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Chapter 16

After seeing Cliff off to work, the rest of the family fell back into their routine of dealing with the breakfast dishes and starting their day.

Eventually they were gathered in the living room sharing a quiet moment, each pursuing their own interests, when the phone interrupted their tranquility.

Ben stretched from his seat on the couch and picked up the phone, turning it on with his thumb as he said, "Hello?"

After a moment of listening, Ben cautiously said, "No. You didn't wake anyone up. We've been up for hours. Besides that, we're always happy to hear from you."

After another moment of listening, Ben smiled, then said, "Yes. Of course. You're welcome here anytime."

Ben got a surprised look, then stammered, "Oh. Okay."

Before JD or Jody could ask what was happening, Ben stood so that he could return the phone to its cradle.

"What's going on?" JD finally asked, sensing that something was wrong.

"I'm not sure, but it shouldn't take long to find out. From the sound of it, Wil should be here any minute." Ben said cautiously.

"I thought he was coming over after lunch, so we could drive him to Orlando." JD said honestly.

"Yeah. I thought so too." Ben reluctantly admitted, then continued, "I got the impression that whatever changed wasn't something that Wil planned or was within his control."

A sudden spate of knocking jolted the entire family, even though they were more or less expecting it.

"I'll get it!" JD proclaimed as he stood, leaving his little laptop at the end of the coffee table.

Jody likewise abandoned his Lego construction project and bounded after his brother.

* * * * *

"Change of plans." Wil said from the doorway, with a boy hugging him on either side.

"I thought Todd was going to be dropping you off around 1:00 today." Ben said in a leading tone.

"Yeah. That's the 'plans' I was talking about." Wil said frankly, then explained, "Todd got a frantic call from his sister a little bit ago saying that she needs him to come over early to help salvage their Christmas dinner before the in-laws show up, expecting to be fed. Apparently, the demon spawn fed the turkey to the dog or the dog to the turkey or something like that. Whatever it is, they need Todd there early to... I don't know, clean up the crime scene or something."

"Well, I'm glad you won't have to deal with that. It sounds exhausting." Ben said frankly.

"Yeah, but the in-laws are so cool. They're like, so high-and-mighty, better than everyone else and they look at us like we're the dirt under some commoner's fingernail."

"How is that cool?"' Cliff cautiously asked.

"The cool part is Todd and his sister trying everything to get their approval. I mean, they'll never get it, but it's funny as hell to watch them try."

"Funny in a pathetic, sad way?" Ben guessed.

"Yeah. Like that." Wil confirmed, then thought to add, "So I'm early. You said you didn't mind."

"No. It's great! We love having you here. There just won't be much for us to do between now and the time we have to leave for..." Ben was saying as ominous music started playing, seemingly from nowhere.

"Hang on. Business." Wil said as he struggled to get a cell phone out of his jeans pocket.

"Since when do you have a cell phone?" Ben asked curiously.

"Since Mona gave it to us for work. This way she can call us if she has some extra jobs for us." Wil said, then put the phone to his ear and said, "What's up, Mona?"

Ben and the boys watched as an expression of surprise came onto Wil's face.

As they continued to watch, surprise morphed into interest, then on into something that might be happiness.

"Yeah. Yeah. Got it. Thanks!" Wil stammered before closing the phone.

"Does she have a job for you?" Ben cautiously asked, not able to interpret the latest change in Wil's expression.

"No. That was Mr. Hammerstein." Wil said hesitantly.

"Did he give you bad news?" Ben asked cautiously.

"No. Not at all. In fact, it's really good news if you think about it." Wil absently muttered.

"Then what's bothering you?" Ben asked curiously.

"I just realized, Mona got us this old burner phone so that she could call us if she needed to, so she could maybe get us some extra work. We've never given anyone else the number, but somehow Mr. Hammerstein knew what number to call to reach me." Wil said slowly.

"You said he's a private investigator, didn't you?"

"Yeah. I guess this means that he's pretty good at it." Wil said frankly.

"So, what did he call you about?"

"Apparently, the Stone Family Christmas cavalcade of misery and despair has been relocated to Tallahassee."

"Well, that's... convenient, at least, for us, I guess. Why in the world would they have it here when the whole family lives in Orlando?" Ben asked cautiously.

"He didn't tell me that part. But he did say that Aunt Linda would be the one hosting it. He gave me the address and it's one of those McMansions on the other side of town."

"I know just the ones you're talking about." Ben confirmed, then followed by muttering, "Overpriced, pretentious crap."

"Yeah. That's them. And I can see Aunt Linda and Uncle Dave feeling right at home in one of those boxy eyesores." Wil said frankly.

"All this time I thought the family was so far away that they might as well be on another world. Now to find out that we've actually got relatives who live locally is kind of a shock." Ben said not all together happily.

"If they're living in one of those pretend playhouse monstrosities, then they practically are in another world." Wil countered.

"True. The chances of us running into each other down at the Piggly Wiggly is remote, at best."

"Right." Wil confirmed, then hurried to ask, "But you're still going, aren't you? I mean, this way, if they start being themselves, you can leave and you won't even have to drive a long way to get home." Wil said honestly.

"Yeah. I suppose so. And besides, being so close, we could even make it in time for dinner, if you wanted to." Ben finished with a smile.

"Skipping the dinner has nothing to do with the drive. It's all about being trapped in a no-win social situation with monsters." Wil said frankly.

"I couldn't have said it better." Ben said simply, then turned and asked, "What do you think we should have for dinner tonight, Spider?"

"Something simple. If I take a few minutes now to make some croutons so that they'll be cooled down for later, then we could have a nice fettuccine alfredo and a Caesar salad... and maybe some homemade bread sticks to go with it... if someone will work the oven for me." JD said seriously.

"Do you think you could talk Wil through it?" Ben asked with a smile in his direction.

"Yeah. It'd be nice to have Uncle Wil's help. So that way we can cook it together as a family." JD said seriously.

"If you want us to cook it as a family, will you have something for Jody to do?" Ben asked warmly.

"I have a really important job for him. Romaine lettuce is best when you tear it up by hand instead of cutting it. So, with Jody's help we're going to make the best caesar salad that you've ever tasted." JD said in the tone of a vow.

"You had me at fettuccine." Wil said honestly.

"That'll be good too." JD said confidently.

* * * * *

"Pappa's home!" Jody suddenly crowed as he sprang up from his Lego workshop and bolted for the door.

The movement was so abrupt and unexpected from the quiet boy that the others couldn't do much more than look at each other to confirm that it really was an unexpected reaction.

When Cliff and Jody didn't immediately walk through the living room door, Ben, JD, and Wil looked at each other with increasing concern.

"What's this I hear about a change of plans?" Cliff asked as he entered the room with Jody wrapped around him.

"Wil's change of plans was because Todd's sister had a family crisis." Ben said diplomatically.

"Demon spawn." Wil added for the sake of clarification.

"After that, Wil was notified that the Christmas Dinner and Inquisition will be held in Tallahassee this year." Ben said seriously.

"Doesn't your family live in Orlando?"

"Yes. But apparently Wil's Aunt Linda bought a house on the other side of town, one of those mansions." Ben said unenthusiastically.

"So the whole family has invited themselves over to mooch off the relative who made the big time?" Cliff guessed.

"Looks that way." Ben said simply.

"Yeah. It sounds like something they'd do." Wil confirmed.

"So you're saying that they actually changed the location to another city within twenty-four hours of the event?" Cliff asked cautiously.

"The private detective guy, Hammerstein, called me this morning. That doesn't mean that they decided anything today." Wil said honestly.

"Except to invite you." Ben quietly added.

"I'm betting that there's a few of them who would rather that I didn't go." Wil said honestly.

"Good. Then we'll have a chance to ruin their Christmas for them. Consider it something like a present." Ben said with a mischievous grin.

After a moment to consider, Wil broke into a reluctant smile and said, "Yeah. I'll do that."

"So, if it's being held here in town, then we won't have to rush around preparing for a road trip." Cliff said with a smile of realization.

"Nope. You're officially off for your Christmas break now. You can kick back and relax, or do whatever else you feel like." Ben said warmly.

"Later, I'm going to need you to help me with something in the kitchen." JD quickly told Cliff, before he could commit to doing something else.

"Does it involve me smashing something for dinner?" Cliff asked as he carried Jody over to the coffee table, where he could pull JD into a one-armed hug with his free arm.

"I already got the mallet set out for you." JD said as he reveled in the feeling of being held so lovingly.

Cliff softly chuckled as he continued to hold his children.

* * * * *

After making a simple lunch of sandwiches for the family, JD went to work on the 'simple' dinner that he had planned.

The family had settled into the living room to work on their personal projects. But every so often JD would hurry into the kitchen, then occasionally return to the living room to ask for one or another of the family to help him in his dinner preparations.

Cliff wasn't entirely sure that it was necessary for him to break up the bacon into bits with a hammer, but since JD insisted that it was important, he couldn't think of any reason to refuse.

On one occasion when JD didn't need either Cliff or Jody in the kitchen, Cliff availed himself of the opportunity to ask Jody about his expectations regarding the impending Christmas.

Much to Cliff's surprise, Jody had gained quite a wealth of knowledge from both the television and from his older brother. While Jody didn't know some of the more obscure details of the lore, he did have reasonable knowledge of the traditional dinner, the concept of gift giving, and most especially of Santa.

That, in itself, presented a problem.

In the short time that Jody had been with them, he had learned to accept the reality of people giving presents without an expectation of reciprocation.

And because his older brother had told him so, Jody also grasped the concept of a benevolent fat man in a red suit who gives good children the present of their heart's desire.

That was all well and good, except for the fact that Cliff didn't have a clue what Jody's heart's desire was.

Continued gentle probing helped to verify that Jody did have one special toy in mind that he wanted Santa to bring him.

But no matter how many different ways Cliff tried to approach the subject, he couldn't make any progress in finding out what Jody wanted.

Feeling the impending Stone family gathering closing in on them, Cliff resolved to let the matter rest for the time being and talk to JD about it the next time they had a few minutes to speak privately.

"Uncle Wil, the breadsticks are ready to go into the oven." JD said as he exited the kitchen.

"This is what he does for relaxation, right?" Wil asked as he stood from the Lego construction zone.

"Yes. This is how he 'plays'." Cliff said frankly.

"Exhausting, isn't it?" Ben added with a grin.

"When I was his age, my idea of playing was probably a lot more energetic than his... and quite a bit more destructive." Wil said before walking out of the living room.

"Is there anything we need to be sure to do or not do before we leave for the... visit? Cliff cautiously asked.

"Nothing I can think of. This is mostly for Wil. I wouldn't mind saying 'hi' to a few of my more distant relatives who might attend, but I'm certainly not willing to invest an undue amount of preparation or concern to it." Ben said frankly.

"What about the boys? Do you think that they're ready for this?"

"Actually, we're going to be in a situation where we can turn around and go home at a moment's notice. If the boys start having trouble or if the relatives behave badly, we'll just leave. We have nothing keeping us there." Ben said confidently.

"I just wanted to be sure where you stood on things before we found ourselves in a situation where I couldn't ask you." Cliff said frankly.

"I'm expecting a few hugs, a few handshakes... maybe a few icy stares. Then, once Wil has managed to check on the people he's worried about, we can come back home and relax for a while." Ben finished with a smile at the thought.

JD leaned in the living room door and quickly said, "If you'll go into the dining room, dinner will be ready in a few minutes."

"We'll be right there." Ben said with a loving smile at the boy.

"Can I help you carry things?" Jody asked hopefully as he bounded up from the Lego structure he and Wil had been working on.

"Yeah. Just as soon as the breadsticks are out of the oven, we're going to put them in a basket and then you can take them into the dining room so that they'll be nice and hot and fresh for dinner." JD said before withdrawing from the doorway.

"Remember, this is supposed to be the best caesar salad we've ever tasted." Ben reminded Cliff as they crossed the room.

"From JD's cooking so far, I have no doubt that it will be." Cliff said honestly.

* * * * *

As everyone took their seats around the dining room table, they could see that JD had put forth the extra effort to set the table, making it, its own part of the dining experience.

"This looks wonderful, don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining, but I don't remember you mentioning that we were having grilled chicken."

"I guess we have hot dogs, too, if you'd rather have that." JD said uncertainly.

"No. I said I wasn't complaining. You just didn't mention that you were fixing grilled chicken for dinner." Ben hurried to explain.

"Can you think of something that would pair better with Caesar salad and fettuccine alfredo?" JD asked curiously.

"Not really." Ben reluctantly admitted.

"Everything's here. You can go ahead and start." JD said as he placed the chilled salad bowl in the middle of the table.

"This looks wonderful, JD. It looks like you went to a lot of extra trouble to get everything just right." Ben said as he began to serve himself some Caesar salad.

"I couldn't think of a better way to give the whole family a Christmas present. I mean, I could write something, but that's more personal. It would be like me giving something to each of you. Making a special dinner lets me give something to all of you." JD explained.

"If that's the case, then we should get started while everything is still hot." Cliff said firmly.

No one needed any further encouragement.

* * * * *

Conversation over dinner was light and optimistic. No mention was made of their intended after-dinner plans.

The entire family were unified in their praise for JD's perfectly executed 'simple' dinner.

While there were indications that one or another of them were intentionally dragging things out to put off the inevitable, the family eventually had all the dishes done and all the excuses exhausted. There was no avoiding it, the time to visit the extended family had arrived.

As Cliff pulled out of the driveway, Ben turned in his seat and told JD, "I'm surprised you didn't want to spend the free time this afternoon writing."

"I'm stuck on an idea for my book. Doing other stuff for a while helps me sort it out in my head." JD said simply.

"Yeah. I do that too." Ben confirmed, then cautiously asked, "Would you like to talk about it? Sometimes putting it into words makes it easier to deal with."

"It's not really part of the main story, it's something that's happening behind the veil at the same time." JD said slowly.

"It sounds interesting already." Ben said honestly.

"Behind the veil, the Gray Mother exists, defending her children until they're ready to enter the world.

"She has such fierce determination and frightening power that few will challenge her. Those who are willing to do so, most often end up having their mangled corpses fed to her children, which helps to teach them that enemies exist to be devoured." JD said intensely.

"What, if anything, does this have to do with what's happening in the main story?" Ben cautiously asked.

"It's kind of a straw man, but I think it leads the reader to question the relationship dynamic and motivations of the characters. The ferocity and protectiveness is undeniably built into the mother's nature but one could be asking, 'Is it LOVE?'." JD said seriously.

"I suppose you could answer that any way that you wanted, since everyone defines love in their own way." Ben said thoughtfully.

"But you could argue that someone who believes that the mother bird 'loves' her chicks can't have any grasp on reality at all. Their entire world is a fantasy constructed of preferred beliefs and conveniences, ignoring the real world around them." JD said seriously.

"How so?" Ben asked with interest.

"The person who believes that wild animals 'love' their young are the same people who think that if you 'believe' hard enough, if you wish for something with all your heart, that the universe will somehow give you things... just because you deserve it." JD said seriously.

"So, are you saying that you don't believe in love?" Wil asked cautiously.

"No. I'm saying that I don't automatically believe in something that 'looks like' love." JD said frankly.

"Is that the message that you're trying to convey in your main story line?"

"Not really, but by bringing it up now, the reader will probably look more closely at character motivations instead of automatically going with lazy easy answers." JD said seriously.

"Don't be surprised when they don't." Ben said with a grin.

"Do you think I should dumb it down?" JD asked challengingly.

"No. Of course not. I'm just telling you that the people who 'get it' probably aren't going to say much, while the people who don't, won't shut up about it." Ben said frankly.

"Does this whole thing about a mother's love have to do with how you feel about your own mother." Cliff cautiously asked.

"No. I know that she loves me. She's just crazy and doesn't know how to show it except to hurt me." JD said simply.

"Did Ron tell you that?" Ben asked curiously.

"We talked about it. I don't know who said it. We kind of came up with it together." JD said informatively.

"Wil, I think we're close. I'm going to need for you to tell me where we're going." Cliff said from the driver's seat.

"We're in the right neighborhood. Just look for a house with two or three dozen cars out front. If that doesn't work out right away, we can start looking at house numbers and stuff." Wil said with a teasing grin.

"I can see why you and Todd get along." Cliff muttered as he slowly drove through the well-to-do neighborhood.

* * * * *

"This one looks like a definite possibility." Ben said as they approached a house with a plethora of cars parked in front of it.

"Yeah. That's my dad's truck. We're here." Wil confirmed.

"Any last words of encouragement before we go in there?" Cliff asked as he pulled the car to a stop.

"Remember, whatever happens, no matter how bad it gets, that we love you and that we will be leaving, probably very soon." Ben said assuringly.

"Does that apply just to the boys?" Wil asked cautiously.

"No. Of course not. It applies to you too." Ben said without hesitation.

"Good. Because if this goes really bad, I may be needing someone to talk to about it." Wil said honestly as everyone got out of the car.

"You've got it." Ben assured him, then added with a smile, "Plus we have a few kids here that you can cuddle. Believe it or not, they can be incredibly therapeutic."

"Yes. I see how that could work." Wil said honestly.

"Are we ready?" Cliff asked as he looked over the group gathered outside the car.

"I don't know if there is any way to be ready for this." Wil said frankly.

"Sometimes you have to do things just because they need to be done, even if you don't like them." JD said seriously.

"With everything that he's survived, it'd probably be best to listen to him." Ben said frankly.

"Alright. Let's do this!" Wil said determinedly as he led the group toward the front door.

* * * * *

"If they don't answer, can we just go home?" Cliff asked cautiously.

The absent look in Jody's expression spoke of either his indifference or lack of comprehension of what they were doing.

"Well, with any luck, even if it's a total bust for the rest of us, the kids should get a chance to talk to Santa." Wil offered weakly as he waited for someone to answer the door.

"Santa's here?" Jody asked with obvious interest.

"I don't know if he's here right now, but he usually shows up for these things." Wil told Jody, then said more to the entire group, "It's one of the few happy memories I have of going to these things."

"I'll give it two more minutes..." Cliff was saying as the door opened.

"I wasn't sure if I heard someone out here or not. It's a madhouse in there." A man said as he opened the door and stood aside to invite them in.

"Hey Frank. How did you end up on door duty?" Wil asked with a chuckle.

"Just lucky, I guess." Frank said simply, then leaned in and added, "If I play my cards right, they might forget that I'm even here."

"Good thinking. Nice survival skills." Wil laughed, then turned to the others and said, "Guys, this is my Uncle Frank, even though I've always thought of him as more of a cousin, since he's not old and crabby like uncles usually are."

"Thanks." Frank laughed appreciatively.

"Frank, this is Cliff and Ben and their sons JD and Jody." Wil said pleasantly.

"It's nice to meet you all." Frank said obligatorily, then thought to add, "You've missed dinner, but they just put the desserts out. You can help yourselves to that if you'd like."

"Spiced gumdrop pie. I remember." Wil said queasily, then added, "I still haven't completely gotten the taste out of my mouth from last time."

"I think there are some edible offerings this year. If you like the fig bars, remember to let Sandra know."

"Fig bars. Sandra. Got it." Wil said confidently.

"Is Santa here?" Jody asked Frank hopefully.

"I haven't seen him yet, but he usually shows up around this time." Frank said indulgently to the little boy.

Jody looked up to Cliff with wide hopeful eyes as he quietly asked, "Can I see Santa?"

"We'll see what we can do to make that happen." Cliff said gently, although it sounded suspiciously like a promise.

"Standing out here in the entry hall isn't getting this over with." Ben said as he looked at the hustle and bustle through the open doorway.

"Hey! That's the spirit!" Wil said as he put a hand on Ben's shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze.

"Do you remember what to do when you're scared?" JD asked Ben seriously.

"I think so. Do you want to carry me?" Ben asked with a smile.

JD laughed at the question, then answered, "That's not exactly what I was thinking of."

"Actually, there's going to be quite a few women and girls in there. It'd probably be best if you got yourselves feeling as safe and well-guarded as possible before you go in there. If you're going to need to feel safe at all tonight, this is probably when." Wil said in an uncharacteristically serious tone.

JD seemed to be conflicted about what to do.

"Spider, why don't you let your Pappa hold you for now so that I can run interference?"

JD nervously nodded and was promptly scooped up into Cliff's arms.

"What do you say, Squid? Do you want to help me protect JD?" Ben asked gently.

Jody seemed taken with the idea that he could help protect JD and happily lifted his arms into the air.

"Good luck, guys." Frank said as he watched the family summoning their resolve to step into hostile territory.

* * * * *

A creeping silence washed over the room full of people enjoying their desserts.

"I never thought to ask, but these people aren't prone to acts of mob justice, like torches and pitchforks, are they?" Cliff asked cautiously.

"I know that my branch of the family isn't..." Ben trailed off nervously as JD increased the intensity of his hug.

The actual silence only lasted a matter of seconds, however those seemed to be some of the longest seconds that any of them had ever experienced.

"Wil! I'm so glad you could make it." A woman said loudly, in an obvious attempt to prompt others to follow her lead.

"Who's that?" Cliff asked Ben in a whisper.

"Aunt Nora. She's my cousin Marc's mom." Ben explained.

While Wil was occupied with his grandmother, Cliff and Ben both carefully watched the family gathering for any negative reactions.

Neither Cliff nor Ben would admit it in the moment, but both were feeling quite a bit stronger in their resolve due to the precious boys that they were carrying in their arms.

There were several anxious and speculative looks focused on them from around the room, but no one approached until Nora and Wil had finished their brief conversation.

"I'm glad you could make it, Wil. How are you doing?" A man about Ben's own age asked cheerfully as he approached.

"I'm good." Wil said simply, then looked curiously past the man at a group that seemed to be with him.

"Wil, I'd like for you to meet my boyfriend, Galen, and our sons, Collin and Christian." The man 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?" Ben tentatively asked, not wanting to interrupt.

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 Ben 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 Jody securely.

"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 Cliff 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." The older of Marc's sons suggested helpfully.

"Good idea." Marc said with an appreciative smile at the boy, then looked to Ben and quietly said, "It's right this way."

Marc, Galen, and the boys led the way down the hall and through another doorway.

* * * * *

"You okay, buddy?" Ben quietly asked Jody.

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." The older boy said teasingly.

Ben was grateful for the joking tone, since it seemed to help release some of the tension that they had carried in with them.

"Thanks. I'll remember that." Marc's partner said in a playful gruff voice.

"What do you say, JD? Do you want to go play with the boys?" Cliff asked him gently.

"Okay." JD quietly responded, but didn't seem to be completely certain.

"Before you go..." Ben said, "Everyone, this is my husband, Cliff and our sons, JD and Jody."

"Jady and Jody?" The older boy 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, he took a few uncertain steps before hurrying to join his brother.

"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 fell into place alongside Jody and walked away 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.

Marc's partner, 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.

Ben looked up at the boys anxiously.

Marc noticed and quietly said, "That's Jorry and Nick. Don't worry about them."

"My boys have been through a lot and they're kind of fragile right now." Ben carefully explained.

"Collin and Christian will take good care of them. They're really good boys." Marc said reassuringly.

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.

"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.

"You two don't look like brothers." Collin said absently before he could think better of it.

"Neither do you." JD responded 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-Js." 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 Js and the non-Js." Nick said happily.

"Here you are!" A woman's voice said delightedly from the doorway.

Cliff and Ben were across the room in an instant and before anyone knew what had happened, each was holding a boy in his 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.

Collin and Christian were relieved when JD raised 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 might try 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.

"Santa looks like the kind of person you don't want us kids talking to." JD told Ben anxiously.

"I'm glad that you understand about dangerous people that you should avoid. But in this time and place, I think it's safe for you to talk to this one... probably."

* * * * *

A shriek of terror sounded as one of the parents tried to take their three or four year old to visit with Santa.

"Before anything else, we need to be sure that Jody still wants to do this."

"I don't see that being a problem." JD said with a little extra of his Irish brogue.

Ben followed JD's eyes to find Jody staring wide eyed in Santa's direction with breathless anticipation.

"I didn't think you'd have the nerve to show your face here." A woman said sternly as she approached the small group.

Christian immediately rushed away to join the formation that was protecting JD and Jody.

"Yeah. And a Merry Christmas to you too, Aunt Ruthie." Wil said dryly.

"Come on, Ruth. Wil is our nephew, we should be..." Marc began to say, but was interrupted.

"Of course you'd be on his side. Sodomites and drug addicts are cut from the same immoral cloth." Ruth said in a superior voice, then glanced at the formation of boys surrounding JD and Jody before saying, "But someone has to stand up for those who are too young and innocent to know better than to believe your godless teachings. It breaks my heart to know that those two little boys are going to grow up without a mother's love."

Before Wil or Marc could respond, Ruth took a step closer to the formation of boys protecting JD and Jody.

"If you're so worried about kids feeling loved, then why do you keep dumping your daughter off on other people to deal with? If that's what you call 'A Mother's Love' then I'll pass. Thanks." Christian said firmly.

"Yeah, Aunt Ruth. Where is your daughter right now?" Collin asked curiously.

Before she could answer, Christian asked, "And while we're on the subject of 'A Mother's Love', why do Jorry and Nick need someone they just met to step in and protect them when their father is drunk? What kind of a piss poor mother..."

"Christian!" Marc said firmly. "You need to stop before you go too far."

"Okay, Dad." Christian said quietly, then looked at Ruth, waiting for her to respond.

"You... That's not..." Ruth sputtered, then started looking around either to see if she had any allies nearby, or maybe for an escape.

"Lady, would you back off? You're scaring my kids." Cliff said firmly as he held Jody close to his chest.

"Mom? Why don't you take Nicky to see Santa?" Jorry asked his mother in a tone of voice that didn't reveal any emotions.

Nick flashed his brother an angry look, but then looked up at his mother with question.

"Yes... Come, Nixon. I'm sure you'll want to give Santa your Christmas list." Ruth said as she offered her hand.

* * * * *

There was a moment of silence until it was broken by Collin asking, "Do you think that Nick is going to be mad at you about that?"

"No. At least, not when he understands that he got sacrificed to protect the younger kids." Jorry said with certainty.

"Please excuse us." Ben said quickly as he nudged his way past the wall of boys and hurried toward the door.

Everyone could tell that JD was nearly trembling from the effort of holding Ben so tightly.

Christian and Collin shared a look of concern. Before Christian could even think of what to say, Collin was already following close behind.

"Should I go after him?" Galen asked Marc quietly.

"No. He may be able to help calm JD down. I'm sure that Ben will send him back if he's in the way." Marc said with concern, not nearly as certain as his words would indicate.

"Can we go home?" Jody asked Cliff quietly.

"You know you're safe while I'm holding you, don't you?" Cliff asked gently.

"Yeah. But I don't want JD to feel bad. And he's real scared." Jody said quietly.

"You're right. JD is extremely frightened right now, but if he can have a few minutes away from everyone, I'm sure he'll start to feel better." Cliff said slowly. "But if we went home right now, then I think that JD would feel very bad because he knows that you wanted to see Santa. He'll feel bad for a long time if he thinks you missed your chance because of him."

Jody looked up at Cliff, then over at Santa in the recliner.

"We promised you when we came here that if you really wanted to leave, that we wouldn't make you stay. But please think about how much JD would blame himself if we left right now." Cliff said carefully.

"Can we see Santa now, so we can leave if JD wants to?" Jody asked quietly.

"Sure. Anything you want." Cliff said as he gave the young boy a kiss on the cheek.

Marc and Galen watched with matching expressions of tenderness.

"If you want, Jorry and I can go with you." Christian said quietly, not wanting to startle the young boy.

"You want to see Santa too?" Jody asked with surprise.

"Yeah. I've already got everything I wanted for Christmas and a whole lot more. But I wouldn't mind visiting with Santa to tell him 'thanks'." Christian said with a gentle smile at the young boy.

Jody's inquisitive gaze moved to Jorry.

"Yeah. I'll take one for the team." Jorry said with an unconcerned shrug.

* * * * *

"Do you want to go home?" Ben asked as he held JD close to his chest.

"We gotta stay so Jody can talk to Santa." JD said in a trembling voice as he continued his 'death grip'.

"You don't have to worry, JD. We won't let Aunt Ruth or anyone hurt you." Collin offered quietly.

JD slowly turned his head and looked at Collin uncertainly.

"It's not just you and your brother and your dads. Me and Christian and our dads and Jorry and Nick will all make sure that you're safe." Collin said seriously.

"Just remember what Zeb said." Ben said in a soothing tone. "It's okay to be scared."

JD slowly nodded and seemed to be calming down.

"Are you guys alright?" Wil asked as he walked into the hall.

"Yeah. JD just had a little panic attack." Ben said softly.

"I think Aunt Ruth has that effect on a lot of people." Wil said with a tender smile at JD. "Don't let it get to you, man. We've got you covered."

JD seemed to be frozen for a moment, but finally released his grip on Ben and extended his arm toward Wil, inviting him into the hug.

"You're going to be fine, buddy." Wil said with a slight chuckle as he engulfed both Ben and JD in his hug.

Collin smiled as he watched the family sharing their strength.

* * * * *

After a few minutes of waiting in a loosely formed line, Cliff was finally able to place Jody on Santa's lap.

"Are you okay?" Cliff asked before letting him go.

"It's Santa." Jody said as his only answer.

"I'll be over here. Just call if you need me." Cliff said gently as he stepped away to give them some privacy.

* * * * *

"Well, hello there! I don't remember seeing you here before." Santa said gently.

"Before this, I was being kept hidden, so you didn't know where I was to come visit me. But now I live in a house with a brother and a TV and Daddy and Pappa." Jody explained seriously.

"That sounds really nice. What was your name again?" Santa asked warmly.

"Jody Grant. The judge let me pick my own name and I wanted to have a name like Pappa." Jody said frankly.

"Well, Jody Grant, what would you like for Santa to get you for Christmas this year?"

"If you just let me keep what I have right now, I'll be happy. When I sleep at night I have dreams about being hit and hurt and stuff and I'm afraid that this is the dream and that when I wake up I'll be back there with them hurting me." Jody said honestly.

"I'll do whatever I can to keep that from happening." Santa quietly assured the young boy, then continued, "But is there some kind of toy or something that I can get for you that you'd like to have?"

"There's one thing, but I don't know if I'm supposed to like it." Jody said cautiously.

"Don't worry about what you're 'supposed' to like and tell me what you think a good gift might be."

"When I was watching TV, I saw these commercials for Barbie dolls, and they looked pretty and happy and like they've never known what it's like to be hurt. I think I'd like to have something like that so maybe it could help me feel that way too." Jody said thoughtfully.

"I don't think I've ever heard a better reason for someone to get a doll." Santa said simply.

"But aren't they supposed to be for girls? Do you think Daddy and Pappa and JD will be mad at me if I want a girl's toy?" Jody asked worriedly.

"I sincerely hope not." Santa said quietly, then continued with significantly more cheer, "Since you've been such a good boy this year, I will do my best to see that you get what you want for Christmas."

* * * * *

Christian and Jorry watched from their place in line as Jody talked animatedly with Santa, seeming to be completely at ease.

"Thanks." Cliff whispered at Christian's side.

"For what?" Christian asked as he looked up.

"Thanks for watching out for the boys. Neither of them are very good in a social situation, yet." Cliff said frankly, then continued, "I was afraid that with Ben and me being a same-sex couple, that the boys wouldn't have anyone treat them kindly."

"I was kind of scared of that too." Christian said honestly. "I guess maybe that's why I can understand a little bit of what JD and Jody are feeling."

"Well, Ben and I appreciate it." Cliff said with a smile at Christian. "I hope this will end up being a happy holiday memory for both the boys."

"We'll do our best." Christian said honestly, then noticed that Jody was wriggling to get down off Santa's lap.

"How are you doing, Champ?" Cliff asked as he squatted down and opened his arms to Jody.

"Santa said that since I been a good boy, that he's gonna give me what I want for Christmas!" Jody said happily.

"What's that?" Cliff asked curiously.

Jody seemed to be about to answer, but then clamped his mouth shut and thrust his arms into the air.

"Come on up here." Cliff chuckled as he pulled the boy into a hug.

Christian watched for a moment as Cliff hugged his son, then realized that it was his turn to sit on Santa's lap.

* * * * *

"Is everything okay?" Cliff asked as Ben walked into the room carrying JD.

"Yes. He just needed a minute to collect himself." Ben said gently.

"I got to see Santa!" Jody said proudly.

"Oh? What was Santa like?" Ben asked with an indulgent smile.

Jody considered for a moment, then said, "He was really nice... but he smelled funny."

Cliff smiled at the comment, then said, "I noticed it too. It seems that they must have a moth problem at the North Pole."

Collin chuckled at the statement, then looked around curiously.

His mouth nearly fell open when he spotted Christian sitting on Santa's lap.

"Christian and Jorry volunteered to visit with Santa so Jody wouldn't feel like he was going up there all alone." Cliff said with obvious admiration for their thoughtfulness.

Collin smiled as he watched his boyfriend from across the room.

* * * * *

"JD and Jody. I brought someone to meet you." Collin said cheerfully.

Jody turned at the sound of his name, but it took JD a few seconds before he hesitantly turned in Ben's arms.

"This is Erik. I met him earlier and he seemed really nice, so I thought you two would like to meet him." Collin said frankly.

"You're pretty." Jody said with a shy smile at Erik as he noticed the festive Christmas sweater that he was wearing.

Erik was surprised by the declaration, but only took a moment to respond, "Thanks. So are you."

JD stared at Erik but didn't make a sound.

"This is my house, so later, if you guys feel like it, we could go up to my room. I have lots of toys, and maybe you'll find some that you like playing with." Erik said frankly.

"You have toys?" JD asked hesitantly.

Erik nodded, then explained, "I don't play with them too much now. But I still have most of the toys that I did when I was your age."

JD nodded that the explanation seemed to make sense to him.

"Thank you, Erik. I don't know how long we'll be staying, but we appreciate the offer." Ben said as he held JD protectively.

"Hang on. I want to show you something." Erik said, then dashed away.

"He's nice." Jody said with a smile.

"Yeah. That's why I thought you'd like to meet him." Collin said happily.

"This is my Christmas present." Erik said proudly as he returned.

"A blanket?" Jody asked incredulously.

"No. It's a quilt. Look. Someone took the time to take all these little pieces of cloth and stitch them together to make this." Erik said as he pointed at the pattern.

Before anyone could think of what to say next, a voice intruded on their discussion.

"Thank you, Ginny." Grandma Ellen said as her nurse wheeled her up to the little group.

"Wil, I'm so glad you could make it tonight. Come over here and give your grandma a hug." Grandma Ellen said as she held out her arms to him.

"You are?" Wil asked hesitantly, not making any move toward her.

Ellen's expression filled with sadness when she realized the source of Wil's reluctance. "Of course I am. Who do you think it is that invited you?"

"Oh, I just thought I was on the family list and got invited automatically." Wil said honestly.

"Denise handled the invitations." Marc said frankly.

Wil carefully leaned in to give his grandmother a gentle hug.

"I brought a present for you, but ended up giving it to someone else, since I thought you weren't coming. He wouldn't have received a gift, otherwise." Grandma Ellen said regretfully.

"That's fine, I didn't come for presents. Thank you for seeing that I got invited." Wil said gently.

"Nora did most of the work, but I wanted to be sure that all of the family that could possibly be here got an invitation." Grandma Ellen said honestly.

"So does that mean that David didn't want to come?" Wil asked as he stood.

"We don't know where he is." Grandma Ellen said honestly. "That's part of the reason that I made a special effort to keep track of you, young man. After that spat you had with your parents and the unfortunate business with Jordan, I made it my business to keep tabs on you."

Wil stared at his grandmother with astonishment at the effort she had put forth on his behalf.

"And before I forget to tell you, I'm very proud of how you've been able to make a decent life for yourself without any help from anyone." Grandma Ellen said with an admiring smile.

"You know about that?" Wil asked hesitantly.

"Wil, I didn't interfere in your life, but I had a private detective friend of mine keep an eye on you from a distance. If things had turned out differently for you, I wouldn't have allowed you to end up homeless." Grandma Ellen said frankly.

"Thank you, but, to be honest, I didn't do it all myself. Todd, a guy I work with, he took me in when Jordan went off the deep end with the drugs. And I've had Ben's help to deal with the stuff about my parents. Without Ben, I probably wouldn't have come here tonight."

Ellen was about to respond when a voice intruded on their conversation.

"Grandma, he's a drug addict..." Louise began to say.

"Don't start, Louise." Grandma Ellen said firmly.

To everyone's surprise, Louise actually listened to her grandmother and closed her mouth.

"Wil, you know you can come see me any time, right?" Grandma Ellen said to him as she looked him in the eyes.

"And us, you're still our grandson." Gene said gently as he and Jon joined the gathering.

"And us too." Jon added, with a baby in his arms.

"Is that Jaxon?" Wil asked in astonishment. "He's got so big!"

"Yes, it is." Jon said with a tender smile at the baby in his arms, then looked Wil in the eyes and said, "The day after Jordan got sentenced, his girlfriend dropped Jaxon and Jazmine off with us and left town."

"I'm so sorry, Uncle Jon." Wil mumbled regretfully.

"Why?" Jon asked with honest dismay, "You stood by Jordan when no one else in the family would. I got a reminder tonight of what it means to be family, and you were family to Jordan when everyone else gave up on him. Even though it ended up not working out, what you did is something to be proud of, Wil, not ashamed."

"Grandma Ellen..." Louise began to say, but Ellen cut her off.

"So who are these folks?" Ellen asked, motioning to Cliff and Ben.

"These are my friends Cliff Grant and Ben Stone, and their boys JD and Jody." Will answered proudly.

"Stone?" Ellen asked with surprise.

"He's Kendrick's great-grandson; we talked ancestors." Wil said timidly.

"That's wonderful. And what family names do the boys carry?" Ellen asked curiously.

"JD took the last name Stone when they adopted him and Jody took Grant." Wil said, feeling that it should be Cliff or Ben answering questions about their family.

A broad smile spread across Ellen's face. "Then this is the first time in years that all three branches of the Stones are represented at a family gathering. My and Harry's branch are all over the place..." she gestured broadly, "...but we have Ben from Kendrick's branch, and young Christian here from Walter's branch too."

Christian looked up, startled at being singled out.

"You two little ones, come here and give your Great-aunt Ellen a hug." she said to JD and Jody. The boys both squeezed tighter to Cliff and Ben.

"Grandma, the boys have been through some horrible abuse." Wil said quietly. "It's made them very afraid of women."

Ellen smiled warmly. "JD?"

He looked at her warily from the safety of Cliff's arms.

"As you can see, child, I'm stuck in this wheelchair. I wouldn't ever do anything to hurt you, but even if I wanted to, these old legs wouldn't let me. You could run away. But my arms still work just fine to give grandma-style hugs to little boys who are feeling scared, don't they, Nicky?"

Nick looked up at the sound of his name and quickly answered, "Uh huh."

"Now, the reason I'm telling you this." Ellen went on, "Is that I'm getting really old. And by the time you aren't afraid of women any more, I may be long gone."

"Don't say that, Mother!" Gene said lovingly.

"It's true, boy, and you know it." Ellen said to him. "So while I'm willing to wait until you're ready, JD, I want you to promise me one thing: As soon as you feel brave enough to give it a try, have your daddy bring you to see me, so we can get to know each other before I'm gone. Is that fair?"

JD's eyes were large as saucers. Hesitantly he loosed his grip on Cliff, his signal to be put down. Ben and Cliff held their breaths as he stood in front of them.

"C'mon, Jody." He said in a small voice.

"You sure?" Came the whispered response.


Ben set Jody down. JD took his hand, and they slowly and resolutely walked the few steps over to Grandma Ellen's wheelchair. In unison, they hesitantly climbed up into her lap. She wrapped them in a warm hug. Slowly the tension left their small frames.

Collin was surprised to find himself applauding, and even more surprised when Christian, Jorry, Nick, Wil, Ben, Cliff, Marc, and his father joined in.

After a moment, JD quietly said, "Daddy? Poppa? Come get us."

Cliff and Ben hurried over to retrieve their boys.

"Thank you, Aunt Ellen." Ben said as tears welled in his eyes.

There was a long moment of silence as no one seemed to know what to do next.

"Would you guys like to see my Christmas gift? I left it over by the tree." Christian asked the younger boys.

JD looked over at the tree, then at Jody with question.

"We'll be right here if you need us." Ben said gently.

JD seemed to be uncertain, but slowly nodded before reluctantly walking away with the group of boys.

* * * * *

"What's that?" Collin asked as he pointed at a booklet inside the box with the sword.

Christian took it out, then smiled as he said, "It's a book that tells who owned the sword and when it was made and stuff like that."

"So it's a REAL sword? I mean, that was used in wars and stuff?" JD asked with wide-eyed wonder.

"Yeah. Do you want to see?" Christian asked as he offered the box to JD.

"I don't want to break it." JD said hesitantly, then asked, "Can I read the book?"

"Sure. If you want." Christian said as he handed the book to the younger boy.

All the boys watched as JD seemed to be immediately enthralled by the story of the sword.

* * * * *

Cliff, Ben, Marc, Galen, and Wil were all silently watching the boys.

They were all startled when Grandma Ellen started talking in a loud, firm voice from the front of the room.

"Please, everyone, allow me a moment of your time, then you won't have to lay eyes on me again for another year." Ellen said sternly to the room.

As Ellen spoke, the boys automatically drifted as a group back over to Cliff and the other adults.

She told a little of the family history which only mildly interested most of the boys, however JD seemed to be hanging onto her every word.

At a certain point in the story telling, a rush of excitement passed through the assembled group.

"...the disbursement will go as follows, once again, in accordance with Harry's wishes." Ellen was saying to the family, then glanced at Ginny and said, "Make sure you get this, dear."

Ginny nodded and handed Grandma Ellen a stack of papers, then stood ready with her notebook in hand.

She then proceeded to discuss how some mass of family money was going to be distributed.

After a long pause to demonstrate that she did, indeed, have everyone's undivided attention, Ellen finally got to the point where she could discuss individual cases.

"The heirs with the last name of 'Stone' will receive a larger inheritance than the others, that being half again as large as a regular share, simply because they're responsible for carrying on the family name." Ellen said carefully, then turned the page.

After a moment of reading, Grandma Ellen said, "As executor, I am the final authority on who is eligible and what they get. Now, before you start wheedling and scheming, I'm going to spell this out in no uncertain terms. When I call your family, pay attention, because this is how it's going to be."

Ellen's gaze turned toward Marc, and he straightened his posture a little.

"Marc's last name is Stone. He's considered the youngest of his branch of the family, so he gets a large share, all his own." Ellen said seriously.

A few looks of surprise flashed around the room at the announcement.

"Christian, if I understand your situation, you don't have any legal relationship to Marc. Is that right?" Ellen asked carefully, directing her question only to him.

"I think he's my guardian. At least, the judge said that I could stay with him through Christmas." Christian said uncertainly.

"But you haven't been adopted, or anything like that?" Ellen confirmed.

"No, ma'am. Not yet." Christian said timidly.

Ellen directed her attention back to the group as she said, "Then, since Christian isn't officially adopted yet, his case is seen as completely separate. Christian, being the youngest present in the branch of Walter's family and a Stone, also gets a large share to himself, and since he's under eighteen, it will be in the form of a trust fund."

"But we don't know if he's really related to us at all! He's probably some homeless kid that they picked up off the street for their sick, perverted thrills! Just look at him!" Ruth exploded.

"Ruth, if you don't shut up, I'll have to ask you and your family to leave. And if you leave before I've distributed your inheritance, you get NOTHING. Understood?" Grandma Ellen asked in an icy voice.

After a moment, Ruth nodded.

"Where was I? Oh, yes. Benjamin Stone, descended from Kendrick's branch of the family would be eligible for a large share except that he's adopted two children, that makes him ineligible. But since one of his sons carries the last name of Stone, it's my judgment that their branch of the family receive one large share that will be split into two equal trust funds for the boys."

There were murmurs going around the room, but no one seemed to be upset enough to speak up about it.

"Ruth, where is your daughter?" Ellen asked cautiously.

It took a moment, but Ruth finally found her daughter being held by Linda's husband, Dave.

Ellen nodded, then said, "Ruth and Nolan, since your last name is Stone, your three children will split one large share of the inheritance, in the form of trust funds." Ellen said simply.

Ruth slowly nodded, and remained blessedly silent.

"Linda and Dave, since your last name is Howard, your family will be eligible for a regular size share. But only Erik and Erika will be eligible to receive the inheritance. Since David Jr isn't here with us tonight, he isn't eligible." Ellen said regretfully.

Linda seemed like she wanted to say something, but her husband put an arm around her and nodded his agreement.

"Chuck and Louise, I'm sure you've figured this out by now, but I'll say it anyway to make it official. Your last name is Hale, so your family line gets a regular share, that is to be split into a trust fund for Kirsten and a full disbursement for Wil, just as soon as the assets are liquidated." Ellen said seriously.

"But you can't do that! He'll just blow it all on drugs and booze!" Louise barked.

"Louise, if you were at all involved in your son's life, you'd know that he's a responsible young man who has been making his own way in the world without the support of his family. I'm proud of what Wil has been able to achieve all on his own and have no doubt that he'll put his inheritance to good use. But if he were to 'blow it all' as you say, what of it? It's his, not yours." Ellen said firmly.

After a moment to see if there were any more objections, Ellen continued, "Frank and Sandra, your last name is Stone and you have no children. You get a large share for yourselves."

"That's not fair!" Ruth whined.

"Life's not fair. Deal with it." Ellen said shortly, then continued, "Needless to say that since Denise, James and Brucie aren't here, they aren't eligible for a share."

"Jon and Elaine, since your last name is Masters, you're eligible for a regular share. Hailey isn't here, so she's not eligible. Even if Jordan had been here, he wouldn't be eligible because the next generation has been born. Jaxon and Jazmine will split a share in the form of trust funds." Ellen said, then waited for a moment to see if anyone had a question.

"I suppose I should clarify about the trust funds. The trustees will be appointed by ME. And I'll tell you now, it won't be anyone in the family. I want the children to have something waiting for them when they become adults. The trust funds will cover all medical, legal and educational expenses until they are of legal age." Ellen said firmly, then looked around and waited for questions.

Ben, Cliff and the boys were frozen in place as they listened to Ellen continue on through the other members of the family, bestowing an untold number of shares to the nieces, nephews and cousins who were attending the family gathering.

Suddenly, a change in Ellen's tone of voice drew their attention back to the events at the front of the room.

"So that's it. Once the business holdings have been liquidated, those named will receive their inheritance. It was Harry's wish, and mine as well, that the next generation might avoid the mistakes of our past and not let the money overshadow the important things in their lives. This was our best attempt to set things right."

* * * * *

"What did all that mean?" Jody quietly asked his pappa.

"I think Grandma Ellen just said that she's gonna give us lots and lots of money." JD said uncertainly, then looked up at the others to see if they could explain it better.

"What do we have to do?" Jody asked cautiously.

"All we have to do is wait. We don't get anything until we're eighteen." Jorry said frankly.

"Oh. So it's not like 'real' money or anything. If we can't touch it or use it, then it isn't really real. It's just an idea." JD said thoughtfully.

"Well, yeah, maybe. But on the day that you turn eighteen, it'll be VERY real." Christian said with a grin.

JD shook his head firmly and said, "People do really stupid stuff when they start believing in money that they can't touch."

After a moment to think it over, Christian slowly nodded and said, "I think he's right. My dad... my 'real' dad always had big dreams that never worked out because he believed too much in things that weren't real. He'd do the same things over and over again and think somehow that this time they might turn out different."

"Like what?" Collin asked curiously.

"There were a few times, when I was little, he spent all our food money on lottery tickets. Mom had to go to the churches and charities to beg for enough food to get us through the week. Of course, he bought his beer BEFORE he bought the lottery tickets, but that's a whole other thing." Christian said frankly.

"That sucks." Jorry said honestly.

"At least Dad's never done that." Nick said frankly.

"He's not there yet, but give him time. He's headed that way." Jorry said sadly to his younger brother.

"Well, I guess if anyone asks you what you got for Christmas this year, you can say 'a trust fund'. It sounds kind of impressive, even if you can't do anything with it." Collin said, trying to inject cheer into the conversation.

"Yeah. If I go around telling people something like that, I'm going to get my ass kicked. Nobody anywhere wants to hear a spoiled rich kid flaunting his trust fund." Christian said frankly.

"Really?" Nick asked uncertainly, not knowing if Christian was teasing or not.

"Oh yeah. It's the same as showing off your new iPod or something. It's like, I got one and you don't! So I'm better than you!" Christian finished in a snotty sing-song voice.

Nick, JD and Jody giggled at Christian's tone.

* * * * *

The group of five adults were keeping close watch on the boys, but everything seemed to be going well for the moment.

"I kind of lost track, who over here hit the jackpot?" Jon asked as he approached with his wife at his side, each of them holding a baby.

"I guess that would be me." Marc said quietly, then tentatively held out his hands as he asked, "May I?"

Elaine transferred Jazmine into Marc's waiting arms with a tender smile.

"Are you two disappointed about being left out of the will?" Gene asked gently as he walked up and put a hand on Jon's shoulder.

"It was Grandpa Harry's decision to make, and I think I understand what he was trying to do." Elaine said gently.

"Although a little more money would have been nice, I can't even imagine how it would have changed everyone if the money had been divvied up amongst your children." Jon said frankly to his father-in-law.

"We're barely holding together as a family now. I'm sure it would have destroyed what's left." Gene said frankly, then looked at Elaine with concern and asked, "How bad are things for you now?"

"Bad." Elaine said simply. "The Christmas gift will help a lot, but... with Hailey in college and Jordan in prison and now the babies... the money will help for a while, but I just don't know how we're going to do it long term."

"I tell you what. After the holidays, why don't the two of you come over to the house and sit down with me so we can discuss your financial situation? My father left me a substantial inheritance from his personal estate, so I'm not without means to help. I'm sure that if we put our heads together, we can come up with a financial plan for you that makes sense."

"Thanks Dad." Elaine whispered as she hugged her father gently.

"I think this little lady just made a poop." Marc said cautiously, not wanting to interrupt Gene and Elaine's moment.

"If you'll hold Jax for a few minutes, I'll take care of that." Jon said with a grin.

"Can I hold him?" Wil asked hopefully and appeared to be poised for rejection.

"As long as Jax is happy, I'm happy." Jon said with a sincere smile at Wil, then turned his attention to the little girl in his arms and started talking to her in baby talk as he walked away.

"So Ben, are you disappointed about the inheritance?" Gene asked curiously.

"No, not really." Ben said honestly. "Cliff and I live well within our means and my writing career has been going well, so even though it might have been nice, we're not in any need."

"I'm really happy to hear that. I felt kind of guilty getting a large share to myself when so many others got left out." Marc said honestly.

"There's no need for you to feel guilty. This was something completely out of your control." Gene said honestly.

"I guess the reason I feel that way is because even though I know it shouldn't matter, I really wanted the money. To tell you the truth, this inheritance is going to take a load off my mind." Marc said quietly. "The job that I've been working at for the past several years is going to end before long. I make good money and have some savings and a few investments, but I wouldn't be able to go on indefinitely with no income."

"You know you'd never have to do without anything." Galen said as he bumped hips with Marc playfully.

"I know." Marc said with a loving smile at his beloved partner. "But I'll still feel better knowing that I have some money stashed away if there's not another job waiting for me right around the corner."

A moment of silence fell over the group that was broken by Wil quietly saying, "I'm just worried that I'll live down to my mom's expectations of me."

"Wil, if you're ever feeling uncertain about a decision, you can come to us anytime you want and we'll do our best to help you make a wise choice." Ben said seriously.

"Count us in on that, too. We're as close as the nearest phone." Marc said firmly.

Wil looked around and could tell that Cliff and Galen agreed.

"Thanks, guys. I'll remember." Wil said quietly.

* * * * *

"Can I talk to you for a minute?" Gene asked quietly and motioned for Cliff to step away from the others.

"Sure." Cliff said hesitantly as he followed.

"You're Jody's father, right?" Gene asked as he looked around to see that no one else was listening.

Cliff smiled, not recalling anyone calling him that before, then he answered, "Yes. I am."

"Do you know what your son wants for Christmas?" Gene asked quietly.

"No. He hasn't told anyone, not even his brother. Did he tell you?" Cliff asked quickly as he glanced over by the tree to see that the boys weren't paying attention to him.

"He told Santa, and that conversation is held in the strictest confidence." Gene said seriously.

"Please, tell me. This is going to be Jody's first Christmas with us, and I want to be sure to get him the gift that he really wants." Cliff said desperately.

"Okay. I'll tell you. Just, remember that Jody would only tell this to Santa, he wouldn't tell his own brother. That means that he realizes that you might not react well to what he's asking for." Gene said quietly.

"Please, just tell me. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve." Cliff said in a begging tone.

"He wants a Barbie doll." Gene said frankly.

Cliff thought for a moment, then finally nodded and said, "That's no problem."

"Actually, it may be more of a problem for Jody than it is for you." Gene said seriously.

"How's that?" Cliff asked curiously.

"The only toy that Jody wants for Christmas is a Barbie. He's fixated on it. He won't even discuss other toys. I think that if he has this much single-minded determination as young as he is... well, it might well be an indication of his lifestyle." Gene said carefully.

"Are you saying that you think Jody's gay because he wants a doll for Christmas?" Cliff asked cautiously.

"I hate to use the word 'gay' because it implies sexual orientation, and that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking more about gender identity. From the way he tried to hide the fact from you that he wanted a doll, he already associates some sense of shame with the desire. To me that says that Jody is very fragile right now and that you need to be very careful how you handle things until he's become more secure." Gene said carefully.

"I hadn't thought of that. I'll be careful." Cliff said thoughtfully.

"Just remember that whether he wants to dress in blue or in pink, he's still your son." Gene said gently.

"That's some good advice." Cliff said with a smile.

Gene shrugged, then said, "I've got a gay son, so I've done a lot of reading about such things."

"From the fantastic things that Wil has said about Marc, I think you must have done a fine job raising him." Cliff said frankly.

"I AM rather proud of the way he turned out. Some of the others... not so much." Gene finished weakly.

"You can only do so much. Once they leave the nest, it's out of your hands." Cliff said seriously.

"I know that logically, but when I hear Denise go off on one of her rants or see Nolan destroying his life with alcohol... I feel like maybe if I had done something differently, they would have turned out better." Gene said as tears welled in his eyes.

"It would be wonderful if they could all make you proud every day. But real people sometimes make bad choices, believe wrong things and even just screw up for no good reason. It's not you, it's life." Cliff said quietly.

"Go spend time with that wonderful family of yours. And remember that JD and Jody have a Grandma and Grandpa here if we're ever needed." Gene said seriously.

"I'll take you up on that." Cliff said gently. "Ben's family cut ties with him when he came out to them. My own family... we just aren't close. So if you really wouldn't mind us visiting, I think it would be good for the boys to have grandparents in their lives."

"Consider it settled." Gene said as he patted Cliff on the shoulder.

* * * * *

"Christian, will you let the others know that we'll be leaving in a few minutes?" Marc asked hopefully.

"Sure, Dad." Christian said quickly, then dashed away to find the other boys.

"You're really lucky. He's a fantastic boy." Ben said from Marc's side.

"He really is." Marc said with a distant smile.

"I'd like for us to keep in touch, maybe find a way for our families to get together and do something." Ben said thoughtfully.

"Well, since I live in Orlando, I think we may have one or two attractions that might be good for a family outing." Marc said with a smile.

"I can't even imagine what it would be like to take the boys to an amusement park. It may be a little while before we're ready for that step." Ben said frankly.

"Then we'll do something else. All you need is an open space and a Frisbee to keep the boys entertained for hours on end." Marc said with a grin.

"You're right, it's not about the activity. It's the company." Ben said with a smile.

Christian approached carrying his sword in its box and was followed by the rest of the boys.

"Jorry and Nick. If you need kisses or hugs or anything, you'd better get it taken care of now. We'll be leaving in just a minute." Marc said frankly.

Jorry looked up at Marc with a 'yeah, right' expression. But Nick seemed to be really thinking it over.

After a moment, Nick turned and shyly said, "I like you, JD. You're nice."

"I think you're nice, too." JD said honestly.

Nick quickly looked around to see if anyone was watching, then leaned in and gave JD a quick kiss, right on the lips.

JD looked at Nick with surprise, then a blush covered his face.

Nick smiled at the reaction, then waved as he walked to join his brother and said, "Merry Christmas."

"We'd better think about leaving, too." Cliff said with a tender smile at JD's shocked expression.

Seeing the blond hair and distinctive Christmas sweater, Jody quickly said, "There's Erik. Let's say 'bye' to him."

JD glanced at Nick again before walking to Jody's side and calling out, "Erik!"

"I'm Erika." the girl said as she turned around. JD tensed in sudden panic, then ran as quickly as he could to Cliff.

"What's wrong with him?" Erika asked, mystified by the boy's obvious fear of her.

"A woman hurt him... really badly... to the point he's afraid of all women." Wil explained to his young cousin in a quiet voice.

"Little boy?" Erika said gently.

JD looked at her with one eye, still pressed tight to Cliff's side, holding on with all his might.

"I'm sorry I scared you. I'd never hurt you." She paused. "In fact, if anybody scares you, you come find me and I'll kick their butt for doing it."

"She would, too." Jorry said as he and his brother stepped closer.

"Yeah! You should have seen what she did to Brucie!" Nick added with a giggle.

JD peeked at Erika with one eye, then hid his face again. What he now seemed to be feeling, though, was more shyness than fear.

* * * * *

As JD and Jody walked with Cliff toward the car, they kept looking back to see what Ben and Wil were doing.

"That's how it is when you reconnect with a good friend after being apart, you're reluctant to let them go." Cliff quietly told the boys.

Collin, Christian, Jorry and Nick were standing with Galen and waving enthusiastically.

JD and Jody waved back joyfully, knowing what Cliff was talking about, since both were reluctant to leave their new friends.

"Come on. Get in the car so we can get you all strapped in while your Daddy and Wil are saying their goodbyes." Cliff said in a coaxing tone.

"We could just go over and wait with them. It doesn't take that long to put our seatbelts on." JD said reasonably.

"I promise you, if we go over there, we'll still be there waiting a half hour from now. Us getting in the car will hopefully get them to stop saying goodbye and go." Cliff said seriously.

JD didn't have an argument for that, or at least didn't put one forward.

* * * * *

"So, that turned out better than I expected." Cliff said as Wil and Ben climbed into the car.

"To be honest, the bar wasn't set very high." Ben responded.

"Ben, do you know how much money they were talking about in there? Because I kept hearing about big shares and little shares but I don't know how much we're supposedly going to be sharing." Wil said in a rambling meter.

"As far as I know, no one has put a dollar amount on it. It sounded like the company has investments all over the place, each thing earning money at its own pace. As things start getting cashed in, we'll get a better idea just how much money there will be to split into shares." Ben said speculatively.

"How is this going to affect the boys? How do you think this is going to change their lives?" Cliff asked with concern.

"Just think about how much their lives have changed in the past month. I don't think this will have any significant impact on them." Ben said honestly.

"You don't have to let it change their lives, but if it's really a lot of money, it might be smart to prepare them for the day when they can actually spend it." Wil said carefully.

"Do you have any idea of how you're going to handle it?" Cliff asked curiously.

"Not really. I mean, it'll be great not to have to worry about making enough tips to cover rent, but if it's really a lot of money... I don't have any idea how to do that thing people do... saving? I've never had enough money to even think about doing it before." Wil said with increasing anxiety.

"To be honest, I don't know much more than you do. I know how to manage my money, but I have a feeling that what you're talking about is on a whole different scale. I'd recommend that before you even see a penny, you do some investigation about tax attorneys and money managers and things like that." Ben said carefully.

"I wouldn't even know where to start." Wil said in a lost tone.

"How about you not worry about it right this minute? Give me a chance to talk to a few people at work and get their recommendations. I get the feeling that they might know the sort of people that you'd need to talk to." Cliff said carefully.

"And if you can get things sorted out for yourself, then maybe you could help us prepare the boys for when they're older and have access to their inheritance." Ben added encouragingly.

Wil looked at the boys in their booster seats on either side of him, then quietly said, "They're asleep."

"They've earned their rest." Cliff said with a tender smile as he glanced in the rear-view mirror.

"I don't know exactly why I wanted for the boys to meet their relatives, but now I'm very glad that we did it. Thank you, Wil for suggesting it." Ben said with a smile back at him.

"I didn't notice, did you ever get to talk to the sister you were worried about?" Cliff asked curiously.

"Yeah, for a minute. She's fine. From the sound of it, she'll be ready to get away from Mom and Dad pretty soon. I told her where to find me if she ever needs me." Wil said quietly.

"That's probably the best thing that you can do for her. The rest has to be up to her if it's going to have any meaning." Ben said frankly.

Cliff nodded his agreement, then turned the car unexpectedly.

"What are you doing?" Ben asked as he grabbed for the dashboard.

"I just saw that the store was open. I need to stop in for a minute to buy something." Cliff said as he pulled into the first open parking space he could find.

"It's going to be a madhouse." Ben cautioned him.

"A certain someone from the North Pole filled me in on what a certain little angel really wants for Christmas." Cliff said quietly as he kept watch in the back seat for signs of consciousness from either boy.

"Go ahead. We'll be fine here." Ben said seriously.

Cliff leaned over and gave Ben a quick kiss before hurrying out of the car.

To Be Continued...