Just Hit 'Send' - The Happy Years

by Grasshopper

Ch. 9

Easy tapped the papers together a few times and then stapled them before sliding them into the file folder. He sighed, wishing things could, just once, be easy. Gabriel's father was being a total asshole and, try as he might, there wasn't too much Easy could do about it. He was the legal parent, after all. He had the last word.

Gabriel had become very important to Easy, to Val, to everyone in their family. He spent most all of his free time out at the beach, watching out for JD or just talking to whoever was around.

He'd come from an average American home, middleclass parents trying to make ends meet, wishing they had time for their kids, but watching that time slip away. Gabriel's older brother had earned a football scholarship for college and was doing pretty well at the state university. Gabriel had been heading in that direction with baseball when the bottom fell out.

Easy had 'negotiated' with Mr. Parelli for Gabriel's birth certificate, so that the boy could go to high school here. That hadn't been too difficult, since the man didn't want Gabriel in his house.

Gabriel was studying hard and his grades were good. He had a chance of snagging a scholarship for the local campus of UNC, but his father refused to sign the papers. Easy had requested temporary custody, but that had really set the guy off. Easy knew he had to be careful or Mr. Parelli might force Gabriel to leave the center.

The last phone call hadn't been pleasant, with Gabriel's father asking Easy if he was a queer. He assumed that the center was for all the little fags that ran away from good Christian homes and that all the people running it must be homosexuals. It was all Easy could do not to just hang up the phone and drive to the guy's house and punch his ignorant face in. But.... it was Christmas and he didn't want to take any chances with Gabriel's future.

"No, Mr. Parelli, we are not all gay here at the center. Neither are the lost children that we take in. This is a shelter for kids who need food and clothing and a warm, dry place to sleep. Your son happens to fall in to that category. His personal feelings are his own."

"It was his choice to run away. He's on his own. He coulda stayed here."

Easy thought, 'And what a wonderful, loving place that would have been.'

But, he answered, "And you would have accepted that he's gay and helped him to feel good about himself and shown him you care?"

"Shit, no. I'm not having some little faggot living in my house. He coulda stayed and we'da helped him get rid of all that crap."

The phone call had ended with Easy asking the man to at least consider signing the papers about the scholarship. Easy held little hope that he would.

"If he stops this faggy crap and promises to do what's right, I'll think about it," was the only answer he could pry out of Thomas Parelli.

Val stood in the doorway watching Easy battle with his thoughts. She had heard enough of the conversation to know what was troubling him. Walking in quietly, she rubbed his tight shoulders and said softly, "You're doing all you can. Gabriel will be okay. When he's eighteen, we'll find a way to get him a student loan. He'll go to school."

Easy sighed, grabbing Val's small hands and holding them to his chest, "I know, it's just that I hurt when I hear a father say those words because I heard that same tone when I was growing up. I know how it feels to not be worthy."

"You're very worthy," Val smiled. "Look at all the kids you help. The ones you've saved before it was too late for them. Ask Jordan if you are worthy. You saved him too."

Easy swung his chair around to pull Val into his lap. "What would I do without you?"

"You'd be a miserable, lonely guy," she laughed and rained tiny kisses on his face.

"Eeeeeeewwwwwwww," Gabriel's voice snorted from the door, 'Do you guys ever stop? I better close this door before the young impressionables out here see this." He took hold of the doorknob.

"Okay, Mr. SmartMouth. Get in here. Are you all ready for Christmas? We need to go shopping again?"

Gabriel's after school job delivering groceries for Mr. Neal's grocery store gave him enough spending money to buy small gifts for his ''family". He'd even put five dollars away every week to buy Easy something extra special. He pulled a folded up piece of paper out of his back pocket and checked it. "I've got something for Jordan......Dan.......Markie.....Griff.....Val......I still gotta get something for JD.

Easy teased, "I didn't hear my name on that list."

"Ha ! You think I'm getting you anything, you tyrant? All the hours you make me work around here? Bag of dirt is all you're getting."

Val laughed, "That's telling him, Gabriel. No presents for the slave driver." She smiled and winked at the boy, knowing he had nearly driven her crazy trying to think of what to get the man he idolized. She had no idea what he'd decided but she knew it would be given with so much love wrapped in it.

"So, you gotta come up with a present for JD? I can just about say with assurance that anything in the world will be cool."

"Yeah, but it's gotta be right. Can we go look this afternoon?"

"Only if I can come too and we go stuff food in our faces first. I'm starving," Val grinned.

Gabriel leaned against the doorjam and sighed. Why couldn't his parents be like this? Why couldn't he be home getting ready for Christmas like he had done every year of his life? What had changed? He was the same boy he'd been last year when he got a new basketball and a really ugly flannel shirt. If he just hadn't asked Ricky Molero to come by after school. If he just hadn't touched him. If his mother just hadn't opened that door. If...If...If.

"I wish you were my parents," he blurted out and then blushed bright red.

Val's eyes teared up and Easy felt his heart clutch. "We aren't your parents, but we are your family, Gabriel. It's good enough." He stood up, took Val's hand, cuffed Gabriel on the shoulder, letting his arm slide into a hug and they walked out, heading for the All ToysRJDs store.

Jordan and Dan had gotten in late the night before, Jordan carrying a sound asleep JD in to plop him in his bed. "Sweet sugarplum dreams, little man," he whispered.

After they got all their stuff to their apartment side, they came back to sit in the living room with Markie and Griff. Shoving another small log into the Ben Franklin stove, Griff came back to his warm place on the sofa with Markie. Jordan collapsed into the big recliner, pulling Danny onto his lap. He reached over and, for the millionth time, he unlatched the heavy braces and dropped them to the floor, rubbing his sweet boy's tired muscles.

"So, how was it?" Markie asked, "Although it must have been great judging by the roses in Danny's cheeks." They'd all been worried about the look of exhaustion Dan had been wearing before the lake trip.

"We did have a great time," Danny smiled. "It's a wonderful, quiet, relaxing place. We promised JD we'd go back next summer."

"Yeah," Jordan said, "It might be somewhere we could go every year to let off steam and recharge. The cabin was just what we needed, there was a dock, and a tire swing for JD and lots of trees and squirrels for Fiddle."

"How's Nickie?"

Griff grinned. "She's my kid. She's got a voice on her you can hear for miles."

"A screamer?" Danny laughed.

"Let's just say that she gets her point across real fast," Markie replied.

"So, we need to get the tree up and the stuff wrapped, right?" Jordan asked. 'You guys get a tree?"

"Yeah, it's in a bucket out of the wind. We waited dinner for you, so we can to it after, okay?"

Dinner done, the tree in its stand filling the living room, the lights strung on after much grousing about WhoTF tied them in knots last year, everyone called it a day.

Just as Jordan and Dan opened the door to go out, a loud wail rose from the back hall. Markie nudged Griff,

"Your turn to change her."


"Ha ! I guess I made her all by myself."

Jordan snickered. "On that list of 'Why It's Cool To be Gay', let's add: *no stinky diapers.

"Well, I............," Danny's bottom lip began to inch its way out.

"Oh no you don't. Not tonight. Just remember a few weeks ago when we kept Nickie so they could go out. Remember that smell? It was toxic waste."

"I know, but.........,"

"Daniel Alan, do not start."

Danny stayed quiet. Jordan knew enough to leave him alone for a little when he got like this. He just kept babbling on about Christmas and all the stuff they needed to do tomorrow.

"We've gotta go get that trampoline and pick up Markie's slow cooker. If you'll check on the wrapping paper, we can make a run by WalMart and get more. We've gotta get little stuff for JD's stocking too.....and Gabriel's new board."

Jordan showered and shaved, having given over to the silence. He knew how Dan felt about children. It was one of his really soft spots. Jordan could understand. He had JD; he hadn't actually created him but he'd been there through it all; the Lamaze, the baby growing inside Markie, the birth....he had experienced it. Danny never had.

When Jordan stood back and looked at their relationship, he knew that Danny was the nurturer. There were times he had been Jordan's mother, nurse, counselor, anything to get Jordan through. Danny always wanted everything to be peaceful and harmonious. He never lost his temper and he always tried to smile, no matter what. He was a born Earth Dad. Everyone loved Danny and depended on him for always knowing what to do. If anyone should be a father, it was Dan.

Turning out the lights, Jordan walked over to the sofa and held out his hand. "Come on to bed, Sweetie. It's late. We're both tired. Tomorrow's Christmas Eve, lots to do."

"I guess we can't have everything," Danny sighed.

Jordan dropped down beside him on the sofa and gathered him in close. "Life gives you choices, Angel. You could have never answered my post on that message board all those years ago. You could have found a nice girl, gotten married and had two kids by now. You could have taken that bottle of pills and not been here at all. I want you here with me. Now.......always. Every decision comes with choices."

"I know, Jordy, it's just that I'll never see myself in a child's eyes or hear my voice in his laughter. I would have loved that."

"We can adopt. You know that."

"I know," he sighed. "It's not the same thing. One day, maybe we can. I guess I just got upset when I heard Nickie cry. Stupid me."

"You are not stupid. You're sweet and caring and a born daddy. That's why JD and Gabriel love you. Nickie will too when she's more than a stinky little diaper."


Jordan laughed, "Well? Plus, I'm your baby, right?"

"Not if I have to change your diapers."

"Grossss! Come on, let's go to bed. I'm whacked."

Danny reached for his braces. Jordan slid his arms under Danny's legs and lifted him. "No more of those tonight. I'll help you."

Teeth brushed, Jordan carried Danny to their bed and spooned Danny close to his chest. "I wouldn't trade you for all the babies in the world, Dan. I have what I want right here in my arms."

Danny's voice was muffled as he whispered, "What we do, here in our bed. There will never be children."

"No, but there will always be warmth and love and the feeling that we're one heart, one soul. For just a few minutes, when I do this," he said gently, as he eased himself gently into Danny's body, "I know no greater pleasure, no greater emotion. I belong to you when I'm here."

"I belong to you every minute of every day," Danny whispered. His body began to respond to Jordan's.

"We make our choices, Danny. You are my family.....my 'wife', my children. You're all I'll ever need." His hips began to move faster, his hand slid down to cup Danny with his strong fingers. His warm breath murmured against Danny's neck, "Never doubt me, Dan. Just let me love you."

Danny felt all his emotions turn to hot melting chocolate. He leaned back into Jordan's love and knew he'd made the right choice........for always.

Jordan woke up to the distinct feeling of someone else in the room. He could feel Dan pressed up against his side, so that wasn't it. He opened one eye and met the blue eyes of the mystery guest. Perched on the sofa across from their bed, a small boy sat cross legged, just staring at him without blinking, a very serious expression on his face.

"Dan," Jordan nudged Danny with his elbow, "Dan!"

"Hmmm? I was having the best dream. You were rubbing......." His words cut off when Jordan hissed, "Cool it."

Danny opened his eyes and met the cool blue stare. "Um, hello? And who might you be?"

The little guy just kept sitting and kept staring.

"Uh," Jordan started, "Do we know you?"

The little boy shook his head.

Are you a friend of JD's?" Danny guessed.

The little guy nodded his head vigorously.

"And where exactly is JD right now?"

The boy pointed at the door.

"Could you go find him for us, please?"

The boy shook his head.

"JD!!!!!!!!" Jordan's shout burst out. "Come here!!!!"

Danny started to giggle and then the door opened.

"Merrryyyyyy Christmassssss!! almost," JD sang out as he flew into the room., jumping on the bed.

"JD, you left something in here," Jordan said carefully.

JD looked around and saw the boy. "Oh, hahahaha !! This be's my friend, Riley. He wanted to see you."

"JD, you can't just leave people sitting in here like this. Papa D and I were sleeping."

"I tolded him to be's quiet. He was not quiet?" he frowned at the little boy who just sat silently, but was nodding his head frantically.

"He was quiet. It's not that. Listen, okay?" JD stopped bouncing and sat down with a plop.

"This is our private room, okay? We can't have people in here while we're sleeping and stuff, okay?"


"Because it's our private place."


"Because everyone needs a private place."


Jordan rolled his eyes and Danny laughed and said, "Come here, JD. I need to whisper in your ear, k?"

JD climbed up til his ear was close to Danny. "Your Daddy and I need to get up and get dressed. We need you to take Riley outside, k?"

"Okey doke," JD said, his eyes twinkling. He grabbed Riley's hand and pulled him off the sofa. "We gots to go outside cause Daddy and Papa D be's nudey and I guess they be's 'barrassed. Come on." The door slammed behind a still silent Riley.

"What was that you were saying last night about wanting more of them?" Jordan snorted.

Danny laughed, "Well, we kinda are 'bareassed', you know."

With the silent Riley in tow, Jordan and Dan were off to plow through the multitudes at WalMart. It would have been much easier if Dan waited in the van but Jordan didn't even ask.

To navigate the crowded stores, Dan always used his wheelchair. It not only gave them a place to pile stuff (on Danny) but it also moved people out of the way like a tank. Jordan noticed that the wheelchair access had been recovered since the last time they had been shopping. Dan had tried to roll up the ramp but the rubber walk cover was so old and slick it wouldn't give him any traction. Jordan had gone in to get the manager and pointed out the problem, ready to pitch a fit but he had been very apologetic and now it was newly covered.

"Try it, Dan."

Danny grabbed the wheels and rolled himself up the ramp to stop at the top, not even breathing hard. Jordan always compared it to cycling up a steep hill without standing to pump. God !

Jordan was always amazed at the strength in Dan's arms. He remembered the angry light that flashed in Danny's eyes when he had suggested getting a motorized chair. "Not unless I can't wheel myself," Dan had fumed.

"JD, you and Riley stick right with us. No going off." Amazingly, JD never left his side in a big store. He had told Jordan once that it was scary being in a forest of legs. "Hold Riley's hand, k?"

JD held out one red mittened hand and Riley stuck his smaller Big Bird mitten in. "You hold on to me, k?" JD commanded, "We don't wanna get stoled." Riley shook his head.

Jordan bought orange slices, a bag of big red bows and three rolls of wrapping paper.

JD bought a fluffy stuffed Santa doll and a baby rattle for Nickie, a wooly scarf and mittens for Mommy, a pair of Spongebob socks for Pops, some Tootsie Roll Pops for Gabriel, a UNC ball cap for Unca Easy and a box of Christmas twisty candy for Val.

"Let's see if they have that book Gabriel wanted," Dan said, as they passed the book section. "There it is.....Eragon by Christopher Paolini. It's supposed to be like Lord of the Rings." He flipped to the back cover. "Hey this guy started writing when he was only 15 and he's 19 now."

Jordan laughed, "No way could a kid write a book."

Danny waved the impressive volume with the picture of a rather soulful dragon on the cover. "Way," he smiled.

[Grasshopper insert ~ real book ~ good gift]

After ten thousand stops to check on surf boards, secret trampolines, cookers, fill bellies with burgers and fries, pick up Gabriel from school and eat some more food cause he was hungry, they finally pulled into the driveway.

Piling out of the car, the munchkins headed for the front door, while Jordan helped Dan out to stand on his braces. "No peeking in the back, Gabriel," Jordan laughed.

Walking in the front door, pulling off mittens and jackets and shaking hat hair out from under wooly caps, all five guys felt the warmth coming from the iron stove.

"Hot chocolate?" Markie called out from the kitchen. "This is Mary Elders, Riley's mother."

Just as Jordan was about to ask Mrs. Elders why Riley was so quiet, he ran to his mom and the words gushed out, "Mama, Mama........we see'd Santas and goed to WallyMarts and buyed paper and bows and candy and we ate burgers and frieds and we picked up the big boy from school and JDs Papa rides in the wheely chair and we gots to ride on it and its so cold Mama but its warm in the van and.............."

"Hey," Danny laughed, "Where's all that coming from?"

"He's shy with strangers," Mrs. Elders said.

"So we noticed."

Markie had decided that they needed traditions now that they had such a beautiful home and everyone was together. She decreed that on Christmas Eve, everyone would present an ornament for the tree. It could be made or bought, the only rule was it had to mean something to the family and it had to be filled with love. Then, every year, they'd bring out the old ornaments and add the new ones and soon the tree would be full of memories.

After dinner, Christmas carols playing softly in the background, they gathered around the brightly lit tree, JD in his Spongebob jamas and Nickie all bundled in her girly pink Sweet Pea sleeper.

"Okay, we each have to tell why we brought this ornament. I have a permanent marker to write 2004 on the bottom," Markie said, as the guys tried not to roll their eyes.

"I see you doing that, but this will be so good. You'll love it," she frowned, trying not to laugh.

"You go first Jordan."

Jordan held up a pinecone that he'd sprayed silver and attached a red ribbon. "I found it at the cabin and I always want to remember our first time there, Danny, JD and me."

Markie took it and wrote 2004 in silver marker, so that Jordan could hang it on the tree.

Dan pulled a tiny red sled out of his pocket. "It's to remind me that what I can't do, Jordan does for me." He handed it to Markie as Jordan leaned over and kissed him softly.

"Ugh, cut the mushy stuff," Gabriel moaned. "Here's mine." He held up a shiny gold starfish. "I want to always remember that I can make a difference."

"Amen," Easy added.

"Me next......me next," JD giggled. "Here, Mommy. I gots SpongyBob for the tree." He held up a dancing Spongebob Squarepants with a Santa hat.

Val hesitantly held up a tiny crystal heart. "I just want you all to know how much I love you and what you mean to me."

Jordan held up a funny wooden cow with a bobbly head. "This is from my mom. Grandmom, JD. She wanted us to remember the farm." His eyes misted for a minute and no one could quite meet his eyes. Danny took his hand and squeezed hard.

Griff offered a Hallmark baby ornament with Nickie's name painted on it. "It's the year of the baby," he said simply.

JD stared. His lip quivered and he ran to his mommy.

Markie frowned at Griff. "What?"

"I don't gots one with my name on it," the little voice sighed.

Griff reached under the sofa. "Oh yes you do." He held up a glowing sapphire ball with the words '5 years old ~ Joshua Daniel' engraved.

"Oh, Popssssssss!" JD flung himself on Griff.

Jordan murmured "Good save, Dad."

Danny had an ornament from his parents. "JD, give this one to your mommy from Grandma and Grandpa Trainor." It was a laughing Santa on a surfboard. "They wanted us to know they could feel the happiness all the way down in Florida."

"I got one for Nic and Sam," Jordan said quietly. "I thought they should be on this year's tree." It was a smiling sun complete with rays and a pair of very gay sunglasses. "To all the sunshine in Tuscany. May they live in it forever."

"I miss Grandpa Nic," JD sighed.

"We all do, Punkin, but don't forget, he's with Sam now."

Easy unfolded those long legs and reached for his jacket. "I thought I'd cover all the bases, just in case, so I get lots of presents," he laughed, his rich bass filling the room. He held up a black carved Santa with a jolly smile and apple cheeks.

When the laughter died down, Jordan said, "Marks, what about you?"

Markie lifted a little gold ornamemt from her side. It was a mother holding two children close in her arms. "I've never been happier than I am right now having my whole family with me. I'm a mother and a wife and a friend and I want you all to know that, all we've been through, all that's happened.......... I wouldn't change a thing because it's brought us here, to this house filled with love."

The carols floated in the air; ¯Silent Night¯, ¯Hark the Herald Angels Sing¯, ¯Little Drummer Boy¯. Gabriel looked around the room at all the faces so full of love and knew he wanted to feel loved like this. These people that he cared so much about had been through so much, had been hurt as much and more than he had ever been. It all seemed to come from them helping others.

Jordan helped Dan when he couldn't get stuff done, Easy helped all the kids at the center, Griff coached the little league soccer, Danny helped JD when no one else could get him to listen. Markie and Val helped everyone just like mothers are supposed to do. It all came from helping and not asking for yourself. Gabriel couldn't help them. He had no way.

It was all about the starfish. Making a difference. There may be ten gazillion but to the one you help, it matters. Like Easy had helped him.

He still had one more gift to buy. He hadn't gotten Easy anything. He had some ideas but none of them seemed just right. It was funny but he'd never had this much trouble buying a present for his father.... a tie, a shirt, whatever, just so there was something to open Christmas morning. His dad never wore the tie anyway. For Easy, it was way different. He wanted it to mean how much he appreciated everything Easy had done for him and how much he respected him. It had to be special.

The radio started playing ¯Do You Hear What I Hear¯? and Gabriel listened to the words as he lay on the floor beside the tree, his face shimmering in the colored lights.

"A star, a star, dancing in the night.................A child, a child, shivers in the cold, let us bring him silver and gold............."

Such pretty words, pretty music........"Pray for peace, people everywhere."

Humming the song, Gabriel knew he had to go, had to find the perfect present. "I gotta book, guys. I got stuff to do, places to be."

Easy, as always, worried for a minute, and then let it go. He couldn't live Gabriel's life. He had to trust that he would be safe and careful.

Markie walked him to the door, and zipped his jacket up, laughing when he objected. "You're mine, buster. I'll baby you if I want to." He pulled his watch cap down over his ears and shoved his hands in his pockets.

"Night, Markie. Thank you."

"See you in the morning for cinnamon rolls and presents. I can't guarantee that we'll be able to find JD buried under all the paper, but if you get here early enough, there may be one or two still under the tree for you." A hug, a kiss on the cheek and Gabriel stepped out into the cold air of the winter night.

He walked quickly along the lighted streets toward the shopping center, his mind still tossing out ideas. Nothing seemed right. It had to be perfect but he didn't have enough money for perfect. Nothing he could think of would be able to say what he wanted to say. He decided to look at silver ID bracelets. Maybe he could have it written on and that would be special.

He turned the corner and walked along the sidewalk by a high stone wall. He was humming 'A star, a star, dancing in the night......" when he heard the sound. He stopped and cocked his head to one side, listening. It was the sound of a soft moaning. Walking toward the high wall, he leaned his head to find the direction.

A cut in the wall found him climbing seven old mossy steps into a ragtag overgrown cemetery. The sound louder now, Gabriel looked for the origin, poised to run, but needing to know.

Beside a broken headstone for some old dude who died in 1916, Gabriel found a pile of clothes....a pile of clothes that was crying. He touched the edge of the pile with the toe of his sneaker. "Hey?"

The crying stopped. The pile seemed to draw in on itself and become smaller.

"Hey," he tried again. "What's wrong?"

No sound.

It couldn't be a very large person in that pile. He squatted down and bounced on the balls of his feet. "Hey, I won't hurt you. Are you okay?" His breath was pluming out and the temperature was falling rapidly. "It's freezing out here, dude. What's wrong?"

Something in his voice must have struck a chord in the child. Looking up out of a very old dirty t-shirt, a small face blinked back tears.

Gabriel saw the face of an elf, a tiny pointed nose, huge green eyes and freckles standing out too sharply on a pale little face, wisps of red hair puffing out around the reddened eyes.

"What's goin on? You shouldn't be out here in the cold. You'll freeze."

"Don't care," came the muffled reply.

"Well, I do. You're not staying out here. C'mon, I know a really warm place we can go. You hungry?"

The little boy stood up and came about to Gabriel's shoulder. "My name's Gabriel. You?"

"Chris," his weak voice whispered.

"Where's your coat?"

"I..........," his teeth chattered, "I don't got one."

"Here, let's get you in mine and we'll see what we can find." Gabriel pulled his jacket off and knelt down to zip Chris into its warmth. He pulled off his black watch cap and jammed it down over the little guy's ears.

"Come on, kiddo, we gotta get you warm." He held out his hand and Chris slid his frozen one into Gabriel's tight grasp. When they made it out to the lights at the street corner, Gabriel was beginning to worry that maybe he'd been too late. Chris was shivering and his lips were blue.

"It's not far. There's a place where we can get you warm. Can you walk it?"

"Yes, Gabriel."

Half carrying the little fella, Gabriel got him to the shelter and covered him with warm blankets. It was Christmas Eve and none of the volunteers were on duty. He told Michael, the oldest guy who was watching the others and then came back to Chris.

"I'm here, Chris. You feeling warmer now?"

"Sorta," he said, his teeth still chattering a little.

"Here, let me help maybe. He'd seen this on the Discovery Channel. He climbed under the covers and hugged Chris's cold body up next to his. "I'll be like a heater, k?"

Soon, Chris's breathing evened out and Gabriel found himself holding onto a sleeping boy. Easing out, he tucked the covers around him tightly.

All the kid had on was a dirty t-shirt, faded baggies and worn sneakers. He had no socks or mittens or jacket or anything. Where were his parents? Why was he out on this cold night dressed like this?

Gabriel sat on the foot of the bed and felt the tears burning the back of his eyelids. This wasn't fair. It was Christmas Eve. Why wasn't Chris at home decorating the tree, waiting for Santa?

The song fluttered through his mind........a child, a child, shivers in the cold.......I can't bring him silver and gold. He just needs to be warm. I don't have any way..............He thought of the money in his pocket. It was for Easy. It was to show Easy how much he cared.

He stared at the little face poking out of the mountain of blankets. Gabriel knew he could have been like Chris. He whispered to Michael that he would be right back, that he had one more thing to take care of.

Christmas morning dawned about five. Little feet flew across the floor and landed on first one bed and then another. "Santa came. Hurry! Hurry! Santa came to our house!!"

"I need coffee!"

"Is it day yet?"

"You go. You're his Daddy."

"Did you remember to eat a cookie?"

"Gack, I can still taste that raw carrot."

Three very sleepy dads, coffee mugs in hand, one eye open, one excited mom with (God forbid) a camera, and one bouncing ball of Christmas joy. Lucky Nickie slept through it all.

Paper flew right and left.

"One for Mommy and one for me."
"One for Daddy and one for me.
"One for Papa D and one for meeee."
"One for Pops and....................."

"Enough, Greedy Guts. Open some and quit counting," Danny laughed. JD tore into his treasures, squealing.

Griff gave Markie a silver necklace with two pearls, one for each child in their lives.

Markie gave Griff a new lawnmower, the one he'd been drooling over at Tractor Supply.

Danny and Jordan gave Griff and Markie the slow cooker, wiggling their eyebrows and announcing that they expected mucho yum food from now on.

Markie handed Danny a framed picture. Griff smiled, 'We thought you'd appreciate this." It was the Langley family, Markie, Griffin, Joshua Daniel, and Nicole Jordana, all posed for the photographer. "Can you imagine the grip I had on JD's shirt?"

"Beautiful family," Jordan smiled.

Val arrived and passed out more presents. "Easy'll be along. He wanted to check the center before he came over."

JD was crawling around in the paper, and the grownups settled down to eat cinnamon rolls and watch the sun come up over the ocean. It was going to be a beautiful Christmas Day.

Easy pulled up in front of the center. He hadn't wanted to tell Val he was worried about Gabriel. He hadn't liked him going off alone like that last night. He just wanted to get him and go have Christmas. He wouldn't feel good until he knew everything was all right.

Surprised not to find Gabriel waiting for him ready to go, he walked into the ward area where the kids slept. Gabriel was sound asleep in a bed next to a child Easy didn't recognize. He must have come in last night.

Michael was eating cold cereal in the kitchen when Easy walked in. "Yeah, Gabriel brought that little guy in last night around 7:30. He was near frozen."

Easy called Jordan to tell him they'd be a little late and not to worry, then sat down at his desk to wait for Gabriel to wake up. If he was helping last night, he needed the sleep. He was going over the plans for the Christmas party tonight for all the kids at the center when Gabriel walked in the door, sleepy eyed and half awake. He had a little guy hiding behind him.

"Morning, Easy."

"Morning. I see we have a new friend. Hey, my name's Easy." He stayed in his chair knowing his height sometimes scared the younger kids.

"This is Chris. I found him last night when I was walking. He was really cold, so I brought him here."

"Good deal. Just the right thing to do. Are you warmed up now, Chris?"

"Yes," his voice a little shaky, Chris stepped out from behind Gabriel.

He had on a brand new t-shirt, new jeans and new sneakers. His jeans were rolled up a bit and new socks showed. His hair was washed and combed and his face was clean.

"Do you want us to take you home this morning?"

"Noooo, please, no."

"Sure thing. No problem. Gabriel and I have to go see a little boy about a Christmas tree. Would you like to go with us?"

"With Gabriel? Oh yes." Chris hurried back to stand by Gabriel.

"I need to talk to Gabriel for a minute, Chris. Could you go check your bed and make sure it's all made up?"

Gabriel looked at Chris and nodded his head. Chris walked off but kept turning his head to look back.

"You know I have to call the police, Gabriel."

"Yes. His name is Christopher Garrison. He's 13 and he lives over on 23rd Street in those low rent apartments. He said that his mama had a "boyfriend" in last night and the man made him stay outside. He got scared and ran off when he heard the man yelling."

"Shit...........Merry Christmas, little fella."

Easy called in and spoke to his friend at the precinct. "Yeah, that's what we know. I'll keep him with us until you check it out."

He turned to Gabriel, "No one has even reported him missing."

Gabriel frowned. "Can we really take him with us to Christmas?"

"I don't see why not. I can't think of anyone who deserves a little Christmas more than he does, can you? Go try to find him a jacket to wear back in the cast off bin. I'll meet you guys out front."

Easy flipped out his cell and called Jordan.

When he got to the sidewalk, he saw Gabriel all zipped up in the jacket Val had bought for him last fall. It was Chris that caught his eye. The little guy had on a brand new jacket, mittens and watch cap. He was warm, his cheeks were rosy and he was grinning up at Gabriel.

"That's some rig you got on there, Chris. I bet you're nice and warm."

Chris looked shyly at Easy. All he said was, "Gabriel."

Gabriel stared at the sidewalk.

"Let's go, guys. I hope they saved us some cinnamon rolls."

They burst in the front door to Christmas bedlam. Not a square inch of floor could be seen for all the wrapping paper, boxes and newly connected train tracks.

"Unca Easy, come see, come see," JD called, grabbing Easy's hand and dragging him toward the train tracks. "It goes 'WooWooooooooo!! and everything."

"Hold on, JD. I want you to meet someone. This is Chris. He's gonna be here today. Maybe we can let him ride on your train. What do you say?"

JD took hold of Chris's hand and pulled toward the train controls. "I will let you do it, but don't crash em, k?"

"K," Chris said sweetly. He looked back once, but then was enveloped in Christmas.

"I saved your presents, Gabriel. I knew you'd want to give them out," Markie said, "And we want to give you yours too."

Gabriel was overwhelmed by the surfboard from Jordan and Dan, the Swatch watch from Markie and Griff, and felt himself starting to cry by the time he opened the box with the new Dell laptop from Easy and Val. "You guys," he sniffled, "This is all too much. I couldn't get you anything half so nice."

Jordan laughed, "Not unless you're selling drugs on the side, Doofus. We don't expect anything but thanks, you know."

He jumped up and gave each one a big hug, whispering 'Thank you so much' in each ear and giving the ladies a little kiss on the cheek.

He handed out his small tokens and then he got to Easy. "I didn't know what to get you. I thought and thought and I wanted so much to..............," his words jammed in his throat and he felt hot and cold at the same time and he couldn't stay in the room. Grabbing his jacket, he ran out the back door, out onto the sand.

He heard the door slam and felt Easy come to stand beside him. "I'm sorry. I don't have anything for you. I wanted to get you something special....perfect ....because you saved my life. I didn't know what to buy."

"Buying isn't how you show that you care," Easy said gently.

Gabriel wiped his face with the back of his hand. "I was going to the mall to buy you something when I found Chris. When I saw how sad he was and how he needed a jacket and stuff..........Oh, Easy, I'm so sorry. I used your money to buy him new clothes. I had to. Are you mad?"

Easy took in a deep breath and shook his head. "Hey, look here at me. I have never been so proud of anyone in my life. That's the true meaning of Christmas....giving from the heart. I couldn't have dreamed of a more wonderful Christmas present than knowing that you have a heart full of love. I am so proud of you right now. This is absolutely the very best Christmas present I've ever gotten in my life."

Gabriel felt the knot in his chest untie and he smiled. "I'm glad."

Easy pulled Gabriel into a huge bear hug and laughed, "You know he adores you now?"


"Yep, you've got an adoring fan."

"Shut up!" Gabriel laughed and punched Easy's arm. "I'm starving. Can we go in now?"

"Oh yeah, like I'm the one who ran out here in the cold?"

They walked back in and watched JD untangle yet another crash. "Daddy, Papa D, these cars go fast and then KaBoom! This is super fun."

Markie made a face, "I'm not sure whether to thank you or kill you. We'll be stepping over this thing for months. JD, come here, please."

JD popped up and ran to his Mommy. "Yeps?"

"We have some gifts for Chris, remember? Want to get them for him?"

"Oh yes, wheeeeee ! Chris, we gots pressies for you too....come." He tugged at the shy little boy until they were by the tree. JD scooped up several brightly wrapped packages and tried to hand them to Chris.

"For ME???"

"Yes, Honey. Everyone has fun at this house on Christmas."

They all watched as the little boy sat down quietly and just admired the paper and the bows, touching one, then another. Finally, Gabriel walked over and sat down by him. "It's okay, Chris. You can open them. They're all for you."

Chris leaned over to whisper in Gabriel's ear, "I've never had Christmas presents before. They're too pretty to open."

Gabriel felt the tears in his eyes and looked around for help. Just as Danny made a move, JD plopped down by Chris and said softly, "They be's pressies. They're all for you. We love you and it be's Christmas. Open this one." He picked up a fat little box and ran his finger under the edge of the paper.

"Is okay?" Chris asked, looking at all the faces.

"Is super okay," Jordan smiled. "Let's go get some coffee and let the kids have some more fun."

"Where did you go?" Markie asked quietly.

"Walgreens. They're open on Christmas morning. I got anything that made noise and flashed lights. I'm going back there again. Cool stuff," he laughed.

"What will happen to him, Ez?"

"I'll keep him until they investigate, but it really sounds like a bad situation and if they can prove child abuse....which throwing him out in the cold on Christmas Eve.....is, then he will go into the system and into foster care."

"Poor little guy." Griff said softly.

"Yeah, but he's happy today and he's got Gabriel now. I don't think he's gonna lack for much. We'll keep him as long as we can. You never know, miracles do happen."

JD had finally given up and lay down to take a nap, all his new toys spread around him, Nickie has experienced her first Christmas and Chris was asleep on an air mattress on the floor on JD's room.

One more log in the stove and one more cup of hot chocolate. "What a great Christmas," Griff said, to no one in particular. "Thanks everyone."

"I wish Nic could have been here today....and Sam," Jordan murmured.

"And in a week, it'll be a new year, 2005. Who'd ever have thought ten years ago, that we'd all be sitting here together? We've come a long way," Markie said, looking from one to another face that she loved so much.

"Griffin was my best friend.......I met Danny..........we found Easy...........we met Marks............we got JD..................Easy met Val............Easy found Gabriel.........Griff and Marks made Nickie. It took ten years, but we've made it." Jordan took a deep breath. "Let's hope 2005 gives us more friends and keeps us all together.'

Lifting their hot chocolate mugs, they all toasted the new year.

"I have one gift left to give," Val said quietly. "I bought this, not knowing how perfect it would be today. It's for you, Gabriel."

"Me?" he blushed.

Val held out a small black box. Gabriel took it carefully and stared at it. "For me?" he repeated.

"You'll understand when you open it," she said softly.

He opened the little box and looked inside. His face broke into a huge smile. "Thank you, Val. Thank you soooo much." He took out a gold chain with a small gold starfish hooked to it.

"Let me," Markie offered, as she opened the chain and hooked it around his neck.

"You make differences, Gabriel. You made one last night. Be proud, Honey. You have a good heart," Val smiled.

Gabriel hugged her tight and looked at Easy. Easy smiled and Gabriel felt so good...........down deep inside where it counted the most.

Easy lifted Chris from the air mattress, carried him to the car and came back to say good night. "Thanks again for taking him in. he had a great day."

"We'll be seeing him again soon, I suspect," Markie laughed.

"Good luck with the party at the center."

"All the volunteers will be there. The kids are all so excited and wait till they see Easy as Santa Claus," Val laughed.

Gabriel, Easy and Val walked to the car and Gabriel slid carefully into the back seat beside the sleeping boy.

"What will happen?" Gabriel asked.

"One day at a time, Gabriel. We'll just take one day at a time. Look at all the tough stuff we've all had to go through. We made it. He will too. Thanks to you."

JD woke up from his nap to jump like an insane person on his boy-sized trampoline.

"Wheeeeeeee, this is so fun!!!"

The day wound down and so did JD. After turkey sandwiches, everyone collapsed to watch the lights on the tree and enjoy just being together. Finally, the tree lights out, the fire damped, Griff and Markie surveyed the mess, laughed at JD sleeping in a pile of wrapping paper, gathered him up and headed for bed.

Danny was zoning, so Jordan just picked him up and carried him next door. "God, what did you eat today? You weigh a ton," he pretended to stagger as he headed for the bed. Actually, he was so pleased to see that Dan was keeping his weight up. He worried so much.

"You too sleepy to trade presents?" Jordan asked, his voice low.

"No way," Danny's sleepy sexy voice answered. "I've been waiting all day."

Years ago, they had exchanged simple little rings sitting cross-legged in the middle of a big bed at Missy's parent's house in Mobile, Alabama. They had called them their "Always" rings, just smooth silver bands with little lines that intertwined. Inside had been just the word 'Always', one with a J and one with a D.

Jordan had been horrified when he lost his surfing last summer and it was decided that they would get new ones for Christmas.

So, here they sat, cross-legged in the middle of their big bed, each holding a little box with a red ribbon. The rings were more expensive, but the feelings were the same, if not more intense. The word 'Always' was engraved, but on the outside now, proudly, with 'Jordan' and 'Dan' beside it.

"I love you the same way I did the day I met you at the shark tank," Jordan said quietly. "It hit me like a ton of bricks and I haven't gotten over it yet."

"I love you the same way I did the day you did that big flip off your skateboard. My mind turned to mush and I've never been able to see anyone except you since," Danny sighed.

We're so lucky, Dan. I mean it. I know we've had tough times, but we'll always be together."

Leaning in, they kissed, a kiss promising forever. Opening the boxes, slipping the rings out, they slid them on and together, they whispered, "Always."

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