Doctor Gregory House and other canon characters featured in this work of fiction belong to NBC/Universal and David Shore. Original characters are my creation. I make no money from writing these stories, it's done for pure enjoyment. All literary passages, quotes and song lyrics are used without permission; I do not own them or make money from using them.

. . . And my heart springs up anew,

Bright and confident and true,

And my old love comes to meet me in the dawning and the dew.

-'I Who All The Winter Through,' Robert Louis Stevenson

January 8th

Sarah put the first load of wash in the dryer and closed the door. From the other end of the house came the faint noise of a hammer at work. When she heard it, she couldn't help but smile. One week into the project, and Greg had practically taken it over. His eagerness had surprised her; she'd expected resistance, sullen silence, arguments despite his agreement to help out. Instead he'd thrown himself into the work. At the moment he was involved in the addition of bookshelves to the north wall. She'd tried to get him to consider the rental of a set of steps with rails from the local hardware store, mainly because she was worried about his balance issues.

"I'm not that decrepit yet!" he'd snapped at her.

"How about the little stepladder then?" she'd asked. "No rails, but it won't tip easily either."

Sarah knew he used it with great reluctance. As a thank you for his concession, she did her very best to leave him alone. Let the man have some dignity, she thought. Nagging will not help him open up. She sighed and set the dryer for thirty minutes when the phone rang. She hurried to answer it; Gene might call once he reached Dallas, if he had time. But it was a friend from across the village who spoke on the other end.

"Hi Sare! Can I ask you a big favor?"

"Hey Marti. Sure, what's up?" Sarah wedged the phone between her neck and shoulder as she sorted colors and whites.

"Mom needs me to come down for the day. Dad's not doing well and we may have to move him to the hospice sooner than we expected." Marti sounded resigned. "I can't take Chelsea and the church daycare is still on holiday schedule, could you watch her for me? I should be back around suppertime."

"I'd love to," Sarah said. "Want me to swing by?"

"I can bring her over on the way, no problem." The relief in Marti's voice made Sarah smile. "Thanks, you're a lifesaver."

"Yeah, big and round with a hole in the middle," Sarah said. Marti chuckled.

"But sweet too. We'll be by in a half hour or so."

Sarah hung up and went to the back room. The bang of the hammer grew louder as she approached. It was interrupted by a clang and a muttered curse. She didn't enter, just stood on one side of the doorway and peeked in.

"Everything okay?" she asked in a neutral tone. Greg turned a bit, his finger still in his mouth. Fierce blue eyes glared down at her. He removed his finger to reveal a small cut. It bled freely but didn't appear to be lethal.

"Peachy," he growled. "Whaddaya want?"

"Thought you'd like to know we'll have company shortly. Her name's Chelsea, she's brunette with hazel eyes and loves to have fun," Sarah said, enjoying herself. Greg's features brightened a bit.

"Is she stacked? You know, nice rack, decent booty?"

"Not really, no. But she does enjoy playing in the kitchen." Sarah gave him a salacious wink. "If you know what I mean."

Greg stared at her. "Huh," he said, clearly suspicious but also intrigued. She sauntered away. Twenty minutes later, when Marti handed her four-year-old daughter over to Sarah and took her leave, the look on Greg's face was priceless.

"A kid. Great news, if you're a pedophile." He stumped off. Sarah unzipped Chelsea's coat and gave the little girl a smile.

"It's so nice to have you visit," she said, and meant it. "Let's put your things away. Then we can decide what you'd like to do today."

"Makin' cookies!" Chelsea hopped up and down with excitement, and Sarah laughed.

"Okay, we'll bake some cookies. Maybe you could help me draw pictures later on too, after lunch. We need new ones for the fridge."

"I can help," Chelsea said as she took off her hat and mittens. "I color good."

Soon enough they were in the kitchen. Chelsea had a clean white tea towel pinned around her small frame, and Sarah wore her apron.

"What kind should we make?" Sarah flipped through the pages of a big Betty Crocker cookbook with Chelsea at her side. The little girl pointed to a picture of a plateful of sugar cookies. "Good choice. You get the butter and I'll get the flour."

Soon enough the mixer held a batch of dough ready to roll out and bake. "We'll divide it in half. That way you can take some home for your family," Sarah said. "What kind of shapes do you want to use?"

Chelsea considered the cutters spread out on the tabletop. "Star . . . an' stocking . . . an' the gingerbread man."

"Those are for Christmas." Greg stood in the doorway. The expression on his face was unreadable. For a moment Sarah saw him as a small boy, alone and silent as he watched other children play and laugh.

"Greg, this is Chelsea Butterman," she said. "Chelsea, this is my friend Greg House. He's staying with me and Uncle Gene for a while."

Chelsea regarded Greg for a few moments. "You have a boo-boo."

"I smashed my finger with a hammer," he said. "That makes me a klutz, but at least I know what time of year it isn't."

"What's a klutz?" Chelsea wanted to know. Greg rolled his eyes.

"Kid, if you have to ask you'll never know." He shifted his stare to Sarah. "She wants to make Christmas cookies and it's January. Her mental development leaves something to be desired."

"Oh, I don't know. There are stars out every clear night," Sarah said, and hid a smile. "I wear stockings now and then all year long."

"You wear Christmas stockings," Greg said, his intent to mock plain. He gave Chelsea a sharp glance when she giggled, then relaxed a little when he saw she hadn't laughed at him, just what he'd said. Sarah knew a moment of sadness. He automatically assumes laughter is meant to be cruel. She set the feeling aside and gave him a puzzled look, eyebrows raised.

"Who doesn't?" she asked, her tone nonchalant. "I like the ones with gold sequins the best."

"Figures you'd be a frustrated stripper." Greg leaned against the doorjamb and looked down his nose at her. "Explain the gingerbread man."

"He . . . came back home after he ran away at Christmas," Sarah said. Improvisation wasn't her strong suit. "He didn't want to get eaten." Chelsea giggled again and Greg groaned.

"Yeesh. Enabler." He straightened. "Need some sustenance."

Sarah nodded. "We just need to put the dough into the fridge to chill, then we'll get something to eat."

Lunch turned out to be sandwiches and apple slices, enjoyed in front of the fire as they sat on a tablecloth, picnic style. Well, she and Chelsea ate there. Greg declined to join them and took his ham on rye with him into the office, along with a beer.

"He's a cranky-pants," Chelsea said. She munched an apple slice. "Why's he like that? Is it 'cause his leg hurts?"

"Sometimes." Sarah sipped her iced tea. "People are different. They come in all shapes and sizes and colors, and they can be grumpy or funny or everything in between. That's just how they are, like you and me."

Chelsea absorbed this information without comment. She was a child with a lively and capacious intelligence; you rarely had to tell her anything twice, and she was perfectly able to arrive at her own rather astute conclusions.

"My Pop-pop's gonna go to heaven," she said after a moment. Sarah nodded.

"I understand."

"Does he have to?" Chelsea's bottom lip quivered. "I don't want him to go."

"He's a good grandpa, isn't he?" Sarah said softly. "I don't think he wants to leave you, sweetie."

"What's wrong with him?" The little girl came over to Sarah and climbed into her lap. Sarah snuggled her in, her arms around the small form.

"His heart doesn't work right anymore."

"Can't the doctor fix it?"

"His doctors tried, but sometimes things can't be fixed." Sarah smoothed a dark curl from the pale forehead. "When that happens, it's time for the sick person to die." She hesitated, not sure how much Marti and Rob had told their daughter. "Do you know what that means?"

"It means he's goin' to heaven," Chelsea said.

"Okay," Sarah said. "How about you curl up on the couch for a little while? I'll tell you a story."

Chelsea made it halfway through 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' before she fell asleep, thumb in mouth. Sarah eased the little girl from her lap, tucked her under the cotton throw, put more wood on the fire to keep the room warm, and went into the kitchen to finish the laundry and check her email.

She was in the middle of an article about El Nino years sent by her storm-chasing partner when Greg came in. He put his plate in the dishwasher and rinsed out the bottle, took another from the fridge. He paused when he passed by the table. "You really did a number on that kid."

Sarah finished a paragraph and looked up at him. "Care to elaborate?"

"All that 'he's going to heaven' crap. From what I heard the man's got a bad ticker. You know when it gives out he's dead-end of story. No heaven, no hell, just sky." He tilted his head. "Hmm. Someone could make a good song out of that."

"Chelsea's parents are Christian," Sarah said. "They'll teach her what they believe. It's not my job to tell her anything different unless they give permission."

"You're supporting their delusions just because they believe in the Big Bronze Age Book of Fairy Tales." Greg gave her a hard stare. "I happen to know you don't, so why you're—"

"If Chelsea comes to me someday and asks about my personal beliefs, I'll tell her. Until then, I have no business interfering with the way Marti and Rob raise their child."

"You'll back a lie because it's convenient for the adults." He gave her a contemptuous look. "That's even worse."

"I didn't lie to her. She told me what she's been taught, I made non-committal noises. Anyway, I may not believe in heaven, but I think our spirit survives," Sarah said quietly. "I've got my reasons, I don't expect you to understand or accept them."

"Tomayto, tomahto. That kid will be a mess when Grandpa kicks the bucket and it'll be your fault." He limped away before she could answer him.

Two hours later Chelsea was awake and the first batch of slightly lumpy, misshapen cookies had made it from the roll-out mat to the baking sheet without mishap. "When they're baked and cooled we'll pack these up and you can take them home to Mom and Dad," Sarah said, amused at the amount of pink and green crystals scattered over the tabletop.

"After we make more, let's go outside an' play," Chelsea said. "It's snowin'."

Sarah glanced out the window. Her throat tightened. "So it is."

"We can make a snowman. You don't have one. We do. We have four." Chelsea stuck the stocking cutter into the dough. She held the tip of her tongue between her teeth as she pushed down.

"Sounds like a plan," Sarah said, and suppressed a shiver. "You can show me how to do it."

"You never made a snowman?" The little girl's astonishment was plain. "But you're old!"

Sarah shook her head. "Nope, never did. Where I grew up they don't usually get a lot of snow like you do here."

"Did you live in Florida?" Chelsea put a crooked stocking on the baking sheet and dumped a generous handful of pink sugar over it. "Mom-mom Myers lives there now."

"No, not Florida. I lived in a place called Oklahoma." Sarah added a star to the sheet and sprinkled it with green sugar. "In some places it's flat like a tabletop, and in the summer there are big thunderstorms. One June when I was your age, pieces of ice called hail came out of the sky. A big chunk hit me in the shoulder."

Chelsea's eyes were wide. "Did it hurt?"

"A little bit." A lot, Sarah thought. The damn thing was the size of a tennis ball. No one even noticed the bruise it gave me with all the others Dad left. Yay for childhood memories. "So how do you make a snowman?"

The technical aspects of construction occupied them as the next two batches baked, and then into cleanup. As Sarah dressed Chelsea in her outdoor gear, she kept her mind on the task at hand—not too difficult with a four-year-old eager to play.

"Let's go!" Chelsea jumped up and down, her impatience plain.

"Okay—I'll be right behind you," Sarah said. "Stay in the front yard, don't go down to the lane." She opened the door and the little girl ran out to dive headfirst into a snowdrift. Sarah swallowed on a dry throat and took her parka out of the closet. It was only then that the fear she'd battled for over half an hour finally broke free. Her hands shook as she tugged on her coat and tried to zip it closed. I can do this, she thought, and jumped when someone spoke.

"What's wrong with you?"

Greg stood a few feet away, his vivid gaze wary.