic table. "She loves you to death, you know," she says to Matt.
"And you know I adore her." Matt sips his coffee.
Jen pushes back her hood, then reaches out and squeezes his hand. "Did you get some sleep last night?"
Matt coughs and turns red. Jen stares at him a moment before she bursts out laughing, her head thrown back, her hand covering her mouth, until her eyes water and Violet comes running over to see what's going on. "Nothing, sweetie, Uncle Matt was just telling me a funny," she says, wiping at her eyes. "Oh, Matty, I'm sorry. It's okay. I've known for a long time. I probably should have let on." She cups his cheek with her gloved hand. "It's okay," she says again.
Matt lets out the breath he didn't know he was holding.
"Come on," Jen says, gathering up the mugs. "It'll be dark out soon and you can help me with dinner. Ben should be back in a little while."
Matt picks Violet up off the swing, promising stories and hot cocoa after dinner, and carries her into the house, Oliver on his heels. "Jen, the other dogs?" he calls out to her.
"They like to stay out." She holds the door open for them with her hip, blowing a kiss at Violet as they pass. "Don't worry, they'll bark to come in anyway."
"So what are we making?" Matt asks as he helps Violet out of her coat before she makes a beeline for the television.
"Something easy." She heads into the kitchen and Matt follows. "I've got noodles in the cupboard and a jar of spaghetti sauce in the pantry. A little doctoring, it'll be good to go."
"You are the goofiest most straightforward woman I have ever met," Matt laughs. "No wonder Ben loves you."
Jen grins at him over her shoulder. "Stick around; you'll love me, too."
Ben breezes through the door just as Matt's sliding the garlic bread from the oven. "Smells good," he says, stopping to kiss Jen, then stealing a cucumber from the salad before stopping to kiss a slightly confused Matt right as Violet comes running into the room. Matt steps back as Violet runs into Ben's legs and looks up at him quizzically. Jen makes an "eek!" face at Matt behind Ben's back, and Matt shrugs hopelessly, still holding the garlic bread.
"Daddy, why are you kissing Uncle Matt?"
"Because I love him," Ben says firmly, and this seems to be a good enough answer for her. "Hungry?"
"Go wash your hands quick."
Ben waits until she's out of the room before turning to them. "Well, team, crisis averted!" he says, and Jen leans against the sink and tries not to laugh. "Honey, it's not nice to laugh at your children," he admonishes her, but he's grinning. "If Matt's gonna stay here awhile, she's going to see it sooner or later."
Matt's still standing still. "Wait, what?"
"Stay," Ben says simply. "Stay, and be part of our family for awhile. Not that you're not, but… you know what I mean, right?"
Matt hasn't been this speechless since they were trying to remember everyone's name at the Oscars. Jen rolls her eyes at her husband, walks over, slides her arms around Matt's neck and kisses him. After a second, Matt kisses back. She tastes like the coffee she's been drinking and she pushes him back against the refrigerator with her knee between his. Matt clutches at her waist. Then Ben clears his throat and they break apart just before Violet comes through the doorway.
"I see why you married her," Matt manages, and Ben starts to laugh.
"You'll stay in our room tonight," Jen breathes in his ear. Then she slips away back to the stove, and Matt sits down heavily in one of the kitchen chairs. Ben squeezes his shoulder, running his thumb over the back of Matt's neck. Together he and Jen get everything to the table, and they sit down on either side of Matt. "You're thinking about it too much," Jen says in a conversational tone, and nudges Matt with her foot.
"Yeah, Matty, don't think," Ben teases. He cuts up Violet's spaghetti and slides her plate across to her. Matt looks over at him. Ben smiles warmly. "We wouldn't offer if we didn't mean it, and – here's the thing, Matty – you can make all the rules. Okay? You call the shots."
Matt winds some pasta around his fork. "Just one question."
"There's a lock on your bedroom door, right?"