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"Grandma, are you a dyke?" Kevin asked innocently.
Mona looked at Kevin with disbelief as all other conversation at the table stopped.
Finally Mona said, "No Kevin, I'm not. I'm just not a dainty little woman and I don't pretend to be one."
Kevin nodded in acceptance.
"But if I could borrow Billy for half an hour, I could prove it if you want me to..." Mona said with a devilish smile directed at Billy.
Before anyone could comment, she added, "...Make that an hour, I'd like to prove it a couple times."
"If you'd caught me last week, I might have thought about it. But I just met someone kind of wonderful and I wouldn't want to take a chance of screwing it up." Billy said seriously.
Mona huffed a dramatic sigh and said, "It's the story of my life. It seems that all the cute ones are taken."
"This one is." Allen said seriously.
"Oh." Mona said with a look of realization.
Billy smiled at Allen's acknowledgement of him.
"We're taking it slow Mona, I'm being careful." Allen said as he looked her in the eyes.
Mona gave a gentle smile and said, "Billy just proved to me that he's loyal and level-headed. I think you'll be fine."
"Thanks Mona." Allen said tenderly.
Silence fell over the table as everyone waited for their pizza.
* * * * *
"So Allen, I suppose you're going to make me ask the question. How do two of your sons have a child?" Mona asked after taking a long drink of her beer.
"Edovina is Jake's daughter. Xain is Jake's..." Allen trailed off with difficulty.
" T'hy'la. He shares my soul." Jake said with pride.
Xain extended a hand to Jake and held out his index and middle fingers together. Jake responded by placing his index and middle fingers on top of Xain's.
"Oh. I see." Mona said with astonishment at the unusual expression of affection.
"It's kind of like a Vulcan kiss." Allen said to Mona in explanation.
"It's more than that." Jake said with a peaceful smile.
Before Allen could make any further comment, the pizzas arrived at the table along with breadsticks and hot wings.
* * * * *
"Aren't you hungry sweetie?" Mona asked Kevin who had been passing the time by talking quietly with Reuben, Kenny and Deacon.
Kevin looked up with surprise and shook his head timidly.
"Kevin isn't used to eating much. He's fine." Allen said with assurance, not wanting to make a big deal of it.
Mona looked at Allen challengingly and said, "That boy is too skinny, he needs to eat."
Before Allen could respond, Jake firmly said, "Kev is fine. He already ate twice today, that's a lot for him."
"To eat twice a day was a rare occurrence for Kevin before this week." Xain said seriously.
"Yeah, and he really feels funny about it, so can we not talk about it?" Kenny asked as he leaned over in his chair to hug Kevin quickly.
"Oh, yes. I'm sorry Kevin..." Mona trailed off with surprise.
The waiter arrived with a pitcher and started filling tea glasses around the table.
"All of us are going to go somewhere this weekend." Reuben said to Mona happily.
"Yeah, we just don't know where yet." Kevin said with relief at the change of subject.
"Are you keeping it a surprise?" Mona asked Allen with a smile.
"No. I'm letting the boys decide. Since we're celebrating Deacon's birthday today, they all decided to let him choose." Allen said with a gentle smile at Deacon.
"I don't know where to go." Deacon said helplessly.
"There's no pressure Deacon. Earlier Jake said that no matter what you pick, we would all have fun because we'll be together. I agree with him. Just think about what you would enjoy doing and we'll all do it." Allen said gently.
Deacon nodded in thought.
"Are you ready for another beer?" The waiter asked Mona carefully.
"If you ever see my glass under half full, I'm ready for another one." Mona said seriously.
"I'll be right back." The waiter said with a smile.
* * * * *
Allen excused himself and left the table.
"So Billy, are you still modeling? I haven't seen any of your work for a while." Mona asked casually before taking a drink of her beer.
"No, well, not much. I work on the other side of the camera now." Billy said with a smile.
"Oh, so you're a photographer. I'd love to see your work." Mona said with interest.
"Yes. I was thinking about bringing my portfolio over tonight to show Allen." Billy said with a smile.
Allen returned to his seat and reached for a piece of pizza.
"I guess you were right about four pizzas being enough. These guys can really pack it in." Mona said as she looked at the diminishing pizza.
"It is a pleasure to see them have enough to eat." Juana said with a tender smile.
"Yeah, I think I've had more to eat in the last four days than I ate all last month." Jake said seriously.
"Well, I always had enough food, but not like Juana and Xain's." Kenny said with a grand smile.
"Yeah, their food is really good. I didn't know that food cooked for real tasted so different." Deacon said honestly.
Mona looked at Deacon curiously.
"Deacon is used to microwaving all his meals." Billy said and hugged Deacon quickly.
"A man after my own heart. I can't remember the last time I actually turned on my stove." Mona said with a smile at Deacon.
Deacon blushed and hid his face.
Mona turned her attention to Juana and asked, "So, is my son treating you alright since you came to work for him?"
Juana smiled and said, "Oh yes. Allen has been wonderful. He has given me a job, a place to live and accepted my children into his family."
"Good. I tried to raise him right, but he's been away from my tender loving care for a while. I just need to make sure that the lessons took hold." Mona said firmly.
Allen chuckled and said, "Don't worry Mona. You provided the best example I can imagine of how to be a decent person and a parent."
"When we get to the house I'm going to give you an example of how to be a grandparent. I'm going to start spoiling your kids rotten." Mona said with a mischievous grin.
"You would." Allen said in resignation as he looked toward the heavens
Mona looked around the table and said, "That includes you, you and you." As she pointed at Deacon, Reuben and Ricardo.
All the children seemed to be delighted with the prospect.
* * * * *
"If you will excuse me, Edovina needs to be changed." Xain said as he stood.
"I'll get the diaper bag from the car." Jake said as he also stood.
Juana fished in her purse and handed Jake the keys.
"There's a fold down changing table in the men's room." Allen said as the boys started walking.
"Thanks Dad." Jake said as he walked past.
"I never would have imagined that two boys would be so responsible." Mona said as she watched them leave.
"Jake has had to take care of himself for the last two years. If he weren't taking care of Edovina, I think he might be feeling like he'd given up his independence. This way, I'm taking care of him, but he's taking care of her." Allen said speculatively.
"What about Xain?" Mona asked curiously.
Allen smiled as he said, "Xain accepts Edovina as his daughter. I think that by taking care of her, he's working out the issues he's had with his own childhood."
"Jake and Xain will be good fathers to my granddaughter. She will grow up with parents who love her and a grandmother to help her with girl things." Juana said tenderly.
"She also has a great-grandmother who is going to want to teach her some things." Mona said seriously.
Juana looked at Mona with question.
"Just promise me that when she's old enough, I get to be the one to show her how to rebuild her first carburetor." Mona said firmly.
Juana smiled and said, "I can promise that I will not deny you that joy."
"Good. Even if she grows up to be a girley girl, I'll see to it that she has a chance to learn about different things that everyone should know." Mona said with conviction.
Allen smiled in fond memory as he said, "I can remember when I was thirteen and you showed me how to drive a bulldozer."
Kenny looked at Allen with wide eyes.
"You took to it like a duck to water." Mona said with a smile.
"For years I wanted to grow up to drive heavy equipment." Allen said with a chuckle.
"You can really drive a bulldozer?" Kenny asked with excitement.
"He sure can. He can also operate a crane, backhoe and can do just about anything you can imagine with a forklift." Mona said proudly.
"It's been years since I've done anything like that." Allen said with a chuckle.
"You know that Morris would let you come by and help out anytime you wanted to." Mona said seriously.
At Kenny's questioning look, Mona explained, "Morris owns a construction company and has been a friend of mine for years. I used to work for him back in the? day."
"It would be good to see Uncle Morris again. I haven't talked to him in years." Allen said distantly.
"He comes into the bar every now and then. He asks about you every single time he stops in." Mona said with a smile.
"Mona owns a bar." Allen said to the table in explanation.
"It keeps me out of trouble." Mona said with a casual shrug.
Allen gave Mona an incredulous look.
Mona smiled and said, "Well, maybe not. But it gives me something to do."
Allen nodded and went back to eating his pizza.
At Billy's curious look, Mona said, "I ran a stop light last month and didn't notice the police officer following me..."
"According to the police report, he chased you almost thirty miles." Allen interjected.
Mona chuckled and said, "Maybe I did notice him. I just didn't think he could catch me."
"So she led him on a thirty mile chase and finally lost control of her motorcycle on a dirt road." Allen said with an accusing look at Mona.
"You know me better than that Allen. I never lose control. I laid it down in a slide when I came around a corner and saw a tractor blocking the road. It was either that or run my Harley into a ditch and I'd never do that to my baby."? Mona said firmly.
Allen shook his head and asked, "How is your baby anyway?"
"I don't know. The son-of-a... judge had it impounded. I'll get it back when I get my license back." Mona said sourly.
* * * * *
Xain and Jake walked back to the table with Edovina.
Allen looked up at the movement, and felt a fresh wave of love and contentment wash over him at the sight of the people he loved, all gathered around the table.
"Uh oh. Pop's got that look again." Kenny said seriously.
Kevin looked at Allen and nodded.
"What look is that?" Mona asked curiously.
"It usually means we're going to get hugged." Kenny said with a smile.
"Yeah. A lot." Kevin said with an identical smile to his twin.
"So you guys think you have me all figured out?" Allen asked, unable to keep a smile off his face.
"You have well established patterns of behavior." Xain said in his Vulcan demeanor.
Juana and Mona both chuckled at Xain's ability to tease Allen while remaining completely serious.
"Well, if I'm so predictable, then I guess you're expecting this." Allen said as he got up from his place at the table and walked to each boy to hug them in turn, starting with Deacon.
"We saw it coming from a mile away." Jake said as it was his turn to be hugged.
When Allen reached Ricardo, he noticed that Ricardo's face was covered, nearly ear to ear with sauce from the hot wings.
"I think my nephew needs to be cleaned up before I give him his hug." Allen said as he lifted Ricardo from his booster seat.
Ricardo giggled at the attention and tried to hug Allen. With some effort, Allen kept Ricardo's face slightly away from his body as he made his way to the bathroom.
* * * * *
"Pop is so cool." Kenny said happily.
Mona looked at Kenny with a smile and asked, "Do you really like living with Allen?"
"Yeah, he's been my Pop for years. But since Kevin and Jake and Xain are here, he's even cooler." Kenny said happily.
Mona looked at Kevin silently asking the same question with her eyes.
"I never had a Dad or a Poppa before this week. He loves me just the same as if I was born to him." Kevin said frankly.
Mona smiled and looked at Xain curiously.
"I am of mixed parentage. He who is my father is of Vulcan, she who was my mother was of Earth. In the absence of my biological Human parent, Father fulfills my Human needs as he who is my father fulfills my Vulcan needs." Xain said seriously.
Mona looked at Xain curiously, not fully understanding the response.
"Dad feels stuff and lets it show. Xain needs that." Jake said succinctly.
"What about you?" Mona asked curiously.
"When I first got here, someone asked me what kind of father I would like to have, the father of my dreams. Dad is everything that I asked for, and a whole lot more." Jake said happily.
Allen walked back to the table, carrying Ricardo on his hip and leading two other men.
"Hey everyone, I met some old friends while I was away." Allen said happily as he placed Ricardo back into his seat.
Everyone looked curiously at the short, heavyset balding man and the tall lean Vulcan.
"This is Stan and Sopek. Guys, this is my family, my mother, Mona, my neighbor Billy and his brother Deacon, my sons Kenny, and Kevin, my nephew Reuben, my sons Xain and Jake and their daughter Edovina, my nephew Ricardo who you already met and Ricardo's mother Juana." Allen said as he indicated each in turn.
"Allen said his family was here, but I didn't think there would be this many." Stan said with surprise.
Sopek looked at Xain curiously but didn't say anything.
"Pull up some chairs guys. There's still a little pizza left, please join us." Allen said cheerfully.
"We would not wish to intrude on your family gathering." Sopek said formally.
"If Father considers you to be friends, then it is logical for us to do likewise. Your acceptance of father's invitation would cause no intrusion but your refusal would cause distress." Xain stated firmly.
Jake nodded his agreement.
Allen pulled his chair out of the way as Stan pulled another table over to add it to the end.
When everyone was seated again, Stan said, "You never really talked about your home life Allen, but I never would have guessed you had this big a family."
Allen smiled and said, "I didn't. It's a very long story."
"Yeah, me and Pop got this big family all at once." Kenny said happily.
"How is it that you have a Vulcan child?" Sopek asked cautiously.
Allen looked at Xain to see if he wanted to explain.
Xain in turn, looked to Jake.
"Um, Xain came to live with us because he was invited to join our Clan. Dad kind of automatically accepted him as a son." Jake said in thought.
"Then you are not formally Allen's child?" Sopek asked carefully.
"Poppa is a'nirih to Xain. His sa-mekh said so." Kevin said seriously.
Sopek raised an eyebrow at the young boy's use of Vulcan words.
At Sopek's look of surprise Jake said in standard Vulcan, "Kevin, Kenny, Xain and I are members of Clan Short of the family of Sarek of the House of Surak of Vulcan."
Sopek turned his surprised gaze on Jake.
"And my relationship to K'war'ma'khon Allen has been officially registered and acknowledged by my Patriarch." Xain said in English, keeping his full emotional control.
"Wow, a Vulcan Clan. I've read about them but I never met anyone who was a part of one." Stan said with wide eyes.
"The guys are just getting settled into it. They were officially made members Saturday." Allen said with a fond smile at his boys.
Deacon looked at his new friends curiously, wondering what the big deal was.
"You guys don't strike me as Pizza Hut people, how did you happen to stop in here tonight?" Allen asked, ready to change the subject.
"Well actually, I took Sopek to the Florida Museum of Natural History after work today. I was driving him back to the Vulcan Consulate when I saw your Caravan in the parking lot and I wanted to see how you were doing." Stan said frankly.
Allen smiled and said, "Thanks for checking on me guys. I appreciate that. You'd better hurry up and dig in while, there's still some pizza."
"Did you find the exhibits at the Museum of Natural History to be adequate?" Xain asked curiously.
As Stan grabbed a slice of pizza, Sopek said, "I find the diverse ecosystems of this planet to be quite remarkable. Normally one would have to examine several planets to find so many varied lifeforms."
"I have always thought it to be so. I would be interested in visiting the museum at some future date." Xain said seriously.
"If you guys will remind me, I'll try to work out a trip to the Museum later this week." Allen interjected.
Edovina started to fuss in Xain's lap.
"Can I hold her?" Deacon asked hopefully.
"Sure Deacon, just stay right there and I'll bring her to you." Jake said as he stood.
Everyone watched as Jake sat Edovina in Deacon's arms and made sure he was supporting her head correctly.
"What was the baby's name again?" Stan asked as he looked at the little girl.
"Edovina." Jake said with a proud smile as he took his seat.
"Edovina Vasquez Thompson, daughter of Xain of the family of Solak of the house of Suvak." Xain said formally, directing his statement primarily to Sopek.
"Wow. That's a big name for such a little girl." Stan said with wonder.
"You may call her 'Vina' if it is more convenient." Xain said with an expression that might be teasing directed toward Stan.
"My waiter seems to have forsaken me." Mona said as she looked longingly at her empty beer mug.
"Give him a minute Mona, you've got to admit that he's been doing a good job keeping up with all of us up to now." Allen said gently.
Mona gave him a 'whatever' look before turning in her seat, trying to locate the waiter.
"Don't get any ideas Deke, I'm not ready to be an uncle yet." Billy said as he watched Deacon carefully holding Edovina.
Deacon looked at Billy with a smile, then turned his full attention back to the baby in his arms.
Allen noticed movement and gave Kevin a curious look as he got out of his chair.
"Bathroom." Kevin said shyly.
Allen discretely looked at Xain and Jake. Without having to say a word, Xain automatically got up and followed Kevin to the bathroom.
"Can't he go to the bathroom by himself?" Mona asked curiously.
"Did you notice the way this place is laid out?" Allen asked seriously in return.
Mona shook her head.
"The exit is mostly out of view from the dining room. You have to walk past the exit to go to the bathroom. If someone wanted to abduct one of the kids, all they would have to do is wait for them to go to the bathroom, then they could pull them out the door and we wouldn't know anything was wrong until we noticed they were taking too long." Allen said seriously.
"I used to let you go off by yourself all the time and nothing ever happened to you." Mona said frankly.
"And we knew almost everyone in the community. If anyone had tried anything there would be a dozen people watching who would come to help me. We don't know anyone here and chances are that no one would help." Allen said reasonably.
"You're just being paranoid." Mona said with a shake of her head.
"No he isn't." Jake said firmly.
"There was a guy watching us in the store yesterday." Kenny said as he looked Mona in the eyes.
"We don't know if he would have tried to abduct one of the boys, but he was definitely some kind of threat to them." Allen said seriously.
"I used to live on the streets. I've heard all kinds of stories about how kids got grabbed. Everyone thinks it can't happen to them... until it does. Yesterday, before anything even happened, Dad made sure we stayed together and always knew where we were." Jake said with a smile of admiration directed at Allen.
Xain and Kevin came back from the bathroom and took their seats.
Jake discretely caressed Xain's fingers in a 'Vulcan Kiss' when he sat down.
Sopek noticed and looked at Xain with question.
"Jake is my T'hy'la ." Xain said succinctly.
Sopek blinked, then looked at Allen inquisitively.
"They're bonded. From what Xain's father said, it may be a family trait. When they have telepathic contact with a Human, a bond forms instinctively." Allen said quietly.
"That is a possibility." Xain said speculatively.
The waiter arrived at the table and asked, "What can I get for you gentlemen today?"
"Just some iced tea for me." Stan said with a smile.
"A glass of water." Sopek said seriously.
The waiter sat a mug of beer before Mona, took her empty mug and left.
* * * * *
"Have you decided where you want to go yet?" Kenny asked Deacon hopefully.
"Um, sort of, I just need to ask Billy something first." Deacon responded with care.
Deacon turned to Billy at his other side and quietly asked, "Is this where we're going to live? I mean, like from now on?"
Billy considered the question for a moment before saying, "Yeah, as far as I know. Why?"
Deacon noticed that everyone at the table was listening and waiting for his answer.
"Well, you asked me what I wanted to do this weekend. I've never been here before and I'd like to see Orlando. I mean, I bet there's a bunch of fun stuff to do around here." Deacon said as he looked around shyly.
"That sounds like a great idea Deacon. Kenny is the only one who is from here so I think he and I should be able to show you around." Allen said happily.
Kenny smiled and nodded enthusiastically.
"We might even slip in a trip to the Florida Museum of Natural History on our tour of the city." Allen added with a smile directed at Xain.
After a shared glance, Jake and Xain nodded in unison.
* * * * *
"Can I get you anything else?" The waiter asked in a friendly voice.
Allen looked around the table at the empty pizza trays and said, "No, I think our work here is done."
The waiter smiled and turned to nod at another employee standing at the cash register.
A chorus of 'Happy Birthday' rang out as three other employees walked to the table carrying a tiny birthday cake.
Everyone at the table joined in the singing as the cake with a single candle was placed before Deacon.
After a moment of surprise, Deacon quickly blew out the candle.
Xain looked at Sopek and said, "It is a Human custom to celebrate the occurrence of one's birth."
Sopek raised an eyebrow to prompt for further explanation.
"Although the custom may seem illogical, upon further examination it fulfills an essential Human need. The significance of the celebration is to acknowledge the fact that our lives are improved by Deacon's presence." Xain said logically.
"I was aware of the custom although I did not know of the underlying purpose. Thank you for your clarification." Sopek said in thought.
Xain nodded in acknowledgement of the thanks.
"There isn't enough cake for everyone to have some." Deacon said with disappointment as he looked at the tiny cake.
"We were able to share your birthday cake at the house. This one is just for you." Allen said gently.
"I will take Edovina so you may enjoy your cake without distraction." Xain said as he walked to Deacon's side.
Deacon hesitantly lifted Edovina into Xain's waiting arms.
After a moment of consideration, Deacon carefully cut the cake into four pieces.
"Mona, Stan and Sopek didn't get to share my cake at home so they can have some of this." Deacon said as he slowly shifted a quarter of the little cake to his plate.
"Thank you Deacon, that's very nice of you." Mona said with a note of surprise as the small cake was handed down the table to her.
"So, did you have a good birthday?" Stan asked as he watched Mona take her piece of cake.
"It was the best birthday ever. Allen and his family had a party for me and everything." Deacon said happily before taking a bite of cake.
"If you two don't have any other plans after dinner, you could see it for yourself. The party is still set up at my house, and Billy was going to show us his portfolio tonight." Allen said hopefully.
"Your interest in the Earth's ecosystems would suggest that you would appreciate Billy's photography." Xain interjected to Sopek.
"And you'd get to see our new house!" Kenny said with enthusiasm.
After accepting his piece of cake, Stan glanced at Sopek and said, "It sounds like fun. Besides, now I'll be able to tell all the people at work that the mysterious 'Mr. Thompson' really does have a home life."
Allen looked surprised at the statement as everyone else looked at Stan curiously.
Stan looked around the group and said, "Most of us started this project together. With just a few exceptions, we've all been working together for... what is it? Ten years now?"
"Ten years, two months and eleven days." Sopek said seriously.
Stan nodded, then continued, "We've all gotten to really know each other in that time. We've visited each other's homes, met each other's families, and a few members of the team have even... um, paired off."
"Except for Allen." Mona said in a knowing voice.
"Correct." Sopek said without inflection.
"Allen is friendly and everything, but he just shuts up when anyone asks him anything personal." Stan said frankly.
"No one asks me anything personal." Allen said in his defense.
"Not anymore. After the first few years, there didn't seem to be a point." Stan said seriously.
"Given your reluctance to speak of personal matters, further attempts to do so would be illogical." Sopek said in support of Stan's statement.
After a long silent moment, Allen finally said, "I'm sorry guys, I didn't realize that I was being so distant."
"You took a month of personal leave without any warning. You didn't tell anyone what was wrong. Everyone at work was worried about you and wanted to help you, but we didn't know how because we know nothing about you." Stan said carefully.
Allen nodded slowly, then cautiously looked up to meet Stan's concerned gaze.
"My partner, Kenny and Kevin's father, died." Allen whispered.
"You're gay?" Stan asked with surprise.
Allen looked at Stan with question.
Stan looked embarrassed and said, "I mean, I guess I considered that, but I figured that if that was your big secret... well, it's no big deal."
"It was never a secret. I guess the subject just never came up." Allen said with a quizzical look.
"Oh. Um, I guess it didn't." Stan said with a note of confusion.
"I think I can explain things if you want me to." Mona said, looking at Allen with question.
"Sure, if you want to." Allen said cautiously.
"Even as a child, Allen was very private. The fact of the matter is, he wasn't hiding something, he was hiding everything." Mona said, then took a small bite of her piece of cake.
"I wasn't hiding anything." Allen said defensively.
"Honey, I know you better than just about anyone in the world and you keep me out of most of your life." Mona said frankly.
"Dad doesn't do that with me." Jake said in defense of his father.
"I never felt like Pop was hiding anything from me or trying to keep me away." Kenny said honestly.
Mona looked at all the boys. Seeing that they were in agreement, she said, "I'm talking about before you guys came along. The Allen I met? today is a completely different person. A *whole* person."
Allen's attention was drawn to a strange, inquisitive look on Billy's face, followed by a scarlet blush rising up to the tips of his ears.
Before Billy could get his hand under the table, Allen said, "I think your phone is ringing."
Billy pulled out his phone and shyly mumbled, "Yeah." Before glancing at the caller ID and hitting the 'send' button to answer the call.
"Hi Mom." Billy said quietly.
Conversation around the table stopped as everyone, especially Deacon froze to hear what he was going to say.
After a short pause to listen, Billy said in an irritated voice, "Yeah, it *is* important. Deacon is here with me."
After a longer pause, Billy forcefully said, "Mom, listen, Deacon ran away from home and came to live with me. I'm his legal guardian now..."
In a smaller voice that could barely be heard, Billy said, "Mom?"
Billy met Deacon's worried gaze and said, "She hung up. She said that she's in a restaurant and the rest of her party just arrived."
A tear slipped down Deacon's cheek as Billy pulled? him into a tight hug.
A long moment of silence hung in the air until it was broken by Kevin asking, "Will you come to our house to see Deacon's presents and Billy's pictures?"
Allen gave a fond glance at Kevin, then looked at Stan and Sopek inquisitively.
"I'm not going to pass up the chance to finally see Allen's house. We'll be there." Stan said assertively.
Deacon gave Billy one final squeeze, then pulled out of the hug.
"Our house is really great. I know you're going to love it." Kevin continued with happiness in his voice.
"Then I'll pay the check and we'll get out of here." Billy said with determination.
Allen looked as if he were going to object, but saw Billy's determined look and nodded in acceptance.
A moment later the group stood and began to gather their things in preparation to leave.
Kenny flashed a concerned look at Deacon, before absently walking before the group toward the door.
* * * * *
"Pop? Does this belong to us?" Kenny asked as he noticed a red T-shirt on the ground just outside the Caravan.
"I don't think so. Jake, did you drop something while you were getting the diaper bag?" Allen asked casually.
"No, that wasn't there before. Someone must have dropped it after I went back in." Jake said as he held Edovina and waited for Juana to unlock the door.
Kenny picked up the shirt and suddenly went pale.
"Guys! Come on!" Kenny said in a rush as he started running for the back of the parking lot.
Jake handed Edovina to Juana and took off in a dead run, followed closely by Kevin, Deacon and Xain.
"Kenny! Wait! What's wrong?" Allen called out in panic.
Before Allen could finish the sentence, Kenny was turning the corner to run down the alley.
* * * * *
Before Kenny could see the struggle, he could hear the sound of begging and crying.
As he turned the corner, he saw a large man holding someone up with one hand while drawing back to throw a punch with the other.
Without thinking, Kenny dove head first into the man's side, knocking him off balance.
Before Kenny could get back on his feet, he was knocked down by the back of the man's hand striking him in the face.
"THAT'S MY BROTHER!" Kevin screamed in rage and jumped on the man, punching with every ounce of strength at his command.
"Get back Ken." Jake said as he moved into the fight.
Xain touched Jake's mind briefly before moving to Jake's side to help him.
Deacon knelt by the whimpering huddled form on the ground and asked, "Do you need an ambulance?"
"No. I don't think I'm hurt too bad."
Kenny ignored Jake's warning and jumped into the fight to help his brother.
Xain managed a forceful kick to the man's right knee as Kevin sank a solid bite into his left forearm.
Jake tried to throw a punch at the man's jaw, but when the man moved suddenly, the punch connected with his throat.
Kenny saw the man trying to throw a punch at Kevin with his right hand and threw himself in the way to block it from reaching Kevin.
"Get the fuck away from me!" The man screamed in a burst of rage as he knocked Jake, Xain, Kenny and Kevin away and started to run.
"Let him go." Jake said with heavy breaths as he stood, then extended a hand to Xain.
Kenny helped Kevin to stand, then looked at Deacon who was soothing the crying girl in his arms.
"Shhh. It's going to be okay. I promise." Deacon said in a gentle whisper.
Kenny quickly motioned for Jake, Xain and Kevin to step away and leave Deacon to soothe her.
"Guys, she needs our help. When I touched the shirt at the car... I knew she needed our help... not just to keep from being beaten up. She really needs someone to care about her." Kenny said with distress evident in his voice.
"You know we'll do whatever we can Kenny." Jake said seriously.
"I know... It's just... She's kind of... Just try not to get weird about... um... because she's a guy." Kenny said with difficulty.
"I got no problem with that." Jake said seriously, not needing to even think about it.
"There was a tranny who used to live in my building. She was always really nice to me." Kevin said honestly.
Kenny, Kevin and Jake looked at Xain in question.
"Vulcans do not 'get weird'." Xain said as a statement of fact.
Jake smiled and pulled Xain into a quick hug.
"Are you guys okay?" Billy asked as he ran into the alley followed by Allen and Sopek.
"Yeah. We just had to keep our new friend from getting beat up." Jake said as he looked at Deacon, still whispering soothingly to the crying girl.
"Well, you can invite your friend to come home with us if you want. I don't think sitting in an alley is a good idea." Allen said in his fatherly tone of voice.
"We'll be right there Pop. We need to talk to Laura for a minute first." Kenny said seriously.
Allen looked at the crying girl and nodded.
"I'll stay here to make sure the guys don't take too long." Billy said to Allen quietly.
Allen gave Billy a smile of thanks and turned to walk back to the parking lot.
Sopek looked at the scene for a moment, then followed Allen.
* * * * *
"Laura, it's not safe here. Would you like to come with us?" Jake asked as he moved to stand beside Deacon.
"Come where?" Laura gasped between sobs.
"To our house, it's by Lake Nona. The guy you're holding onto is Deacon, he lives right across the street from us." Jake said quietly.
"What do you want... I mean, what do I have to..." Laura asked with difficulty before breaking down into fresh tears.
Jake gave the others a hesitant look and, as a group they stepped back and walked to wait with Billy.
Jake knelt beside Deacon and Laura and quietly said, "I know what you're asking, and I promise that you won't have to do anything like that."
Laura looked up through mascara streaked eyes at Jake with question, as if reading his soul with her gaze.
"I lived on the streets for two years so I know what it's like. If you want to come with us, no one will hurt you. If you don't, at least get out of this alley before that asshole comes back with some of his buddies." Jake finished with true concern.
Laura got a look of fear as she looked down the alley in the direction the man had gone.
"Can you walk?" Deacon asked gently.
"Yeah. I think so." Laura whispered.
"Let me help you up." Jake said as he moved to Laura's other side.
"Thanks." Laura said as she stood.
"I think that dress is history." Jake said as he looked at the blood stained blue dress.
"This was my best dress." Laura said in anguish as she looked at the damage.
"Come on. Let's get you someplace safe." Jake said as he urged Laura and Deacon to start walking.
* * * * *
"Is she okay?" Billy asked as the trio walked slowly toward him.
"Much better now." Laura said in a shaking voice.
"I'm Billy, Deacon's brother." Billy said gently.
"I'm Laura. Nice to meet you." She said as she looked at him with a small smile.
A bruise on her cheek and a split lip made the smile look more pathetic than friendly but Billy smiled in return.
"Everyone is waiting for us in the Pizza Hut parking lot. Let's go." Billy said as he turned.
"Everyone?" Laura asked in panic.
"Just our family. Don't worry. They won't give you any trouble." Jake said gently as Xain walked to his other side.
"Are you in need of medical assistance?" Xain asked in a neutral voice.
"I don't think so. I'm sure it looks worse than it feels." Laura said as she looked at Xain curiously.
"This is my boyfriend Xain." Jake said as he put an arm around Xain's shoulders.
"Oh shit!" Laura exclaimed, then looked at Xain and Jake with apology.
"No, not the boyfriend thing. That." Laura said as she pointed to several articles of clothing strewn across the alley.
"Your things?" Billy asked hesitantly.
"Yeah. Everything I own." Laura said as fresh tears filled her eyes.
"Guys. You want to gather this stuff up. It's Laura's." Billy said louder for all the boys to hear.
Kevin, Kenny, Xain and Jake immediately went to gather the scattered belongings.
"Everything..." Laura said as the tears streaked down her face.
"You'll be fine." Deacon said as he shifted his hug from one of support to one of comfort.
"Thanks Deacon. You're really sweet." Laura said with a smile.
Deacon blushed at the compliment, but held her gaze as he said, "Please come with us where you'll be safe."
Laura looked into Deacon's eyes and finally nodded.
* * * * *
"Are we ready to go to the house?" Billy asked as he led the band of boys into the Pizza Hut parking lot.
"What happened?" Juana exclaimed when she saw the blood and bruises on the teenage girl.
"Let's get Laura back to the house where she can relax before we get into that." Billy suggested at the look of anxiety on Laura's face.
"If we're going to do it, let's do it." Mona said with a look of concern directed at Laura.
"Come on Laura, you can ride with us." Deacon said as he guided her to Billy's Lexus.
Laura looked at the car with shock, then at Billy and Deacon in question.
"We'll meet you there." Allen said as he got into the BMW.
"You're rich." Laura said as she looked from the BMW back to Billy and Deacon.
"I am, but not because I've got money." Billy said as he looked at Deacon, then at Allen.
Laura followed his gaze and smiled, feeling just a little more relieved.
* * * * *
"Um, I think I need to tell you guys something before we go to your house." Laura said hesitantly, standing outside the car.
"I think I know, but go ahead." Billy said casually as he waited by his open car door.
"I'm not a girl." Laura said cautiously, looking at their reactions carefully so she could run if she needed to.
"I know." Deacon said with a tender smile.
"I thought so." Billy said frankly.
"You don't mind? I mean, it's okay?" Laura asked cautiously.
"Laura, being a model and a photographer, I've met a lot of people over the years. I can honestly say that it doesn't bother me a bit." Billy said honestly.
Laura nodded hesitantly, then looked at Deacon with question.
Deacon smiled and said, "Kevin told me that when you don't know what to say, hugging is the best way of saying it."
Laura remained still as Deacon pulled her into a tender hug.
After a long minute of the comfortable embrace, Deacon released her, then looked into her watering eyes.
"I understand. Thank you." Laura said, barely restraining her tears.
Deacon smiled broadly, then opened the door to let her sit in the front seat by Billy.
* * * * *
"So Laura, how old are you?" Billy asked casually as he watched the traffic.
"I'm sixteen... in a few months." She said shyly.
"You don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but do you have a place to live?" Billy asked as he glanced at her.
"Not right now. I, kind of had to leave my parents home suddenly." She said with difficulty.
"It's okay Laura. I'm just asking in case there's something I can do to help." Billy said seriously.
"You're not going to, like, call the cops or the CPS or something are you?" Laura asked carefully.
"No. I won't call anyone without talking to you about it first." Billy said as a vow.
Laura relaxed into the comfortable seat and whispered, "Thanks."
"We'll be there in just a few minutes." Billy said with a smile.
"Billy, do you think Laura could stay with us? I mean, if she wants to?" Deacon asked hopefully.
After a moment of thought, Billy said, "Yes. That's no problem."
"You guys just met me. How can you ask me to move in with you after knowing me for ten minutes?" Laura asked with surprise.
"Because it's the right thing to do." Deacon said honestly.
"Deke's right. You need a place to stay. We've got one. Hell, we even know some people who can get all the paperwork you'll need so you can go to school." Billy said frankly.
"Why are you doing this?" Laura asked with disbelief.
Billy glanced in the rearview mirror to prompt Deacon to explain.
"Because I was almost in the same situation as you." Deacon said shyly.
Laura turned in her seat to look at him.
"I ran away from home and came here to ask Billy to let me live with him. I guess I didn't think about the legal stuff and all the trouble it could have caused Billy. But Billy and Allen were able to fix everything. He's my legal guardian and I get to stay." Deacon said happily.
"And if you wanted, we could probably do the same thing for you." Billy added with a tender glance at his brother in the mirror.
Laura got a look of awe as she realized that they were being honest with her.
"You don't have to answer now. Come home with us, and if you like it, you can think about staying. How's that?" Billy asked gently.
"Yeah, thanks." Laura said in thought.
"And remember that Kenny and Kevin and all the rest of the guys are going to be living right across the street if you want to get out of the house." Deacon said with a smile.
* * * * *
"Your dwelling exceeds my expectations." Sopek said as they walked into the entry hall.
"At least." Stan said in wonder.
"I like it." Allen said with a small smile of pride in his home.
"It's like a palace isn't it." Jake said cheerfully, once again reminded of his good fortune.
Stan looked at Jake and gave a smile of agreement.
"Come on, let's show you the party room first." Allen said as he led the group to the dining room door.
"Yeah, I want to show you all my presents." Deacon said as he walked into the dining room with Laura at his side.
* * * * *
When everyone was in the dining room, Deacon said, "This has been the best birthday I've ever had. Better than I ever dreamed of."
"When I blew out my birthday candles, I didn't make a wish because there wasn't anything I could think of to wish for. There's one thing I always wanted, but knew I could never have... until now." Deacon said and looked at Laura hesitantly.