Castle Roland

Holiday Handoff

by MultiMapper


Chapter 16

Posted: 24 Dec 15

Holiday Handoff

Copyright © 2009-2015 by MultiMapper
All Rights Reserved

Marc woke with a mix of tiredness and enthusiasm.

There was a part of him that would very much like to stay in bed and drift in the nebulous area between sleep and wakefulness. But he already knew within himself that trying to do so would be an exercise in futility. The longer he lounged, soaking in the warmth and comfort, the more his anxiety would build about the list of chores that needed to be done to prepare for Christmas Day.

Marc got out of bed, careful not to disturb Galen's sleep. He took a moment to appreciate the beauty of his lover, his soulmate. There was no doubt that Galen was an attractive man, but what made Marc's heart melt was the pure goodness that he knew was in Galen's heart. Despite years of living an unfulfilled life, dedicated only to keeping the promises that he had made, somehow Galen came through the experience without bitterness. Instead, those dark years only seemed to provide a contrast for the awe and joy that he now felt every day.

Finally, Marc broke himself out of his thoughts and forced himself to get to work. After a few minutes to get cleaned up, he went downstairs to do a quick once-over cleaning of the unoccupied rooms before starting on his breakfast preparations.

"Do you smell that?" Collin asked into the mostly silent room.

"What? Did somebody fart or something?" Christian asked in a low, rough voice.

Collin smiled at the question, then responded, "No. I think Marc's making breakfast. It smells like sausage cooking."

"Living here's like living in a restaurant. Back with my parents, both of them, most of the time you'd just dig around in the fridge and hoped that you'd find something that you could choke down. It's funny, I don't remember either of them ever really cooking much of anything, but we always seemed to have nothing but leftovers... I wonder how that worked." Christian trailed off thoughtfully.

"I'm used to having cereal or pop tarts or something like that for breakfast. You know, just kind of jam it in your face and go. I guess if Marc did that, I wouldn't think that there was anything wrong with it, but him doing all the cooking and stuff, it's like him saying that he cares about us and he wants to make us happy and stuff like that." Collin said as he rolled onto his side, so that he could look at Christian.

"Yeah. I still don't get Marc, where he's coming from. It's like he sees the world in a different way than we do. Sometimes I think he's not being for real, and just acting like things are alright when he knows that they're not. But then he'll say or do something and I'll realize, all over again, that he really believes it. I'd really like to see what he sees."

"I think the difference is that he chooses to see the best in people. He expects them to do the right things and to be kind and caring. Because of that, the people who care about him try not to disappoint him and end up acting better than if he wasn't around." Collin said speculatively.

"Yeah. Maybe." Christian said as he turned to face Collin.

"How's your weasel bite?" Collin asked with a lazy smile.

"It doesn't hurt at all, right now." Christian said honestly.

"Good." Collin whispered, then moved in to give Christian a 'good morning' kiss.

From a few feet away, Brucie watched them kiss for a moment, then reached under his blanket to adjust himself.

The sound of the movement caused both Collin and Christian to look up.

"Seriously? You're jerking off to us kissing?" Christian asked with a sour look.

"I was just... it was twisted. I wasn't..." Brucie stammered.

"Whatever. At least you didn't try to crawl under the blankets and suck us off in our sleep." Christian said frankly.

"I thought you'd be mad at me if I did that." Brucie quietly admitted.

"Yeah. You were right." Christian confirmed.

"I need to... but I've got a..." Brucie began to say as tears of fear and frustration welled in his eyes.

"What?" Collin asked in confusion.

"I think he needs to go to the bathroom but he's ashamed to stand up because he's got a boner." Christian translated.

"Just go. We're not going to rape you or... whatever it is that you're scared of." Collin said frankly.

"You're not going to make fun of me?" Brucie asked cautiously.

"Not this time. You get a free pass." Christian answered, then continued, "But that doesn't mean that if you go swinging your boner around some other time that we won't rag on you about it."

Brucie sat, frozen in place, for a moment, then quietly said, "I really gotta go."

"Then go." Christian said impatiently.

"Will you not look?" Brucie asked hopefully.

Christian rolled his eyes, then said, "Yeah. I think that Collin and I can find something to do to distract us while you're gone."

Brucie watched as Christian moved in to give Collin a firm kiss.

When it was obvious that the two younger teens had their attention only on each other, Brucie extricated himself from his blankets and hurried out of the room, with his hands covering his tented sweatpants as he ran.

"I guess we need to get these blankets picked up and get dressed so we're ready for breakfast." Collin said as he reluctantly stood.

Christian lazily smiled up at the sight.

"No. Not when Brucie's in the house." Collin said firmly.

"You're no fun." Christian said with a pout, then climbed out of the blankets to begin his day.

A knock on the door drew everyone's attention.

"I've got it!" Collin called out as he hurried out of the living room.

"How are you doing, Brucie?" Christian asked casually.

"I'm worried." Brucie said honestly.

"Yeah. Me, too. I think all of us are, about different stuff. Maybe knowing that you're not the only one will make it easier for you." Christian said frankly.

"Joaquin, you remember Christian, and this is our cousin Brucie." Collin said as he led Joaquin into the living room.

"Hey. Thanks for what you did the other night. I owe you one." Joaquin said timidly to Christian.

"I'm just glad that you're alright. Come on in and sit down. It smells like breakfast should be ready any minute." Christian said casually.

Joaquin walked into the room and took a seat on the couch, the other side from Brucie.

"How are you feeling?" Christian asked curiously.

"I was feeling sore all over, yesterday. But I'm a lot better today." Joaquin said honestly.

"Marc says that breakfast is just about ready. You guys should probably head into the dining room." Galen said from the living room doorway.

"What about the presents? It's Christmas morning." Collin asked hopefully.

Galen smiled, then patiently said, "You're not four years old, anymore. I think you'll be able to wait until we've had breakfast."

"I guess so." Collin grudgingly agreed.

"Good! I'm starving!" Christian said as he stood.

"Go on, then. I'll join you in the dining room in just a minute." Galen said with a chuckle at the hijinks of the boys.

"James. It's time to wake up." Galen said gently from just inside the bedroom door.

"Huh?" James asked in confusion.

"It's Christmas morning and breakfast is ready. It's time for you to get up." Galen said with a smile at the sleep rumpled man.

"Oh. I can't believe I slept through the whole night. Thank you." James said as he fought to get himself to a sitting position.

"Come to the dining room whenever you're ready. Marc is going to start setting the food out, soon." Galen said with a smile before quietly withdrawing from the room.

"How is everybody doing this morning?" Marc asked as he hurried into the dining room with a platter stacked high with pancakes.

"A lot better now that the food's here." Collin said as his eyes tracked with the movement of the platter.

"Before you dig into this, you should know that I also have blueberry pancakes with blueberry syrup on the way." Marc said before zipping out of the dining room.

"I don't know how he does it." Galen chuckled.

"I know! It's all I can do to make a bowl of cereal without setting the house on fire." Christian said frankly.

"I thought it was just me." Joaquin said with a grin at him.

"Good morning." James said as he walked into the dining room, still looking more asleep than awake.

"James, I'd like for you to meet Joaquin, he's a friend of ours. Joaquin, this is James, he's Brucie's father." Galen said pleasantly.

"It's nice to meet you." Joaquin said cautiously, noticing the butterfly bandages on James' forehead. He briefly wondered if James, too, had been forced to jump out of a moving car.

"Here we go. I'll be right back in with eggs and hashed browns." Marc said as he stopped at the table just barely long enough to drop off another platter of pancakes and one of sausage links before rushing back out of the room.

"I feel like we should be helping or something." James said as he watched Marc go.

"We'd only be in his way." Galen said frankly.

"Yeah. If there's something one of us can do to help, Marc will let us know." Christian agreed.

"But if he does ask you to do something, just remember how hard he works and how much he does all by himself. He's not asking because he's being lazy or mean, it's because he really needs your help." Collin interjected.

"I think that's everything. Does anyone need a refill on their coffee or juice before I sit down?" Marc asked as he rushed into the room and quickly placed the last plates of food on the table.

"No. Everything's fine. Please just sit down and eat." Galen implored him.

"Everything looks wonderful. I don't know how you do it." James said as he began to serve himself.

"To be honest, I'm not in the habit of making big meals. I've been doing my best to make something nice, but what I envision isn't exactly what I end up with. I just can't seem to get the amounts right. I end up cooking way too much." Marc said frankly.

"That's better than too little." Galen said simply.

"I'm glad you think so, because from the look of it, we're going to be having leftovers well into the new year." Marc said regretfully.

"If it tastes as good as this, I don't have a problem with that." Christian said honestly.

"Let's see if you're still saying that when January rolls around." Marc said quietly.

"I've never cooked for anyone else. And what I cook for myself is usually just something from a box. This is really nice for a change." Joaquin said timidly.

"Considering what Brucie and I usually eat, I don't know if our bodies will know what to do with 'actual' food. If I never have to taste anything 'artificial' or 'substitute' again it'll be too soon." James said honestly.

"Yeah. I forgot what 'real' food tasted like. This is really good." Brucie interjected.

When the phone started ringing, Marc immediately began to stand.

"Marc, you've done enough. I'll get it." Galen said firmly.

Although it was apparent that Marc would rather take care of it himself, he acceded to Galen's wishes.

As Marc took his seat again, he noticed the anxious expression that Christian was wearing.

"What's wrong?" Marc asked cautiously.

"I wonder if that's the hospital, calling about my dad." Christian said quietly.

"I seriously doubt it. I called and checked on him this morning and they said that while his condition hasn't improved, the pain management seems to be working and he's been able to rest comfortably." Marc said honestly.

"It's probably just one of those robocalls wanting Marc to refinance his mortgage." Collin said to Christian with an encouraging smile.

"Anyone who calls us, trying to sell us something on Christmas morning had better not get their hopes up." Marc said frankly.

"Mom gets really upset by those calls. I don't think her preacher would want to hear some of what she says when she gets one." Brucie said honestly.

"I'm sure her preacher probably says the same or worse, under the same circumstances." Marc said with a smile at Brucie, then looked at the door with concern, wondering what was taking Galen so long.

"Marc, it's Maurice. I think you'd better talk to him." Galen said seriously as he walked into the dining room, carrying the handset to the cordless phone.

"Is it about my court hearing?" Christian asked anxiously.

"No, Christian. This is something completely unrelated." Galen said as he handed the phone to Marc.

"Good morning, Maurice. Merry Christmas. Is there something wrong?" Marc asked cautiously.

Everyone in attendance stopped their eating and couldn't help but notice Marc's deepening expression of concern as they listened to hear his side of the conversation.

After a pause, Marc finally said, "That's terrible. Of course we'll want to help however we can."

When Marc looked at him, Galen nodded his approval of what he suspected Marc was thinking.

"Is it going to be safe?" Marc asked cautiously.

After a moment to receive the assurance that it was, Marc firmly said, "We'll be down there as soon as we've gotten everything together. Thank you for calling us, Maurice."

After another moment, Marc took the phone away from his ear and disconnected the call.

"What do you want to do?" Galen asked quietly.

Marc looked around the dining room, then carefully said, "Maurice received word that someone broke into a local food kitchen last night and ransacked the place. All the food was either stolen or intentionally contaminated in some way to make it inedible. There's nothing left to serve the people who are coming to them for help. Maurice says that there are volunteers working to repair the damage and get things back into working order, and that they'll be able to replace the food from the local charity food pantry, but it will take time for that to be delivered and prepared. He wanted to know if we'd be willing to donate our time and our leftovers to help feed the people who have come to the food kitchen, in hopes of a warm meal."

"What are we sitting around here for? Let's go!" Collin said as he stood.

Marc smiled at him and said, "I told him that we'd help. But we need to think this through. Everyone who's helping needs to get ready to go out, then help me get the food ready for travel."

"Just tell me what I need to do." Collin said seriously.

Christian smiled at Collin's willingness to jump in, feet first.

"Joaquin, I know what you've been through the past few days. So we'll understand it if you don't feel like going with us." Marc said honestly.

"If there's anything I can do to help, I want to." Joaquin said sincerely.

"James, I know that you were planning to leave for Pennsylvania today. If that's still your plan, this would probably be the best time to go." Marc said frankly.

"Brucie and I will go with you. If it turns out that our help isn't needed, then we'll begin our journey from there." James said decisively.

"Will there be room in your car to carry some of the food?" Marc asked to be sure.

"Yes. All our belongings will fit in the trunk. There should be plenty of room in the back seat."

"Then it sounds like we've got a plan. Remember to leave enough room for everyone who's going to ride along." Marc reminded everyone around the table.

"Let's do this." Galen said as he stood.

"I don't know how much good this is going to do. I mean, I cooked a lot of food, but not nearly enough to feed all these people." Marc told Maurice in the parking lot.

"There are people bringing prepared food from all over the area. If you'll just start bringing things in, the volunteers will help you get things heated and ready for service." Maurice said seriously.

The building was cold.

It seemed as though every piece of glass in the place, windows and otherwise, had been shattered.

Some of the most vile racist and homophobic slurs were spraypainted on nearly every surface in the building.

"No time for sightseeing. Bring that food in here." A stout young woman said sternly.

There were a few uniformed police officers talking to people off to one side of the room while other people were working feverishly to salvage what equipment they could.

Christian carried the foil covered platter around a steam table and into an industrial kitchen. In one corner there was a pile of utensils that had all been mangled in various ways. Next to it were garbage cans filled to overflowing with cans that had been beaten and torn open, obviously for the sole purpose of depriving hungry people of the food that they had contained.

"What have you got?" A young man asked as he rushed up to Christian.

"Ham." Christian said simply, unable to focus on anything but the atrocity surrounding him.

"Here, slide it into this cooking pan and I'll pop it in the oven to warm it up. Then you need to take your platter back to your car or you're probably not going to get it back." The man said as he picked up a steam table pan of a suitable size.

Christian did as he was told.

As he turned, he was surprised to see a familiar face.

"Allen, right?" Christian asked with a smile.

"It's nice to see you again, Christian. Although, I wish that it could be under better circumstances." Allen said as he walked up to the table and sat down a large granite roaster.

"What have you got, there?" The young man who had helped Christian asked curiously.

"Christmas turkey. It still needs to cook for another hour or two. Can you use it?" Allen asked expectantly.

"I'm sure that by the time it's ready, we'll be more than able to use it. Let me just get a baking pan and get it going." The man said before dashing away.

"Where do you want this?" A slightly older teenage boy asked as he approached.

"Just put it here on the table, for now." Allen said to the boy, then turned to Christian and said, "This is my son, Jake."

"Nice to meet you." Christian said honestly, then regretfully added, "I need to get out to the car and get another load."

"We're planning to be here all morning, so I'm sure that we'll all have time to talk, later." Allen said with a smile, then turned his attention to the young man who had returned with a pan for the turkey.

Once all the food had been brought in, Marc and Allen started helping to organize the people they had brought to help out.

Reuben, Kenny and Kevin were all assigned 'clean up' duty in the dining room, with James overseeing the effort. Along with clearing tables, they also generally helped the people in the dining room and did more than a little visiting with them, along the way.

More than once during the morning, James remembered the time of his life when he and his mother and sisters had been living in a similar place.

Joaquin, Christian, Brucie and Lawrence all helped to serve food as the endless supply of hungry people paraded past them. The boys stayed on task most of the morning, but there were occasionally times when they would be able to chat and get to know a little bit about each other.

Deacon, Collin and Xain had the unenviable task of washing the never ending supply of dishes. However, during the course of the morning, none of them uttered a single complaint.

Jake had the singular honor of watching Ricardo and Edovina, which left Juana free to help Marc, Galen, Billy and Allen in the kitchen, heating and preparing food for the hungry masses. Maurice, much to his credit, was able to solicit food donations from an incredible number of people. Even though most of them weren't able or willing to donate their time, the amount of food that they provided was astounding and much appreciated.

Galen, Billy and Allen were mostly fetching and carrying. When one of them would notice that a pan of food on the steam table was nearly empty, they would hurry to bring another to replace it.

Just before noon, a truck from the local charity food pantry arrived. Once that was unloaded and the regular volunteers were able to get everything organized to their liking, they were finally able to take over the day-to-day operations.

"How are you doing, Christian?" Marc asked quietly, as he drove.

"I never did anything like that before. There were so many people... and they were all so different." Christian said in amazement.

"How do you mean?" Marc asked curiously.,

"Well, when you think of someone who goes to a place like that for free food, you think of... at least I think of a homeless old man, usually white, looking all dirty and... homeless. You know, like the guys with the cardboard signs at the stoplights." Christian explained with difficulty.

"I know what you mean." Marc assured him.

"But there were little kids and families and... there's a bunch of them that I'd never guess that they needed to get free food from a soup kitchen." Christian said frankly.

"I'm sure that they do their best not to 'look' homeless or in desperate need. Unfortunately, when someone is seen as being in that situation, they automatically have another strike against them. Employers are less likely to hire someone who looks like they really need the job." Marc said regretfully.

"I wish there was more that I could do to help." Christian said honestly.

"I tell you what, work hard on your schoolwork and get a good job. Then, when you're in a position to really be able to help, I'll remind you about today." Marc said seriously.

"It doesn't seem like enough." Christian said quietly.

"Until then, we'll help in other ways. And, of course, when something like today happens, we'll step up and do whatever we can to help them." Marc said assuringly.

"We need to make sure that they know to call us if they need something." Christian said firmly.

"Remind me after Christmas and I'll contact them." Marc said with a proud smile.

"Are James and Brucie still going to leave today?" Collin asked his father curiously.

"I don't know. I'm pretty sure that they know that they're welcome to stay, if they want to." Galen said frankly.

"I don't know. James doesn't seem to notice the stuff that's right in front of him, sometimes. You'd probably better tell him, just to be sure that he's got it." Collin said thoughtfully.

Galen smiled at his son, then said, "Yes. You're probably right."

"How are you doing, Joaquin? You're awfully quiet." Collin asked as he turned in the seat.

"Being there today, helping those people. It's making me think." Joaquin said quietly.

"You helped a lot of people today. That's nothing to be upset about." Collin said seriously.

Joaquin smiled at him, then said, "I've just been thinking that all this time, the whole time I've been in Orlando, I've only been thinking about myself. I've never done one single thing to help someone else."

"From what I saw at the hair salon, you do a lot to help." Galen said honestly.

"They pay me. It's not the same." Joaquin said shortly.

"I can understand if you feel like you're not doing enough, but you have to look at your situation realistically. The first thing you have to do is get yourself secure before you can do much to help anyone else. All the good intentions in the world don't mean a thing if you can't pay the rent and put food on the table. That's not being selfish, that's life." Galen said frankly.

Joaquin slowly nodded as he thought about Galen's words.

"Do you think the cops will get whoever trashed that place, last night?" Collin asked curiously.

"No." Galen said simply.

After a moment, hoping for more of an answer, Collin finally asked, "Why not?"

"I suppose it could just be me being cynical, but from the way I see it, the police have their hands full just trying to keep order. I don't really think property crimes against a charity organization or the homeless are a high priority for them. I'm sure that someone will write a report about it, and maybe... just maybe... a news crew might be dispatched to cover it. And in the end, that's probably all that will be done." Galen said honestly.

"That sucks!" Collin exclaimed vehemently.

"Some things do, but you still have to accept them." Galen said simply.

"No. I don't." Collin said firmly.

Galen considered for a moment, then said, "No, I suppose not. But just realize that if you choose to fight this battle, you're likely to run into a wall of bureaucracy and apathy. It's not fair. It's not right. But that's the way it is. At some point, you have to choose your battles. And in this case, I don't think it's a battle that you can possibly win."

"So the people who trashed the food kitchen and wrecked their food are just going to get away with it?" Collin asked in a disillusioned tone.

"Probably." Galen said frankly.

"And no one's going to do anything about it?" Collin asked to verify.

"Most likely, no." Galen said simply.

"If you want, maybe we can do some checking online and come up with something that we can do to help." Joaquin offered cautiously.

"Yeah! That'd be great. I bet Christian will want to help, too." Collin said with a smile toward the back seat.

"You guys can use the computer in my study, if that will help." Galen said as he fought to restrain the smile of pride that he felt for his son.

"We should be leaving. I had hoped that we'd be on the road by now." James said when they arrived back at Marc and Galen's house.

"You can stay another day, if you like. It's no inconvenience at all and we love having you." Marc said immediately.

"Yeah. We like you being here." Collin interjected.

James smiled at the words, and quietly said, "Thank you, Collin. You don't know how much that means to me. But we really do have to be going. If we travel today and tomorrow, then I'll be ready to start putting things in order to rebuild my life, first thing Monday morning."

"What about your Christmas gifts? You gotta get those before you leave." Collin said seriously.

Brucie looked at his father imploringly.

James smiled at his son, then said, "I suppose. But we'll have to leave right after."

Brucie broke into a smile at the declaration.

"C'mon in, guys." Marc chuckled.

"Everyone take a seat and I'll hand them out." Marc said as they walked into the living room.

"We can do that, if you want." Collin quickly volunteered.

"Thank you, Collin, but I'll get it." Marc said with a smile at him, then walked to the tree.

"Galen! It looks like you're first, since I'm going to have to move yours to get to most of the rest." Marc said as he scooted the large wrapped gift across the floor to him.

"Really?! I thought the big one would be for one of the boys." Galen said with a trace of boyish delight in his eyes, then he thought to ask, "Should I wait until everyone has their presents?"

"No. Go ahead and open it. Otherwise James and Brucie will be waiting on us all day." Marc said as he went back to the tree.

"It says, 'Merry Christmas, Dad - From Collin and Christian'." Galen said as he read the card, then started tearing into the wrapping.

Both boys looked on with anticipation, waiting for his reaction.

"A chamois?" Galen asked in surprise as he took the plastic package out of the big box.

"For the man who has everything." Marc chuckled at Galen's confused expression.

"Chrome polish?" Galen said dubiously.

"Just read the card inside, that'll explain everything." Christian said past his chuckles.

"Oh!" Galen said as he took out the card and began reading it.

When he looked up at everyone's expectant gazes, he paraphrased, "It says that the boys are going to help me scrub, wax and polish my car."

"I'll set mine over here." Marc said as he moved a box to the side.

"No. Go ahead and open it." Christian said firmly.

"Yeah. Don't make us wait." Collin said seriously.

"Okay, guys." Marc chuckled, then very carefully and precisely peeled back the tape to unwrap his gift.

"Seriously?" Collin said in astonishment.

"It's part of being fussy." Christian said with a loving smile at Marc.

"Oh! Screw it!" Marc said with a grin, then began ripping the paper off the box.

Once the paper was off, Marc stared at the box in puzzlement.

"We thought that it was something that you and Dad could do together." Collin explained, not sure if Marc liked the present or not.

"What is it?" Brucie asked curiously.

"It's a video game system." Marc said absently, then looked to Collin and Christian and said, "Thanks, guys. This is incredible."

"We got you some games, too. They're in there. The clerk at the store said that they're the kind that old... people like you and Dad usually enjoy." Collin stammered.

"Thank you, boys. I love it." Marc said sincerely, then reached for the next present under the tree.

"This one's for Galen." Marc said as he handed over the present.

"Marc? What did you do?" Galen asked as he glanced at the tag before tearing into the gift wrapping.

"Something a little bit out of character for me, I'll admit. I usually don't buy into the hype and get the latest gadgets. But I made an exception this time. I saw it and thought that you'd like it." Marc explained with an unrepentant smile.

"What is it?" Collin asked his father curiously.

"A RoboSapien." Galen said with almost boyish wonder.

"What's that?" Christian asked cautiously.

"I'm sure you'll get to know all about it in the next few days." Marc said with a chuckle.

"How about I set this aside for right now and we continue on?" Galen asked as he reluctantly set the box on the floor by his chair.

"Brucie, this one's for you." Marc said as he walked it across the room.

"Really?!" Brucie said joyfully.

"What'd you get?" Collin asked curiously.

Brucie made short work of the gift wrapping and finally said, "Wow! It's an iPod! I've always wanted one of these!"

"Galen suggested it. There's also a gift card in there so you can buy the music that you like for it." James quietly added and appeared to be getting choked up.

"It looks like this one is for me, from Galen... Can I open it in front of everyone?" Marc asked cautiously.

"Yes. Go ahead." Galen chuckled.

Marc didn't even bother with trying to unwrap the gift gently. He tore off the paper and opened the thin cardboard box to discover what was inside.

"He got you a dress?" Collin asked as he looked from his father to Marc uncertainly.

"It's a robe! A nice soft one. I thought Marc might like it." Galen immediately responded.

"It looks like I'm going to have to take back what I've said about you having no taste, because this is absolutely perfect, I love it." Marc said lovingly.

Galen smiled with pride at his accomplishment.

"Christian." Marc said as he handed a large and unusually light package to him.

"It's from Collin." Christian said as he read the tag before ripping off the paper.

When he opened the box, he seemed to be frozen in wonder at the sight of the wooden stand.

"I thought you could use it to show off your sword." Collin explained quietly.

"Yeah! I'll go get it now! It's gonna look great!" Christian said happily as he bounded out of the room.

"Joaquin." Marc said with a smile.

"You got something for me?" Joaquin asked with surprise.

"Of course. We knew you'd be coming over." Galen said frankly.

Joaquin opened the small package and paused when he saw the box. He opened the box to verify its contents before saying, "Thank you. This is wonderful."

"What is it?" Collin asked curiously.

"It's a prepaid phone. And there are cards in here with extra minutes for it." Joaquin said happily.

"Since we knew that you'd had your phone stolen, we thought this might be of use to you." Galen explained quietly.

"It's great! Thank you! I didn't know how I was going to start getting things put back together. But now... I guess I don't have to start. I just have to keep going." Joaquin said happily.

"James." Marc said as he handed a crudely wrapped, flexible package to him.

After looking at the label, James quietly said, "Thank you, Brucie."

"Open it! I hope you like it." Brucie urged his father.

James tore open the gift wrapping to reveal a hunter green fleece jacket.

"I thought that since we're going to be moving to Pennsylvania that you'll need something warm to wear." Brucie explained.

"Thank you, Brucie. I think I'll probably be able to use it every single day." James said as he lost the battle to keep his tears at bay.

"Uncle Galen gave me the money to buy it." Brucie quickly added.

Galen was in nearly the same emotional state as James when Brucie called him 'Uncle'. That one little unconscious slip by Brucie gave evidence that he actually had been accepted as part of Marc's family.

"Set it up." Christian said as he hurried into the living room, carrying his sword.

Collin set up the stand and held it in place as Christian reverently placed the sword, hilt up, onto its display stand.

"It looks like it was made for it." Marc said with approval.

"Who's next?" Christian asked as he looked to Marc expectantly.

Marc took the next present from under the tree and said, "Me!"

"Go ahead." Christian encouraged.

Marc quickly unwrapped the large flexible present and ended up with a beautiful quilt in his lap.

"It's handmade. I thought that you'd appreciate something 'real'." Galen quietly explained.

"It's beautiful. Thank you." Marc said sincerely, then continued, "There are just a few small ones left."

"Collin." Marc said and handed him a small package.

The smile on Collin's face was more affection than amusement, but either way, he turned and gave Christian a firm hug as he held the toy 'Hummer' in his hand.

"Christian." Marc said, then handed a present to him that was somewhat small, but not nearly as small as Collin's.

"Wow! Christian said as he opened the box to find that it held a portable DVD player and six DVDs. As he investigated, he also found two sets of headphones and a splitter. After discovering all the treasures that the box held, Christian quickly searched for the label to find who had given it to him.

"Thank you! It's the best present I ever got." Christian said sincerely as he looked back and forth between Marc and Galen.

"Last one." Marc said, then held out the package as he said, "Collin."

Possibly learning from Christian's mistake, Collin looked at the label before opening the gift.

He broke into a smile when he saw the new iPod, packaged with several gift cards for new music.

"Thanks." Collin said timidly.

"James, before you leave, would you like to have lunch with us?" Marc asked hopefully.

"As much as I would love to, Brucie and I need to get on the road." James said regretfully.

"I understand. But please remember to call us if you need any kind of help at all." Marc said sincerely.

"And just call to let us know how you two are doing, too." Christian added quickly.

"We'll do that. Thank you." James said warmly.

"Do you need to pack anything?" Marc asked cautiously.

"No. I packed everything into the car before we left for the food kitchen, just in case they didn't need our help." James said honestly then guided Brucie to get up so that they could leave.

"Thanks for all you did, today. You watching after the kids in the dining room made it so that the rest of us could focus on our work." Marc said honestly as he walked them to the door. The rest of the family automatically followed so that they could see James and Brucie off.

"If I was any help at all, I'm glad. But being there today helped me to remember who I am and where I came from. I'd lost sight of that over the years and I'm grateful to have been reminded." James said quietly as he stopped outside his car.

"Stay in touch." Marc said as he stepped forward and pulled James into an unexpected hug.

"Brucie, if you ever need something or need to talk, you can call us." Collin said seriously.

"Really?" Brucie asked with surprise.

Christian smiled at the reaction, then quietly confirmed, "Yeah, really."

"Merry Christmas." Marc said as he took a step back.

"Yes. It really is. Merry Christmas to all of you." James said, then indicated for Brucie to get into the car.

"Drive safely!" Marc said as James was closing the door.

A somber mood seemed to have fallen over the group as they returned to the living room.

Finally, Marc broke the silence by saying, "We're glad that you were able to spend Christmas with us today, Joaquin. I'm sorry that we haven't been able to spend more time visiting with you."

"Actually, it's been perfect. It's been quite a while since I've felt like I was part of a family. Just being here, being included, has meant a lot to me." Joaquin said sincerely.

"How are you doing, now?" Marc asked with concern.

"Honestly, I feel afraid most of the time, since it happened. I know it doesn't make any sense, but that's how I feel." Joaquin said frankly.

"With what you went through, it's perfectly understandable." Marc assured him, then continued, "But you can't let that keep you from living your life."

"Yeah. I've just got to learn to be more careful." Joaquin said with resignation.

"True. But you also need to keep in mind that you can call or come over and visit us anytime you want. We'll always be happy to see you." Marc said seriously.

"I wouldn't want to bother you." Joaquin said reluctantly.

"You know that you're safe here with us, right?" Marc asked firmly.


"So, if you find yourself feeling afraid and need to feel safe, just come by here and we'll always be happy to see you. Anytime, day or night." Marc said as he held Joaquin's gaze.

It took a moment, but Joaquin finally said, "Yeah. Okay."

"Good." Marc said with a smile, then continued, "I'm going to put something together for lunch. You guys can watch some TV or check out your gifts."

"Dad, do you want to wash your car? We could do it right now." Collin asked hopefully.

"As much as I'd like to, it looks like it's about to rain. We'd better save it for some other day." Galen said regretfully.

Collin glanced at the window and reluctantly nodded his agreement.

"We'll do it tomorrow, weather permitting." Galen said seriously, warmed to the depths of his soul to know how much his son was looking forward to them washing the car together.

As the group was watching the infomercial about the battery operated carpet sweeper, the phone ringing interrupted them.

"Someone else can get it. I missed the ending, yesterday." Christian said firmly.

Galen smiled at the comment, then stretched to be able to grab the cordless phone from its charging cradle.


"Oh! Hi, Maurice. No, it's Galen. Has there been more trouble? What can I do for you?" Galen asked quickly.

Collin and Joaquin listened to Galen's side of the conversation with interest as Christian tried to maintain his focus on the infomercial.

"Oh, good. I'm glad." Galen said with a relieved smile.

Both Collin and Joaquin relaxed a little at his reaction.

Galen laughed, then smiled as he said, "No. I don't think that would be any problem at all."

A moment later, he continued, "Anytime would be fine. As far as I know, we don't have anything planned for the rest of the day."

"No. I promise that it's not a problem. No one's going to be upset and call you the bailiff that ruined Christmas." Galen said warmly.

"You, too, Maurice. Merry Christmas." Galen said before disconnecting the call.

"What's going on?" Collin asked curiously.

"Christian's going to have some company, later." Galen said simply.

"Who?" Christian asked as he turned to look at Galen.

"Finish watching your show, then I'll tell you about it." Galen said seriously.

Christian seemed to be about to object, but instead turned his attention back to the infomercial.

At the sound of a knock on the door, Galen hurried to answer it.

"Hello. I'm Josh Pendragon, I'm here to meet with Christian Stone." The young man said uncertainly, on the doorstep.

"Yes. Please come in, Josh. We've been expecting you. My name is Galen Anderson, Christian is in the living room, right this way." Galen said pleasantly.

"You do understand why I'm here, don't you?" Josh asked cautiously as he stopped, just inside the front door.

"Yes. You're going to be Christian's legal representation at the court hearing on Monday." Galen said seriously.

"Good. I just wanted to be clear on that, upfront. There have been prospective parents that thought that I was there to represent them or that I was somehow automatically on their side." Josh said frankly.

"Well, I hope that you'll decide that we're a good fit for Christian, but I understand that it's not part of your job to convince the judge of that." Galen said frankly.

"Yes. Thank you. Do you think there would be any way that Christian and I would be able to speak privately for a little while?" Josh asked hopefully.

"Of course. You can use the dining room if you like." Galen said as he prompted Josh to walk with him toward the living room.

"Yes. Thank you, again."

"How is everyone doing in here? Who was that at the door?" Marc asked as he walked into the living room, drying his hands on a dishtowel.

"You're not cooking another huge meal, are you?" Galen asked cautiously.

"No. Just some soup and sandwiches. It'll be ready in a few minutes. I've just been cleaning up the dishes we brought back from the food kitchen, this morning." Marc said honestly.

"You should have told us, we would have helped you." Galen said seriously.

"It's fine. I was in there cooking anyway." Marc said with a shrug, then looked around before cautiously asking, "Where's Christian?"

"He's in the dining room with his lawyer." Galen answered simply.

"A lawyer... who makes house calls... on Christmas day?" Marc asked dubiously, then added, "I didn't think such a thing existed."

"He's a children's advocate. I think he probably plays by a different set of rules." Galen said frankly.

"I have to get back to watch the soup. Make sure you invite the lawyer to stay for lunch." Marc said before hurrying out of the room.

Galen smiled at Marc's retreating form, then noticed Collin's worried gaze fixed on the living room door.

"Josh is here to help Christian get placed where he belongs." Galen said seriously.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Joaquin asked cautiously.

"Not that I can think of. Right now, I think that everything is completely out of our hands. We just have to hope that we've done enough for Judge Robison to decide that our house is the best place for Christian to live." Galen said frankly.

"Any idea how long Christian's going to be in there? Should I take a tray of food into them?" Marc asked as everyone settled in around the kitchen table.

"I think it's probably best if we leave them to their work. If they get too hungry, Christian knows where the kitchen is." Galen said frankly.

"I feel like I should at least offer the lawyer some coffee or something." Marc said honestly.

"A soda, maybe. He doesn't look old enough to drink coffee." Galen said with a grin.

"That's a bad sign. When the doctors and lawyers start looking too young to do their jobs, that means that someone's getting old." Marc said warmly.

"That's possible, but just wait until you've seen him to judge me too harshly. He's really young." Galen said in his defense.

"Well, if that's true, maybe it's good that he's a children's advocate. That way he's more likely to be able to empathize with his clients and they might be more willing to trust him." Marc said speculatively.

"Does anyone mind if I turn on the football?" Galen asked as he led the way into the living room.

"Go ahead. I just want to check out my new iPod." Collin said as he sat down in front of the tree.

"Is that okay with you, Joaquin?" Galen asked carefully.

"Yeah. I want to read the instructions and figure out the phone you bought me." Joaquin said honestly.

Seeing that no one had an objection, Galen turned on the football game with the volume set to a reasonable level, then discretely took the instruction manual out of the RoboSapien box and started leafing through it.

"I'm done in the kitchen. Does anyone need anything, right now?" Marc asked as he walked into the living room.

"Yes. I need something very much." Galen said immediately.

"What's that?" Marc asked with a smile.

"For you to let me take care of things for the rest of the day. You've done an amazing job cooking and taking care of everything and everyone. Now, I think it's time for you to sit down and enjoy it. Let us take care of you for a while." Galen finished with a smile as he set his reading aside.

After a moment to consider, Marc quietly said, "Thanks, guys. I loved planning everything and making the meals, but some rest would be nice."

"Just kick back and relax, then. Is football okay with you?" Galen asked curiously.

"That's fine." Marc answered, then quietly asked, "Do you think Christian is alright?"

"I hope so. They've been in there an awfully long time." Galen said with a concerned look at the doorway.

"Collin, have you thought about calling your mother and your grandparents and wishing them a Merry Christmas?" Galen asked his son gently.

"No." Collin answered honestly.

"I'm sure they'd love to hear from you." Marc interjected.

"Yeah." Collin agreed.

"Collin, call your mother." Galen said with a laugh.

"Oh. Okay." Collin said simply, then went to pick up the phone.

"You see what I have to put up with?" Marc asked Joaquin with a smile.

"I can think of worse things." Joaquin said honestly.

"Before you hang up, I need to speak with your mother." Galen said when it sounded like Collin's call was winding down.

"Yeah. Sure." Collin said with distraction, then went back to his conversation.

When Collin handed him the phone, Galen walked out of the living room so he could speak to his ex wife privately.

A moment later, Christian walked into the living room, followed by Josh.

"How did everything go?" Marc asked curiously.

"That's Marc. I told you about him." Christian told his companion quietly.

"It's a pleasure to meet you Mr. Stone. I'm Joshua Pendragon, you can call me Josh. Christian has had nothing but nice things to say about you." The young man said pleasantly.

"It's nice to meet you Josh. Could I interest you in some lunch?" Marc asked with a smile.

"No. Thank you. My gran's expecting me at Christmas dinner. In fact, I'm a little bit late. I need to be going. I'll see you on Monday, Christian." Josh finished quickly, then turned to leave.

"I'll walk you out." Marc said as he stood.

"He's barely more than a toddler." Marc said absently as he walked into the living room.

Joaquin laughed at the statement.

"Christian, are you hungry?" Marc asked with concern.

"Yeah. I guess." Christian said unenthusiastically.

"I'll get it, Marc. Remember what Dad said." Collin said as he got up from in front of the tree, then turned to Christian and continued, "Come on."

Marc and Joaquin sat for a few minutes, letting the sound of the football game and commercials mask the silence between them. Finally, Marc quietly asked, "How are you doing, Joaquin? Things haven't gone exactly like I'd planned today. I hope you aren't too bored."

"Ever since I came out, my family won't have anything to do with me. I don't know if I can honestly say that I miss them as much as I miss being included as part of a family. So, no, I'm not bored. I've had a happier Christmas than I ever thought that I could." Joaquin said frankly.

"I'm glad that you're here. I was a little bit afraid that the boys were going to end up spending the entire holiday with only me and Galen for company. I guess I shouldn't have worried about that. We've been around more people this week than I usually meet in a month." Marc finished with a chuckle.

"Well, if something happens like it did with the food kitchen, this morning, remember to call me. I think it was great being able to help out like that." Joaquin said honestly.

"We'll make sure to keep in touch so we can call you if there's a problem... or a celebration... or just a gathering." Marc said warmly.

"Like a family." Joaquin said quietly, finishing the thought for him.

"Why not?" Collin asked firmly as he led the way back into the living room.

"Because he's my lawyer. There's, like, a law or something that says I can't repeat what we said in private." Christian said firmly.

Collin turned to Marc and asked, "Is that right?"

"I think what Christian is talking about is called 'attorney client privilege', and as far as I understand it, it's just the attorney who can't discuss what was said." Marc said carefully, then continued, "But Christian doesn't have to talk about anything he doesn't feel like sharing."

"It's all just a bunch of 'what-ifs' and 'maybes', anyway. Josh didn't really tell me anything except that there's a lot of things that can happen and he's going to try to be prepared for all of them." Christian said frankly.

"So, it's not a slam dunk?" Collin asked quietly.

"No. It doesn't sound like it." Christian said anxiously.

A knock at the front door drew all their attention.

"I've got it." Collin said before Marc, or anyone else, could react.

"Just tell us if there's anything you need, okay?" Marc asked Christian quietly.

"Can we just not talk about it, right now?" Christian asked hopefully.

"You got it." Marc said with a smile.

"Joaquin's in here." Collin said as he led the way into the living room.

"I didn't expect you back this early!" Joaquin said with surprise.

"Things didn't go exactly as we expected this year." Bobby said quietly.

"The almighty, Agnes, himself, decided to invite one more dinner guest at the last minute... a 'date' for Bobby." Eric seethed.

"Ouch! So how did that go?" Marc asked, then smiled at Galen as he walked into the living room, still carrying the handset to the phone.

"Vile food. Horrid company. Agnes' little rat-dog yipping and snapping at me through the whole meal... everything was pretty much what I was expecting except for Bobby's blind date." Eric said frankly.

"I hope the 'date' wasn't too humiliated when she realized what was going on." Marc said cautiously.

"Megan was really sweet..." Bobby began to say, but was silenced by a venomous quelling glance from Eric.

"After the horror of the gathering finally began to subside and we were about to leave, Megan tells us on the way to the car that she's a lesbian and has been in a committed relationship for years. She only showed up today as a favor to her mother, who's friends with Agnes." Eric finished with a roll of his eyes.

"Well, I guess it's good that she didn't get her heart broken when Bobby left with you instead of her." Marc said as he tried to fight down his chuckles.

"It might have been kind of romantic if you two had fought over me." Bobby said with a demure giggle.

"Tragic, more likely. Megan had forearms like Popeye the Sailor. I'm pretty sure she could have beaten me into a bloody pulp, spinach or no." Eric said frankly.

"She was a sweet girl." Bobby quickly countered, then quietly added, "But she did have some manly forearms."

"Are you ready to go, Joaquin?" Eric asked suddenly, obviously wanting to change the subject.

"Yeah. I just need a second to get my things together." Joaquin said quickly.

"I hope that your Christmas went well." Bobby said as he looked at the others in the room.

"It's been eventful, but I'm willing to call it a success." Marc said, then turned to smile at Galen.

"Look what they got me for Christmas. It's a prepaid phone, so I won't have to worry about it if I'm away from the shop or at home alone. I can always call for help if I need it." Joaquin said happily.

"Or you can call us. If you're feeling afraid... or even if you're just bored, we'll always be happy to either come and get you, or talk with you on the phone to let you know that you aren't alone." Marc assured him.

"Yeah. I'll remember." Joaquin said quietly and seemed to be getting choked up.

"We'd better go now. I think what little of Agnes' food I was able to choke down isn't sitting well." Eric said frankly.

"Thank you again, everyone. I had a great time." Joaquin said as he followed Eric and Bobby out of the room.

"Once we've gotten through the holidays, expect to hear from us. I plan on inviting all three of you over for a nice meal... and no blind dates, I promise." Marc said as he followed them to the door.

Christian was quieter than usual the rest of the night.

Although Collin tried his best to get Christian to talk about it, it ended up that the only thing that seemed to bring either of them any peace was when he held Christian close and expressed his feelings through touch.

True to his word, Galen prepared a simple dinner for them that was some sort of a goulash. The food was reasonably good and Marc appreciated the effort.

As they sat and watched television, later that night, none of them were especially engaged by the program, but none of them wanted the 'together' time to end.

Finally, it was Marc who suggested that the gathering break up and everyone go to bed.

Although no one was enthusiastic about the idea, neither did anyone protest the announcement.

Collin and Christian prepared for bed in near silence.

Both of them went through the paces and finally they climbed into bed together.

They automatically snuggled as they settled in to sleep.

Just as they were drifting off, Collin whispered, "I do love you."

There was a momentary pause, then Christian responded, "Yeah. Me, too."

The next morning, when Collin noticed that Christian seemed to be awake, he quietly asked, "How are you doing?"

"I'm better. I just had to get some stuff sorted out in my head. You were right, what you said the other day. Even if Judge Robison says that I can't live here, we won't give up." Christian responded in a low voice.

"Why would he say no?" Collin asked with concern.

"Because he might not have a choice. No matter what we want, or what he wants, he still has to follow the law." Christian said frankly.

"Is that what your lawyer said?" Collin asked as he turned more on his side, to face Christian beside him.

"That's some of it. Josh just wanted for me to be prepared if things don't go the way that we want. The good thing is that he's on my side, so even if things do go wrong, he's going to keep on trying to help me. He said that his job doesn't end when the judge slams his gavel. He said that he won't consider his work done until I end up in a good place... whether it's here, with you, or not." Christian finished regretfully.

"Is there anything I can do?" Collin asked cautiously.

"Just, don't give up, okay?" Christian asked hopefully.

As an answer, Collin moved in to give Christian a firm kiss.

"Where's Dad?" Collin asked as he walked into the kitchen, with Christian following a step behind.

"He's up in his study, playing with his new toy." Marc said with a smile.

Both Collin and Christian took turns giving Marc hugs, before Christian carefully asked, "Didn't he get one of those things where you just pop in the batteries and it works?"

"For someone other than Galen, yes. But the reason that I bought Galen a robot is because of his tendency to look at a new gadget and rather than see what it is, he sees what it can become. He devises all sorts of improvements and fantastic modifications to expand it far beyond the original concept." Marc said warmly.

"So, he's up there right now, tearing apart the new little toy robot that you got him?" Christian asked to confirm.

"Yes. But that's why I bought it for him. If he left it in its original state, the novelty would wear off in a day or two, then it would sit around, collecting dust. But, depending on what kind of ideas he comes up with, he might be entertained for months making tweaks and modifications to the thing." Marc said happily.

"I thought it was cool that you got him a robot, but knowing why you got it for him is even cooler, especially, since you were right and he's up there, geeking out on it, right now." Collin said with a smile.

"As much as I want for him to enjoy his new toy, he still needs to eat. Would you go up and tell your father that breakfast is almost ready?" Marc asked hopefully.

"Yeah." Collin said before racing out of the room.

"Are we having breakfast in here, today?" Christian asked curiously.

"Yes. I think we're probably done eating in the dining room for a while." Marc said as he turned his attention back to his cooking.

Christian automatically went to the cupboards and started taking down what he would need to set the table.

"Thank you, Christian." Marc said appreciatively.

When Galen finally walked into the kitchen, Christian asked, "So how is your new robot working?"

"I'm still testing all the preprogrammed functions, but so far it's performing just the way it's supposed to. I've already got some ideas of modifications that I can make." Galen said happily.

"Do you think that the weather's good enough for us to wash your car today?" Collin asked hopefully.

"I don't know. I didn't think to look at the weather report this morning." Galen said honestly.

"It may be a little bit chilly. They're predicting that the temperature might reach the mid sixties, but today there's only a slight chance of rain." Marc provided casually as he ferried ham and eggs to the table.

"Is that warm enough?" Collin asked in anticipation.

Galen could see how much his son was looking forward to the project and said, "I think we can make it work."

"It will probably be best to do it earlier, rather than later, since the driveway catches the morning sun." Marc said as he took his seat.

"Sounds good." Galen said with a smile at the boys, then thought to ask, "What else do we have planned for today?"

"Not a thing, as far as I'm concerned. With all the excitement of the past week, I think we're due for a nice, quiet day." Marc said honestly.

"What do you do on a nice, quiet day, Marc? I really can't see you enjoying sitting around, vegging in front of the TV." Christian asked curiously.

"No. Not the TV, more likely I'll fix myself some tea and settle in on the couch and read for a while. It's very relaxing and I haven't been able to do that very much, recently." Marc said with a smile.

"I don't know if I could do that. I mean, it sounds kind of boring, to me." Christian said honestly.

"That really depends on the book that you choose. If you find the right book, it's easy to become lost in it." Marc said honestly.

"I must have always been finding the wrong books then, because reading's usually boring for me." Christian said frankly.

"Be thinking about what kind of movies and television shows catch your interest and I'll see if I can find some books with the same sort of subject matter. I bet that we'll be able to find something that you enjoy." Marc said confidently.

"Yeah... we'll do that." Christian said darkly as he internally included, 'If I'm still here after tomorrow.'

Even though the sun was shining, it was still early in the day and the temperature hadn't edged it's way out of the fifties, yet.

By the time Galen and the boys were done with their work, all of them were chilled to the core.

Even so, the sight of the Fairlane, sparkling in the sunlight, made the hours of effort that they had put in completely worth it.

"If you guys want to go and take hot showers and change into something comfy, I'll have chili and cornbread waiting on you when you're done." Marc said as he intercepted the trio just as they entered the house from the garage.

"If I didn't already love you, that would have won me over." Galen said gratefully.

Marc hurried to him and gave him a quick kiss, and was careful not to get his clothes wet, since Galen was damp from head to toe.

The chili lunch was well received. There wasn't much in the way of conversation, but Marc was willing to accept their enthusiastic eating as a compliment.

Finally, when lunch was finished, all four of them retired to the living room.

"Is there any football on, yet?" Marc asked curiously.

"I don't know, but if you wouldn't mind, I was thinking that I could get back to my project, upstairs." Galen said cautiously.

Marc chuckled with delight, then said, "As far as I'm concerned, today is for doing whatever you enjoy. If you want to work on your robot, that's perfectly fine with me."

"Do you feel like doing anything, Collin?" Christian asked curiously.

"Not really. After being cold, out there, I think it'd be kinda nice to sit in here, with you and snuggle while we watch a movie or something." Collin said honestly.

"Hey! We can try out my Christmas present together. I've got the player, the DVDs and the thing so that we can both listen to it at the same time." Christian said happily.

"Yeah. That sounds great!"

Marc smiled at the interaction, then went upstairs to his room to get the book that he had been reading.

Collin and Christian ended up sitting on the floor, leaned with their backs against the couch, snuggled together under Marc's new quilt, watching a disaster movie that started well, but seemed to get progressively worse as it went on. Nonetheless, both boys were relaxed into the experience of holding and being held.

The phone ringing jolted Marc out of his reading.


"Of course not. It's always wonderful to hear from you. What can I do for you?"

"Sure. Just a second." Marc said, then put his hand over the mouthpiece before saying, "Collin, it's for you."

"Me?" Collin asked with surprise, not knowing who could possibly be calling for him.

"It's Joaquin. He wanted to talk to you about something that you had discussed yesterday." Marc said as he handed Collin the handset of the phone.

"Hi, Joaquin." Collin answered quickly.

"Yeah, I still want to. What have you found out?" Collin asked quickly as Christian looked at him curiously.

"Do you think I should get the parents to do it, since they're, you know, parents?"

"Yeah. That's true."

"No. But I think that if I talk to Marc and my dad about it, they'll get me one."

Marc looked up curiously at the statement.

Collin was, of course, oblivious to what anyone else was doing as he continued his conversation.

"Yeah. That sounds good to me. Be sure to call if you think of anything else. Christian and I will want to help any way that we can."

"Goodbye." Collin finished with a smile, then turned off the phone.

As Marc accepted the phone back from Collin, he quietly asked, "What is it that Galen and I are going to be getting you?"

"A computer." Collin said frankly.

Marc put the phone handset back on it's base station, then thoughtfully said, "Probably a laptop, so you can take it with you when you travel."

"Yeah. Joaquin was just saying that there's these sites that you can visit and leave messages for a bunch of people to see, and maybe that will help us get people to care about what's going on at the food kitchen." Collin said frankly.

"Oh! So that's what you were talking about." Marc said with a smile.

"Yeah. For now, Joaquin said that it'd be a really good idea if we could get everyone who we know that was there yesterday to write letters to the editor of the big newspaper... I don't know what it is here, but if we get everyone to write in, not just the adults, but the kids, too, then maybe the newspaper will decide to do a story about it." Collin said seriously.

"I tell you what, I'm going to go upstairs and get my laptop for you. It should have everything that you'll need already set up. You guys can go ahead and compose your letter to the editor and we can email it or print it off and send it whenever you're ready." Marc said seriously as he stood.

"Thanks, Marc. From the way Dad was talking, no one's probably going to do anything about whoever tore up the food kitchen. But I can't just not do anything." Collin explained seriously.

"I'm proud of you, Collin. I don't know if anything will be done or not, but by you doing this, you're improving the chances that someone in charge will take notice and take action." Marc said before leaving the room.

In the end, Collin and Christian each composed their own letters. Marc felt another swell of pride as he read through them.

Although the letters might have been grammatically dubious, at best, that only seemed to lend to the sincerity and passion in the boys' pleas for people to protect the services that provide for the most vulnerable members of their local community.

Marc felt that he wasn't in the proper state of mind to compose a letter of his own, just yet. But as soon as the chaos of Christian's hearing was over, he committed himself to contacting everyone else who had volunteered, to get them to write letters, too.

The boys had settled in to watch another movie which, fortunately, was much better than the previous one. As Marc was losing himself in the pages of his book, he was startled by a knock at the door.

"Mom?" Marc asked with surprise.

"Hi, Honey. We were just in the neighborhood and thought that we'd stop by to see how you're doing." Nora said cheerfully.

"What would you be doing in this neighborhood except coming to visit me?" Marc asked cautiously.

"Don't be difficult." Nora said as she walked past him, into the house.

"Is everything going alright?" Gene, Marc's father, asked as he also passed by.

"Fine." Marc said cautiously as he closed the door.

"Were your ears burning on the ride home last night?" Gene asked his son with a grin.

"No. Should they have been?" Marc asked cautiously.

After a stern look from Nora, Gene smiled at his son and said, "Never mind."

"Look who's here!" Marc said cheerfully as he led his parents into the living room.

Collin and Christian looked up in unison, with surprise.

"Isn't it lovely? Marc, you've really outdone yourself this year." Nora enthused as she looked around at all the Christmas decorations.

"I had help." Marc said shyly.

"It's absolutely perfect." Nora said happily, then her attention seemed to be drawn by the sword in it's stand, prominently displayed beside the Christmas tree.

Collin noticed and said, "I wanted for Christian to have a way to show it off."

"I can't imagine a better way of displaying it." Nora said as she turned toward the boys, then curiously asked, "What is that you boys have got, there?"

"It's a portable DVD player. Christian got it for Christmas." Collin answered before Christian had the chance.

"Couldn't you just watch your movies on the television, so everyone could enjoy them with you?" Nora asked curiously as she took a seat on the couch, next to where the boys were nested.

"No. Just like, right now, Marc's reading a book. If we had the TV on, he'd probably have to go into another room so he could pay attention to what he's reading." Collin offered helpfully.

"And it's nice to know that no matter where I end up staying, that I'll have something to do that I can take with me." Christian added quietly.

"Yes. Are you nervous about your hearing tomorrow?" Nora asked curiously.

"How do you know about that?" Christian asked cautiously.

"Families talk." Nora said simply, then continued, "So, Christian, where were you born, anyway?"

"Detroit." Christian answered cautiously.

"Oh? And Marc said that you were fourteen, is that right?" Nora asked curiously.

"Almost. Thirteen and a half." Christian responded, even more slowly.

"Oh, really? When is your birthday?" Nora asked pleasantly.

"June twenty-second... why do you want to know?" Christian asked warily.

"Oh, that's just six days before my brother's birthday. Isn't that something?" Nora asked delightedly.

"Not really." Christian said hesitantly.

"What's with the interrogation, Mom?" Marc asked curiously.

"I'm just wanting to get to know my new grandson, there's nothing wrong with that, is there?" Nora asked jokingly, then before he could answer, she continued, "So, Christian, are you aware of any aunts or uncles on your father's side of the family?"

"Whenever my dad talked about his family, it was mostly just a long string of cussing. But, I don't think he ever talked about anyone but his parents, I guess they'd be my grandpa and grandma Stone, even though I never met them." Christian said honestly.

"You have grandparents now, don't you even worry about that." Nora said simply.

"It's just about dinner time, would you like to stay and have dinner with us? I was just planning on doing a light pasta dish." Marc asked his parents hopefully.

"That sounds lovely, but I wouldn't want to put you to any trouble." Nora demurred.

"I haven't started it yet, so it's no extra work at all. Will you stay?" Marc asked with a smile.

"We'd love to." Nora answered for both of them, then added, "I'll go with you to keep you company while you're cooking."

As Collin, Christian and Grandpa Gene sat in the living room, in silence, it suddenly occurred to Christian what he could do.

He picked up the remote control from the coffee table and turned on the television. It took him a moment, but before too long, he located a channel showing something that he presumed was football.

Without a word, he climbed out from under the quilt and stretched to place the remote control next to the chair where Grandpa Gene was sitting.

The smile and look of gratitude that he received from Gene spoke louder than words.

So, Grandpa Gene relaxed back into the armchair, watching sports, while Collin and Christian returned to watching their movie.

As soon as they were safely ensconced in the kitchen, Marc turned on his mother and asked, "What's going on?"

"What I want to know is what happened with Denise and James? Ruthie told me that James and Brucie spent the night here last night." Nora asked in return.

"I heard that Denise called you, so you probably know more about it than I do." Marc countered.

"Well, yes. But according to Denise, she just lost her cool a little bit when she found out about being excluded from the inheritance, then James called the police and had her arrested." Nora said simply.

"That's not quite the same story that I heard." Marc said as he busied himself with getting the pans that he would need set up on the stove. "It wasn't James who called the police, it was Brucie. And that was because James had been knocked unconscious by Denise. Brucie called the police because he thought that James was dead. He thought that Denise had killed him."

Nora looked at him with surprise at the announcement.

"According to James, the doctor at the hospital said that she very nearly did kill him." Marc said as he turned to face his mother, then added, "From the look of his injuries, I believe it."

"I suppose that would explain why we couldn't get them to release her, yesterday. They said that we'd have to wait for the judge to set bail, tomorrow." Nora said thoughtfully.

"James and Brucie have already left and are on their way to Pennsylvania, to live with James' family. He's said that he's going to divorce her." Marc said seriously.

"He can't let one little fight, in the heat of the moment, destroy their entire marriage." Nora said grimly.

"It wasn't one little fight. You said it yourself, Denise heard about the inheritance, I assume from Ruthie, and then Denise took her anger and hatred out on James. That's not a fight, that's abuse. James has chosen to cut all ties with his abuser and has taken his son to live in a safe environment. I think he's making the right decision and I completely support him in what he's doing." Marc said honestly.

"The vow is for better or worse..." Nora began to say.

"Mom. She nearly killed him. I don't care who it is, man or woman, adult or child, when someone attacks you physically, intending to do harm, it's time to leave... and not come back. I have a lot of respect for James for choosing to stand up for himself and for Brucie. I sincerely wish that more people in abusive relationships would do the same." Marc said firmly.

"Is that why James chose to spend the night here? Because he knew that you would support his decision?" Nora asked carefully.

"No. That actually had nothing to do with it. James had a problem and needed my advice. When I heard about his situation, I offered him a place to stay." Marc said simply, then went back to working on dinner.

There was a long moment of silence, before Marc quietly asked, "While you're sitting there, would you mind helping me out by grating some parmesan cheese? I'm going to need about a cup."

"Yes. Of course." Nora said with a smile at her youngest son, then thought to ask, "I don't suppose you know about what's going on with Ruthie and Nolan, do you?"

"Not really. After the boys slept over, Nolan stopped by to pick them up, but he was so drunk that I wouldn't let the boys leave with him. Later, Ruthie stopped by to get the boys and said that she and Nolan had talked. I really don't know what, if anything, they had decided." Marc said as he placed a cheese grater, cheese and a bowl on the table before his mother.

"From what Ruthie's told me, they're going to try couples counseling. I hope it helps, but I can't say that I'm optimistic." Nora said frankly.

"Honestly, I really don't care if Nolan and Ruth can work it out or not. But unless one of them opens their eyes and starts paying attention to what's going on with their children, I'm afraid that those kids are going to be permanently damaged from living with two such horrible, bitter, toxic people." Marc said imploringly.

"I think your father and I can make an extra effort to see that the children aren't being overlooked." Nora said as she continued turning the little crank on the cheese grater.

"Remember to call me if you need any help, even if it's just to give them a break from the tension. Jorry and Nick will always be welcome here." Marc said honestly.

"What about the baby?" Nora asked cautiously.

"Galen and I don't have any baby experience. And from what little I've seen of Nolan and Ruthie's daughter, I don't think she's a good 'starter' baby. She probably needs someone with years of experience to take care of her." Marc said frankly.

"Let's see how things play out over the next week or so before we commit ourselves to any course of action." Nora said thoughtfully.

"What do you have planned?" Marc asked cautiously.

"Me? Not a thing." Nora said quickly, apparently offended by the very suggestion.

"Right." Marc said with a knowing grin.

"Oh! It seems that I've shredded too much." Nora said suddenly as she put down the cheese grater.

"So, we'll just have some extra to sprinkle on top." Marc said with a smile as he collected the bowl of cheese from his mother.

Nora chuckled with delight when she walked into the dining room and saw all the colorful Christmas decorations.

"Visiting you at Christmas is like going to a Christmas festival." Nora said as she moved to take a seat.

"You always made Christmas so special for us, you taught me to love it as much as you do." Marc said honestly before hurrying out of the room.

"There's only about a minute of the football game left, then Grandpa Gene will be in." Christian said as he and Collin walked into the dining room.

"How are you liking it here, Christian?" Nora asked seriously.

"It's great. I hope I can stay." Christian said honestly.

"But, if that happens, are you going to miss your family?" Nora asked with concern.

"No." Christian said simply, then explained, "I used to think that my parents didn't like me. But since I've been here, I've realized that they also don't like each other. They don't like themselves. And they don't like anybody else, either. Until I got here, I didn't know that I didn't have to live like that."

"I'm glad that you've been able to find a place where you can be accepted." Nora said seriously.

"They don't just accept me, here. They believe in me. And I know that no matter what I told them that I wanted to do, that they'd do whatever they could to help me." Christian said confidently.

"Within reason." Marc said as he walked into the dining room, carrying a covered serving dish. As he placed the dish on the table, he continued, "We also love you enough to tell you if we think that whatever you're planning is probably a bad idea."

"You say that, but I haven't seen you do it, yet." Christian said playfully.

"Tell him, Collin." Marc said with a grin.

"Tell him what?" Collin asked cautiously.

"Go go power rangers." Marc said with a barely restrained chuckle.

"Oh, yeah. Um, he's right. If he thinks you're doing something stupid, he'll call you on it." Collin said with a grimace at the memory.

"Collin, did you tell your father that dinner is ready?" Marc asked as he started walking toward the door.

"Yeah. But he was up to his elbows in his little robot thing." Collin said frankly.

Marc nodded, then left the room.

"This is wonderful! What do you call this, Marc?" Gene asked happily.

"Fettuccine alfredo." Marc said honestly.

"Really? I don't remember it ever tasting like this." Gene said with surprise.

"Oh? Maybe it's because I made the sauce from scratch." Marc said casually.

"Marc, you're going to spoil him." Nora said gravely.

"Ask the guys, that's what I do." Marc chuckled.

"He's serious. He spoils us like crazy." Collin said frankly.

"I'm sorry I'm late, I was involved in something." Galen said as he rushed into the room.

"That's fine. We just started. We're having grilled chicken, fettuccine alfredo, garlic bread, and a green salad." Marc said with a smile.

"It smells incredible." Galen said as he started filling his plate.

"So, I remember you saying that Christian's hearing is tomorrow. At what time was that, again?" Nora asked curiously.

"Nine o'clock. Why? Do you plan on going?" Marc asked curiously.

"I can't say for sure. But don't be too surprised if we turn up." Nora said cheerfully.

After dinner, Gene and Nora said their goodbyes and received warm hugs from every member of the family.

Once Marc had finished attending to the dinner dishes, he went to the living room to find the boys sitting together, watching television. Marc suspected that they were 'seeing without seeing' as they sat there, holding each other.

"Boys, before it gets too late, I'd like to go through what you'll be wearing to court tomorrow." Marc said gently.

Although it was obvious that neither boy wanted to, they didn't make a complaint as they followed him into the spare bedroom.

Both boys were surprised at the amount of clothing that Marc had purchased for them without their knowing.

In the end, Marc made sure that they both had everything that they would need, laid out and ready to go.

"You know, this could be the last time that we're going to get the chance to sleep together for a long time." Christian said honestly.

"Yeah. I've been trying not to think about that." Collin admitted.

"What do you want to do tonight?" Christian asked hopefully.

"You mean besides sleep?" Collin asked cautiously as he began to get some idea of what Christian was really asking.

"Yeah." Christian confirmed, then added, "If we don't see each other again for a really long time, what would you regret not doing?"

"What I want to do... I don't even know if you'd want to." Collin stammered.

"Collin, you really suck at hiding your feelings. I have a pretty good idea of what you want to do." Christian said seriously, then continued, "And it's the same thing that I want you to do."

"Yeah, I know what I want to do. But I don't know how. I wouldn't want to do it wrong and hurt you." Collin quietly admitted.

"I've done a lot of research on the Internet. I think that between us, we can figure it out." Christian said assuringly.

"Okay. Yeah. How do we start?" Collin asked anxiously.

Christian laughed, then said, "How about we go take our showers, then come back in here and crawl into bed and see what happens next?"

"It's important to be clean." Collin said as he gazed deeply into Christian's eyes.

"Dirty can be good, too." Christian countered automatically.

The next morning, despite Marc's effort to raise everyone's spirits with a breakfast of sausage gravy and biscuits, they all felt heaviness in their hearts.

Although everyone was ready to leave in plenty of time for court, all of them felt as though they were moving in slow motion, dreading what was to come.

For his part, Collin couldn't bear to let Christian out of his sight for more than a moment. He wasn't sure if he had developed an irrational fear that if he lost sight of him, he might not ever see him again, or if he were just desperate to stockpile the memories of their time together and had only just realized that each passing moment was that much more precious and rare.

The drive to the courthouse was made in silence.

"All rise!"

Judge Robison walked into the courtroom and went directly to his bench.

"Court is in session..." Maurice called out, identifying the court and case as everyone stood. After a brief pause, he continued, "For the sake of brevity, would those arguing the case please step forward and introduce themselves to the court."

"You may be seated." Judge Robison said as he sorted through the documents before him.

"Before we begin, I simply want to clarify that the pending cases regarding the alleged neglect and abuse of Christian Stone have been transferred to this court and consolidated so that we may have a hope of seeing an end to these matters before young Mr. Stone becomes an adult. That being said, the primary matter before us is the custody of the juvenile, Christian Nathaniel Stone. Are the parties prepared?"

"Joshua Pendragon, for Christian Stone, who is present, your Honor."

"Lemual Peabody, for Marc Stone and Galen Anderson, both of whom are present, your Honor."

"Hezekiah Hince, for Child Protective Services and the State, your Honor. We are ready to proceed."

"The first matter that I would like to dispose of today is the termination of the parental rights as regards Nathaniel Stone. I have read the motions submitted to the court. Do I have any further preliminary motions before we proceed?" Judge Robison asked as he looked at the attorneys.

"Due to the nature of the incapacitation of Nathaniel Stone, I would move for a continuation of these proceedings until such a time when Mr. Stone can be present, or at least secure legal counsel to be present to represent his interests." Mr. Hince said quickly.

"Based on the State's own evidence of ongoing abuse, by Nathaniel Stone, the prospect of Mr. Stone's recovery, and the probable affect that his further custody would have on the child, the motion is denied." Judge Robison said professionally.

"Your Honor, Mrs. Stone is not present. I move for a continuation until such a time that Mrs. Stone, or her attorney can be present, to represent her interests in this matter." Mr. Hince said respectfully.

"Your Honor." Josh quickly responded, "Mrs. Stone was contacted directly by this court regarding these proceedings and has expressed no interest in pursuing custody. I would object to any continuance on those grounds."

Judge Robison looked at some papers on his desk, before he addressed the attorneys, "Yes. I have a sworn statement here, to that effect. Motion for continuance denied. Are there any further motions, before I rule on the matter of parental rights?"

A dead silence greeted the Judge's question. "Alright then. Based upon the State's evidence of abuse by Nathaniel Stone, the Father of Christian Stone; the State's evidence of criminal neglect by Mrs. Helen Stone, the Mother of the child; the fact that both parents are being charged in District court for these criminal acts, this court has no hesitation in terminating all parental rights of Mr. and Mrs. Stone. It is so ordered."

Judge Robison signed some papers which he placed in a folder, and handed to Maurice, the bailiff. "Since the rights of both parents have been terminated, I see no purpose in pursuing the multiple counts of abuse and neglect, that the State will pursue in District Court. I therefore order that all outstanding actions regarding same be placed on the District Court's calendar."

"So, the remaining matter would be regarding Christian Stone's custody. It has been proposed that Mr. Marc Stone be given that honor." Judge Robison said as he looked over the people in his courtroom.

"Child Protective Services opposes that action." Mr. Hince said immediately.

"On what grounds?" Judge Robison asked, obviously not at all surprised by Mr. Hince's objection.

"Although they share a common name, according to our records, Mr. Stone is not related to the child. Therefore, by the dictates of the state codes, the child should be taken into Child Protective Services custody for evaluation and eventual placement."

"Yes. The codes would indicate that course of action." Judge Robison reluctantly agreed.

"Furthermore, it has come to our attention that the child has temporarily been in Mr. Stone's care over the recent holiday which might have unduly influenced him. For that reason, we recommend that the child's wishes not be taken into account in the court's decision." Mr. Hince continued.

"The court will take your recommendation under advisement and give it due consideration." Judge Robison said seriously.

Christian looked at Josh anxiously at the announcement.

"However, due to the history of treatment Christian Stone has received in the bureaucracy of the Child Protective Service agencies, both here and in Michigan, I could not, in good conscience, remand him to their custody. Therefore, it is the judgement of this court that the juvenile, Christian Nathaniel Stone be remanded to the custody of Camp Little..." Judge Robison was saying when he stopped at the sight of a man rushing into his courtroom.

To Marc and Galen's surprise, Marc's father, Gene, hurried past them and handed a slip of paper to Maurice. They looked back to find Nora, Ginny and Grandma Ellen also entering the gallery.

Maurice glanced at the paper, then took two steps and placed it on the desk in front of Judge Robison.

After a moment of reading, Judge Robison asked, "Mr. Hince, am I correct in understanding that your only objection to Mr. Marc Stone having custody is that he is not a blood relation?"

"I'm simply stating the department's stand on the matter, using the guidelines that we are required to follow. I do not object to Mr. Stone, per se. Only to a child being given into an unrelated person's custody without the proper investigation and certification process."

After a moment to consider the words, Judge Robison turned to his trusted bailiff and gave a single nod. Maurice then called out to the courtroom, "The court calls Mrs. Ellen Stone to come forward and give testimony."

Ginny slowly made her way to the front of the courtroom, pushing Grandma Ellen forward to sit before the judge.

"Am I to understand that you have some information that is relevant to these proceedings?"

"Yes, your honor. Christian is my great-great-nephew and Marc's second cousin. After meeting him at a family gathering and hearing of his lineage, I had a private investigator friend of mine do some investigation on my behalf. Just this morning I met with the investigator and have been given certified copies of all the paperwork that proves their relationship by blood, beyond any shadow of a doubt."

Maurice accepted the folder that Grandma Ellen was holding and handed it to Judge Robison.

After a moment to skim through the documents, Judge Robison stood and said, "This court will stand in recess for thirty minutes while I review these documents. Will the attorneys for the interested parties join me in my chambers?"

"All rise!" Maurice called out to the courtroom.

"I know that you said that you might be coming, but I didn't really think you would." Marc said as he stepped forward to hug his parents.

"We didn't want to get your hopes up in case the investigator didn't come through for us. But now you know why your mother was asking all those pushy questions last night. We needed to verify that the information that we'd obtained was really for the right person." Gene said frankly.

"Thank you for doing this, Grandma Ellen. It never even occurred to me to investigate Christian's genealogy." Marc said to her warmly.

"With age comes a certain wisdom. Every now and then, it comes in handy." Grandma Ellen said with a tender smile at Marc.

After releasing his father, Marc bent down to give his Grandma Ellen a very gentle hug.

"Dad, Mom's here." Collin said, drawing his father and Christian away from Marc and his family.

"Where?" Galen asked as he looked around.

"Back there, by the door. See?" Christian asked as he pointed.

"When I talked to her on Saturday, I told her about what's been going on, but I certainly didn't expect for her to hop on the next available flight." Galen said honestly.

"Do you think she's here to take me away from you?" Collin asked anxiously.

"No. You know your mother isn't like that. I'm sure she's here because she's concerned about you and wants to be here to comfort you if things don't turn out well." Galen quietly assured his son.

"I don't know what I'm going to say to her." Collin said nervously.

"Tell her that you love her. Remember that I've already told her everything about you and Christian. You don't have to worry about saying the wrong thing or trying to hide anything from her. Just be honest." Galen said assuringly.

"I guess so. I'm just nervous." Collin said in a small voice.

"You're nervous?" Christian asked incredulously.

Collin looked at Christian sympathetically and quietly said, "You win."

Christian gave him a pained smile in return.

"They're starting back up again." Galen said urgently as he saw Maurice walking back into the room.

Judge Robison returned to the bench and as soon as Maurice had called the court to order, he began to speak.

"After a careful review of the documents presented to me, I find them to be relevant to the matter at hand and, therefore, admissible in this case. Thanks to the work of Mrs. Ellen Stone and her private investigator, this court has been provided with a series of notarized documents that prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Christian Stone is, indeed, a distant cousin of Marc Stone and is therefore a blood relative." Judge Robison said carefully.

"Since it has been stated in the record that the only objection that CPS had to the placement of Christian Stone into the custody of Marc Stone was their lack of a familial relationship, and since that matter has been resolved to the court's satisfaction, it is the order of this court that Marc Stone be named as permanent guardian of the juvenile, Christian Stone. After thirty days, the court will be willing to entertain a petition for adoption if all parties are amenable."

Judge Robison paused for a moment, then calmly continued, "If there are no other matters relating to this case to be presented, this court is adjourned."

After a tap of the gavel, Maurice stood forward and said, "All rise."

"Congratulations. I'm very happy for all of you." Mr. Hince said as he approached the table where Christian was openly crying as Marc held him.

"Thank you. That's very gracious of you to say." Galen said as he watched Marc and Christian out of the corner of his eye.

"Actually, my only concern was that the boy was going to be sent away to live with a stranger. Since it's been proven to the judge's satisfaction that they are related, I'm perfectly happy with the outcome." Mr. Hince said frankly.

"What've you got against strangers?" Collin asked curiously.

"Nothing. If they've been investigated and certified so that we can be reasonably certain that they will be good parents, then I'll be first in line to recommend them." Mr. Hince said seriously.

"But Christian's dad hurt him really bad, and they're related by blood." Collin said cautiously.

"I know, and if there were any way of preventing that from happening to him and others, I'd do anything in my power to make it so. Unfortunately, the best answer society seems to have come up with so far is the child welfare laws. I realize that they don't always work the way they were intended, but at least it's something to do to try and help." Mr. Hince said earnestly.

"I think I understand." Collin said slowly.

Mr. Hince smiled, then said, "I'm glad. Now, it appears that someone else would like to talk with you, so I'll be leaving."

Collin followed his gaze and smiled when he saw that his mother was waiting a few steps away for him to be available to talk to her.

"It was nice to meet you, Mr. Hince. Thank you for taking the time to explain things to me." Collin said sincerely, then offered his hand.

Mr. Hince shook his hand and smiled, then walked away.

"Christian, although I'm pretty sure I know the answer, I still have to ask. Are you happy with the way everything turned out?" Josh asked carefully.

Christian pulled away from Marc's chest for a moment and really thought about the question before quietly saying, "Yeah. I really am."

"Good. I hope that everything works out the way you want. But just remember that if you find yourself in a legal situation where the authorities are talking about you and not to you, that I'll be willing to help, if I can." Josh said seriously.

"Thank you, Josh." Christian said sincerely.

"Yes. Thank you for what you did for Christian and for the job that you do." Marc said with true admiration.

"I try to do my part." Josh said timidly, then started clearing paperwork off the table where he had been working.

"Mom, I didn't know you were coming." Collin said honestly.

"I know. I wasn't sure if I should, and even at the airport, I still wasn't one hundred percent sure I was going to go through with it."

"I'm glad you're here." Collin said as he pulled her into a hug, with Christian standing right by his side.

Marc and Galen watched silently as Galen's ex wife talked to the boys. When their private conversation was concluded, she guided the boys to walk with her to include Galen and Marc.

"Hi, Galen. Hi, Marc. How have you been?" She asked as she approached.

"We're good. I'm surprised to see you here, Kat." Galen said frankly.

"I'm kind of surprised to see me here, too." Kathryn said with a grin, then added,"But after you told me about everything going on with Collin and Christian, and since my office is closed until after New Year's Day, it seemed like this was the place to be."

"Well, not that it isn't wonderful to see you..." Galen began to say.

"...thank you for saying so, and even with a straight face." Kat interrupted with a chuckle.

"Why are you here?" Galen finally asked.

"I just wanted to see for myself if you were being melodramatic and over-dramatizing what was going on between the boys." Kat said honestly.

"And?" Galen asked cautiously.

"You were right." Kat said with a shrug.

"Marc, do you have your calendar with you?" Galen asked playfully.

"I'll remember to write it down when we get home." Marc said with a smile.

"I think you're right. They're in love. Not a crush, not puppy love but real honest to God, love." Kat said seriously.

"So, what are we going to do about it?"Galen asked cautiously.

"We have to keep them together, agreed?" Kat asked to confirm.

"Agreed." Galen immediately responded.

"We could keep the custody agreement and Christian could just tag along when Collin comes home."Kat offered hopefully.

"How would you feel, being a tag along?"Marc interjected.

"Okay. Good point."Kathryn conceded.

"I guess we could swap and the boys could visit you on the holidays."Galen said thoughtfully.

"That doesn't sound much better."Kat said honestly.

"Boys? What do you think?" Marc asked cautiously.

Collin and Christian whispered together for a moment and finally seemed to reach a decision.

"Christian needs to be here with Marc. Maybe someday the whole travelling thing might be fun, but not right now." Collin said frankly.

"So what do you want to do, baby?" Kathryn asked her son gently.

"Could we just live here? And, you know, have a home?" Collin asked hopefully, then quickly added, "I love you, Mom. But the bad thing about shared custody is that I don't want to be 'shared', I just want to be loved."

"I think we can do that."Kat told her son with a tender smile.

"And I can still come for visits, just not every time the post office closes for a three day weekend."Collin quickly added.

"And I can visit you down here, too."Kathryn said seriously.

"Yeah! That sounds great! By the way, how long can you stay?"Collin asked with excitement.

"I have a flight out, day after tomorrow. Plenty of time for me to take my son and my son-in-law to-be out for dinner and maybe do some sightseeing." Kathryn said warmly.

"So, you'll do it? You'll let Collin stay here?"Galen asked hopefully.

"Yes." Kathryn said with surprise at the question, then added, "Of course, this means that you get to be the evil, everyday parent that has to say 'no' sometimes and I get to be the angelic parent who swoops in occasionally and showers the boys with gifts and attention."

"I can see you in that role."Marc said with a smile at her.

"Especially the swooping part." Galen said playfully.

"If you guys will point me at a decent restaurant around here, I really need to get something to eat. They served me something vaguely food-like on the plane that seemed to have derived all it's flavor from the plastic packaging." Kathryn said frankly.

"There's a nice place a few blocks from here. I think all of us would enjoy an early lunch after the morning that we've had." Marc said quickly, then added, "No one seemed to have much of an appetite, this morning."

"Hi Maurice! How are you today?" Collin asked, unable to restrain the swell of happiness he was feeling.

"I'm fine. Judge Robison is going to be tied up in chambers for a while, going over an out of court settlement with some attorneys, so I was just going to take an early lunch. By the way, congratulations Christian." Maurice said warmly to him. At that moment, his first glimpse of Christian popped into his head; the thin frightened boy who was being attacked by his father in the airport.

"Thanks. Hey, we're just going to lunch too. Would you like to come with us?" Christian asked hopefully.

"Come on, Maurice. You celebrated Christmas with us. You're like family!"Marc encouraged.

"If you're sure it wouldn't be an imposition." Maurice said cautiously.

"Imposition? If these guys start getting all googly eyed at each other, I'm going to need someone to talk with." Kathryn said with an inviting smile.

"Then I would be honored to accept your gracious invitation." Maurice said formally, directing his reply mostly to her.

Kathryn took hold of Maurice's arm, basically 'claiming' him, as Marc and Galen led the way out of the courthouse.

The End

Editor's Notes:

I am sitting here with tears in my eyes, I have a confession to make. I knew how this story was going to end. I love this little short story that MultiMapper wrote oh so long ago. I feel somewhat responsible for it becoming such a rich and wonderful story which has given us such a wonderful family to love. Well, maybe not the whole family, but most of it seems to have come along nicely.

Of course, the incredible spin off we received, IE Spider, was also terrific, and it still is going to continue, I am going to assume that the stone family will make a few guest appearances in that saga. After all, we met a lot of the people from Spider at that Christmas party, didn't we.

Did you notice I didn't scream and fuss when I saw the words "The End." That was because I have had a long time to come to terms with the fact that this story is actually at the point where it needs to end...

I wouldn't complain at all if there were a sequel, though. Grin.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher

Previous Chapter