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Author's Note: I would like to give special thanks to D&B for being critical of my work (in a totally good way). Because of you, I think this chapter is better than it would have been.
Christian blinked his eyes and felt momentarily disoriented.
In a rush, the realization came to him that he was sleeping beside a person who he didn't know the day before.
He was in a house full of complete strangers and yet, in some indefinable way, he felt more at home at this moment than he had felt since before his parents' divorce.
A sound of movement drew his attention and he turned to see a shadow move across the sliver of light under the bathroom door.
Slowly, driven by curiosity, Christian made his way to the bathroom.
* * * * *
"I'm sorry Christian, did I wake you?" Marc asked quietly as he worked to attach Santa face shower curtain hooks to the brightly colored Christmas village shower curtain.
"I... I don't know." Christian said blearily. "What are you doing up so early? It's still dark out."
"This is about the time I usually get up to get ready for work. I thought I'd get some of the little jobs done around the house while you guys were sleeping." Marc said as he continued to attach the little jolly Santa faces.
"Makes sense." Christian said, then walked to the toilet.
"Do you want me to leave you alone for a minute?" Marc asked cautiously.
"Not unless you think you won't be able to control yourself." Christian said as he lifted the toilet seat.
"If I get any urges, Galen is asleep upstairs." Marc said with amusement. "You're safe."
"That's what I figured." Christian said, then sighed as he began to relieve himself.
"How are you feeling this morning?" Marc asked quietly.
After a moment to finish his business, Christian responded, "Actually, my head is kind of throbbing. I think maybe that's what woke me up."
"Then why don't I get you something for that?" Marc asked as he sat the shower curtain aside.
"You don't have to do that. I can get it." Christian said automatically.
"I don't mind." Marc said as he went to the counter by the sink and picked up the unopened box of non-aspirin pain reliever that he had given to Christian the night before.
"Thanks." Christian mumbled as he watched Marc open the box.
As Marc searched to find the perforation to open the tamper-proof plastic film covering the bottle, Christian hesitantly asked, "Where is the soap?"
"I haven't put it out yet, it's in that bag beside the sink." Marc said, then smiled as he finally got the plastic wrap from around the top of the bottle.
Christian looked in the bag, then cautiously took out a small cake of soap in the shape of a Christmas tree.
"You don't want me to use this, do you?" Christian asked as he held out the soap for Marc to see.
"Sure. It's soap. It's here for you to use." Marc said with strain as he fought to get the child-proof cap off the bottle.
"But it's one of your decorations." Christian said hesitantly.
"It's soap, Christian. What's the point of having it if you don't use it?" Marc asked frankly, then smiled as the cap finally released.
"Okay." Christian said as he took the clear cellophane film off the small decorative soap.
"Son of a bitch!" Marc said past clenched teeth when he saw the foil seal inside the bottle.
"How is someone with a bad headache supposed to go through the twenty-five steps to break into this bottle?" Marc asked in frustration as he tried to catch the edge of the foil with his fingernail.
Christian chuckled as he washed his hands, then stopped when he caught the fragrance of the soap.
"Hey. This smells nice." Christian said, then held out the soap so Marc could also smell it.
"I like that." Marc said with a smile. "Very Christmassy."
Christian chuckled as he sat the cake of soap in the Santa soap dish beside the sink, then rinsed his hands.
"If you're finished, why don't you let the cold water run for a few seconds so you can take these pills... If I can ever get them out of this bottle." Marc said with frustration as he fought to peel the foil away.
Christian smiled to himself as he turned on the cold water tap.
"Naturally." Marc muttered with frustration, then went about the business of trying to fish the wad of cotton through the small neck of the bottle.
"Do you need some help with that?" Christian asked with amusement.
"No. Now I'm committed to finishing it myself." Marc said with determination.
"I guess you could come in and wake me up when you've got them out." Christian said with a chuckle.
"Pour yourself a glass of water, smartass. I'll have these out before you're done." Marc said as he twisted his little finger around in the bottle, trying to catch hold of the cotton.
"Before I'm done with what? High school?" Christian asked with a cheeky grin as he picked up the little North pole tumbler beside the sink.
"Got it." Marc said with triumph.
Christian stared at Marc for a moment, then said, "If you celebrate something like opening a bottle of aspirin, your life must be a constant party."
"Yeah. That's me. The party guy." Marc said dryly, then held out two of the non-aspirin pain relievers to Christian.
"Thanks." Christian said, then took the pills and washed them down with water.
"Would you mind if we talk for a minute before you go back to bed?" Marc asked quietly.
"Sounds serious." Christian said as he sat the tumbler beside the sink.
Marc nodded, then said, "I've been keeping track of how your father is doing."
Christian looked at Marc with surprise.
"Yesterday while we were at the hospital... that 'code blue'... that was him." Marc said quietly.
"Did he die?" Christian asked cautiously.
"No." Marc said immediately, then amended, "I suppose that they would probably tell you that he was 'technically' dead... his heart stopped. But they were able to get it restarted."
Christian nodded that he understood what Marc was saying.
"His heart stopped two more times last night, but at some point during the night, his condition stabilized. He's been upgraded from critical to serious." Marc said as he looked into Christian's eyes.
"So that means that he's going to be alright?" Christian asked carefully.
"No. That means that he's now at a point where it's not as likely that he could die at any moment." Marc said frankly.
"But he could still die." Christian said, continuing the thought.
"Yes Christian. He could." Marc said honestly, then continued, "The thing the doctors are most worried about is the damage to your father's liver."
"Makes sense." Christian said as his voice broke on the last word.
Marc automatically pulled Christian into a hug as he said, "They've got some more tests and things to do, but they seem pretty sure that the only real hope that he's got is a liver transplant."
After a moment to think about the words, Christian quietly asked, "What are his chances?"
"The doctor that I talked to said that when you're dealing with transplants, there's just no way to predict when one will become available." Marc said quietly.
Marc continued to hold Christian in his arms, waiting to see how he was going to handle the new revelations.
"I know it's wrong to wish that someone was dead but..." Christian began to say.
"Stop." Marc said firmly.
"But..." Christian tried to continue.
"Christian. Please, whatever you do, don't finish what you were about to say." Marc said as he held Christian even tighter.
After a long silent moment, Christian whispered, "Okay. I won't."
"Why don't you go back in and try to get some more sleep?" Marc asked gently.
"Yeah. That sounds good." Christian said quietly.
"Just let me know if there's anything that you need, to be more comfortable." Marc said as he released Christian.
"I will. Thanks Marc." Christian said with a small smile.
* * * * *
"Good morning!" Marc said from his place in front of the kitchen stove.
"Good morning Marc." Collin said cheerfully, then walked to his father who was sitting at the kitchen table and gave him a quick hug. "Good morning Dad."
"Good morning Collin. Did you sleep well?" Galen asked as he turned in his seat to return the hug.
"I slept great." Collin said with a grand smile.
"How are you doing this morning Christian?" Marc asked with concern when he noticed Christian standing in the doorway.
"I'm good." Christian said quietly, then slowly made his way across the kitchen and gave Marc a quick hug.
Marc sat down his wooden spoon and returned Christian's hug before saying, "Why don't you boys have a seat at the table? Breakfast is almost ready."
"I figured it was. It smells great!" Collin said as he moved from his father's side to take the seat next to him.
Christian smiled at Collin's cheerful response, then walked to the table to take the seat on Galen's other side, across from Collin.
"Well, I thought that since I had the time, I'd make up a batch of homemade biscuits and some sausage gravy this morning." Marc said happily.
"That sounds wonderful." Collin said with a radiant smile.
"You certainly are cheerful this morning, Collin." Galen said, then took a long sip of his coffee.
"You wake up to a hummer then see if you can keep from smiling the rest of the day." Collin said with a grin at Christian.
Galen coughed, then struggled to put down his coffee cup without spilling it.
"Dad. Are you okay?" Collin asked with concern as he scrambled to his father's side.
Galen coughed, then coughed again.
"Here." Marc said quickly as he handed some paper towels to Collin.
Collin passed the paper towels to his father and watched helplessly as Galen continued to cough into the paper towels.
After a moment, Galen took the paper towels away from his face and took in a deep breath.
"I'm fine. The coffee just went down the wrong pipe." Galen said, then used the paper towels to wipe the tears from his eyes.
"But you're okay?" Collin asked cautiously.
"Yeah. I think some went up my nose." Galen said, then started blowing his nose on the paper towels.
A sound drew Galen and Collin's attention to the other side of the table.
Christian was sitting there, trying desperately not to laugh but obviously losing the battle.
"It's not that funny." Galen said as he tried to compose himself.
"Yes." Christian gasped. "It is."
Collin smiled at Christian's reaction and began to laugh along with him.
"Guys, will you move things from the middle of the table so I have a place to put the gravy?" Marc asked, trying to restrain his own chuckles.
Christian and Collin both worked to scoot things out of the way.
Marc flopped a hot pad in the middle of the table, then carefully placed a skillet full of bubbling gravy in the center.
"That smells great!" Collin said with delight.
"Just wait until you try the biscuits." Marc said as he moved back to the stove.
The three at the table watched as Marc opened the oven and carefully pulled out a large pan loaded down with biscuits.
"Galen. How many do you want?" Marc asked as he approached the table.
"Three." Galen said seriously.
"There you go." Marc said as he pulled three biscuits off the pan with a pair of tongs and sat the biscuits on Galen's plate.
"Those look like something out of a TV commercial." Christian said as his mouth watered.
Marc chuckled at Christian's version of a compliment as he placed two biscuits on Christian's plate.
"I think I could handle three." Christian said frankly.
"As you can see, I have plenty, so you can go back and have as many as you can eat." Marc said as he also placed two biscuits on Collin's plate.
"But Galen has to go to work, so he needs to get all of his in one go." Marc continued as he placed two biscuits on his own plate.
"I wish you didn't have to go." Collin said to his father seriously.
"It's just for half a day, then I'll be here with you until the end of the holiday." Galen said, warmed to the depths of his soul to know that his son wanted him.
"And even if Galen were here, we'd still have a ton of things that need to be done today. You probably wouldn't get much of a chance to spend time with him until the afternoon." Marc said frankly.
"What do we have to do?" Collin asked curiously as he split open his biscuits which were still steaming hot.
"Just the boring household stuff. Bank, store, you know, stuff like that." Marc said as he waited for Christian to finish with the gravy.
"We could just hang around here if that would be easier." Christian said frankly, then handed the ladle to Marc.
"I thought that this might be a good chance for you two to see some of the city. I don't know how exciting it will be, but it should be more interesting than sitting inside all day." Marc said frankly.
"I don't know. I bet Christian and I could find something to do to keep us entertained." Collin said with a grin.
Marc chuckled and said, "I bet you're right. But I still think it would be good to get out of the house this morning."
"Yeah." Christian said with a smile at Marc, then glanced at Collin and said, "And I can be just as entertaining outside the house."
"Are you sure you don't want to wait until I can go with you?" Galen asked Marc cautiously.
"I'm sure." Marc said gently. "I know that the guys will behave responsibly."
"Hey Marc. This breakfast is really awesome." Christian said happily.
"I'm glad you think so. I like to make biscuits and gravy for breakfast whenever I have the time." Marc said with a smile.
"If you eat like this all the time, Dad should be big as a cow." Collin said with a grin at his father.
"More like a bull." Marc said with a teasing smile at Galen.
Galen flashed a look of warning at Marc as Christian tried to restrain a giggle.
"Let's just say that Marc keeps me busy enough that I work off the extra calories." Galen said to his son.
"Oh." Collin said, completely missing the double entendre.
"I've got to go." Galen said as he looked at the clock on the wall.
"We'll probably be leaving right behind you. Call on the cell if you need to get in touch." Marc said as he walked around the table to Galen's side.
"Have a good day." Galen said gently as he moved in to give Marc a kiss.
Collin smiled as he watched his father and Marc openly expressing their love.
"I'm going for more." Christian whispered as he stood.
Collin glanced in time to see Christian heading toward the stove to get more biscuits.
"Plan." Collin said playfully as he picked up his plate and hurried to Christian's side.
* * * * *
"We're a little behind schedule. I guess I underestimated how much you guys could eat." Marc said as they walked out the front door.
"Don't blame us. You're the one who made such a fantastic breakfast. If you would have just fed us cold cereal, we would have been ready in plenty of time." Collin said frankly.
"I'll keep that in mind." Marc said with a smile as he locked the door of the house.
"Your car really needs to be washed." Collin said as he looked at the large blue car in the driveway.
"I agree. Except that it's not my car. It's your father's." Marc said as he gestured for the boys to go to the car.
"Maybe we could surprise him and take it through the car wash while we're out doing stuff this morning." Christian suggested as Marc unlocked the passenger door.
"Do you want shotgun?" Christian asked Collin curiously.
"No. You go ahead." Collin said with a smile.
Christian nodded and opened the door, then reached in and unlocked Collin's door.
"A car wash wouldn't do much good. The paint is just too oxidized. What this car needs is a good old fashioned wax job. The problem is, Galen wants to do it himself." Marc said, then got into the driver's side of the car.
The boys both got in and fastened their seat belts.
Marc started the engine and both boys broke into big grins at the feeling of the vibrations running through their bodies.
* * * * *
"Where to first?" Christian asked as soon as they were out on the open road.
"My work." Marc said casually.
"I thought you said you were off for the rest of the holiday." Collin said cautiously.
"Oh. I am." Marc said, then made the turn onto the freeway.
"Then why are you going in to work?" Collin asked when it was obvious that Marc wasn't going to volunteer an explanation.
"Let's call it a personal project." Marc said with a grin.
"My dad is in love with a spy." Collin said dramatically.
Marc laughed at the statement, then said, "We prefer to be called covert operatives."
"Seriously Marc, you're a computer programmer. Why do you need to go in to work on your day off?" Collin asked from the back seat.
"You'll find out in just a minute." Marc said as he pulled off the freeway.
The boys both looked out of the car at the mass of business buildings.
"Which one is yours?" Collin asked, completely forgetting their conversation of a moment before.
"Up ahead on the right." Marc said as he noticed Collin's wide eyed look of wonder.
"The one with the gate?" Christian asked with excitement.
"That's the one." Marc said, then pulled into the driveway and up to the guard station.
Marc rolled down his window then as he held out his ID he said, "Marc Stone and two visitors."
The guard nodded, then looked down at a tablet computer in his hand before saying, "Collin Anderson and Christian Stone?"
"That's right." Marc said, then took his ID when the guard handed it back.
"Mr. Thompson got everything cleared for you. The south lot is all yours." The guard said with a trace of a smile.
"Thank you and Merry Christmas." Marc said with his smile turned on full blast.
"Merry Christmas." The guard responded with a chuckle.
* * * * *
"How did he know our names?" Collin asked quietly.
"I told him." Marc said casually as he drove past the building and to a large empty parking lot at the far side.
"When?" Christian asked curiously.
"When I called my boss and asked for permission to bring you two here with me. This is a secure location, so they keep track of everyone who enters or leaves the property." Marc said as he drove toward the middle of the large, empty parking lot.
"How long are you going to be in there?" Collin asked, getting a little spooky feeling at being in such a deserted place.
Marc pulled the car to a stop, then said, "I'm not going in."
"What are we doing here then?" Christian asked cautiously.
"Scoot over and I'll tell you." Marc said, then got out of the car and closed the door.
"Scoot over where?" Christian asked Collin in confusion.
Collin shook his head, every bit as bewildered as Christian about what was going on.
Christian's door opening caused both boys to turn quickly.
"I told you to scoot over." Marc said as he stood outside Christian's door.
"Over to your side of the car?" Christian asked uncertainly.
"Well, it's going to be pretty hard for you to drive it from over here." Marc said as he tried to restrain his grin.
"Drive? Me?" Christian asked with wide eyes.
"Yeah." Marc said with a smile. "Scoot."
"Ouch!" Christian yelped.
"What's wrong?" Collin asked immediately.
"I forgot to take the seatbelt off." Christian said shyly, then after releasing the seat belt, scooted himself over in the seat.
Marc was fighting down his chuckles as Christian took his place behind the wheel.
"First of all, you're going to need to adjust your seat. Bring it far enough forward that you can reach the pedals without having to stretch." Marc said instructively.
"Um, how do I do that? I'm used to everything being electronic." Christian said as he looked at Marc helplessly.
"There's a lever under the seat. When you pull it, you'll be able to scoot the entire seat forward or back." Marc said seriously.
Collin leaned forward to watch Christian's every move, having the feeling that he would probably be doing the same before the day was over.
* * * * *
Marc gave Christian some basic instructions before Christian finally started the car and inched them slowly forward.
It took a little bit of time, but eventually Christian was becoming comfortable with starting and stopping the car.
After driving the car around the parking lot for a while, getting Christian used to turning, Marc decided to try for something a little more difficult.
"Collin, would you like to help Christian with the next part of the lesson?" Marc asked with a smile into the back seat.
"Sure, what can I do?" Collin asked hopefully.
"Get out and help guide Christian as he tries to back into a parking space." Marc said with a secretive smile.
"How do I do that?" Collin asked cautiously.
"Get behind the car, out of Christian's way, and let him know if he needs to go left or right and how much further he has to go to be parked correctly." Marc said seriously.
"You're not going to run me over, are you Christian?" Collin asked cautiously.
"No promises. You'd better be ready to jump out of the way." Christian said with a look of apology.
"Okay. I can do that." Collin said with a grin, then got out of the car.
"Just go slow and try to get comfortable with handling the car while you're backing up. Don't forget to use your mirrors." Marc said slowly.
"Okay." Christian said nervously.
"One more thing." Marc said seriously.
After a moment, Christian turned to look at Marc curiously.
"Backing up takes quite a bit of practice. I don't expect you to be able to do it right away. Try to relax and if you start going the wrong way, just pull forward and try it again." Marc said quietly.
"Okay. Thanks Marc." Christian said and gave Marc a weak, nervous smile.
After a glance behind the car, Marc quietly said, "Go ahead. It looks like Collin is ready to guide you."
The next few minutes were a true learning experience for Christian.
For a while it seemed to Christian that every time he turned the wheel, the car turned in the exact opposite direction that he intended.
Marc had to use every bit of self control at his disposal to keep from breaking into laughter at the alternating looks of panic and frustration as Christian tried to maneuver the car into just one parking space.
"I'm sorry this is taking so long Marc. I must be an idiot. I should be able to do this." Christian said, and seemed to be on the verge of tears.
"If you'll remember, Galen has trouble backing up too and he's been driving for years. It just takes a while to learn." Marc said gently.
Christian thought about the words, then took in a slow, deep breath before trying again.
Marc watched Christian's look of intense concentration as he carefully turned the car and was finally able to get the car backed into the parking space on the first try.
"I did it!" Christian said with a whoop of excitement.
"Yes Christian. You did." Marc said with a glow of happiness at Christian's accomplishment.
The back door opened and Collin jumped into the car, nearly vibrating with his excitement.
"You did it perfect!" Collin said, then leaned over the seat to give Christian a quick hug.
Marc smiled at the scene, then quietly said, "Christian, why don't you go ahead and drive around the lot a few times, then when you're ready, you can come back to this space and back in again."
"Yeah." Christian said happily.
Collin immediately sat back in his seat and looked at Marc with joy and admiration.
* * * * *
"Christian. Pull over and stop the car." Marc said seriously.
"Did I do something wrong?" Christian asked as he slammed on the brakes.
"No. I've got a phone call and I don't want you driving unless I'm able to pay my full attention." Marc said, then opened his phone.
"Yeah. Until after New Year's Day." Marc said, then flashed an apologetic look at Christian.
A puzzled look came over Marc's face as he asked, "Excuse me? A change in what plans?"
"No." Marc said darkly. "This is the first I'm hearing about it."
"Mom, that's not true and you know it." Marc said firmly. "I have a cell phone, a home phone, a phone at the office and voice mail on all three. The only reason Denise didn't get in touch with me is because she didn't want to. And if I'm not wanted, I'm not going."
"Nice try mom. But before you talk to me about the importance of family, I think you should have that talk with Denise. She's the one who planned a 'family' Christmas celebration then 'forgot' to invite her gay brother." Marc said as tears welled in his eyes.
There was a long moment of silence as Marc listened and seemed to calm slightly.
Collin and Christian shared concerned looks, then turned their attention back to Marc.
"Where?" Marc asked abruptly.
"Am I supposed to bring anything?" Marc asked, not sounding entirely happy with what he was agreeing to do.
"I can't speak for Galen, but I'll make sure he knows that he's invited." Marc said, then glanced at the boys and continued, "Oh, do you remember that I was telling you about Galen's son visiting for the holiday? Some things happened and we ended up with two boys instead of one."
"Collin and Christian."
"They're both about fourteen." Marc said and tried to force a smile onto his face for the boys.
"Okay Mom. But there's one thing that you need to know." Marc said in a warning tone. "If Denise or any of that bunch start in on Galen or the boys, then this will be the last time. Ever."
"I know Mom. But there are worse things than living without your family."
"Like watching the people you love being persecuted just for being themselves."
Marc gave an ironic little smile, then said, "I love you too Mom."
As soon as Marc had hung up the phone, Christian asked, "Where and when?"
"Tonight. At my sister Linda's house."
"We've got to go. Huh?" Collin asked hesitantly.
"No." Marc said firmly, then turned to face Collin fully.
"*I* have to go. You two are invited and expected, but if you choose not to go, no one will blame you one bit." Marc said honestly.
"Why do you have to go?" Christian asked cautiously.
"I can't really explain it. They're my family and... well, that means something." Marc said weakly.
"I'll take your word for it." Christian said frankly.
Marc gave Christian a sad smile and said, "As much of a pain in the ass as they can be, I wouldn't wish to be without them."
Christian nodded that he heard.
Marc looked at the time on his cell phone, then asked, "Collin, are you ready for a turn in the driver's seat?"
"Um... no." Collin said in a conflicted voice.
Marc looked at Collin curiously, knowing that a fourteen year old boy would normally jump a the chance to drive a car.
"We're not going to judge how you drive." Marc said cautiously. "This is just for fun."
"That isn't it." Collin mumbled.
"What is it then? I mean, if you don't mind me asking." Marc asked gently, concerned by Collin's sudden change in mood.
"It's stupid." Collin said in a whisper.
"C'mon Collin. Spill it." Christian said firmly.
Collin smiled at Christian, then hesitantly said, "I just... I wanted for my dad to be the one to teach me how to drive."
Marc blinked with surprise at the statement, then said, "I didn't even think of that."
"I told you it was stupid." Collin mumbled as he looked down.
"It isn't stupid at all." Marc said immediately, then continued, "And I can't even imagine how important this will be for Galen. I really should have thought of it."
Collin looked at Marc curiously, apparantly assessing the honesty of his statement, then broke into a smile.
"But once he's taught you, you'd better come to me to learn how to back up. Your father really isn't the one who should be teaching that." Marc added with a grin.
"Okay Marc. I'll remember." Collin said, still appearing to be a little bit shy.
"Well Christian, are you ready for more driving?" Marc asked, trying to lighten the mood.
Christian looked into the back seat and cautiously asked, "Are you sure you don't want to?"
"Yeah. I'm sure. Go for it." Collin said with a smile.
"Okay. Where am I going this time?" Christian asked as he started the car again.
* * * * *
"Pull over Christian. We still have some other things that we need to do this morning." Marc said seriously.
"Already?" Christian asked as he carefully stopped the car.
"You've been driving for over two hours. Your butt should be numb by now." Marc said with a chuckle.
"Hey! I'm the one who's supposed to be thinking about Christian's butt." Collin said playfully.
Marc smiled as he said, "Scoot your numb butt over here Christian."
* * * * *
After taking his place in the driver's seat, Marc turned and looked at Christian thoughtfully.
"Is something wrong?" Christian asked cautiously.
"No. Not at all." Marc said distantly.
"Then what is it?" Christian asked cautiously.
"Do you remember back in the hospital, when I talked privately with Judge Robison?" Marc asked slowly.
"Yeah." Christian said, then glanced at Collin to see if he had any clue about what was going on.
"Okay. Here it is..." Marc said in prelude. "The thing I was worried about and had to ask Judge Robison was... I was worried that if you stayed with us for the holiday, that Galen and I might get attached and when the holiday was over we wouldn't be able to stand to let you go. You know, when the judge decided what's going to happen to you next."
Christian bit his lower lip as he tried to hold in the tumult of emotions that suddenly erupted within him.
"Christian. While we've still got a few days, I need for you to be thinking about something." Marc said as he was finally able to force himself to meet Christian's worried gaze.
"What?" Christian forced out in a gasp as tears welled in his eyes.
"Okay. This is only if you want to. It's totally up to you." Marc said as he tried to keep his voice steady. "But after Christmas, when we go to court, I would like to try to adopt you."
Christian stared at Marc with wide eyes as a tear escaped down his cheek.
"I don't want you to answer now. Take as much time as you need to think about it and decide what you want to do. I'm sure that Judge Robison is going to have plenty of other choices for you to consider." Marc said seriously.
"You... you want to be... my dad?" Christian asked in a voice that was nearly a sob.
"Yes Christian. More than anything." Marc said as tears started forming in his own eyes.
"This is great! We could be like brothers!" Collin said with a glorious smile.
Marc chuckled and said, "I suppose you could look at it that way."
Christian sat silent as another tear glided down his cheek.
"I'll give you some time to let this sink in. We'd better get going." Marc said as he wiped his eyes.
"Thanks." Christian whispered distantly as he seemed to be staring off into space.
Marc smiled at Christian's dumbfounded state as he started the car.
* * * * *
After stopping at the guard shack for a moment, Marc took them back onto the road, back toward the freeway.
"Where are we going next?" Collin asked curiously. "Or is it another surprise?"
"No surprise. We're going to the mall. It should be opening any minute." Marc said with a smile.
"The mall? That's cool. But why are we going there?" Collin asked, feeling that Marc was withholding information.
"Well. I thought you guys might like the chance to do a little last minute Christmas shopping. Besides, this may be our only chance to go shopping without Galen." Marc said, then accelerated the car as he merged into the traffic on the freeway.
"I don't have much money." Christian said quietly from Marc's side, finally seeming to come back to himself.
"I'm going to swing by the bank first to get some money for all three of us." Marc said casually, glad to see that Christian was finally coming out of his shock.
"I can't take your money." Christian said hesitantly, obviously at war within himself at saying the words.
Marc glanced at Christian with surprise, then broke into a smile as he asked, "Have you ever heard of a Christmas Club savings account?"
"No." Christian said slowly, then looked into the back seat to see if Collin understood what Marc was asking.
Collin shrugged and shook his head.
"I have this special bank account set up, so that every time I get paid, a little bit of money automatically gets set aside for Christmas. That's the money that we'll be using today. So you don't need to feel funny about it, it's not like I'm just giving you money. This is what the money was set aside for, you're just helping me use it." Marc explained, then turned the car off the freeway.
"That's a really smart way of doing it. That way you don't have to worry about having enough money to have Christmas." Collin said with a smile.
"I suppose." Marc said casually. "By doing it this way, I also don't have a stack of bills waiting for me in January."
"I guess if this is what the money was meant for, it's okay to take it." Christian said in a conflicted voice.
"Good." Marc said as he turned the car into the drive-thru lane at the bank.
* * * * *
As the group got out of the car, Marc went through the cash in the envelope and pulled some out.
"I think this should do it." Marc said as he handed some money to Christian.
"This is..." Christian began to say, then counted the money again to make sure he wasn't mistaken. "This is two hundred dollars."
"Yeah. But with buying for three people and mall prices... it should be about right." Marc said, then handed some cash to Collin.
"Thanks Marc." Collin said as he quickly counted the money, then shoved it into his pocket.
Christian smiled at the way Collin had taken the money with such ease and slowly put his own money away.
"I parked on this side of the mall so we could start out at this pharmacy." Marc said as he led the way toward the mall.
"Why? Do you need some drugs or something?" Christian asked curiously.
"No. Nothing like that." Marc said with a smile. "But I'm betting that this place will have something that will make our shopping adventure a lot more fun."
"Viagra?" Christian asked with a grin.
Marc laughed, then said, "Not quite that much fun."
* * * * *
"Ah, just what I was looking for." Marc said as he found a small display rack of inexpensive watches near the check stand.
"I don't get it." Christian said cautiously.
Marc picked up three nearly identical watches and walked to the checkout.
"If you want to keep your gifts a secret, you'll need to be on your own for at least a few minutes. With these watches, we can agree where and when to meet up again." Marc said as he laid two twenty dollar bills on the counter with the three watches.
"Wow. You really have this down to a science." Collin said in wonder.
"I try to think ahead." Marc said casually, then added with a grin, "It's part of being fussy."
Both boys chuckled at the statement as Marc accepted his change.
"Are you guys ready for the shopping adventure to begin?" Marc asked as he led the way toward the mall entrance of the store.
"Oh yeah!" Collin said with excitement.
Christian smiled at Collin's enthusiasm and realized that he was feeling at least as excited as Collin.
* * * * *
"Okay guys. Whenever you spot a store that you want to visit, just let me know where you'll be and when you plan to be done." Marc said as they slowly walked.
"Can't we just meet back here in, like, two hours?" Christian asked curiously.
"I'm afraid not. I'm responsible for you two and I couldn't let you go off on your own for that long." Marc said seriously.
"You don't trust us?" Collin asked in a wounded tone.
"Sure I do Collin." Marc said as he automatically pulled Collin into a one-armed hug. "But I don't trust the rest of the world."
"I don't trust the world either Marc. Is it okay if I go in there? I'll be back in ten minutes." Christian asked as he pointed at the store they were approaching.
"Sounds good." Marc said with a smile. "I'll meet you right here in ten minutes."
Collin looked at Christian with question, not knowing if he was invited or not.
"You can come with me if you want." Christian said seriously.
"Okay." Collin said happily, then turned to Marc and confirmed, "Back here. Ten minutes."
Marc nodded as he watched the two boys walk away.
* * * * *
"Do you want to talk about it?" Collin asked as soon as he and Christian were alone.
"What?" Christian asked automatically, then realized what Collin was asking, "No. Not yet."
At Collin's concerned gaze, Christian continued, "I just haven't really wrapped my brain around it yet. Give me a little bit to sort it out."
"Yeah. I can do that." Collin said with a smile, then asked, "So do you have any idea of what you want to buy?"
"I don't have a clue. I want to buy something nice, especially for Marc. But I've only known him for one day. I don't know what he already has and what he likes." Christian said in a worried voice.
"He likes Christmas." Collin said frankly.
Christian thought about it for a moment, then said, "That's a GREAT idea. We already know all the Christmas stuff that he has and we know that when someone gets him a new Christmas thing that he really appreciates it and uses it. Even if it's a fluffy toilet seat cover." Christian finished with a chuckle.
Collin smiled at the fact that Christian was happy.
"What about your dad? What kind of stuff does he like?" Christian asked seriously.
"I don't know." Collin said thoughtfully. "I guess he likes electronics stuff. I think most years he gets stuff like that for Christmas."
"What about after Christmas? Does he ever use any of it?" Christian asked carefully.
"Not really. I think he liked the universal remote I got him last year. He used that." Collin said uncertainly.
"Okay. I think he's probably got enough electronics then. I mean, he's a hardware designer. If he wants something electronic, he can probably make it for himself." Christian said frankly.
"I never thought of that." Collin said distantly.
"So what else does your dad like? What does he do for fun?" Christian asked carefully.
"I don't know." Collin said in a whisper.
Christian could tell that Collin was bothered by the fact that he didn't have an answer.
"I guess if you don't count getting drunk and being an asshole, I don't know what my dad likes doing either." Christian said frankly.
Collin slowly nodded, acknowledging that he had heard.
"Maybe we can come up with something that he can do with Marc? I bet that whatever it is, he'd enjoy just about anything as long as they were doing it together." Christian said thoughtfully.
After a moment, Collin slowly nodded and said, "That could work."
"If we can come up with something really nice, maybe I can just get one gift for both of them." Christian said carefully.
"Yeah. And if you need to, I could put some of my money with yours." Collin said seriously.
"Okay. It sounds like we've got a plan. Now all we need to do is come up with something that Marc and your dad would enjoy doing together."
* * * * *
"I was about to go looking for you guys." Marc said as the boys approached.
"Sorry we're late. There's a lot of stuff to look at and it's easy to lose track of time." Collin said frankly.
"Yeah. It is." Marc said with a smile.
"Hold on." Christian said as he looked at the bags Marc was carrying.
"You've been to two stores while we've been looking around one?" Christian asked in wonder.
"Three actually. One of the stores was sold out of what I was looking for." Marc said with a grin.
"We need to take shopping lessons from Marc." Collin said with a chuckle.
"Yeah. It looks that way." Christian said seriously.
"So where do you guys want to look next? Or do you need some more time at this store?" Marc asked frankly.
"I think we need to walk around for a while and look at the other stores. We have some ideas, but haven't decided on anything yet." Collin said in thought.
"Yeah." Christian agreed. "Maybe if we look around we'll find what we're looking for."
"Well, if you don't have anything specific in mind, maybe we could stop in at a couple of clothing stores while we're walking and pick up a few things." Marc said as he started to walk.
"What did you need?" Christian asked curiously.
"I was thinking that maybe you two would like something new for tonight, that is, if you're planning on going to visit with my family." Marc said with a glance at the boys.
"Oh. Yeah, I guess." Collin said with a questioning look at Christian.
"If you want." Christian said quietly, having a funny feeling about Marc spending money on him.
"It won't hurt to look. Maybe you'll find something that you like." Marc said casually.
"I guess so." Christian said uncertainly.
"Let's go to the car and drop off these bags, then we can start." Marc said as he pointed toward the exit door.
* * * * *
"Those would look good on you." Collin said as he looked at the pair of pants that Christian had selected.
"I don't know." Christian said in a considering voice.
Marc looked at the pants, then said, "Those are nice, but I think these might look better."
Christian turned to see what Marc had found and smiled.
The pants that Marc was holding were slim cut black cargo pants.
"I like those." Christian said before he could help himself.
"Pick out your size and go try them on while we try to find something for Collin." Marc said happily.
"I like them too." Collin said frankly.
"I think this style would look great on Christian, but I think you need something designed for someone with a larger frame." Marc said with a considering look at Collin.
"Are you calling me fat?" Collin asked curiously.
"No. Not at all." Marc said with a chuckle. "But you don't have the same body type as Christian. He's very slender, those pants should compliment him. You need something like..."
Collin watched as Marc searched around.
"This. Find your size and try it on." Marc said as he moved to another display rack.
Collin looked carefully at the stone washed denim jeans, then back at Marc with indecision.
"Just try them on before you decide." Marc said seriously.
Collin looked through the rack and finally found his size.
"Can I help you?" A teenage sales clerk asked as he approached Marc.
"No. I don't think so. I'm just trying to find some things for the boys." Marc said with a smile.
"We've got some tee combos over on that table that should work pretty good with the jeans." The boy said as he pointed.
"Let's see if Collin likes the jeans before we do that. He didn't seem too happy with them." Marc said honestly.
"Those are probably the most comfortable pants that we have in the place. Once he puts them on, he won't want to take them off." The sales clerk said frankly, then noticed a customer approaching the cash register.
"Yell if you need me." He said as he rushed away.
"Yeah." Marc said with a smile, then turned as Christian walked up to him, wearing the black cargo pants.
"Perfect." Marc said with a smile, then motioned for Christian to follow him.
"Do you really like them?" Christian asked uncertainly.
"Yes. But not with that shirt. It's too baggy." Marc said honestly as he looked at the folded tee shirts on the table.
"Here. Long sleeve under, short sleeve over. Hurry before Collin gets out." Marc said with a smile.
Christian took the shirts and hurried back to the fitting room.
* * * * *
"How does it look?" Collin asked as he walked out of the dressing room, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
Marc looked at Collin for a moment, then shook his head.
"Hold this and let me see what I can do here." Marc said, then handed Collin a tee shirt as he squatted down.
Collin glanced at the shirt in his hands, then looked down suddenly as Marc tugged his pants down.
For just a moment, Collin thought Marc was going to 'pants' him right there in the middle of the store.
"These are meant to be worn low-rise." Marc said as he finally got the jeans to fit low on Collin's hips.
As Collin was about to say something, Marc lifted Collin's shirt a little and started to straighten out the waist band on his underwear so that it was even.
"Um. Should you be doing that here?" Collin asked with a blush as he looked around.
"Yeah. Unless you want me to go into the fitting room with you." Marc said as he stood.
Collin looked at Marc with question, waiting for the verdict.
"Go back in and try on that shirt. It'll look better with these pants than the one you're wearing." Marc said honestly.
"Okay." Collin said hesitantly.
* * * * *
"Is this right?" Christian asked cautiously as he walked out of the fitting room.
"Tuck in the long sleeved shirt. Then it'll be fine." Marc said seriously.
"It's kind of tight." Christian said as he quickly tucked the bottom of the shirt into his pants.
"This style of shirt is supposed to fit close to your body. It's just right." Marc said, then moved around to look at Christian from behind.
"How is it?" Christian asked hesitantly.
"I think you look great. Come over to the mirror." Marc said as he walked with Christian back to the fitting rooms.
"Marc?" Collin's voice called.
"Yes?" Marc asked as he stepped away from Christian and the mirror.
"I think this shirt is the wrong size." Collin said hesitantly.
"Too tight?" Marc asked curiously.
"Too short." Collin said frankly.
"Come out and let me see." Marc said as he stepped back, so Christian would have an unobstructed view.
"See? It's not long enough." Collin said, then looked at Christian with wonder. "Wow. You look... wow."
Christian chuckled and said, "Thanks. You look pretty 'wow' too."
Collin looked down at himself and said, "I think this shirt needs to be longer."
"No. That's just how it's supposed to look." Marc said honestly.
"Really?" Collin asked uncertainly.
"Look in the mirror, then ask me that." Marc said, then glanced at Christian.
"I don't um..." Collin began to say, then broke into a big grin.
"It looks good." Collin said in realization.
"Yeah. That shirt highlights the broadness of your chest, and being cut to that length allows it to emphasize your waist, which if you'll notice, isn't the least bit fat." Marc said gently. "Even though I'm not a big fan of the 'sagging' look, this really does suit your body type."
"It looks awesome Collin." Christian said honestly.
"Thanks." Collin whispered shyly to Christian, then turned to Marc and said, "I like it."
"We still have some work to do." Marc said, drawing both boys' attention.
"You need new shoes." Marc said, then held up a hand before either boy could protest.
"No argument, both of you NEED new shoes for these outfits." Marc said seriously.
"Okay Marc. I guess you're right." Christian said reluctantly.
"Yeah. You just proved that you know best." Collin said as he looked at himself and Christian in the mirror.
"Right. Both of you go back in and put on your regular clothes." Marc said decisively.
Collin and Christian shared an amused look, then went into their separate dressing rooms to change.
* * * * *
After collecting the clothes from the boys and leaving them with the clerk at the register, Marc led them to the back of the store and said, "Christian, boots. I'm thinking something like army style. Collin, high tops or maybe a cross trainer. Go."
As the boys started looking through the different shoes, Marc walked back toward the front of the store and started looking through the pants and shirts again.
After making a few selections, he dropped them off at the register, then walked to the back of the store again.
* * * * *
"What have you found?" Marc asked as he approached.
"What do you think of these?" Christian asked as he held up a large black boot.
"My first impression..." Marc said in a pained voice. "...you're going to break an ankle. The style is nice but the platform look went out when I was in high school."
Christian nodded, then went to put the display shoe back in it's place.
"Do you like this?" Collin asked as he held up a very colorful shoe.
"All I can say is..." Marc said reluctantly. "Go. Go. Power Rangers."
At Collin's confused look, Marc said, "Try for something less... cartoonish. I'm thinking white."
Collin nodded as he sat the colorful shoe aside.
"How about this?" Christian asked, drawing Marc's attention.
Marc held out his hand and looked at the boot carefully. It appeared to reach mid-calf and had very long, closely spaced laces. It had a thin sole and no heel to speak of.
"It's not exactly what I was thinking of, but it would make an interesting statement. It looks something like a wrestler's boots." Marc said consideringly. "Look around some more and if you don't find any that you like better, we'll get them."
Christian nodded, then looked to see what Collin had found.
"Converse?" Marc said with surprise. "That's very 'old school' of you Collin. I think it will work just fine. Look around for another minute or two to make sure that there's nothing you like better."
"You mean besides the Power Ranger shoes?" Collin asked with a giggle.
"Actually, my first impulse was to say Powerpuff Girls, but I was trying to be nice." Marc said with a smirk.
Collin glanced back at his first choice of shoes and nodded that it was a valid description of the color scheme.
* * * * *
"$846.25." The clerk said without a flinch.
"Holy shit!" Christian said as he went pale.
"Marc, that's way too much." Collin said immediately.
"Don't you just love thrifty kids." Marc said with a chuckle to the sales clerk as he laid out nine, one hundred dollar bills.
"After hearing the spoiled brats whining in here all day, I think it's kinda nice to see some kids who actually give a damn about how much they're spending." the sales clerk said honestly.
"Marc. Seriously. You can't spend that much on us." Christian said firmly.
"Christmas Club. Remember?" Marc said as he accepted his change. "I sat this money aside to spend at Christmas. You've got to remember that money has no value unless you use it. Hoarding it doesn't make your life one bit happier."
"Okay. I get that." Christian said slowly. "But NINE HUNDRED FREAKIN DOLLARS?"
"Grab the bags boys. We still have more shopping to do." Marc said with a chuckle.
"Happy Holidays." The store clerk said as he fought down his laughter.
"Merry Christmas." Marc said with a smile as he waited for Collin and Christian to gather all the bags.
Editor's Notes: It looks as if MM has done it again. We have learned a lot more about everyone in this chapter. I can feel the love that is developing between Marc and Christian, as well as Between Christian and Collin. I certainly don't want to see them having to separate. I certainly hope Mark's family don't cause pain when they go for the party. Marc is a very sensitive person and really feels hurt by the way his sister is acting toward him. I certainly hope his mom will make sure that he and Galen and the boys are treated properly.
It is really nice that we are getting another chapter before another holiday comes around too. Of course that doesn't stop me from wanting another one very soon. MM, you really know how to give us powerful stories and this one is no exception.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher