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The Talon House

What's the difference between me and you?

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What's The Difference Between Me And You?

Chapter 27 - by Nick

"Ok, boy's, one present," Jim said as Nick and James sat grinning in front of the Christmas tree. "The rest are for tomorrow, okay? Nick, you play Santa tonight."

With that, Nick sorted through the gifts under the tree, finding one for James, one for his dad, one for Lori, one each for Tom and Linda , one for his papu and one for himself. He felt like he was going to burst with excitement at the prospect of opening one of his gifts early. As soon as he got settled, he looked over at his dad, who was already tearing the paper off of his own gift, and any restraint he might have had was suddenly lost. He recklessly tore the wrapping paper apart, anxious to get to the prize that was concealed.

Before the paper had a chance to hit the floor, Nick was trying to tear the Mick Foley action figure he found wrapped inside out of its package. He held it up and smiled, totally transfixed on his gift. He wondered if that was the only wrestling figure he was going to get. He doubted it, though. He saw his dad looking at them when they were at Toy's R Us looking for a gift to buy for Taylor. Jim was asking him what his favorites were, and Nick hadn't been paying attention. He figured that Jim was asking him so he'd know what Taylor liked..

As he looked around, he suddenly remembered that he wasn't alone with his toy. He saw his dad holding up the new CD case that James bought him, and he saw his papu holding the new sweat suit that Jim had picked out. James had the best gift of the evening, though. A brand new 3 disk CD player for his room. Everyone got quiet and watched when he opened it, and as his eyes got huge, there were smiles all around the room.

While he was holding it up, Tom snapped a picture with his camera. Then he had everyone get together for a picture, and he set his camera to take the picture automatically. Nick had only seen camera's like that on TV, so he was more than a little fascinated with Tom's camera after the picture was taken. While everyone sat and visited, Nick took the opportunity to pick up Tom's camera and look it over carefully. He had worked up just enough courage to take a picture with it when Jim's booming voice came out of nowhere, startling him.

"Boy, you better put that down!" Jim bellowed, causing Nick to jump. He quickly set the camera back down where he found it and moved back toward the tree, where everyone seemed to be congregating.

"I wasn't going to do anything, dad," Nick said, feeling a little hurt by Jim's tone. "You don't have to yell."

Jim cut his eyes impatiently at him as he made his way over to his papu, who took his hand and asked, "Is your daddy being mean to you?"

Nick looked up with a manufactured pout and nodded, unable to contain his smile. Jim simply rolled his eyes at big Nick, then he shrugged his shoulders and turned to James.

"Do you want to set your CD player up tonight or tomorrow?" he asked.

"Is it okay if we do it tonight?" James asked hopefully.

"Of course it is, buddy," Jim said. "Let's go up and do it right now."

With that, Jim followed James, who was carrying the CD player, up the stairs. Nick sat down with his grandparent's and Lori and listened intently as they visited. Linda was telling a story about his mom.

"She loved Christmas," she said. "We always let her open a few gifts on Christmas Eve. One year she had a friend over, and we left them alone for an hour while we went shopping. When we got home, we noticed that all of her gifts under the tree were wrapped differently."

Tom actually threw his head back and laughed as Linda smiled and shook her head before she continued with her story.

"When we asked her about it, her eyes got as big as saucers," Linda continued with a chuckle. "She swore up and down that she hadn't unwrapped them. Finally, after about twenty minutes of the third degree, she confessed."

Nick wedged himself between Tom and Linda, and as they smiled down at him, he felt good. Hearing a story about his mom always interested him, but hearing one from his grandmother, who at times seemed on the verge of falling apart at the mere mention of his mother, was a treat.

"Did you still give her all her presents?" he asked.

"Oh, sure, sweetie," Linda said in a soft tone. "There was no way we could do that to our princess."

"Did Santa still come?" Nick asked intently.

"Of course he did, buddy," Tom said. "You have to do something pretty bad for Santa Clause to skip your house."

The conversation seemed to flow easily for the rest of the evening. At some point, the sound of one of James' CD's came from upstairs, and it was obvious that his CD player was working. James and Jim came back downstairs and took a seat on the floor, joining in the conversation. When it started to get late, Tom and Linda announced that it was time for them to go home, and Jim told James and Nick to get ready for bed.

"You two need to be asleep by midnight," he warned them. "Santa's not going to stop for two boy's who aren't sleeping."

With that, they both gave Tom and Linda a hug and kiss goodbye, then they tore up the stairs to the bathroom to brush their teeth and get ready for bed.

When they made it back downstairs, Jim had their vitamins ready. After they chewed them up, they made their way to the family room and curled up with Jim and Lori on the couch. Big Nick was already snoring in the recliner with Skalaki in his lap, so the four of them joined hands and prayed, then they talked quietly for a few minutes. When they were ready to head upstairs, Jim woke his dad up and turned off all the lights downstairs except for the ones on the tree.

As excited as he was about Christmas, Nick had no trouble falling asleep. It seemed like he just closed his eyes, and in a flash, Jim was sitting on the edge of his bed, gently shaking him and smiling down at him.

"Merry Christmas, babe," Jim said as he leaned over and kissed Nick on the cheek. Nick smiled up at his dad, then he stretched and yawned as Jim pulled the covers back and helped him sit up.

"What time is it daddy?" Nick asked, still half asleep.

"It's seven, buddy," Jim said as he led Nick out of his room, down the hallway and to the bathroom. "Are you ready to open your presents?"

Nick simply smiled and nodded as he moved toward the bathroom door, still trying to wake all the way up. While he was peeing, Jim went across the hallway and woke James up. As Nick was making his way out of the bathroom, a half asleep James staggered passed him. Nick looked around the hallway and noticed that the door to the room his papu was sleeping in was wide open, so he popped his head in and saw that his bed was already made.

He was about to head downstairs when he felt Jim's hand on his shoulder.

"Let's wait for James," Jim said softly. Nick shrugged and sat down at the top of the stairs, leaning against the wall sleepily. He heard the toilet flush and the bathroom door open, so he stood up and waited patiently for James to make his way to the stairway.

Jim seemed to be excited as James approached. He readily wrapped an arm around each one of them as they made their way down the stairs, and when they got to the bottom, Nick was instantly taken aback by what he saw.

For as long as Nick could remember, Christmas was a big day. Normally, he had so many presents under the tree that he couldn't open them all before he fell asleep. The year before, he had gifts from one wall to the other, and they were piled high.

As Nick looked at the transformed family room, he felt a sudden rush of energy he couldn't control. There were presents covering almost every square inch of the floor. There seemed to be a path by design to the tree, as well as one to the kitchen. All six stockings over the fireplace were bursting at the seams with candy and small presents, and even Skalaki, who had taken one of the only available spots in the family room on the recliner, seemed to be taking it all in.

Nick looked over at James, who looked shocked, and smiled. Jim, who still had an arm around both of them, had knelt down to be at eye level so he could speak.

" Look's like Santa hooked you guys up," he said gently as he kissed each one of them on the cheek. "Merry Christmas boy's. I love you guys"

"Merry Christmas, daddy," Nick said as he turned to hug his dad.

"Merry Christmas dad," James said quietly, returning the kiss and nuzzling against Jim's neck and chest.

"Go tell everyone else Merry Christmas, too," he urged them. Nick looked around and realized that his papu and Lori were sitting on the love seat, and that Tom and Linda were on the couch. They were all smiling as they looked on, so Nick and James gave everyone hugs and told them 'Merry Christmas.'

Nick and James had to practically wade through the gifts as they made their way toward the tree with Jim right behind them. Lori took a camera out, and so did Tom and big Nick. While James and Nick opened their presents, there seemed to always be someone taking their picture. At one point, Lori said she wanted a picture of Jim and the boys. Jim seemed a little put out, but Nick was actually relieved to be able to take a small break from opening presents. Jim sat Indian style on the floor while James and Nick each sat on one of his legs while Lori, big Nick and Tom each took turns taking pictures.

The morning seemed to last forever as Nick and James opened present after present, taking small breaks in between. They both had presents from Jim, big Nick, Tom, Linda, Lori, Charles and Cindy, and each other. Then there were the gifts marked Santa. These seemed to outnumber the others, and Nick wondered to himself if Santa had really been watching.

As Nick and James were busy tearing open all of their gifts, Linda and Lori were trying to preserve the wrapping paper while Tom, Jim and big Nick made fun of them.

"You know there's going to be more at the store, right?" Tom asked sarcastically.

"Very funny, smart a**," Linda replied, shocking Nick a little, but not too much. He thought he had overheard his grandmother cursing before, but he had never actually witnessed it for himself.

"After you fold it up, put it right over there," big Nick said in a convincing voice to Lori as he pointed to a bare spot near the fireplace. "We'll burn it later."

Jim chuckled at his dad's comment, and Lori simply rolled her eyes. Linda made Tom get up and retrieve her stocking, which was hanging over the mantle, untouched, just like the others. When he brought it to her, she obliterated the candy inside, then she proceeded to eat the candy in Tom's stocking, too.

Nick noticed that his grandmothers stomach was even bigger than he had remembered from the night before, and he wondered how in the world she was going to be able to hold the baby inside of her until February, when it was due. The due date was February 28, just seven days after Nick's own birthday, and exactly three weeks after Jim's birthday.

Time seemed to be going by fast, too. At one point Nick looked up at the clock on the cable box and realized that it was past nine o'clock. He was a little shocked when he looked around and everyone was still opening presents, but he didn't have any complaints. Everyone seemed to be happy and from the look on his dad's face, he knew that Jim was having the time of his life. While everyone was talking and laughing, the phone rang, causing James to look up hopefully. Jim excused himself to answer it.

"Merry Christmas to you too, mom," Nick heard his dad say from the hallway. "Do you want to talk to him?"

Nick nervously looked up from the floor just in time to see Jim frown a little, then he heard his dad say, "Well, alright. I love you too."

At that moment, Nick felt like he was worthless. He wanted to tell his oma to have a Merry Christmas and that he loved her, but she didn't even want to talk to him. He wasn't exactly sure how it happened, but the next thing he knew, his papu was in the hallway with Jim, and they sounded like they were arguing.

He decided to make his way down the hall to see what they were talking about, but the only thing he got to hear was his papu telling Jim, "She shouldn't even have your number, son."

"Dad," Jim snapped back, but then they both turned and spotted Nick, who was shaken up and about what had happened.

Without a word, Nick turned and walked back to the family room where everyone else seemed to be ignoring the argument Jim and Big Nick were having. Nick sighed heavily and sat on the couch next to Lori, who reached out and ran her fingers through his messy hair. When Nick looked up and smiled at her, she pulled his head closer to her face, then she planted a kiss on top.

Nick felt a sweeping feeling of relief when Jim and his papu rejoined everyone, acting as if nothing had happened. Jim made his way straight to the stockings, taking them down and passing out the remaining four. Lori gave Linda all of her candy, and so did Big Nick. She seemed to be effortlessly putting it all away. Jim tried to give her his candy too, but she didn't accept, which made Nick happy. He knew his dad might eat the little Reese's cups in his stocking, but nothing else. The rest was going to be divided up between Nick and James. In years past, Nick always wound up with whatever candy was in Jim's stocking, simply because his dad didn't care much for candy.

Out of the blue, a timer went off in the kitchen, and Lori and Jim disappeared. James got up and followed them into the kitchen, but Nick decided to stay in the family room and visit with his grandparents. He smiled broadly when Tom poured two glasses of some kind of liquor and handed one to Big Nick. They toasted the new baby, then clinked their glasses together and quickly swallowed the contents.

With that, Tom leaned in, gave Linda a kiss and told her he loved her, then Big Nick gave her a hug and promised to be back for the arrival. Seeing that made Nick's chest feel warm, and he understood how lucky he was all over again. Before they moved to Virginia, he didn't even think Tom and Linda had ever even met his papu. But seeing them together on Christmas made him realize that they really had been good friends, and that they still were.

Somehow, during the course of the morning, Skalaki had been displaced from the recliner. Nick took a seat in his papu's lap while he listened to Big Nick exchange stories with Tom and Linda about various members of their respective families. All of the presents were opened, and normally Nick would have been busy playing with his new stash, but this time he found more interest in the conversation that was happening in front of him. When Big Nick started telling a story about Jim from a Christmas when he was little, Nick grinned and called for his dad to come back into the family room.

"When he was about Nick's age, we got him good," Big Nick said with a grin as Jim, Lori and James came and sat back down. "It was real early on Christmas, and we knew he was getting a new bike, so we got up early and hid it with all of his other presents."

Nick looked over at his dad, who rolled his eyes but stayed quiet as Big Nick continued.

"Well, everyone got their presents, but Jim didn't have anything, and you should have seen the look on his face." Big Nick said with a grin. "I acted shocked, then I walked him out onto the front porch and waved my fist into the air and shouted, 'Santa, you son of a b****! You didn't bring anything for my boy.' Well, Jim was pretty worked up, and he ended up yelling something up into the air too, so I said, 'Come on, let's walk around to the backyard.' When we got there, everyone was standing around his brand spanking new BMX. You should have seen his face light up."

By the time Big Nick had reached the part about waving his fist in the air and calling Santa a son of a b****, Nick was in hysterics. The image was almost picture perfect, and the thought of his dad getting worked up and doing the same thing was so logical to him that he thought it was the funniest thing in the world.

Eventually, the lure of his new toys was too much for him to resist, so Nick occupied the rest of his morning with his new stuff. James wasn't far behind, either. They both had so much stuff that there was no way they could run out of new stuff to keep themselves amused.

Jim interrupted them for a while when he told them that they needed to start taking it all to their rooms, but he helped, so it didn't really take that long. While Jim was organizing Nick's closet, the phone rang again, and James practically flew down the stairs to answer it. A short time later he was back upstairs, though, in his room. When they were finished with his stuff, Nick followed his dad excitedly to help him carry James' stuff.

"James, come on, buddy," Jim called out from the stair-case as he and Nick made their way down. "You've got a lot of stuff that needs to be moved to your room."

Jim and Nick gathered as much as they could, and Jim called out for James once more from the family room, then he shook his head and moved back up the stairs with Nick behind him. They were both carrying as much as they could. When they got to James' room, Jim knocked and opened the door just as James was getting up from his bed and wiping his eyes.

Nick didn't know what to say, so he quietly set the presents down and walked out so James and Jim could be alone. When he got back to the family room, he told everyone what was happening. Tom got up and walked out to the backyard with his cell phone, looking angry. It didn't take much for Nick to figure out that Tom was calling James' mom, and maybe his dad too. But since his mom was Tom's sister, Nick had worked out in his head that she would be the one Tom was calling.

"Do you want to help me and Lori with the pies, sweetie?" Linda asked as Nick looked out the window at his grandpa, who seemed to be yelling. Nick had honestly never seen his grandpa yell before, so it was hard for him to look away. But he knew why Linda was asking, so he simply turned and nodded with a smile before he jump off of the couch and followed her to the kitchen.

In the kitchen, Lori and Linda were preparing a feast that was at least as large as the one they made for Thanksgiving. The mixtures of wonderful smells were intoxicating to Nick as he looked around, wide-eyed at the assortment of pies, rolls, cakes, cookies and other treats the two ladies had already prepared.

At the counter, Lori was mixing a huge pot of mashed potatoes, dropping in whole cubes of real butter and a large portion of milk into the steaming pan. He watched with amusement as she measured a careful portion of salt and sprinkled it into the pot as if it were crucial not to add too much then liberally poured black pepper into the pan. When she set it off to the side, he carefully took a sniff of the steam as it rolled out of the pot, inhaling the heavenly aroma that made his stomach growl.

At the oven, Linda was basting the Turkey, which had a delicious aroma all it's own. The buttery scent was sending Nick's olfactory senses into orbit as his mouth watered. Finally, he spotted Linda uncovering a large basket of yeast rolls that she and Lori had baked earlier, and he could wait no longer. He walked up right behind her and gave her a tight hug, looking hopefully up at her. She looked down with half a roll in her mouth, smiled, then handed him one of his own. The three of them sat together at the kitchen table while they ate their rolls and Nick listened to the women talk. He didn't pay much attention, though, because it was mostly gossip.

The sound of the back door opening and closing did grab nick's attention, though. He weakly stuffed the rest of his yeast roll into his mouth, chewing it as fast as he could as he got up from the table and made his way back to the family room, where he saw his grandfathers talking in a low voice.

While they spoke, Nick noticed that they looked almost grateful about their discussion, but then Tom sighed loudly as he looked at the stairs.

"Let me go get Linda," he said. "She'll need to hear this too."

Tom turned on his heals and made his way past Nick, smiling at him and affectionately messing his unbrushed hair as he passed by. From the kitchen, Nick heard his grandparent's exchange. It almost sounded like an argument, but then he realized that they were rejoicing about something.

When they came back into the family room, Linda spoke to Nick.

"Honey, we need to go have a talk with daddy and James," she said softly. "I'd appreciate it if you'd stay downstairs while we do that."

"Yes ma'am," Nick said respectfully, not fully understanding what was happening. The air of secrecy was making him a little nervous, but he knew that whatever was going on wasn't bad. He took a seat on the love seat next to his papu, who stayed downstairs with him. Eventually, Lori joined them in the family room.

"What a Christmas present, huh?" Big Nick said with a sigh of relief.

"Look's like we got the best one last," Lori said with a warm smile. "I just wonder how James is going to take it."

"I'm sure it's going to be hard on him," Big Nick said. "But it really is for the best."

Pretending not to pay attention to what was happening around him was hard, but Nick knew what was expected of him. Not by his papu or Lori, but by Jim. So as he sat nervously and wondered to himself what could be so great that everyone was excited but at the same time, was going to be hard on James, he couldn't help but keep his ears on alert for some kind of clue.

About ten minutes later, Tom, Linda, Jim and James were back downstairs. They seemed to be trying to act as if nothing were out of the ordinary, but Nick could see right through it. James didn't look upset as he sat on the floor and finished gathering the rest of his presents. After several more trips up to his room, Jim, Nick and James had the floor of the family room clear of all presents.

The only presents that weren't opened were for Taylor, Charles and Cindy. They had gone to Fredericksburg for Christmas, but Nick knew he'd get to see Taylor and his parents the next day to exchange gifts. In the week leading up to Christmas, Nick was over at their house and Taylor showed him the presents under his tree for him, his dad, and James. They had also planned to go together to the church and work in the kitchen, where they would prepare baskets of food for the poor and hungry in the area.

As the morning turned into the afternoon, everyone sat down at the table to eat. The food tasted as good as it smelled, and even though he had been eating candy all morning, Nick felt ravenous. He tore into his plate of food, which Jim had piled high, and almost finished it all. When they were through eating, Nick and James moved back to the family room while the adults talked so they could concentrate on their new Game Boy Color's.

It didn't take long for Nick's eyes to get heavy, though. The food that he had just eaten, combined with the crash he was experiencing from the sugar high he had been on and the fact that he had gone to bed late the night before was starting to catch up to him. He tried to fight it as long as he could, but to no avail. He set his Game Boy in his lap so he could stretch his arms out and yawn, and before he knew it, he was in a deep slumber.

"Hello?" Nick said as he picked up the phone.

"Hey Nick," he heard Taylor say in the other end, the sound of his voice making Nick's heart skip a beat.

"Merry Christmas," Nick said happily, knowing that it was a day late but still in a festive mood.

"Merry Christmas, " Taylor answered sweetly as Nick moved through the house with the cordless phone to his ear, looking for a private place to talk to his friend. He finally settled on the laundry room. Once he was there, he closed the door and pulled a blanket out of a laundry basket and piled in the corner on the tile floor. When he slumped against the wall and slid down onto the soft blanket, he breathed a small sigh of satisfaction and continued his conversation with his best friend, hoping they would be able to make plans to see each other that day.

Nick was starting to get a sexy feeling as the thought of possibly being alone with Taylor ran through his mind while they were talking about the gifts they had opened the day before. Nick tried in vain to mention everything he had gotten for Christmas, but the truth was, he had gotten so much that he couldn't remember everything he got.

"I got a new bike," Taylor bragged over the phone. "Do you want to see it?"

"Sure," Nick said, his heart practically skipping a beat at the prospect of Taylor riding his new bike over to see him. "Will your dad let you though?"

"He will," Taylor answered happily. "I'm sure."

Nick smiled broadly as he hung the phone up and carried it to the charger. Once it was on its base, he scrambled up the stairs to find his best presents so he could show them off to his friend. He carefully set everything out on his bed, desk, dresser and night stand so that they looked like merchandise on the shelf at a store. Then, for good measure, he snuck back down the stairs and quietly slipped into the kitchen, where he found a medium sized bowl and carried it up to his room, careful not to be seen by his dad or James.

When he made it back safely, he went into his night stand and pulled out his full stocking, pouring its contents into the bowl, filling it to the top. He placed the bowl on his night stand and made sure it looked just right, then he looked around his room at all of his new possessions, making sure that they were all on display the way he wanted them to be. When he was confident that he could do no more to make his stuff look good, he rubbed his hands together and walked out of his room, closing his door behind him.

Walking back down the stairway, he heard the sound of the back door closing and voices on the other side of it, coming from the backyard. In the family room, there was a warm blaze in the fireplace and low music coming from the speakers of Jim's stereo. Nick was a little surprised that his dad was still playing the Ray Charles CD he had played all day on Christmas. The sun had come out and his dad, James and his papu were sitting on the patio, soaking it up.

Instead of joining them on the patio, Nick opted to wait inside so he could hear Taylor when he showed up. He took a spot on the love seat, which faced the patio, and watched as his family seemed to be having a casual discussion about something. Big Nick said something to James, and as he replied, Jim reached over and put his hand on James' shoulder, giving it a squeeze. James turned and gave Jim a loving smile, then turned back to Big Nick and said something.

As the scene unfolded silently in front of him, thoughts of how James had become such a huge part of their lives ran through Nick's head. He was a member of their family, blood related to Nick, but it meant more than that to him. The only person Nick had ever seen his dad be so affectionate toward was him, and Nick knew that the thought of James possibly having to go back to Tennessee had been tearing Jim apart.

On Christmas day Tom had shared some kind of good news with everyone, but Nick didn't get to hear what that news was. Whatever it was seemed to cause James to want to stick to Jim's side even more than he already did, because it seemed like he was clinging to Jim more than ever. Nick had fallen asleep that day, but at around four in the afternoon he woke up on the couch and spotted his dad and Lori sitting on the love seat with James in between them. They were both doting on him with hugs and kisses, asking him if he liked the gifts Santa brought him.

For the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, James seemed to follow Jim everywhere he went. At the dinner table, he took a spot next to Jim and clung to him the whole time. At one point, he looked helplessly up at him with a spoonful of hot, steaming mash potatoes. Without a word, Jim leaned down and blew on it for him. Things James would have normally done for himself, like buttering his roll or cutting his ham, were suddenly tasks he asked Jim to do for him.

That morning when Nick woke up he went downstairs, expecting to find his papu awake and watching the news alone. Instead, he walked into the family room and found his dad and James on the couch. James was still half asleep and curled up with his head on Jim's leg while they surfed channels. Nick had felt a little jealous at first, but he decided that he wasn't going to make a fuss out of it because he wasn't too sure what was happening with James' parents.

A knock at the door brought Nick out of his thoughts and he got up to answer it. When he opened the door, Taylor was standing on the other side with a new bike that was splattered with mud.

"Hi," Nick said sweetly as he stepped out onto the porch to check out Taylor's bike. Taylor responded by smiling shyly at his friend and stepping away as Nick made his way around the bike, admiring the sleek silver color.

"Do you want to ride it?" Taylor offered.

"Okay," Nick said excitedly as Taylor handed him the handlebars. He hopped on and rode it down the driveway, then out into the street, where he popped a wheelie right away, then brought the front tire back down as he proceeded down the block. When he reached the end of the street, he turned around and pedaled as fast as he could to his driveway. As he rode up, Jim, James and big Nick were walking around from the side of the house to the front.

"Boy, please tell me you didn't come out here without a coat," Jim snapped as soon as he spotted Nick on the bike.

"Sorry, dad," Nick said nervously, not wanting to find himself in any trouble so close after Christmas for fear of losing some of his toys as a consequence.

"You need to either go back inside or get a coat on," Jim said in a calmer voice. "Merry Christmas Taylor."

"Merry Christmas Mr. J," Taylor said politely. "Do you like my new bike?"

As Nick was getting off, he handed the handlebars back to Taylor as Jim inspected it. Just as Nick was walking through the front door, he heard his dad give a long, loud whistle that let him know that he was admiring Taylor's new bike. He quickly put his coat on and went back out front, where he saw James riding off on Taylor's bike. Taylor was thanking Jim for the presents he had given him for Christmas and talking about the day they had in Fredericksburg.

When James rode back up Jim opened the garage door to do some work under the hood of his Bronco , and Taylor put his bike in the garage next to Nick and James' bikes. When it started getting too chilly, Nick and Taylor went inside to stand in front of the fireplace and warm up. As they walked in through the laundry room, the door coming in from the garage closed, pushing in a blast of cold air that swept over them both from behind, causing goose bumps to form on Nick's arms and the back of his neck

Standing in front of the fireplace next to Taylor made Nick feel a little romantic. He gazed over and saw Taylor rubbing the palms of his hands together swiftly and blowing into them. He realized then how cold Taylor looked, so he moved closer and wrapped his arm around him and smiled as Taylor rested his head on Nick's shoulder. He felt Taylor's arm move in between them and go up his back until it found a comfortable spot, then he felt Taylor give him a small squeeze.

"Are you still cold?" Nick asked quietly as he watched Taylor bat his eyes a few times at him.

"A little," Taylor answered, so Nick reached around with his other arm and turned to face him so he could wrap him in a hug.

"I missed you," Nick said, pulling Taylor's head down onto his shoulder with a cupped hand.

Without an answer, Taylor gazed into Nick's eyes and smiled sweetly with his head still resting on his shoulder. After a long moment of silence that Nick was enjoying, Taylor spoke.

"I missed you too," he said softly as he lifted his head from Nick's shoulder and put himself face to face with him. Nick responded by leaning forward and pressing his lips to Taylor's, then turning his head slightly and pressing his tongue into his mouth. Taylor opened up and allowed Nick's tongue in, but he looked a little surprised and even nervous as his eyes shifted from side to side. Still, Nick felt Taylor's tongue slide along the top of his and into his mouth, and from there, he enjoyed the kiss.

"I want you to see what I got for Christmas," Nick said as they broke the kiss but not their embrace. Nick knew that Taylor had a hard on because it was pressing against his own, causing his heart to race. He knew that it was too dangerous to try to mess around in his room, though, so instead of acting on his urge make out with Taylor , he relented and decided to be content with the kiss he got. Still, he held Taylor's hand the whole time that it took to walk to his room from the family room, and when they got to his room, he closed the door and refused to let go of his hand.

Once they got to his room Taylor marveled at all of Nick's new things. Nick reluctantly let go of Taylor's hand so he could play with the toys Nick got for Christmas, the he enthusiastically talked about the toys he got and his bike. Nick took a seat on his bed and sat Indian style as he watched Taylor playing with all of his new toys. When Taylor got to the new set of Lego's Nick got, he excitedly opened them up and in no time flat, he built a house out of blue pieces, and he used red ones for the roof. He picked it up and carried it to the bed, where he presented it to Nick with a proud smile.

"I built us a house to live in for when we grow up," he said as he set it down in front of Nick and crawled onto the bed, taking a spot next to Nick and picking it back up to show him.

"I love it," Nick said sweetly as Taylor turned it from end to end, showing him where the living room was and where the kitchen and bathrooms were.

"Here's our room." Taylor said shyly as he pointed to a spot on the house he had just built, then he pointed to another spot and said, "Here's where our kids' bedrooms are."

"Do you want to spend the night tonight?" Nick asked hopefully. "My dad already told me you could."

"I don't know if my mom and dad will let me," Taylor said sadly.

"Let me go talk to my dad and ask him to call them," Nick said with a smile. "I bet he can get them to say yes."

With that, Nick hopped off of his bed and practically ran down the stairs, down the hall, through the laundry room and out the door, where his dad and his papu were under the hood of his Bronco.

"Dad," Nick called out as he approached his father. "Can Taylor spend the night?"

Jim shrugged and said, "I already said yes, son."

"I know, but can you call his house and say it's okay?" Nick asked hopefully.

"Did his dad already tell him no?" Jim asked pointedly.

"No, but he hasn't asked yet," Nick said coyly, leaving out what he and his dad already knew. Charles didn't want Taylor to stay over while they had a guest, but Nick didn't consider his papu a guest. He was family, and as far as Nick was concerned, so was Taylor.

Jim let out a long sigh and said, "Go get me the phone."

Nick smiled and dashed into the house, grabbing the phone off of its charger and bringing it back out to his dad, who carried it to the steps leading from the garage to the laundry room and took a seat. Nick waited patiently as his dad slowly dialed the number and put the phone up to his ear, then he heard it ringing. After catching his dad's part of the conversation, Nick's heart sank.

"I'll bring him home," Jim said. "Okay, see you in a bit."

With that, Jim set the phone down on the work bench and stood up without a word, yawning as he stretched out and cracked his neck. When he finished stretching, he picked the phone back up and handed it to Nick and said, "Here son, go put this back on the charger."

"Yes sir," Nick said sadly as he took the phone back from his dad and started to walk back towards the door.

"Hey," Jim said. "When you're done with that, tell Taylor to get his coat on and grab yours too. We have to take him home so he can get a change of clothes."

"Really?" Nick asked, still not sure he heard his dad right but wanting to believe it.

"Well of course, silly," Jim said with a smile. "Now hurry up. It's cold and papu's getting cranky without his dinner. The sooner we get back the sooner we can eat."

Nick ran back inside excitedly and did as he was told. Taylor couldn't believe it when Nick told him the news, and as soon as Nick had his coat on, they were back in the garage and in the car. Big Nick stayed behind to work on the Bronco, but James went with them. When they goy there, Nick and Taylor dragged James up to Taylor's room where he showed them all of his Christmas presents. While Taylor packed, James went back down stairs to wait with the adults and Nick played with some of the presents Taylor showed them.

As Nick was playing, he noticed that Taylor went into his closet for something, so curiously, he followed him. He watched quietly as Taylor pulled something out off of a low sitting shelf that was against the wall and put it in his coat pocket. Nick assumed it was his pocket knife, so he just shrugged and went back to playing with the various new toys in Taylor's room.

Cindy came upstairs a few minutes after Taylor was done in his closet and helped him finish packing. When she was done, she carried his backpack downstairs for him while Nick and Taylor followed her. Walking into the living room, Nick rolled his eyes when he saw that James was sitting in between Jim's legs on the couch, watching the television. Taylor didn't even seem to notice them as he walked up and gave his dad a hug and kiss goodbye.

"I love you sport," Charles said. "You be a good boy and I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"

"I love you too daddy," Taylor said as he broke away from his dad's hug and walked to Cindy, who was waiting with her arms wide opened.

"I'm going to miss you tonight, honey," she said as she wrapped him up in a hug and planted a kiss on his cheek.

"I'll miss you too," Taylor said in a small voice. "I'll see you tomorrow, mommy. I love you."

"I love you too, honey," Cindy answered, planting several more kisses in a row on Taylor's face before Charles spoke up.

"Good god, dear," he said with a chuckle. "He's spending the night, not the month."

"Ha-ha," Cindy said sarcastically. Nick made sure he gave Cindy a hug before they left, too, and that he thanked Charles and Cindy one more time for the gifts they gave him for Christmas. When they first arrived, James beat him to the punch, thanking them both for his presents. Nick went next, but he was a little put out that James had thought to do it first.

When they got home, the garage door was closed and there was a light on in the kitchen.

"It looks like your papu couldn't wait for dinner," Jim said in a lighthearted tone as they got out and walked up to the front door. When they walked in, big Nick was in the kitchen, proving Jim right. He had a sandwich in one hand a cup of hot coffee in the other as he sat at the breakfast island and read the newspaper.

Nick, Taylor and James ran up the stairs to wash their hands and faces, then they went back down to the kitchen, where Jim was warning up leftover ham, turkey, mash potatoes and rolls. They all sat patiently at the table and watched eagerly as Jim prepared the food one dish at a time in the microwave, then he brought it all to the table and told them to get what they wanted.

Taylor and Nick followed big Nick's example and tore open a roll, stuffing it full of ham and turkey and served themselves some mash potatoes and gravy. Jim brought them all Coke's and set them in the middle of the table for everyone to grab. As they were getting ready to eat, Nick heard his dad speak up.

"Do you need daddy to make your plate, buddy?" Jim said as he wrapped his arm around James, who hadn't moved to serve himself at all. James looked up and nodded, so Jim slid his own plate out of the way while he made another one up for James. Nick glared across the table, but again, he thought the better of saying something. Jim had to go down a list of everything that was at the table, asking James if that was what he wanted or not. Then, once his plate was made, Jim grabbed his Coke and opened it for him.

"Do you want me to pour it in a cup for you?" Jim asked.

"No thank you," James said in a small voice as he picked at his food. Nick just shrugged and went back to his food, eager to finish so he and Taylor could go back to his room and play with his new toys. As they ate, though, it became harder and harder for him to concentrate on his food, especially when he looked across the table and saw his dad using a fork to cut the ham on James' plate up, then poking some of it with the fork and holding it up for James to take a bite.

"My mash potatoes are hot, dad," James said in an almost helpless tone as soon as he had swallowed his bite of ham.

"Here son," Jim said, using the fork and stirring them around on his plate, then scooping them up and blowing on them before he offered them to James. As Nick was finishing his plate, he noticed that Jim hadn't even been able to start on his dinner because he was too busy tending to James, who was no longer doing anything but taking bites that Jim was feeding him.

As soon as Taylor was finished, Jim excused them both from the table and told them to get ready for bed while everyone else ate their dinner, then to come back downstairs for dessert.

When they got to Nick's room, Taylor went to his backpack and unzipped it, searching for his night shirt. While he was taking it out, Nick was stripping down to his undies and going into his drawer for a pair of pajamas. He got them out and turned just in time to see Taylor dropping his trousers and pulling his shirt off almost simultaneously. Nick blushed when Taylor flashed him a smile, smiling back and tossing his pajamas on the bed. Taylor held up a long Scooby Doo shirt and grinned, then he slipped it over his head.

Nick sat down on his bed and unfolded his pajama top, sliding it over his head. Once it was on, he tugged at the bottom of it to make it fit right, then he stood up and shook loose his pajama bottoms loose. Nick slipped them on and sat on his bed while Taylor fished for something in the pockets of the pair of pants he had just changed out of.

"I have something for you," Taylor said as he dug through his pockets, finally pulling his hand out and closing his fist around the object in his hand.

"What is it?" Nick asked as Taylor sat next to him and opened his hand to show Nick what he had. When he saw it, Nick gasped quietly and smiled at Taylor, who handed him a small red heart with a magnet on the back of it.

"I got it for you," Taylor said shyly. "I hope you like it."

"I love it," Nick said, feeling a little speechless at Taylor's show of love for him.

"Really?" Taylor asked.

"Really," Nick answered as he took it and held it up to his heart and hugged it to his chest. He leaned over and gave Taylor a peck on the cheek, then he wrapped both of his arms around him and hugged him.

"I love you, Taylor," Nick said, holding the heart in his hand as he held on to him with all of his might.

"Can we be boyfriends right now?" Taylor asked shyly.

Nick nodded his head in reply when they broke the hug, then he leaned forward and planted a kiss on Taylor's lips that made his body quiver with excitement as Taylor pushed his tongue into Nick's mouth.

"Have you been gay all day?" Taylor asked when they broke the kiss.

"I'm always gay now," Nick told him. "I'm never straight anymore."

"Did you tell anyone yet?" Taylor asked.

"No, not yet," Nick said. "I want to tell my dad and James, but not till after my papu leaves."

As soon as Nick said that, the sound of footsteps could be heard coming up the stairs, so they quickly broke their embrace and got off of the bed, opening the door and heading out to the stairs to see who was coming.

It was James, and to Nick, he had an especially bratty look on his face, but he didn't mention it. Instead, he waited for James to go by, then he took Taylor's hand and walked down the stairs and to the kitchen, where Jim was sitting at the table eating his dinner. Nick couldn't believe that his dad was just getting to his food, and wanted to ask him why he was spoiling James like he was, but he didn't.

Big Nick had gone back to the family room to watch the news, so Nick and Taylor took a seat at the table and waited for Jim to finish his food. When he was done, he got up and took out an apple pie, a pumpkin pie and a sweet potato pie. As Nick and Taylor ate, James came back into the kitchen for his dessert. He had gotten ready for bed, too, and Nick wondered how he didn't freeze without a shirt on.

"Do we only have pie?" James asked when Jim asked him what kind of pie he wanted.

"What else do you want, babe?" Jim asked as he stood at the counter in front of the pies he had laid out.

"I want chocolate chip cookies," James said, and from the tone of his voice, Nick knew he was being difficult on purpose. Nick knew that there were no chocolate chip cookies in the house, and he knew that James knew that too. Jim's reply floored him.

"I don't think we have any of those, buddy," Jim said softly. "But I can call Lori at work and see if she'll buy some at the store before she comes home. Would you like that?"

"Okay, dad," James said, sounding hurt by Jim's answer.

"Do you want a piece of pie?" Jim offered.

"What kind are you going to have?" James asked.

"I'm going to have pumpkin, son," Jim answered.

"I don't want a whole piece," James said. "Can I just have some of yours?"

"Sure buddy," Jim said, slicing an extra huge hunk of pumpkin pie for himself, then taking an extra plate down and slicing one for big Nick. He carried the pie and a cup of hot coffee into the family room and returned to the kitchen, taking his piece of pie to the table and sitting next to James with it.

Nick watched jealously as his dad shared his piece of pie with James, once again feeding him bites. For his part, James seemed to be soaking all of the attention he was getting from Jim up like a sponge. When they were done with dessert, Jim got on the phone just like he said he would and called Lori to ask her to pick up some cookies.

"Okay, boys," Jim announced as he got off the phone. "It's time to go brush your teeth and get back down here for your vitamins."

All three of them raced up the stairs and brushed their teeth in the sink, then they tore back down and went straight to the kitchen for their vitamins. After they chewed them up, they all went into the family room to settle down. Nick and Taylor sat on one side of Jim while James took the other side, but Nick noticed that he had eventually managed to end up sitting in his dad's lap and leaning up against his chest as Jim gently ran his hand over James' cheek and gave him a kiss.

"I love you son," Jim said as he gave James a small squeeze.

"I love you too dad," James replied, resting the back of his head on Jim's shoulder and smiling.

"Come give me a hug, Nick," Jim said as he reached out with his other arm, prompting Nick to lean into his dad and hug him. "I love you buddy."

"I love you too daddy," Nick said as he glared jealously at his cousin, who he felt was in his spot.

"And I love you too Taylor," Jim said with a warm smile.

"I love you too Mr. J," Taylor answered. "Thank you for letting me spend the night, sir."

"You're welcome to spend the night here anytime, bud," Jim assured him.

"We're going upstairs to my room, dad," Nick said.

"You're ready for bed already?" Jim asked.

"No, but we want to play with my toys, and then we'll go to bed," Nick answered.

"Okay, I'll come tuck you in," Jim said, then he looked at James and asked, "What about you, babe? Are you sleepy?"

James shook his head and said," Uh uh."

"Well, why don't you let dad get up so I can tuck Nick and Taylor in, son," Jim said as he scooted James off of his lap. James grumbled and pouted when Jim stood up, but Nick still paid him no attention. Instead, he walked behind Taylor up the stairs to his room where Jim closed the door and sat on Nick's bed, patting the two spots on either side of him.

"Boys, I wanted to have a talk with you about something," Jim said in a serious tone. "You've both been really good tonight, and I'm proud of you guys. Here's what I need, though. I need you to be extra nice to James right now."

"Why's he acting that way, dad?" Nick asked, feeling frustrated about the way his cousin had been clinging to his dad.

"He just needs to feel loved right now, son," Jim said. "He hasn't had a lot of that in his life, and it's not going to kill us to give him some extra love right now."

"Does he miss him mom and dad?" Taylor asked. Jim smiled sadly and nodded, then he looked back at Nick.

"You've made me so proud, son," he said. "I know it's hard for you, but you're doing the right thing, son. He'll be okay."

"Yes sir," Nick said respectfully as Jim got up from the bed.

"I don't want you two to stay up all night making noise and keeping your papu up," Jim said as he opened the door.

"We won't," Nick said as he got up and followed his dad to the door, waiting until he was on his way down the stairs, then closing it. As soon as he closed the door, Taylor grinned at him shyly and got in the bed. Nick walked over to the foot of the bed and pulled his pajama bottoms off, tossing them into the laundry basket. He crawled in to the bed next to Taylor and pulled the covers up over them. The coolness of the sheets made them shiver a little bit, so Nick immediately snuggled up to his boyfriend and wrapped his arms around him. He felt Taylor's warm breath on his cheek, so he decided to steal a kiss. He lifted his head and when he did, he saw Taylor's lips, already in position and waiting for him, so he moved in.

As soon as their tongues met, Nick's body started to tingle hard in anticipation of what he knew he wanted. He let his hand travel down to Taylor's stomach, where he felt the warmth of his body temperature rising and his heart rate increasing. He could feel Taylor's hands running up and down his back, and as his finger tips traced Nick's spine, his body continued to tremble with excitement.

When the kiss ended, Nick rested his head on Taylor's shoulder and sighed, a feeling of contentment and love spreading all over his body. Taylor wrapped his arms around Nick's torso and held on tight, giving Nick a safe feeling that he felt he wouldn't be able to derive from any other source. It was a different feeling of security than the one he had when he was with his dad, but at the same time, it felt just as fulfilling.

"I have to go pee," Taylor whispered into Nick's ear, followed by a soft kiss on the cheek that made Nick smile.

"Me too," he answered, feeling Taylor release him from his embrace as he rolled off of him. They got up and held hands as they made their way out of Nick's room, down the hallway, and to the bathroom.

As they made their way back down to his room, Jim was walking up the stairs carrying James, who was sleeping with his head on his shoulder. Nick immediately felt guilty about how jealous he'd been feeling of his cousin, and he decided to try to avoid his dad altogether. For the first time that day, he felt a little heartened to see James clinging to Jim, knowing that he was safe from whatever horrors his parents had put him through. The look of love on his dad's face was evident as they passed each other in the hallway, and he could see the same look on James's face, even though he was sound asleep. He waited by his door and said goodnight as his dad walked past him. Jim carried James to the bathroom door and set him down in front of it, turning him and steering him into the bathroom and telling him to come to his room when he was done.

Nick made a point of going down the hall to meet his dad and telling him goodnight one more time. Jim smiled when he saw Nick approaching him, so he knelt down and held his arms out.

"I love you buddy," Jim said with a smile.

"I love you too, daddy," Nick sighed as he wrapped his comparatively small arms around his father's neck and squeezed.

"Where's your jammie bottoms?" Jim asked quietly.

"We're hot," Nick said. "We were going to open the window a little, but it's too cold outside," Nick said.

"Yeah, don't open your window," Jim agreed. "If you want, daddy can turn the heater off."

"Okay," Nick said with a happy nod, then he turned and padded back down the hall to his room, where he knew Taylor would be waiting to hold him throughout the night.

When he closed the door, he hopped back in bed with Taylor and curled up to go to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night he felt Taylor moving so he opened his eyes and in time to see Taylor sitting up, gathering the covers and arranging them over the two of them. The temperature had dropped in the middle of the night and Nick was freezing under his covers, so when Taylor crawled back in bed with him, Nick curled up with him again.

"I'm freezing," Taylor complained.

"I know, I'm sorry," Nick said, feeling bad because he had kicked the covers off at some point when he got too hot. Taylor moved closer to him and wrapped his arms around him as he fell back to sleep.

Early the next morning, Nick got up and had to practically run to the bathroom to avoid wetting himself. When he finished and came out, he noticed that James' door was wide opened, so he looked in his room and saw that his bed was empty. The door to Jim's room was opened too, so he walked in and saw that his dad was already up too. He rubbed his eyes and glanced at the alarm clock next to Jim's bed and realized that it wasn't even six in the morning yet, so he decided to see what was going on.

He crept slowly down the stairs and peeked around the corner into the family room, where he saw James and his dad in the recliner. James looked upset about something, and Jim was soothing him. Nick noticed that his cousin was crying quietly and Jim was rocking him and telling him that everything was fine, and that he'd always be there for him. Rather than intrude, Nick decided to go back to his room and try to get some more sleep, but he knew that after what he had just seen, it wasn't going to come easily.

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