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As the boys walked into the living room along with Marc and Galen, they heard Jorry say, "Aunt Denise?"
Chuck turned around and looked at Jorry with confusion.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Uncle Chuck, you and Aunt Denise look the same from behind. Have you seen where she is?" Jorry asked hopefully.
"Over there." Chuck said slowly.
"Thanks." Jorry said, then glanced at Collin and Christian and gave them a covert wink before rushing away with Nick at his side.
"That little imp. He did that on purpose." Galen said with surprise.
"Chuck is probably going to be worrying about that until next Christmas." Marc said as he fought to contain his chuckles.
* * * * *
"I'm so glad all of you were able to make it." An older woman said as she approached.
"Mom, you already know Galen. I'd like for you to meet Collin and Christian." Marc said a little bit nervously.
"It's very nice to meet you. You're welcomed to call me Grandma Nora." she said to the boys. "I'm sorry I couldn't talk to you earlier, but Gene and I had to help in the kitchen to be sure that we had everything ready in time for dinner."
"The meal was very good." Collin said quickly.
Christian nodded his agreement as he watched Marc's mother cautiously.
"Well, thank you. I'm only sorry that you were stranded at a separate table from the rest of us." Nora said sincerely. "I promise you that Denise won't get the chance to arrange anything like that again."
Christian reluctantly smiled. Although he was automatically expecting the worst from Marc's family, he believed that Marc's mother really felt bad for what her daughter had done.
"You boys should take a seat on the floor over there. Gene is almost ready to read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' to all of us." Nora said warmly.
"What about dessert?" Collin asked suspiciously.
"Don't worry, young man. You won't miss out. We'll be serving coffee and dessert after the reading." Nora said with a tender smile at him, then quickly added, "In fact, if you'll excuse me, I need to see that we have the coffee making."
"We'd better go." Collin said as he started to walk away from the group.
"Just a minute." Christian said to Collin, then turned away from him and took one step, motioning to Marc.
"What are you doing?" Collin asked inquisitively. Marc was looking confused as well.
"Checking the instruction manual." Christian said with a grin.
Marc smiled, getting it, and leaned close to find out what Christian wanted to ask.
"Do you think Collin would mind it too much if I sat with him... I mean, you know, like, held him?" Christian asked hesitantly.
"As much as I'm sure Collin would enjoy that, I don't think he would enjoy the reactions from the rest of the family." Marc said with regret.
"Yeah. I guess it's best not to kick the hornet's nest." Christian said with resignation.
Marc nodded, then said, "Especially when you're inside it."
* * * * *
"Come on, everyone. Let's all gather around Grandpa Gene so he can read to you." Denise said in an overly cheerful voice as she tried to herd the group of children into the open space in front of the recliner.
The cheerful 'motherly' smile fell away when she spotted Collin and Christian approaching.
Rather than say anything to them, she simply turned away and started talking to the smaller children to try to get them to sit down and stay still.
"You know." Collin began in a considering voice, "From this angle she does kind of look like Chuck."
"I'm still not convinced she was born a female." Christian said with a smirk.
"Do you want to sit off to the side?" Collin asked as he looked around.
"Nope." Christian said seriously. "I want to sit smack dab in the middle. If that man-woman is going to try to ignore us, I want to at least make her work at it."
"Plan." Collin said with a grin, then took a seat in the floor, in front of Grandpa Gene, behind a few of the younger kids.
Christian sat down at Collin's side, leaving a respectable distance between them, but still close enough that they could talk if they wanted to.
* * * * *
"Is that everyone?" Marc's father, Grandpa Gene, asked from his seat in the leather recliner.
Most of the children in the room were already seated on the floor in front of him.
A few others reluctantly left their parents to join the increasing group.
Jon and Elaine left the adults that were surrounding the room and took seats on the floor amongst the children. Each of them was holding a tiny baby in their arms.
Grandpa Gene looked around the room, then noticed spiked up brown hair hiding behind the shoulder of his daughter, Linda.
"We're just waiting for you, Kirsten." Grandpa Gene said sternly, "You're not too grown up to be counted among the children."
After a moment, Kirsten stomped forward and dropped to the floor in front of Gene's chair.
A quelling glance from Gene effectively silenced the adults who were quietly muttering to each other. Finally, Gene said in a clear, firm voice, "'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;"
"I'm gonna puke!" Nolan said suddenly, then made a mad dash out of the room.
After a long moment of silence, Grandpa Gene continued, "The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there."
The grumbling fussy cries of a baby began to escalate into full fledged shrieks.
"Excuse me." Ruth mumbled before hurrying out of the room with the wailing baby in her arms.
Jorry and Nick shared a dark look.
"The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;"
"Come here." Jorry whispered to his brother, then guided Nick to scoot back and sit between his legs.
Collin and Christian smiled as Jorry enclosed his brother in a comforting hug from behind.
"And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled down for a long winter's nap,"
Christian jumped at the feeling of a hand on his shoulder and quickly turned around to see Marc looking at him with question.
It took a moment for Christian to understand what Marc was asking, but when he finally realized, he nodded his agreement.
"When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter."
Collin smiled as he noticed that Christian was leaning back into Marc's hug.
"Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutters and threw up the sash."
Collin wasn't the least bit surprised when he felt his father's arms encircle him from behind and was utterly content to sink back into his father's warm embrace.
"The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,"
The sound of a giggle drew Christian's attention and he turned in time to see Erik being drawn into a hug by his mother, Linda.
"When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,"
Erika smiled at the sight of her brother being hugged so tenderly, then started when she felt her father, Dave, scoot in behind her and cuddle her gently.
"With a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick."
"You're a saint." Jorry giggled into his brother's ear.
Nick wriggled back into his brother's embrace with a smile of ultimate peace.
"More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;"
"Mama?" Brucie called plaintively as he looked at his mother.
After a hateful glare at Marc, Denise finally walked to sit beside her son and pulled him into a loose, one-armed hug.
Collin noticed a man watching, and he suspected from the man's features that he was probably Brucie's father. The expression on his face was easy to read and held only one simple message, 'I feel left out.'
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! on Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!"
At that moment, the baby in Elaine's arms cooed loudly with delight, sending a wave of chuckles throughout the room.
"To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall! Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
Kirsten was looking around the room, apparently looking for her father.
Collin noticed the downcast look in her eyes when she didn't find him and felt a pang of sympathy for the ill-tempered girl.
"As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,"
A movement drew Collin's attention, then he smiled as he saw Brucie's father, moving to tentatively sit beside Kirsten.
"Do you mind?" He asked quietly.
"Thanks, Uncle James." Kirsten said shyly as she snuggled against his side, into his cautious hug.
"So up to the house-top the coursers they flew, with the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too."
"Is this okay?" Marc whispered into Christian's ear with concern.
Christian took a moment to consider what he was feeling. It was hard for him to put names to the feelings that he had little or no experience with.
Finally, he turned his head slightly and whispered to Marc, "I love you."
"And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof, the prancing and pawing of each little hoof."
Ruth walked back into the room carrying the baby, who was making low growling noises that sounded somewhat demonic in nature.
"As I drew in my head, and was turning around, down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound."
Collin saw the look on Ruth's face when she noticed that nearly every child in the room had a parent holding them... except her children. They were holding on to each other.
"He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;"
"Go! Go! Go! FUCK YEAH!!!" sounded from the next room in the pause between verses.
Collin and Christian shared a look, then in unison said, "Scoregasm."
"I'll get him." A woman said past gritted teeth, then stalked impatiently out of the room.
The scowl on her face immediately betrayed her to be the mother of the ill-tempered Kirsten.
"A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack."
"A peddler?" Nick asked with confusion, then elaborated, "Like someone who rides a bike?"
"No. Back when grandpa was a kid, it meant someone that went door to door to sell things." Jorry said gently.
"On a bike?" Nick asked thoughtfully.
"Maybe." Jorry said with a grin, then hugged his brother firmly.
"His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!"
"Dad's nose gets like that sometimes." Nick commented absently.
"Yeah, but not from the cold weather." Jorry said frankly.
"His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;"
"Like a bow?" Nick asked cautiously.
"Yeah. Like a bow and arrow. Not twisted like a ribbon bow." Jorry answered seriously.
"Oh." Nick said with realization, then turned his attention back to the story.
"The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;"
Nolan walked into the room and stopped just inside the doorway.
Ruth's glare of undisguised hatred nearly singed the air as it fell on him.
"He had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly."
Nick giggled at the mental image of the round little man jiggling.
"He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, and I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;"
"I guess he's not the only one." Jorry said with amusement into his brother's ear.
"A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;"
Half of the people in the room had more of their attention focused on Ruth and Nolan than what Grandpa Gene was saying.
"He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, and filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,"
"Who's the jerk?" Nick asked curiously.
Jorry glanced back at his father, but said to his brother in a quiet voice, "He's talking about a jerky movement, not a jerky person."
Nick made another "Oh" of comprehension as he turned his attention back to the story.
"And laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;"
Jorry waited for Nick's next question, but to his surprise, Nick seemed to have no problem at all with the concept of a levitating Santa.
"He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle."
"Down of a thistle?" Nick asked in confusion.
"Um... You got me on that one." Jorry said honestly.
"But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight, 'Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.'"
"I want a divorce." Ruth snarled at her husband, then elbowed past him and out of the room with the fussing baby in her arms.
"Happy Christmas to all." Jorry said ironically.
Grandpa Gene looked at his son standing by the doorway with a puzzled look on his face, then around the room at everyone else trying to pretend that they hadn't heard Ruth's declaration.
* * * * *
"What would you all think if I handed out some presents before we have our dessert?" Grandpa Gene asked hopefully.
A collective cheer went up from all the kids in the room, and a silent sigh of relief emanated from all the adults.
"This year, Grandma Ellen wanted to be the one to buy the gifts for everyone. So if you like your gift, you need to thank her." Grandpa Gene said seriously.
"You need to thank her either way." Grandma Nora corrected gently.
Gene smiled at his wife and nodded his agreement.
"The first gift I have is for Jaxon and Jazmine." Grandpa Gene said warmly to Jon and Elaine.
They both stood from the floor, each holding a baby in their arms.
Grandpa Gene held out an envelope to them, then waited for Jon to open it.
"Thank you!" Jon said with surprise to his father-in-law, then at Gene's sideways glance, Jon turned to Grandma Ellen and said, "Thank you, this will be so much help!"
"You're very welcome." Grandma Ellen said with a warm smile.
"What did you get?" Denise asked curiously.
"Two $500 gift cards to Babies-R-Us." Jon said with a joyous smile as he held up the plastic cards for everyone to see.
Marc and Galen exchanged a smile at Jon and Elaine's happiness, knowing that the gift was sincerely appreciated.
* * * * *
Collin and Christian watched as, one after another, all the children in the room were called forward to receive their presents.
Nick had received a boxed set of books. Both Collin and Christian thought that it was kind of a weak present, but Nick seemed to be happy enough with it.
Jorry had received a 'Mall Money' gift card, so he could buy something nice for himself.
Again, Collin and Christian thought the gift was kind of lame, but Jorry was apparently thrilled by the idea of being able to go and buy his own present.
When Gene called Erik and Erika forward to receive their gifts, Grandma Ellen motioned for Ginny to hand them their very large, very flexible presents.
"These quilts were hand stitched by my mother, your great, great grandmother. Since you're both so responsible, I thought it would be good to pass these along to you now." Grandma Ellen said gently.
Erika opened her gift first and stared at the beautiful, lightly colored quilt in her hands.
"Thank you Grandma Ellen; it's wonderful." Erika said in astonishment.
Erik opened his gift more slowly and found that his quilt was more darkly colored, but no less beautiful than his sister's.
"Thanks!" Erik said happily.
Ellen nodded with a tender smile, knowing that the gifts were sincerely appreciated.
"The next gift is for Brucie." Gene said, then waited for him to walk up to the chair.
After opening the gift, Brucie looked at the old book in his hands with puzzlement.
"This was your great grandfather's journal. He was a truly good man of exceptional character. It's my hope that by reading his words, you might be able to discover some of those traits in yourself." Grandma Ellen said gently.
"Thank you." Brucie said uncertainly.
Ellen chuckled, not at all offended that he didn't understand the significance of the gift.
"Kirsten, this is for you." Grandpa Gene said as he held out a small velvet box with a ribbon tying it closed.
After a moment to untie the ribbon, Kirsten opened the hinged lid and stared at the contents with wonder.
"What did you get?" Brucie asked from beside her.
"Put it on, I think you'll look lovely." Grandma Ellen said gently.
With shaking hands, Kirsten took something that sparkled out of the box, then absently handed the box to Brucie.
The room went silent as Kirsten turned to show off the tiara, sparkling with dozens of little diamonds.
"Wow! You're pretty!" Brucie said with amazement.
Kirsten blushed, then looked around the room to see everyone else's reactions.
"You're very beautiful." James said to her gently.
"Thank you." Kirsten whispered to him, then turned to Grandma Ellen and said, "Thank you, Grandma Ellen, I love it."
"Ever since you were just a little girl in pigtails, I've known that one day I would give this to you. I think you're old enough now to appreciate it." Grandma Ellen said with a smile, "And I hope that someday you'll be able to pass it on to one of your children or grandchildren."
"I will, Grandma Ellen, I promise." Kirsten said in a stunned voice as she reached up to feel the tiara on her head.
* * * * *
"I suppose since Nolan and Ruth are otherwise occupied, I'll set their gift aside." Grandpa Gene said as he took a small box and placed it on the floor beside his chair.
Collin and Christian shared a look. Although they really hadn't been 'expecting' a gift, they had both held out the slightest hope that they would at least be acknowledged in some way.
"Linda and Dave, this gift is for you." Grandpa Gene said as he held out an envelope.
Dave walked forward and took the envelope. Linda hurried to his side and watched as he opened it.
There was a long moment of silence as the two stared at the piece of paper in their hands.
"Thank you." Dave whispered in awe.
"Not me." Grandpa Gene said quietly, "Her."
"Ellen, we can't..." Dave began to say.
"Yes, we can." Linda interrupted. "Thank you, Grandma Ellen. We'll put this to very good use."
"That's all that I ask." Ellen said with a smile.
"What did you get?" Denise asked curiously.
"$50,000.00." Linda said in an absent voice that betrayed her shock.
After a long moment for everyone to absorb that, Gene said, "Denise and James."
Denise hurried to her father and waited anxiously for him to hand her their gift.
She quickly opened it and stared at it uncomprehendingly for a moment.
"What is it?" James asked cautiously from his wife's side.
"It's a deed." Denise said slowly, then looked at her Grandma Ellen with question.
"That land has been in the family since before the Civil War. The time has come for me to entrust our heritage to the next generation." Grandma Ellen said seriously, then added, "I wanted to make this Christmas special by passing down some of the family heirlooms. I gave each of you the gifts that I thought suited you best."
"Thank you." Denise said in a bewildered voice.
"Thank you, Ellen. We'll take very good care of it." James said with a sincere smile as he met her gaze.
Ellen nodded at James, happy that at least one of them could see the significance of the gift.
"Where are Chuck and Louise?" Grandpa Gene asked as he looked around the room.
"I think they're going to be busy for a few more minutes." Dave said as he glanced at the doorway and could hear Louise's muffled voice in the next room, and she didn't sound at all happy.
After placing another gift aside, Gene said, "Frank and Sandra."
They walked up to the chair, side by side.
Gene handed them an envelope and waited anxiously for their reaction.
Frank looked at the card inside, then at Grandma Ellen with question.
"Even with Ginny's help, I'm getting too old to stay in that big old house. As soon as I have everything arranged, I'll be moving to an assisted living center." Grandma Ellen said quietly.
"But... it's your home." Frank said with astonishment.
"Harry and I had a wonderful life and raised a houseful of children in that place. That's my wish for the two of you. The accounts are set up so that you shouldn't have to worry about anything." Grandma Ellen said with a content smile. "Take the house and make it your home."
"Thank you, Grandma Ellen." Frank said in shock.
Sandra had tears running down her cheeks and could only nod her agreement to her husband's words.
"Jon and Elaine." Gene said quietly.
They walked up to the chair, each holding a sleeping baby.
"Here you go." Gene said gently as he handed them an envelope.
"Would you mind?" Jon asked timidly, then handed the baby in his arms to Gene before opening the envelope.
Elaine looked at the piece of paper, then at Grandma Ellen and gasped, "Thank you!"
"Thank you." Jon said quietly as tears welled in his eyes.
"Just take good care of your family; that's all the thanks I need." Grandma Ellen said gently.
"I think that with $50,000.00, we might be able to do that." Jon said in a tearful voice.
"Don't forget Jaxon." Gene said as he offered the baby back to Jon.
"Thank you." Jon whispered as he accepted the baby into his arms.
"Marc and Galen." Gene said, then smiled when his youngest son approached.
Gene checked the tag, then handed a small, velvety box to Marc.
After accepting the box, Marc turned to where Galen could see as he opened it.
From the shape and size of the box, it was no surprise to find that it contained a ring.
The ring was simple gold and not elaborately decorated at all. In fact, the only real decoration on the entire ring was the large red stone that was set in the center. It caught the light in the room and returned it in fractured red brilliance.
"That was your grandfather's wedding band." Grandma Ellen said quietly.
"It's beautiful." Marc said slowly, then looked her in the eyes as he continued, "Thank you."
"Just so you know, that's not a ruby, that's a red diamond. Those are extremely rare." Ellen said seriously.
Marc looked down at the ring again, then smiled up at Galen with question.
Galen understood the unvoiced question, and responded with an incredulous 'Are you sure?' look.
Marc took the ring out of the box, then carefully placed it on Galen's left hand, on the third finger.
"You can't do that!" Denise exploded.
"Hush, child. That's exactly why I gave it to him." Ellen said sternly, then added more gently, "And I hope that Marc and Galen can find at least some measure of the love that I had with my Harry."
"Collin and Christian." Gene said quietly, still watching Marc and Galen with a smile.
Both boys were surprised to be called, but walked together to receive their gift.
"Merry Christmas, boys." Gene said as he handed them a strangely long and thin box.
After a little urging from Collin, Christian began to unwrap the present.
When it was finally completely open, both boys stared inside.
"Christian, that sword was one of my husband's most prized possessions, it belonged to his grandfather." Grandma Ellen said quietly, then added, "Which means that it belonged to your great-great-great-grandfather."
"Have you gone senile? You can't give that to him! That kid's probably just some gutter trash that Marc picked up so him and his 'friend' could have their sick, twisted..."
"Get out of my house!" Dave barked.
Denise went silent and looked at Dave with surprise.
"I've put up with a lot from you Denise, but this time you've gone too far." Dave said as he looked her in the eyes. "Marc and his friends are guests in my home and as their host I won't allow *anyone* to treat them disrespectfully. Now get out!"
"You can't..." Denise began to say, then looked at Linda urgently, silently asking her to intercede.
"I agree with Dave. If you can't control yourself and behave decently, then you should go home where you won't humiliate the rest of your family with your bad behavior." Linda said frankly.
"Brucie! James! We're leaving!" Denise barked in a blast of fury as she stomped out.
Bruce hurried to follow his mother out of the room.
James looked around and quietly said, "Sorry." before slowly walking out to follow his wife.
Marc, Galen, Collin and Christian were all in mild shock and looking around, half expecting another attack.
"I'm sorry that happened." Dave said as he walked up to Marc.
"Thank you." Marc said in a disbelieving voice.
Dave looked around, then conspiratorially whispered, "I've been looking for a good excuse to throw that spiteful bitch out of my house for the last twenty years."
"Thank you for defending the boys." Galen said sincerely.
Dave nodded,then turned to the boys and said, "I'm sorry that happened. You really *are* welcomed here."
"Thanks." Collin said quietly.
"Yeah. Thanks for doing that." Christian said with a small, honest smile.
* * * * *
"What do you think we should do with this?" Christian asked as he looked at the sword carefully.
"Well, if it was really your great-great-however-many-times-grandfather's, then you should keep it someplace where we can see it, maybe in the living room or in our bedroom." Collin said seriously.
"But what if I can't stay with Marc?" Christian said anxiously.
Collin shrugged, then said, "Then leave it with Marc until you can get the judge to listen to you and let you stay where you want to."
Christian looked at Collin with surprise for a moment, then broke into laughter.
"Did I say something funny?" Collin asked slowly.
"No. I can just see what Marc means about you being just like your dad." Christian said with a chuckle.
"Is that a bad thing?" Collin asked cautiously.
Christian looked around quickly, then grabbed Collin's arm and pulled him behind the Christmas tree.
Before Collin could say a word, Christian gave him a firm kiss.
Collin immediately returned the kiss, and the rest of the world faded out of existence for him.
* * * * *
"Do you boys want some dessert?" Marc asked cautiously from in front of the Christmas tree.
"I'm getting mine now." Christian chuckled as he came up for air.
"You'll have time for that later." Marc said, trying to keep the chuckle out of his voice.
"Okay, Dad." Christian said with a grin as he slowly walked from behind the tree.
"Dad?" Marc asked cautiously.
"Yeah." Christian said happily. "Collin just made me realize that I was being fussy and worrying about the small stuff. But maybe this once I need to look at things like him and Uncle Galen do. No matter what we have to go through to get there, you *are* going to be my dad."
Marc pulled Christian to his side to give him a quick hug, then pulled Collin to him with the other arm and gave him a quick kiss on the top of the head.
"Hey, you guys are going to miss the desserts." Galen said as he approached.
"We're on our way." Marc said cheerfully as he started to walk with a boy under each arm.
* * * * *
"Oh my God! What's that?" Christian asked as he pointed at one of the selections.
"That's Ruthie's Spiced Gumdrop Pie." Marc said with a queasy look. "Get some if you want, but I wouldn't eat it on a dare."
"This one looks kinda weird, but it might be good." Collin said as he pointed to a large cake pan.
"That's my mom's dump cake. It's ugly as sin, but it tastes great." Marc said as he scooped out a piece for himself.
"Why do they call it dump cake?" Christian asked cautiously.
"Because you take all the ingredients and just dump them in the pan. No mixing required." Marc said simply. "Try some, and if you like it, I'll make it at home sometime. I have the recipe."
"Okay." Christian said hesitantly as he took a small piece of the vaguely cobbler looking cake.
"I've got to have one of those." Collin said as he reached to the back of the table to get a fig bar.
"If you like it, let Sandra know. I know she'll appreciate it." Marc said honestly.
"I'm so full from dinner, I don't know if I'll have room for any of this." Galen said as he looked over the table. "What one thing would you recommend?"
"Knowing your taste, I'd say that you'll like the chocolate pudding cake, down there at the end. It's too rich for me, but I think that you'll enjoy it with a cup of coffee." Marc said thoughtfully.
* * * * *
A strange silence seemed to fall over the room full of people, enjoying their desserts.
Marc looked up and followed the stares of the people around him.
"Wil! I'm so glad you could make it." Marc's mother said as she broke from the crowd and rushed to greet him.
"Who's that?" Collin whispered, intrigued by the dark, dangerous looking young man.
"My nephew, Wil." Marc said with a smile.
"Not the most popular Stone in the quarry, from everyone's reaction." Christian commented casually.
"Well, no. I don't really know much about what's happened the past year, but I'm sure it has something to do with Jordan. They were always best friends." Marc said thoughtfully, then added, "And he's not a Stone, he's a Hale. Louise and Chuck are his parents."
"Who are those people with him?" Collin asked curiously, noticing the two well dressed men standing in the doorway behind Wil. Each of them was carrying a young boy.
"I don't know." Marc said as he looked at the men, then said, "Maybe they're friends of Wil's."
"Yeah. I'm sure every goth punk has a couple of lawyers as friends." Christian said sarcastically.
Galen chuckled at Christian's words and gave him a quick, casual one-armed hug.
"Let's go over and talk to them. Wil's got to be one of my favorite nephews." Marc said before starting across the room.
Collin and Christian shared a look, then automatically followed.
* * * * *
"I'm glad you could make it, Wil. How are you doing?" Marc asked cheerfully as he approached.
"I'm good." Wil said simply, then looked curiously past Marc at Galen and the boys approaching.
"Wil, I'd like for you to meet my boyfriend, Galen, and our sons, Collin and Christian." Marc said happily.
"Seriously?" Wil said with surprise, then offered his hand to Galen and said, "It's great to meet you, Galen. I'm glad Uncle Marc has finally found someone."
"It's great to meet you too, Wil. Marc has nothing but nice things to say about you." Galen said sincerely.
Wil chuckled, then muttered, "He's the only one."
"Marc?" One of the men behind Wil said cautiously.
It took a moment, but Marc's eyes went wide when he finally recognized the man.
"Ben? Oh my God! It's been... it must be ten years since I've seen you!" Marc said as he rushed to pull the man into a hug.
Wil watched for a moment, then when he noticed Galen's concerned gaze, he quietly said, "Ben is Marc's cousin. From what Ben's told me, they were best friends when they were teenagers."
Galen seemed to wilt a little bit with relief.
"It's great to see you, Marc." Ben said as he hugged Marc with one arm, his other holding a young blond haired boy.
"How are you doing? I've tried to get in touch with you, but no one would tell me where you were." Marc said quickly.
Ben looked at the other man with concern, then said, "I'd love to tell you, but we need to get the boys someplace more quiet. They don't like to be around groups of people.
"Why don't we go into the family room? I don't think anyone's in there now." Christian suggested helpfully.
"Good idea." Marc said with a smile at Christian. "It's right this way."
Marc, Galen and the boys led the way down the hall and through another doorway.
* * * * *
"You okay, buddy?" Ben asked the boy in his arms.
The little boy looked up at him and slowly nodded.
"Us kids can go over by the fire if you old people want to talk." Christian said with a cheeky grin.
"Thanks. I'll remember that." Galen said in a playful gruff voice.
"What do you say, JD? Do you wan to go play with the boys?" The man with Ben asked the boy in his arms.
The boy raised his head and Marc nearly gasped at the sight of the large, blue/gray eyes. They were absolutely captivating.
"Okay." The boy, JD, said quietly.
"Before you go..." Ben said, "Everyone, this is my husband, Cliff and our sons, JD and Jody."
"Jady and Jody?" Christian asked with a grin, "That's cool."
"Yeah, I think so too." Ben chuckled as he placed Jody on the floor to stand on his own.
When Jody was away from Ben's body, it was immediately noticeable to everyone how thin and frail the boy looked.
"Come on, let's go over there before they start getting boring." Christian said as he motioned for the boys to follow.
JD looked at Ben and Cliff uncertainly for a moment, but after an assuring nod from Ben, he went along with the group.
"Well, even though we haven't seen each other in about a decade, it looks like we took similar paths." Marc said frankly.
"Yeah. It looks like we did." Ben said with a shy grin.
Galen looked at Cliff and Wil. As soon as he had their attention, he tilted his head toward the far side of the room.
Wil nodded as Cliff gave Ben a quick kiss on the cheek before walking away.
"What have you been doing the last ten years?" Ben asked curiously.
"Well, most of it was spent in college. But now I'm a software engineer." Marc said happily, then asked, "What about you?"
"I did college too, then I worked for a few years as a teacher. When my first book was published, I decided to become a full time author." Ben said proudly.
"An author? That's great!" Marc said happily. "You always had such a wonderful imagination, I think that's perfect for you."
"I'm happy." Ben said sincerely.
"It shows." Marc said honestly. "And you have two of the cutest kids I think I've ever seen... well, except for mine, of course."
"Of course." Ben said with a chuckle. "I can't believe you have teenage children. It makes me feel so old."
"Collin is Galen's son. Christian... well, that's kind of complicated. But I couldn't love him more if he was my own child by birth." Marc said sincerely.
"I know exactly what you mean." Ben said warmly. "JD and Jody were our foster children. We were lucky enough to be able to give them an adoption for Christmas."
Marc could feel the tears welling up in his eyes as he said, "That's so wonderful. I wish there was some way I could do that for Christian."
"Have you asked him?" Ben asked curiously.
"Yes. We're going to have a hearing right after Christmas to get his situation sorted out. When it's all said and done, I'm hoping that Christian will legally be my son."
Movement in the doorway drew their attention.
Marc noticed Ben's immediate concern and said, "That's Jorry and Nick. Don't worry about them."
Ben seemed to be trying to relax as he explained, "My boys have been through a lot and they're kind of fragile right now."
"Collin and Christian will take good care of them. They're really good boys." Marc said in a reassuring voice.
Ben nodded, but his eyes kept straying back to the fireplace where the boys were gathered.
* * * * *
"Thanks, guys. It looked like Marc and Ben could use a few minutes to catch up on things. I hope you don't mind." Galen said frankly, then gestured to offer them seats on one of the low, cushioned chairs.
"Not at all. I'm just glad that we found some welcoming people here. From the way that Wil described his family, I was worried that we were making a horrible mistake by coming here." Cliff said frankly.
"Maybe they've changed." Wil said with a slight shrug.
"No. They haven't." Galen said with a weary chuckle, then added, "Things got a little bit ugly earlier, but they seem to be better now."
"What happened?" Wil asked with concern.
"Oh, one of Marc's sisters is a closed minded witch and was treating us like crap all night." Galen said frankly.
"Aunt Ruthie or Aunt Denise?" Wil asked automatically.
"Well, both of them, really. But when Denise started spewing her homophobic venom at the boys, some of Marc's family stood up for them." Galen said frankly, revealing his own surprise at the development.
"I'm sorry I missed that." Wil said with a chuckle.
"I'm not." Cliff said frankly, then clarified, "As much as I would love to see a homophobe knocked down a peg or two, the boys don't need to be seeing that."
Galen glanced at the boys, gathered by the fireplace, then nodded his agreement. Cliff and Ben's boys were probably too young to be able to deal with that kind of an emotional scene.
"Maybe the family is finally starting to move into the twenty-first century." Wil said speculatively.
"It's been my experience that family attitudes don't often move in a single direction. It's more like a pendulum. Just when you think they're making progress, they double back on you." Cliff said with an apologetic, weary look in his eyes.
"Been there. Done that." Galen said with a chuckle.
"Yeah. I guess you're right." Wil said regretfully. "It'd just be nice if we could all be happy again."
"You're what? Twenty?" Galen asked curiously.
"Yeah. Good guess." Wil said with a smile.
"Part of being a grown-up is realizing that you're responsible for your own happiness. Your family can't give that to you anymore. It's not their fault, it's just life." Galen said frankly.
"I suppose so." Wil said regretfully. "I just feel like they made me choose between my family and my best friend. I chose to stand by Jordan and ended up losing everyone."
"I'm sure that when you really need them, they'll be there for you." Galen said gently.
"Oh God! Is that Jorry and Nick?" Wil asked with surprise. "How did they grow that much in just one year?"
"Kids'll do that." Galen said with a chuckle.
Cliff looked at the boys entering the room with caution.
"They're good boys; you don't have to worry." Galen assured.
"Yeah. Jorry and Nicky are the best." Wil said with a smile.
* * * * *
When the group of boys arrived by the fireplace, Collin looked at the younger boys curiously.
Jody, the younger boy, was so thin that he looked gawky and angular. He had thick wavy wheat-blond hair and light brown eyes.
In contrast, the older boy had straight brown hair and the most startling steel blue eyes that Collin had ever seen.
"You two don't look like brothers." Collin said absently before he could think better of it.
"Neither do you." JD responded, somewhat defensively.
"He's got you there." Christian said with a smile.
Collin chuckled, then said, "Christian and I aren't brothers by blood. But Marc is trying to adopt Christian and my dad is Marc's boyfriend so... it kinda works out."
"We weren't born brothers, either. But we're brothers now. The judge said so." Jody said firmly.
Collin could see how important that it was to the younger boy and said, "I take it back."
Jody took a step to his side and put an arm around JD.
"Come on, let's sit down." JD whispered, then guided Jody to sit on the floor.
"Is he sick?" Collin asked with concern.
"No. I mean, not 'sick' sick." JD said carefully. "The people who had Jody before us didn't feed him enough. My Pappa is a doctor and he says that Jody's going to be fine. It's just going to take some time."
"I bet that means that you get to eat second helpings whenever you want." Christian said with a smile. "I can think of worse things."
Collin smiled at Christian's ability to diffuse a tense situation and gave him a quick hug to express his gratitude.
"Are you boyfriends?" JD asked curiously.
"Yeah." Collin said shyly. "I figured since your parents are gay, that you wouldn't have a problem with it."
JD shrugged, then said, "I just wondered. I hug Jody all the time, but I don't hug him like *that*. The way you guys hug is the way that Daddy hugs Pappa."
Christian looked at Collin and considered for a moment before saying, "I never even thought about it that way. I always just thought a hug was a hug. But it's good to know that you hug me like a lover, not a brother."
"I didn't think about it either, but I'm glad too." Collin said with a smile.
"I thought you guys left without us." Jorry said as he and Nick joined the group by the fireplace.
Jody and JD both seemed tense as the boys approached.
"It's okay, guys. Jorry and Nick are really alright." Christian said assuringly.
"Jorry and Nick." Collin said formally, "I'd like for you to meet our new friends, JD and Jody."
"JD, Jody and Jorry? I feel left out." Nick said playfully.
"You're not left out, you're with us other non-J's." Christian said as he gave Nick a quick hug around the shoulders.
"Yeah. If we decide to play something, we've already got our teams. The J's and the non-J's." Nick said happily.
"Here you are!" A woman's voice bellowed into the room.
Collin and Christian glanced up to see Grandma Nora standing in the doorway.
As they looked around, both were surprised to see that Cliff and Ben were now with them, each holding a boy in their arms.
"Is something wrong?" Christian asked curiously, feeling that he had missed something.
"Long story." Ben said gently.
"I need for all the children to go into the living room. Santa is going to be here any minute!" Grandma Nora said with excitement.
"It looks like someone's been hitting the Christmas cheer a little too hard." Christian muttered under his breath.
Ben chuckled at the statement, then whispered, "Are you okay, buddy?"
"Yeah." Jody said peacefully as he enjoyed being held.
"How are you doing, Spider?" Cliff asked in a whisper.
"I'm okay." JD said in a trembling voice.
"Do you want to go home?" Cliff asked seriously.
"No. Squid needs to talk to Santa." JD said quietly before raising his head enough to look Cliff in the eyes.
"Just hold on to me, I'll keep you safe." Cliff whispered, then started carrying JD toward the door.
"What's wrong?" Christian asked Ben curiously.
"JD's afraid of women." Jody said simply.
"And we don't tell people about it." Ben reminded Jody gently.
"They're nice. They won't tease him about it." Jody said with certainty.
"No. We won't." Collin said firmly. "We never tease about the serious stuff."
"Right. And if you want, we can all help to keep JD safe." Nick said from his brother's side.
"Yeah. With all of us helping, no women will get anywhere near him." Jorry said as he gave Nick a hug.
Collin and Christian shared a look, then said in unison, "Plan."
Ben smiled at the boys, then said, "Let's go see Santa."
* * * * *
As they walked into the living room, they immediately spotted Cliff holding JD, just inside the door.
JD had his face pressed firmly into Cliff's chest and he seemed to be holding on with all his might.
"I need to tell JD what we're doing." Jody said to Ben firmly.
Ben smiled at the boy in his arms, then walked beside Cliff, positioning himself so that Jody could whisper in JD's ear.
A moment later, Collin and Christian were relieved to see JD raise his head enough to look at them.
"We've got you covered." Christian said confidently.
The boys arranged themselves around JD and Jody to block anyone who tried to approach.
Wil, Marc and Galen stood aside, smiling at the scene.
"I guess I can see why you guys want to have kids." Wil said frankly.
"It works out as long as you get great kids like ours." Galen said honestly.
"No chance of that. My mom's already given me the curse." Wil said with a wry grin.
"The curse?" Galen asked curiously.
"Someday..." Wil began to say, and Marc immediately started to say it with him, "...I hope you'll have a kid who's JUST LIKE YOU."
Galen chuckled as Wil said, "So you see, I'm doomed. There's no way I'd have the patience to put up with a kid that's like I was."
Marc looked around, then hesitantly asked, "Where is your mom? Have you talked to her yet?"
"No." Wil said with a sigh. "And I'm probably not going to. Mom and Dad haven't talked to me in about a year."
"Why not?" Marc asked with concern.
"It's all about me being friends with Jordan. They think I'm some kind of mindless idiot who'd just follow along and do whatever Jordan did." Wil said tiredly. "When he was going to leave Orlando, he asked me to go with him. They told me if I left, I couldn't come back. I left."
"I heard a little about what happened to Jordan; I just didn't know you were involved in that." Marc said quietly.
"I wasn't. The drugs and all that happened later, after he got hooked up with that bitch of an ex-girlfriend of his. As soon as he started doing that shit, I was out of there." Wil said frankly.
"So, how are you doing now?" Marc asked slowly.
"I'm starting to get on my feet. A friend of mine named Todd is letting me stay with him. I've got a job now and pretty soon I'll have enough to be able to get my own place. It's kinda tough, but it's good too." Wil finished with a smile.
"I'm proud of you, Wil." Marc said as he gave him a quick hug. "If you ever need me, you know that I'll be there for you."
"Thanks, Uncle Marc. I'm really going to try to make this work on my own. But if things start turning to shit, I'll remember your offer."
Conversation in the room quieted as a large red and white figure strode into the room.
JD wasn't the only child clutching tightly to a parent at the sight.
The Santa suit was obviously very old and had seen better days. The wig and beard had yellowed with age.
Christian broke away from the group of boys and walked directly to Marc's side.
"I'm sorry, Marc. I know you don't want me using bad language, but someone has to say it. That is the creepiest fucking Santa I've ever seen."
Author's Note: Special thanks to D&B for their contributions to this chapter. And for the great editing job.
Editor's Notes: Well, the Family Reunion from Hell comes to (near) ending with a bit of drama and some warm human kindness. Seeing Marc reunited with his favorite nephew, and the four boys (Collin, Christian, Jorry, and Nick) teaming up to protect the two littler ones, was a wonderful touch. But there's definitely some interesting cliffhanging going on with the entry, at the end, of "the creepiest Santa." Another warm and wonderful chapter in what has become one of my favorite stories, Multimapper! Thanks for telling it, and for being willing to accept my suggestions. -D&B
Second Editor's Notes: I agree completely with D and B. As always, another wonderful chapter from MM. I also agree that it is always a pleasure to work with MultiMapper. He really does take suggestions very well. You would be amazed at how many plotlines, come together from us sitting together in our separate places, going over possible situations for the guys.
I know for a fact that there are several future chapters of one of MM's stories that are going to be written based on some very interesting chats that he and I had. I won't mention which story I am talking about, but it will be interesting to see just what he does to flesh out the ideas we came up with together.
Thanks MM for another wonderful chapter, of a WONDERFUL story.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher