Friday, November 25, 2016
Thanksgiving Traditions with Family and Friends
Thanksgiving Traditions with Family and Friends
Written by Snarks and Rosemarie
The next morning the adults woke early to begin preparations for the day. Omari and Coral set the tables for breakfast while Zhara and Opal began making the meal as the others ran around doing last minute cleaning before waking the children so that they could watch the traditional Thanksgiving Day Parades on the television. Normally, eating in the living room was prohibited for the children, but on special occasions Zhara allowed it, after putting down some vinyl table cloths to catch any unexpected accidents.
"Lucas!" Noah called happily, waking the boy, "Today is pig out day," he laughed. "Ready to have some fun?"
The little boy grinned. "Yeah and whadya mean pig out day?" he asked his cousin.
"Thanksgiving man!" the older boy crowed. "Food all day! I can smell the bacon already, can't you? This is gonna be a great day." Noah's eyes shone with excitement.
"Go back ta sleep," a grumpy voice said from under a pile of pillows and blankets.
"Come on sleepyhead," Noah teased his cousin Austin who had been the source of the complaint. "Food! Television! Games! Food!" he laughed as he jumped down from his upper bunk onto the lower one where the little boy lay.
Lucas grinned at the older boy. "Yeah...I can smell it...ya mean we get to eat food all day long? The last couple 'o Thanksgivin's I was in between families so we had a dinner with some turkey and stuff at the shelter, but that was 'bout it," he told the other boy.
Noah stopped in his tracks, stunned for a moment and feeling a jolt of sadness for his new cousin. He was aware that Lucas was a foster child, which his gran'ma and gran'pa had said made no difference, but he'd never realized how sad and empty Lucas's life had been before coming to live with them. "Well," he said, rallying, "we're gonna show you how it's done! C'mon! Let's get to the food before the vultures upstairs eat it all!"
Lucas poked the upper bunk above him with his foot. "Wake up Jon... Noah says it's pig out day!"
Jonathan sat up in his bed, fully awake and smiling. "Pig out day! Here we come!" he laughed as he bounded out of his bunk, landing gracefully on his feet. "Come on guys!" he said, pulling the blankets off of a still sleepy Austin and pulling him out of his bed.
Austin groaned but allowed himself to be towed into the kitchen where bacon, eggs, pancakes and waffles were already being plated and handed out.
Lucas scrambled into his clothes and said, "I'm all for eatin' all day!"
A sleepy looking Ryan made his way into the kitchen and kissed Coral. "What can I do to help?" he asked, looking around at all the activity and everyone seemingly to be busy with something or another including Jeff and Mutt.
"You can help the kids get settled, carry in the orange juice and anything else spillable," Omari replied with a smile. "Then come back in here and sit down to breakfast."
The young man began to try to settle the children in the living room. He figured out how the TV remote worked and keyed in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade for them, then returned for juice, milk and such.
Lucas ran into the kitchen with his other cousins. "Mama...Noah says it's pig out day!" he cried, running up to her and hugging her around the legs.
Zhara laughed delightedly and leaned down to return the hug. She kissed the top of his head and smiled down at him. It was so wonderful to see her little boy so happy. "Pig out day it is, known in polite circles as Thanksgiving," she joked. "Tell me sweetie, what would you like for breakfast?"
Lucas grinned. "Pancakes, waffles and bacon," he told her.
"What, no eggs and toast?" Omari teased as he placed the desired items on a plate. "Syrup and butter are on the coffee table. Go ahead and join the others."
Lucas grinned. "Not today Papa I can get 'em any day." He took the plate and found a place with the help of Ryan to settle down to eat. The young man helped with butter and syrup where needed.
Zhara saw Coral’s young man come back empty handed into the kitchen and smiled at him. "Thank you, Ryan! Now, have a seat and eat. We're going to need our energy today."
The young man smiled at his hostess and then sat next to Coral and put some food on his plate and began to eat.
None of the other men needed to be asked, they finished helping to plate out food and placed them on the table before sitting down to have their own breakfasts, enjoying the relatively quiet time with the other adults.
Coral leaned over and kissed his lover, giving him a great big smile. "Good morning again, angel." His eyes sparkled with the memory of their activities the night before.
Ryan smiled up at Coral. "Good mornin' again, Cor." He sounded more relaxed after the events of last night. He gave Omari and Zhara a shy smile. "Looks like it's goin' to be a busy day Dad, Mama."
"We're going to be hopping for most of it, that's for sure," Opal said, grinning. "It's so great to have the whole family together. We have so much to be grateful for this year."
Zhara and Omari grinned at Ryan, he was so sweet and shy. They couldn't imagine anyone better for their son. "Absolutely!" Zhara agreed with her daughter.
Ryan nodded thinking about how Coral had come into his life this year. Years past, once he had been on his own at the shooting range Thanksgiving was just another day to the young man. The resort had always put on a huge Thanksgiving event, but being he didn't live on the resort then he didn't think it would be right to attend and so just drank beer, ate take out and played video games all day. Things sure were a lot different this year. He felt a little of the nervousness return and he put a hand on Coral's warm arm.
Coral felt the tension in his boy's fingers and placed one hand over Ryan's cold one. He leaned in for another kiss and looked at his Angel straight on, his brown eyes shining with love and pride into the green ones he loved so much.
The young man gave his lover a small smile and moved his chair a bit closer to him so he could lean against the man for reassurance and comfort.
Zhara and Omari glanced at each other with a smile and began talking about their plans for the day.
Lucas came running in. "Can I have more waffles Mama?" he asked, almost bumping Mutt's arm in his hurry.
Mutt put out a hand for the little boy's plate and gestured mama Okoro to sit and relax. "How many do you want, Luc?"
"Mama says I can only have one at a time 'cause my eyes might be bigger than my stomach," he told his uncle with a grin.
Mutt plated another waffle, placing it into the microwave for a few seconds to warm it up before handing it back to his little friend with a fond smile. "If anyone else wants more tell them to come ask me and I'll help."
Lucas grinned. "Thanks Uncle Mutt and I'll tell the others." He went back into the living room and soon several of the older kids came for more as well as the little boy's new roommates.
The young man made a big production of flipping pancakes or waffles into the air and making them land artfully on the plates while his husband joined in, putting more bacon on them as well.
Ryan watched them with a smile. "They're good at that Cor," he observed.
"Years of practice, I'm sure." Coral smiled. "That'll be us in a couple of years."
The young man looked at his lover astonished. "You really think so?"
"I know so," the tall man replied, gently bumping his forehead against Ry's again.
"Does anyone want more coffee?" Zhara asked. "We should finish up and get started on the dinner preparations since we'll be eating early today."
"Turkey for lunch, turkey for dinner, turkey for lunch tomorrow... and for dinner... and..." Omari joked.
"With the whole crew here, and with the way Kevin and Dono eat, I doubt there'll be much left," Opal said with a smile.
Brayden grinned at the mock outrage exhibited by the two men mentioned. " 'cause Coral, Omari and I eat like birds, right guys?"
"Oh yeah," Coral agreed, taking another plateful of pancakes and bacon as his mother obligingly poured more coffee.
"Don't let Ry's slender form fool you," Coral added with a laugh. "The guy can pack it away. I have no idea where it all goes though." He smiled at Ryan to let him know he was only kidding.
Ry grinned back at his partner. “That’s because I’m reputed to have a hollow leg so that’s where it all goes.”
Coral chuckled at his lover’s remark.
Once everyone had had their fill the cleanup started with everyone pitching in, making the job go a lot faster, and making it more fun as they joked and teased each other. When that was done Zhara shooed the menfolk out of the kitchen. "You all go and play with the kids. I don't want them in the house sitting in front of the idiot tube all day," she laughed.
The men went into the living room and finished watching the parade and a couple of cartoons with the kids before inviting them outside to play games. Caitlyn, Sasha and Tamara were already outside in the back yard playing double Dutch jump rope, having gotten bored with the parade about half way through.
Ryan followed Mutt outside while Lucas raced ahead with Noah and Jon as well as Austin, who had hurriedly dressed, following on his heels. "Whata we gonna play Uncle Mutt?"
Kyle and Bastien had returned to the room they were sharing and had gotten dressed. They arrived in the living room just in time to hear the invitation. "Wait up!" "We wanna play too!" they yelled, chasing their cousins and uncles into the back yard. No one noticed little Angela standing by the kitchen door with tears in her eyes.
"How about you pick the first game, Kyle?" Mutt suggested.
"Hide and seek?" the boy asked, glancing around to see everyone's reactions to the suggestion.
"Coral?" came a call from the kitchen. "Come in for a moment please?"
Kevin, Dono and Brayden all grinned. "Someone's in trouble..." Dono chanted.
The tall man gave him a look of mock irritation and went back inside to see what his mother needed.
Ryan looked puzzled at the suggestion of hide and seek and then bit his lip as Coral was summoned to the house and the others had chanted he was in trouble.
Zhara leaned in toward her son and said, "Everyone forgot about Angela, she's really upset. Would you mind...?"
Coral came out less than a minute later with a still upset little girl in his arms. "We forgot our most valuable player, guys!"
Ryan looked at the little girl his partner was carrying out. "Well...I'm sure we can find a place for that little angel, Coral."
"Angie!" Austin said with a grin, "We're gonna play hide n' seek! C'mon, you c'n hide with me. No one'll find the two of us!" he grabbed her by the hand once Coral had put her down. The child's tears stopped and an uncertain smile crossed her face.
Lucas ran up to the tall man and grabbed the little girl's hand. "'Mon Angie, ya can play."
"There's always a place for family." Coral smiled as he watched the little girl run off with her brother and new cousin.
"Hey! We haven't decided who's 'It' yet!" the man yelled through his laughter.
"You c'n be it, Uncle Cor!" Bastien shouted, grinning as he ran off to look for a good hiding place.
Ry looked around uncertainly, zeroing in on Mutt. He'd heard of hide and seek, but had never played it and wasn't sure what to do.
"C'mon Uncle Ryan!" Sasha said, grabbing the young man's hand and pulling him away quickly. "We gotta hide. I got some good places we can go. Uncle Cor'll never find us."
She grinned up at the befuddled looking man.
Mutt, seeing Ryan's somewhat panicked look ran with the two of them, laughing and smiling. There was no shortage of hiding places in the huge back yard.
The young security officer grinned and went with his friend and Sasha.
The little girl pulled the two men into a stand of bushes which still had most of its leaves and laid flat on the ground behind them. "C'mon," she whispered. "Stay down and put some leaves on yourselves," she grinned.
Ry took his cue from Mutt and Sasha and hunkered down behind a huge bush, covered himself with some leaves and stayed very quiet.
Mutt tried hard to stifle his laughter as he scooped more leaves onto his niece and friend before doing the same to himself.
"100!" Coral yelled out, "Ready or not! Here I come!"
A few of the kids scrambled for last minute hiding places and tried to stay quiet while their uncle roamed the backyard chanting, "Fee, Fi, Foe, Fum. Ready or not, here I come!"
Ryan whispered, "What do we do now?"
"We stay quiet while he tries to find everyone. First one he finds is 'It' next." Mutt whispered with a grin.
Austin and Angela, who had been sitting cross legged underneath one of the picnic tables giggled as their uncle stalked right past them.
Ry's green eyes went wide, then twinkled with amusement.
Not having enough room under the picnic table Lucas had hidden behind the tool shed with Noah and grinned at his cousin as he heard his uncle stomping around the yard.
Coral lightened his steps slightly so that he wasn't as loud and went into stealth mode... or as stealthy as he could be with leaves crunching under his boots. He made a mental note to offer his services as a leaf raker the next day.
Bastien stuck his head out to look around when he couldn't hear his uncle anymore.
"I see Bastien!" Coral called, laughing.
"Gotta catch me first!" Bastien challenged before sprinting off to the stairs where they'd begun the game.
Lucas laughed and said to Noah, "Now he'll be it."
Ryan glanced at Mutt, not knowing what that meant.
"That means he'll be the one to seek during the next round. Now we just have to sneak out of this spot before anyone sees us. We might be able to use the camouflage tactic again. Come on before they come back this way," his friend whispered.
Mutt led his friend and the kids out of their hiding spot and crouching low to avoid detection made their way to the stairs which were Coral and Bastien free. "Have a seat," the young man said quietly. "Pretend we've been here the whole time. Look bored." he grinned.
Ryan grinned at his friend. He still had a few leaves in his sandy hair though.
Sasha giggled at the sight. "Uncle Ryan, you look like a moose like that," she said, reaching up to remove the couple of oak leaves that were sticking up out of his hair.
The young man giggled as the little girl plucked the leaves out. "Thanks, I wouldn't want to be mistaken for a moose." He grinned at Mutt, knowing his friend would get the joke.
The other man chuckled. "As long as you're nowhere near Duke at the time, you're safe."
Ry grinned in return.
The kids looked on, confused, which made Mutt laugh a little more. "Work," he explained. The children nodded as though they understood what Mutt meant and continued to watch as some of the other kids joined them on the stairs.
Lucas and Noah laughed and streaked for home base so they wouldn't get tagged it.
They all laughed as they saw Bastien streaking around the corner, laughing raucously as he continued to evade Coral.
There was a shriek of laughter as his uncle finally caught him, lifted him up over his shoulder and carried him to the stairs. "Ollie Ollie Oxen Free!" he called.
Angela and Austin came running around the corner, pleased expressions on their little faces that they hadn't been found first. "We ossen fwee!" Angela shouted happily.
Coral put Bastien down and scooped up the two little ones. "You two are great hiders! I had no idea where you were!" he praised.
Ryan had a blank look as Coral had hollered. "What does that mean?" he asked Mutt quietly.
"It's just what everyone says when the game is over so that the others know that round one is over and you can come back to base without being tagged 'It'. We used to say 'All, all out's in free!' Not a prime example of the proper English language, I admit," he laughed, "but it's all in fun."
The young man grinned. "I like it. It sounds kinda cool."
"Ok, Bastien, you're it! Start counting!" Jonathan shouted as he ran off to find a new hiding spot.
Tamara and Noah grouped together to find a hiding place.
Lucas grabbed Mutt and said, "Let's hide!" He ran behind a flowering bush that had dried up leaves.
Austin and Angela grabbed Ryan and pulled him with them to a hiding place between the garage and the storage shed. "Down, Un'ca Wy!" Angela commanded.
"Please," Austin corrected her.
"Pweas," she amended with a shy smile.
Ryan grinned and allowed the little people to take him and he hunkered down at Angela's request.
"We're the best to hide with, Uncle Ry," Austin whispered proudly. "No one hardly ever finds us first, an' they're real easy to find when we're 'It'. Uncle Cor is real big but he's a good hider too."
The young man whispered, "That's good to know...I'll have to hide with the two of you when Uncle Coral wants to find me."
"We'll protect you, Uncle Ry," Austin said quietly.
“Thank you, Austin, I appreciate that. Sometimes I need protection,” he told the little boy softly, so as to not be overheard.
It seemed to take forever but Bastien finally managed to count to 100. "Ready or not! Here I come!" he shouted.
Mutt grinned at his little friend as they hid behind the bush. There was no way Bastien was going to miss him so he whispered to Lucas to lie down and he covered them both with leaves again. "Lie still," he whispered.
The little boy grinned up at his friend, his eyes shining as he was covered up with leaves.
Bastien wasn't much of one for announcing his presence so he walked as quietly as he could around the back yard, peering around corners and under boxes. Suddenly there was a shriek and the boy yelled, "You're it!"
Jonathan, not looking very happy, slid out of his hiding place. "How'd you find me so fast?" he demanded.
"You breathe like a bear when you're trying to hold your breath." Bastien laughed. The two of them continued the hunt for the rest of the players, only managing to find a few others before giving up and returning to base where the majority of the men stood with most of the younger ones.
"How do you hide so good, Uncle Cor?" Jonathan asked, still a little miffed that he'd been found first and so quickly.
"It's magic!" his uncle replied with a flourish of his hands. "Time to call the others in. We're still missing a few," he smiled.
Bastien yelled out and within seconds the two little ones came back with a grinning Ryan in tow.
Lucas popped up from out of the leaves and grinned at Mutt. "We gotta go back," he announced.
"Shhhh," his friend said conspiratorially. "Brush off. This is a good schtick and we don't want to give it away too soon."
The little boy grinned and brushed himself off good. "'Kay Uncle Mutt."
Angela tugged at Ryan's pant leg and tried to pull him down to her level.
The young man hunkered down to eye level with the little girl. "What is it sweetie?" he asked softly.
"Un'ca Wy, I needsa go," she replied, looking a little embarrassed, shifting from foot to foot.
Ryan bit his lip and then said, "'Kay go ahead."
Dono, hearing the quiet request and seeing the young man's discomfort, came to the rescue with a smile. He picked up his daughter and excused the two of them from the rest of the game to take her inside.
Mutt put an arm around the still uncertain looking young man and grinned. "You get used to it after a while," he said quietly.
Ryan gave his friend a smile as the older man put an arm around his shoulders. "I guess, but I had no idea what to do...I never..." the young man trailed off and his fair face reddened.
"What's next?" Caitlyn asked excitedly. "Wanna play tag?"
Lucas piped up, "Let's do Simon Says!"
"Yeah!" Jonathan yelled. It was one of his favorite games.
"Cool," Tamara and Noah said at the same time. "Jinx!" they yelled together, and then began laughing as though they'd said something hilarious.
Austin looked confused so Mutt knelt down and explained the rules of the game to him. Bastien and Caitlyn made faces and excused themselves. "That's a baby game," Cait said.
Just then Zhara stuck her head outside and called to the group, "We have snacks ready for anyone who's hungry!"
Noah's stomach growled at the mention of food. He shot his cousin an apologetic look and said, "Can we do it after snacks, Lucas?"
Brayden looked at his watch and said, "We'll have to wait a little longer, ok Lucas? It's going to be turkey time soon."
The little boy grinned. "'Kay Turkey time!" he shouted and ran over to Mutt and began pulling him toward the house.
The men ushered the children back into the house and made a bee line for the table which had several different types of appetizers laid out. Caitlyn promptly snatched up some crackers, pepperoni and cheese and began to make little sandwiches out of them. Bastien and Kyle went for the fruit salad, picking strawberries and blueberries out of the bowl with their fingers, earning them a smack on the backs of their hands with a rubber spatula which Topie had been using to mix cake batter. The boys grinned and licked the batter off.
"Go wash those mitts before you eat, and don't stick your fingers in there again or I'll use something harder than this," she warned.
Zhara, like any good ninja, gave Coral and Dono similar treatment when they tried to sneak olives out of the salad. The two men grinned at each other and popped the olives in their mouths, chewing with exaggerated pleasure.
Zhara shook her head, but smiled at the men’s antics.
Lucas had been about to put his hands into the fruit bowl like the others, but seeing them get smacked, backed off and glanced up at Mutt and then headed for the bathroom to clean up.
Ryan had already washed his hands and had taken some crackers and cheese to munch.
Mutt followed the little boy and whispered, "Smart man. You don't want to get the wooden spoon, that smarts." He laughed as he washed his hands.
Lucas grinned up at his uncle. "It does?" he asked, having been threatened, but not yet the recipient of it.
"Especially on your knuckles." Mutt winced as he dried off.
The little boy looked up at the older man. "You got it on your knuckles?" he asked while he dried off his hands.
"Once. Accidentally," he explained. "I know mama didn't mean to get me there, it was just bad timing on my part."
The youngster winced. "Ouch."
Mutt grinned. "Just keep an eye open for whatever's in their hands if you decide to sneak a taste."
When the older man had finished, Lucas grabbed him by the hand and dragged him into the kitchen where the appetizers were. "'Kay Uncle Mutt," he said to his advice.
When returning to the kitchen with the little boy the man saw where the other men were crowding the sink to hastily wash up and grinned.
"There are other bathrooms," Zhara reminded the throng with some asperity.
"Too lazy to go upstairs, Mama," Kevin said with a grin as he wiped his hands dry with a paper towel. "Besides, if we go upstairs it'll all be gone before we can get back down. Self-preservation and all that."
"As if I don't have enough to feed a small army," she replied with mock indignation.
"Don't fill up on appetizers, kids," Omari reminded them. "Dinner will be ready soon."
"Coral, would you please take the turkeys out of the oven while I put the baked potatoes in for the last time."
Zhara’s son looked at Ryan with a grin and asked, "Hon, would you help me with the turkeys? Put one in the dining room for us while we take care of the kids, please."
Dono and Kevin picked up plates of rolls, one of the pans of sweet potato casserole and bowls of vegetables to carry into the dining room. Topie and Ame carried in the gravy and other asides, placing them carefully on the nearly full table.
"I think Mama and Papa are going to have to buy a bigger house," Don joked.
"Or a bigger dining room table," Topie said with a grin. "Close to Dad's plate, ok Ry? He'll need it there in order to carve it. And please, since you're at that end of the table, would you put one of these gravy boats on that side?"
Ryan picked up the huge platter with the turkey and placed it where he was asked to near Omari's plate. Then he placed one of the gravy boats as well.
"Ow! Mama! Really? The wooden spoon?" Coral's surprised voice came from the kitchen.
"That's what you get for sneaking pieces of the skin, little boy," Zhara scolded.
"It's the best part," Coral complained, "and you know the kids don't eat it so why let it go to waste?"
"That's not the point," Zhara said, still scolding.
Ryan had just looked back and saw the wooden spoon connect with Coral's backside and grinned at the yelp. "Serves you right Cor, get him again Mama...he deserves more than the one!" he teased.
"I know where you sleep, kiddo," Coral grinned. "Remember that." He quickly snitched another piece of the crispy skin and went over to his lover, wrapping his arms around Ry's waist and nuzzling his ear. "Gonna have you for dessert," he whispered.
The young man called to Zhara, "Mama...he's threatenin' me and he snitched another piece of skin too...I told you he's naughty!" He grinned innocently up at Coral mischief in his green eyes. He got up on his toes and whispered into his lover’s ear, “I’d love to be your dessert.”
“Oh, did he?" Zhara asked, eyebrows arched, "Why don't you come back here, young man, and we can talk about proper manners."
Coral looked at a disadvantage for a moment, not sure if his mother were serious or not until she laughed. "It was worth it just to see the look on your face, Corky," she said.
"Corky?" Dono asked, unable to keep a grin from his face.
"Moooommmmmm!" Coral replied, giving his mother a long suffering look.
Ryan giggled. "Corky hmm...I'll have to remember that!" He had loved seeing his lover being smacked and scolded by his mother like he’d have done to him in a similar circumstance.
"You best pretend you never heard that little boy, hear me?" Coral replied, trying unsuccessfully to look severe.
Ryan's green eyes twinkled unable to suppress his merriment. "Yes Sir...Corky!" He then tried to dance out of his partner's arms to avoid a swat of his own.
"Enough now," Omari said, also failing at hiding a smile. "Get the older kids out here so that we can feed them before they fill up on crackers."
The family patriarch began to cut up the first turkey, ignoring his son's scowl. "Hand me the plates one at a time, please, Corky?"
Ry giggled again at Coral's father calling him Corky once more.
Omari’s son huffed in frustration, rolled his eyes and then shaking his head slowly, broke out into a grin of his own. There was no sense getting upset. Family was family. With that thought in mind, he picked up the first plate and handed it to his father.
The adults worked together in an assembly line, each placing turkey, stuffing, or mashed potatoes on a plate before handing it to the next person.
Lucas sat at the children's table in the kitchen with his cousins. He watched as his Papa prepared his plate. He couldn't believe the amount of food that was there and had a hard time refusing anything...until it came to the vegetables. "I don't want any of those Papa...all the other stuff is okay though."
“I know you like the mixed vegetables," Omari grinned. "As far as the others, just give them a try." He continued, placing a stalk of broccoli and a small piece of cauliflower onto his youngest boy's plate.
The little boy wrinkled his nose as he tasted the broccoli. His eyes widened with surprise. It wasn't that bad, he decided, so he took a few more stalks. He made a theatrically appalled face when he tried the white stuff and looked beseechingly at his papa.
Omari laughed and popped the morsel into his own mouth. "At least you tried it. Good boy."
Mutt and Jeff both took hearty helpings of the broccoli and cauliflower, waiting as patiently as they could for the mixed vegetables to reach them. They were surprised to see Bastien, Kyle and Caitlyn take a little of both before passing the bowls down the line. Bastien immediately broke a piece of broccoli off and stuffed it into his mouth, humming in appreciation.
Ryan watched as the platters and bowls of food were being passed around. It was the first time he had ever been to a Thanksgiving with this many people unless it had been at a restaurant with his parents and strangers all around them. They weren't much for at home meals on the holidays. When the vegetables were being passed around Ryan just passed the bowl on to Coral who was sitting at his side.
Coral made a wry face and put the bowl back in his boy's hands. "Take a little hon, even if it's just a spoonful. They won't kill you. They're delicious the way mom makes them."
The younger man looked at his lover. "Do I have to?" he whispered into his ear. "I don't like 'em."
"Yes, you have to," Coral whispered back with a fond smile. "Just a spoon full, and make sure you eat them all. You don't want to hurt mom's feelings do you?"
Ry sighed. He took a small spoonful, making sure to take just a couple of each. The broccoli he had tasted once before, but it wasn't just the green things, they had been all right, but he hadn't tasted the cauliflower and looked at the white, bumpy vegetable that looked too much like a piece of brain for his liking.
Coral gave his boy a look and put a little more onto his plate before taking a large spoonful for himself and passing the bowl down.
"I'll trade you my corn for your lima beans, Ry," Mutt offered.
Ryan frowned at his lover when he put a spoonful of mixed vegetables on his plate as well as more broccoli and cauliflower. When he heard his friend he hurriedly moved all the lima beans away from the pile and scooping them up put them onto his friend's plate.
Mutt smiled and gratefully spooned over his corn into the other young man's plate.
In the kitchen, the younger Okoros were doing much the same thing, much to Omari's amazement. He'd stayed behind to help finish serving the children. "Do you do that at home?" he asked.
"Mommy makes the veggies we like and puts them in different bowls, so we can just take what we want," Kyle explained to his grandfather.
“Spoiled," Omari said with a grin.
"Mommy says we're not spoiled, we're fresh," Tamara offered with a little smile.
"And I'd have to agree," their grandfather said with a laugh.
"Everyone has what they want?" he asked finally.
"Yes, Gran'pa," the children chorused.
"Alright then, behave, and come see me if you need anything else," Omari said as he left the kitchen to join the other adults.
Ryan separated out the peas and other vegetables he didn't like and moved them to Mutt or Coral's plate. He tried to sneak the broccoli and cauliflower onto his lover's plate as well.
"No, you don't, little boy." Coral grinned. "Just put a little butter on them and try them first."
"There's butter and seasonings on them already," Zhara said to her son, "as you already know, young man. And you," she said with a look at Ryan, "eat your vegetables. They're good for you."
Coral had to bite the inside of his cheek, having heard that same speech throughout most of his life. By the looks on Mutt and Jeff's faces they were doing the same.
Ryan looked at Zhara a bit astonished, then said, “Yes Mama.”
The women and their husbands took generous helpings of all of them. Zhara was a whiz at making vegetables taste good and they looked forward to her cooking every holiday.
"You'll like the broccoli if you try it, I'll be willing to bet you a buck," Dono said with a smile. "Just try it. If you don't like it I'll take it and you're up a buck."
"Dono!" Topie scolded.
Omari arrived just in time to see and hear everything. He went to his seat and began to carve the turkey first. "There's enough for everyone, no need to buy it," he joked. "Give it a shot, Ry." he encouraged.
Ryan's fair face flushed with embarrassment. He took a tentative small piece and chewed and swallowed it. He looked at Zhara and said, "It's not too bad Mama."
Zhara was having a hard time keeping a straight face. She hadn't seen this since the little ones had been younger. "Well, I'm glad you think it's not too bad," she said with a grin. "Now, if you don't like it, I think Dono owes you a dollar." She raised her eyebrows at her son in law.
He wrinkled his nose at the cauliflower though and then at the orange looking stuff Coral was putting on his plate and sighed.
"Sweet potato casserole," Coral explained. "Take a taste before you decide you don't like it," he said with a smile.
Once again he took a good helping for himself before passing the dish down to the next person.
"Mmmm, I love this casserole, Mama," Mutt said.
Ryan poked at the cauliflower once more, but decided to try the sweet potato stuff. He put a tiny bit on his fork and put it into his mouth. "Now this isn't half bad," he said with a grin. I don't know why Coral would like it though since he says he doesn't like the color orange," he teased his partner.
His partner laughed. "This is more of a russet orange, I can live with it as long as I don't have to wear it," he joked.
"I'll take yours if you don't want it Ry." Kevin offered. "I can't get enough of this stuff."
The young man shook his head at Kevin. "I like it well enough, but you can have the rest of my broccoli and this cauliflower stuff." He still hadn't yet tasted the cauliflower, pushing it around on his plate instead.
"Take a taste,' Omari suggested. "If you don't like it, I'll take it."
Ryan wrinkled his nose and took a small piece of the cauliflower. "It's 'kay...but you can have the rest Dad," Ryan told Omari.
"Well, at least you tried some before you made your decision. And now I know more about you than I thought I did," Coral said with a smile as Omari took a fork to relieve Ryan of his cauliflower.
The young man looked at the family patriarch with relief and then smiled at Coral. "Learnin' every day," he remarked.
"You guys are worse than the kids,” Zhara joked.
Lucas was having fun in the kitchen with his cousins trading vegetables and eating everything on his plate with gusto.
"Try the twice baked potato, Lucas!' Jonathan urged. "Gran'ma makes them special on holidays, they have butter and cheese and stuff in it."
"They're basically mashed potatoes put back in the skin," Kyle explained.
"And then baked again..." Jonathan added.
"I love 'em!" Austin said, taking one and adding it to his plate which was already full.
Caitlyn smirked and said, “You'd better eat everything you take, Aus, or Gran'ma is gonna be upset. You know what she says about taking more than you can eat."
“Today is pig out day," Sasha said in her cousin's defense.
Lucas took one and grinned. "They smell real good."
"They taste even better," Jonathan promised.
The little boy took a bite of the twice baked potato and grinned and began to wolf it all down. "I think this is my favorite." Then he tried the sweet potato casserole Omari had put on his plate and said, "I think this is one of my favorites too...can I have a tie?" he asked his cousins with a grin.
Caitlyn took another scoop of the casserole. "I love everything Gran'ma makes. They're all my favorites, so you can have as many as you want too," she smiled.
"Yeah, this is a real treat. Mom doesn't make this at home," Kyle said, taking more of everything and loading his plate back up.
Tamara and Noah started a fight over the last twice baked potato. "I got it first!" she said.
"Did not!" Noah argued.
Before the argument could escalate, Bastien stood up, cut the potato down the center and gave them each a half.
Lucas wanted more turkey and stuffing and the plate Omari had left for the children was empty so he went into the adults and waited before he disturbed his Papa.
Zhara heard the argument and got up to put a stop to it when she saw her son standing in the doorway. She smiled down at him and said, "How are you enjoying dinner, honey?"
"Good Mama, but we need more turkey and stuffin'. I was gonna ask Papa for some more."
"I'm happy to help, sweetheart," she replied as she led him back into the kitchen where Tamara and Noah were both debating whether they liked Bastien's solution or not.
After Zhara had brought more turkey and stuffing to the children's table Lucas dug into it some more. He also had a small piece of ham and was relishing all the variety of food that was available. He was going to do as his cousin's suggested and "pig out".
Ryan liked the twice baked potato Coral had placed on his plate and took a little more of the sweet potato casserole.
"Don't forget the meat and the other things, Hon," Coral said with a smile. He was happy that his boy was feeling comfortable enough with the family to be himself.
The turkey was juicy and not dried out and he enjoyed it as well as the cranberry sauce and the stuffing was good to the young man too. "Mama makes really good stuffin'," he remarked.
Coral took some more turkey and poured gravy on it for himself. Dono had cut open one of the rolls and was making himself a ham sandwich. "Mmmm, she's the best cook in Maine."
"Hey!" the other three women cried in mock outrage. They looked at each other and laughed as their husbands each put an arm around their wives for hugs.
"Well, let's say that Mama is the best cook in Bangor, how's that?" Brayden suggested. He'd been too busy eating to add much to the conversation before.
Ryan took some of the ham as well and following Dono and the other men's example made a sandwich of it on one of the rolls.
Omari took turkey, stuffing and gravy and made a similar sandwich. "It just gets better and better," he said with a smile.
"I can't get enough of the cranberry sauce," Opal said. "Mom makes it fresh every year. I like it better than the canned stuff."
Ry still a bit shy, ventured, "Dono, you don't owe me a whole dollar, because I sorta like the broccoli, but since it's not high on my favorite list you only owe me fifty-cents," he teased.
The men all started laughing as Don reached into his pocket for the promised dollar. "A deal is a deal, Ry," he said, handing over the money with a grin.
The young man flushed with pleasure and shyness. He glanced at Coral to see if it was all right to take the money.
The older man winked at his partner and gave him a little nod.
Ryan took the dollar and said, "Thanks Dono, but you really didn't have to, it was all in fun."
The women, who had had more than their fill for the moment, sat back and enjoyed the men's antics. Zhara arrived just in time to see the exchange. "A deal is a deal," she unknowingly repeated with a grin. She sat down again even though she was sure she had no room left for more food. She watched the men eat their sandwiches and wondered where all that food got to, since they never seemed to get full.
"Anyone who's done let me know, I'll start taking the dishes into the kitchen," Opal offered.
"I'm done," Ame replied, "I'll help."
Topie, who was holding the baby began to get up but was gently restrained by her husband's hand. "I'll help them. You relax," he said with a smile.
He kissed his wife and youngest on the head, handed Angie over to his father and began gathering up dishes and utensils.
Ry was finally stuffed and said, "I can help too."
Lucas had finally stuffed the last of the stuffing and turkey into his mouth and swallowed. "I ain't been so full in my whole life!" he exclaimed.
"We're not done yet," Kyle grinned. "We're just gonna take a break and then afterward we're gonna have dessert. There's cake and pies, and all sorts of stuff!"
"And whipped cream," Austin added. "I like whipped cream."
"Cool Whip," Caitlyn said, emphasizing the H. The Kyle and Bastien laughed but the younger ones didn't understand the joke.
"What's so funny about that?" Austin asked, confused.
"Don't worry about it, Squirt. We'll tell you when you're older," Bastien replied.
Lucas's brown eyes widened. "More food and all desserts?" He looked confused at the cool whip joke as well.
"Mixed nuts, my favorite," Sasha said. "I can't get enough of those things."
“Roasted chestnuts!" Tamara said with a grin.
"Tangerines, oranges. apples, well, lots of fruit too," Kyle said, licking his lips. "I love oranges."
"Pumpkin, apple, pecan and sweet potato pies," Jonathan said.
“With whipped cream," Austin reminded them.
"What are chestnuts?" Lucas asked. He shook his head at the mention of all the things still to come. "I don't know if I'll have room to eat all that," he complained with a pout.
"That's why we take a break before dessert," Kyle said, understandingly. It hadn't been that long since he'd been Lucas's age.
"These big things that come off of trees, like walnut sized but not shaped the same," Caitlyn said. "Papa roasts them in the oven and we crack them open with our hands and eat them as hot as we can take em."
Lucas nodded as the older children explained things to him.
"Yeah, we're gonna go back out and play more games. We can play Simon Says for a little while, like you wanted, and then everyone gets to play touch football. That's a lot of fun," Jonathan replied.
"Yeah, everyone gets outside and we all play, except Xander I guess, he's still too little," Noah added.
"And Angie," Tamara said. "I'll bet Auntie Topie'll put them down for a nap."
The little boy's brown eyes sparkled. "It's gonna be lots of fun!"
"Yup!" Noah agreed with a grin.
Lucas grinned. "Yep and we'll win too!"
Ryan began to clear away the dishes and grinned at hearing the children's conversation.
The adults began to file into the kitchen with the dirty dishes and plates and bowls full of leftovers. "Ok ladies and gentlemen," Opal said with a smile, “everyone clean your plates off and put them on the counter so we can put them in the washer, then you can help clean the table. After that you can all go outside. Your dads will be out there soon to play football."
"And we'll be out shortly afterward." Zhara grinned as she brought out a stack of empty plates.
The youngster took his plate and did as Opal instructed. "I'm done Aunt Opal," he told her.
"Good boy, help the others please, and help clean the table. Caitlyn honey, you can sweep the floor when the table is cleared and then go outside with the others."
"Ok, Mom," the little girl replied, jumping up to do as she'd been told. She was as eager to get outside as the others.
All of the kids got up and scrambled to do as they were told, all chattering and laughing as they made their plans for the upcoming football match.
Ryan collected the glasses and began to remove the bowls and platters from the children's table, combining the left overs so they could be put away.
Seeing the young man beginning to put all the left overs into one bowl, Coral went up behind him and hugged him around the waist, making Ry stop what he was doing as he leaned back into the embrace. He leaned down to plant a little kiss on his boy's neck and then smiled down at him. "You're doing great, Hon," he praised.
Ry startled for a moment, but then smiled up at Coral and the praise. "Thanks Cor. It's kinda fun."
"Let's hurry and help with the cleanup," Coral whispered. "All of us are going to go out and play football before it gets too dark and... well... I don't know about you but I'd like a little alone time first. Sound good?"
Ryan gave Coral a light kiss. “Oh yeah…sounds wonderful,” he whispered back.
Without either of them realizing it, Zhara had approached them with a smile, taking the partially filled bowl and taking it away to separate the thankfully dry contents into their own containers.
Lucas raced outside with his cousins. "Are we gonna do Simon Says first?" he asked a bit anxiously. He wasn't sure about football, he had never played, but knew how to play Simon Says as he had played it with his cousins before when they'd visited.
Jonathan, Noah, Austin, Tamara and Sasha raised their hands. "We'll play!"
Caitlyn, Kyle and Bastien thought they were too old to play Simon Says and settled on a game of tag while they waited for the family football game.
With all of the adults working together the cleanup was done quickly. Topie, as predicted, put Angela and little Xander down for naps and went to take one herself while she could. She convinced Dono, who didn't need much convincing, to go outside with the rest of the family for the football game. He tucked his wife under the throw blanket and kissed her before he left. She was asleep before he got out of the door.
Zhara and Omari joined the others outside. "Who's ready for some touch football!?"
By the time Coral and Ryan arrived outside the others were choosing up sides for their teams. Much to his surprise, Lucas was nominated as head of his team and was asked to pick first.
Ryan bit his lip, looking confused as sides were chosen.
Seeing the boy's confusion, Mutt explained how the game was played and tossed the ball to him a few times so that he could get a feel for it.
Coral looked at his boy to see his reaction to the instructions, just in case he was still uncertain. "Don't worry, there's no tackling, just a touch to the arm, shoulder or back is enough, alright, Hon?" he asked.
The young man nodded his face expressing relief. He had wondered if he had to touch the football and couldn't quite figure out how he was supposed to do that.
Mutt grinned and gestured to Ryan to join him a little aside from the rest of the family. When the younger man had joined him, he said in a low voice, "We have the advantage here, believe it or not. Don't let all of those overgrown oafs scare you," he joked. "Just watch me and the kids."
The young man smiled at Mutt and nodded. "'Kay, I won't."
Lucas began to pick his team and chose Ryan to be on his side and the young man smiled as he went to Lucas's team.
Omari picked Austin, and soon the sides were more or less evenly matched.
Mutt was pleased to find himself on Lucas's team as well. Omari started the play and everyone began running, trying to tag the person who held the ball before he or she threw it to another team member.
Ryan watched closely as Mutt easily ducked under the hands of the much taller men who were trying to get him. He, Ryan and Lucas, being some of the smallest players, made more touch downs than the other seemingly more athletic players.
The young man found that Mutt had been right. Being light on his feet he was able to flit and skitter out of the way and to toss the ball before he was touched. Even Coral or Jeff couldn't touch him.
Lucas cheered Mutt and Ryan on.
Dono, who had been protecting Austin from running feet, got hold of the ball and accidentally tripped over his own and fell. Austin, thinking that he was supposed to pile on as he'd seen football players on television do, jumped on his father's stomach. "I got him!" the little boy crowed happily.
Dono's breath came out in a loud, "Ooooooffff!" which caused the adults to laugh.
Austin barely weighed anything and they knew he was making a big deal out of it to make his little boy laugh as well.
Lucas cried, "Good Austin, keep him down!"
The family called good natured jibes at each other as they played, cheering Ryan, Mutt and Lucas who despite increased efforts on the other's part to get a touch on them, managed to avoid it. Little by little some of the players got tired and settled down to watch from the sidelines to cheer their teams on.
Ryan laughed as Dono went down, then skittered away from Coral as he now had the ball and tossed it to Mutt.
Mutt, with a ballet dancers grace, swerved and twirled through the mass of bodies to score a final touchdown before Omari had to call a halt to the game due to lack of light.
"Dessert!" Zhara reminded them all before they could complain.
Lucas jumped up. "Let's go and see all the desserts!"
"I'm with you!" Jonathan said to Lucas, grabbing his cousin's hand and running inside with him to be the first to the dessert tables.
Ryan glanced over at Coral.
The older man saw his boy's expression and pulled him aside. He put his arms around his lover and leaned in for a kiss. "Alright Hon?" he asked quietly.
The younger man nodded. "You're not mad, are you?" he asked, a bit of anxiety in his voice.
Coral looked at his boy, confused. "What would I be mad about, Angel?"
Ryan said quietly, "'Cause I wouldn't let you touch me and...well our team won?"
The older man grinned widely and chuckled. "Of course, I'm not mad, Ry," he reassured his lover. "I couldn't have been prouder of you. You were like a cat out there, fast, graceful. For a first time player your teamwork was amazing. Impressive, even." He smiled as he looked his boy in the eyes. He bent down a little, looked around to see if anyone was in earshot and whispered, "I nearly grabbed you off the field a few times so that we could use some of those moves elsewhere."
The young man blushed furiously, but hugged Coral tight. "Good, I was kinda worried."
"No need to worry with me, Hon. I loved watching you out there," he said, leaning down to steal a kiss. "But now, what I am worried about is that the desserts are all going to be gone before we get in there, so let's head in. Maybe we can go for a walk after dessert. Just the two of us. Sound good?"
Ry hugged his lover once more and nodded. "Sounds great."
Lucas's brown eyes widened at the array of desserts. He asked, "Mama...can I have one of each thing at least?"
Zhara laughed delightedly and hugged her little one. She knew that if she asked her son what he wanted to start with he wouldn't be able to choose just one, so she sat all of the children down, including little Angela who had woken up, and placed a slice of pumpkin pie in front of each of them, adding generous dollops of whipped cream on top.
"Start with this my little darlings," she smiled. "When you finish this you can get something else."
Lucas looked at Mutt as he and Jeff were putting dessert items on their plates. He wanted to be like his Uncle Mutt.
Coral helped Opal and Ame carry pies into the dining room. Kevin, Dono and Brayden toted cups, saucers and the first of many pots of coffee.
Topie decided to stay out in the kitchen with the children for when they were ready for their next selection. Once he'd helped stock the dining room for the adults, Don joined his wife in the kitchen.
Ryan started with a piece of pumpkin pie as well, but fully intended to try each thing offered up on the dessert table. It all looked so good to the young man and rarely had he been able to indulge in such a fare as what he saw. His green eyes widened about as much as Lucas's brown ones had at his first sight of all the desserts.
"Chestnuts are in the oven. They'll be ready by the time we finish," Omari announced as he sat down to his own piece of pie.
Ry looked at his lover at the mention of chestnuts. He whispered, "Are they inside a chest in the oven?"
Coral smiled at his lovely boy and leaned in for a hug. "No, Hon, they're not in a chest. It's got something to do with the Latin name for them, I think," he whispered back. "You'll have to wait and see for yourself. Be careful though, some aren't as good as others so take small bites out of them when you first open them."
"Who's ready for pecan pie?" Zhara announced, seeing that the pumpkin pies were nearly gone.
Ryan called, "I am!" He then looked at Coral. "You're sure? I always thought because of that Christmas song they put them all in a chest on the fire to roast." Ryan wasn't much of a vegetable eater and so hadn't really ever visited the produce section of a grocery store while he was on his own. He did now when Coral took him, but chestnuts weren't quite in season the last time they went, so he hadn’t seen them. He knew Chinese food had water chestnuts in them, but assumed they kept those in a chest full of water as well. There were a lot of things in his life Ryan hadn't experienced as a result of his parents and their manner of bringing him up.
In the kitchen Topie and Don were busy doling out the next round of desserts to the kids when they heard a loud pop come from the oven. Austin, startled, jumped a bit causing Angela to drop some of her pie onto her lap. "Aussin!" she yelled.
Lucas looked at his cousins curiously. "When will those chestnuts be ready? I'd like to see one." At the loud pop he jumped. "What the he...was that?!"
Topie smiled at the boy. "They'll be ready soon, judging by that sound."
The little boys asked, "Was it them nuts makin' that noise?"
"Yep," she laughed. "It's not a real Thanksgiving or Christmas unless we hear that sound. I can turn on the inside light so that you can see them as they heat up. That was just one of them popping from heat because Gran'pa didn't cut into it far enough to let the steam out."
Lucas and a few of the younger children went over to the oven to see.
Topie turned on the inside light and let the boy look. "Don't touch the oven though, darlings, it's hot."
Ryan having heard the loud pop jumped and then got up to run into the kitchen thinking someone was shooting in there.
Dono and Topie both jumped when Ryan rushed into the kitchen. "Ry, what's wrong?" she asked worriedly.
"Everyone! Get down!" he cried, grabbing a couple of the children and crouching to protect them and himself as well and trying to see where the shot had come from.
The children all saw their uncle crouch low and heard the tension in his voice. The little ones began to cry and the older ones bolted off of their chairs. Some to run to their parents in the other room, some to join Ryan on the floor.
"What's wrong?" Topie asked, trying to stay calm and slowly losing the battle. "What happened?"
Don grabbed Angela who was crying and held her close as he joined the others on the floor.
The other adults saw Ryan jump up and run into the kitchen and heard his yells. They followed closely behind and nearly ran into their panicked children.
Coral caught up with Ryan, keeping low and keeping a sharp eye out for danger.
"There's someone shootin' at us!" the young security guard shouted, confused at the pandemonium.
Lucas ran to Mutt when the children started to panic.
The man wrapped the little boy in his arms and covered his head, trying to keep the boy's body shielded if anything happened.
Coral held his breath, waiting for the sound of another shot. "Everyone stay down," he said calmly. "Get the kids into the basement, guys, and stay low."
The adults, trying to stay calm for their children's sake began to herd them toward the basement door.
At that moment another pop came from the oven, followed by another and another.
Ryan looked around to see where the sound was coming from and looked at the oven, confusion evident on his face.
It took a moment for Coral to realize what had happened. He was torn between consternation and laughter. He took a deep breath and said, "Everyone, it's ok. It was just the chestnuts." He stood up and went to the oven to turn it off just as another one popped loudly.
One by one the adults stood up, holding terrified children close and trying to soothe them.
Once Mutt realized what had actually happened he spoke soothingly to the boy in his arms and patted his back.
Topie glared at Ryan, scooped up Angela and went upstairs with her without another word. Dono, dumbfounded and worried about his wife, followed quickly, little Xander held close to his chest.
Omari took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "As Coral said, everything is fine," he announced in a firm voice. "Let’s all just please, calm down." He looked at Coral and then at Ryan.
Ryan looked at Coral, dumfounded, then blushed a bright red. Seeing Coral's sister glare at him he sank onto a kitchen chair and put his face in his hands. He was mortified now. He hadn't meant to make such a mistake and now felt foolish and like a complete idiot.
The other children were recovering slowly. Some were still shaken but the oldest of them began to laugh in relief.
Lucas smiled up at Mutt and as his cousins began to laugh, so did he.
Coral put his arms around Ryan and held him close. "Come on, Hon. Let's go downstairs for a little while and let everyone settle down up here. I think you need to have some quiet after all that too," he said softly.
The young man just allowed his lover to lead him away.
Kevin and Brayden sat down, feeling boneless with relief and trying not to laugh.
Lucas snuggled with Mutt. "Do ya think them nuts are ready for us to eat Uncle Mutt?" he asked.
Mutt bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. "Yeah, I think they're pretty well done by now."
The little boy nodded and stayed with his uncle.
"Everyone have a seat," Omari said. "I'm going to take them out of the oven and I don't want anyone nearby when I do it. Understood?"
"Yes Gran'pa," most of the children said from the comfort of their parent's arms. Jeff had found himself with a couple of freaked out children and was calming them down as well, cracking jokes and making them laugh despite the scare they'd had.
Omari, with oven mitted hands, pulled out a tray filled with chestnuts, emptying it out into a large cloth lined bowl before taking out the next tray and repeating the process. Heat flooded the kitchen carrying the scent of the nuts along with it.
“Ok, folks, let them cool down just a bit and then we can dig in. Remember to save some for your uncles and aunt," he reminded them. "Who's ready for some apple cider while we wait for them to cool?"
Lucas grinned. "I am!"
Everyone cheered. Omari sighed with relief, glad that the distraction seemed to be working. Kevin and Brayden retrieved the gallons of cider from the porch where they'd been keeping cold while Zhara and Opal brought out packs of disposable cups.
As Coral and Ryan passed him, Omari put out a reassuring hand and touched each of them on their shoulders before letting them continue to the basement.
Coral closed and locked the door behind him and led his boy down the stairs and toward the couch. He sat down and pulled Ry down next to him, holding him close. He could feel his lover’s rapid heartbeat and he began to rub the young man's shoulders and back.
Ryan hid his face in his hands. "Oh God Coral...what have I done? You're family's gonna hate me now and I've ruined everything," he whispered brokenly through his hands.
"No one is going to hate you, angel," Coral said softly. "It was an honest mistake, and once we explain everything to them... it's easy for someone who has never heard the sound of chestnuts bursting in the oven to mistake the sound for something else. I'm sure once we tell them, they'll understand, and no one is going to hate you. I promise. Now just take deep breaths, Hon, and let's get you calm before we head back upstairs."
The young man shook his head. "Don't wanna...I shoulda known better for God's sake I run a shootin' range...I oughta know the difference between a pop of some nuts and a gunshot by now!" he stated. "Maybe we should just leave...I don't think after this anyone will want me back again anyway."
“Ryan Jerome," Coral replied with just enough force in his tone to get his boy's full attention. "Have you ever heard a car backfire and thought it was a gunshot? I know a lot of people who have, even though they'd heard the sound before? We just take it for granted that some of the chestnuts are going to pop and don't think twice about it because to us it's just part of the holiday experience. It never occurred to me to warn you in advance."
His partner looked up at him at that, taking away his hands for a moment from his face, hearing Coral use his full name. "Yeah...I've done that a couple of times, but I know of guys who come out to the range who talk about that...some of them Veterans who have been in a war," he said quietly. "But Cor...I've never been in a war."
"But you do own and run a shooting range. And you are a police officer. Also as you know, depending on the caliber and how far away the shot is coming from, gunshots can sound different. I'm not going to just leave here with you without explaining things to the family first. Dad was Army, Kevin and Brayden are also ex-military. They'll be the first to understand."
The older man got up and went to the dry bar. He picked up a clean bar towel and ran it under cool water. Returning to the couch he gently put Ryan's head in his lap and placed the damp towel on his lover's forehead.
The younger man, his head now in his lover's lap and a cool cloth over his forehead sighed and then nodded. "I know you're right. I'm so mortified...I just reacted and...." He gave Coral a little smile. "You know I always want to run from hard situations instead of facin' them."
The taller man gave a soft smile and leaned down to kiss his boy's head. "You stand and fight when it's necessary. In a real battle, you stand your ground, we both know that. I've seen it. The only times you actually run away is when you find things emotionally overwhelming in your private life, not your professional life. You'd never have graduated from the academy if that had been the case."
Ryan nodded. "Yes, I do stand and fight professionally and...well...emotionally, that's another story," he sighed. "I wish I could be as strong there, but I just can't help it," he said dispiritedly.
"We'll get there together, Hon. You promised me you'd talk to me instead of running away from now on, and that's a good start. Now, as far as everyone upstairs... I know it's going to be stressful for you, but I want you to do your best to stay calm and not run, no matter what anyone might, and I stress the word might, say or do. As soon as you're feeling a little better, I'm going to go upstairs and ask all of the adults to gather in the kitchen... perhaps they can put the little ones into the playroom for the time being, so that we can all sit down and discuss this in a mature manner. Alright?"
The young man bit his lip. His green eyes searched the warm brown ones filled with love and concern and nodded. "Yes Sir...I'll stay put...I promise."
Coral sat Ryan up and gave him a gentle kiss on the mouth. "I'll be right back. No running," he added with a twinkle in his eyes.
The younger man gave his lover a smile as he sat him up and asked teasingly, "Not even in place?"
"Nope," the taller man replied, giving Ryan a gentle swat on his hip and another kiss.
Ry jumped a little at the light swat, but nodded. "'Kay Coral."
Coral slowly walked back up the stairs, listening intently for any words about Ryan. He heard nothing except children's laughter and amused, slightly scolding adult voices. He unlocked the door and went back into the kitchen with an apologetic smile. Topie was back, this time holding little Xander while she fed him. Everyone except her smiled a welcome.
"Mom, Dad, everyone, Ryan and I would like to talk to all of you about what happened earlier, and to apologize," he said, looking at his sister. "But I think he'd be more comfortable if it were just the adults to start, if that's ok."
The young security officer bit his lip as he heard his lover go upstairs. He had promised he wouldn't run, but his feet itched to take him as far away from this uncomfortable situation as he could get.
Topaz looked as though she were about to deliver a scathing reply when her husband put a gentle hand on her shoulder and shook his head slightly. She gave him an unfriendly look but bit back whatever it was she'd been about to say.
Omari and Zhara nodded their heads at their son and said to the children, "Why don't all of you go into the playroom and watch a movie for now."
Topaz began to get up but her husband once again put out a gentle hand. He looked at her questioningly.
"Well, someone has to watch the kids," she replied, her jaw tight.
Mutt raised a tentative hand. "Topie, I'll be more than happy to watch the kids. I think it's important that you, especially, stay to hear what they need to say."
Caitlyn also raised her hand. "I'm thirteen years old. I think I'm old enough to hear what they want to talk about.”
“Me too," Kyle and Bastien chimed in.
"You always talk to me like I'm an adult, and you're always saying that I'm very mature for my age," Bastien said, looking at his parents, "Please let me stay."
Ryan, sitting on the couch still began to twist his fingers together and then rubbed his face, all kinds of thoughts running through his mind. He had seen the looks the others had given him, especially Coral's sister Topaz. If looks could kill he would be dead right now.
Opal looked at her husband who nodded, since it was two of their children in question. Ame, chewed the inside of her cheek thoughtfully and then glanced at her husband who gave a slight nod as well.
"That's decided then. The rest of you go on into the playroom and watch a movie. Uncle Mutt will be there with you if anyone needs anything, alright?" Zhara said.
"Come on, guys, we'll have a lot of fun. Angela," he said, picking up the little girl, "you get to pick the first movie, how's that?" The man smiled, chucking the child gently under her chin causing the little girl to tuck it in and giggle.
Mutt led the children who were all making suggestions as to which movie the little girl should choose first, stopping only long enough to give his husband a quick peck on the cheek and a smile.
"Everyone, please, be patient, and please hear him out before you say anything, alright?" Coral asked quietly.
"Of course," Omari replied. "We'll all," he continued, looking at his youngest daughter, "listen with open minds."
Ryan began to worry his bottom lip. He looked up the stairs and wondered if Coral would ever come to get him.
Topaz blushed a little and clenched her jaw again, narrowing her eyes slightly at her brother. "Fine," she said tersely.
Coral went halfway down the basement stairs and smiled at his lover. "Come on, Hon, everyone is waiting for you." He held out his hand for Ryan to take.
The younger man hesitated, but went up the stairs where his lover was waiting and put his cold hand into Coral's. "'Kay Cor..." He shook his head “I’m as ready as I’m ever goin’ to be.”
The older man squeezed his boy's hand and pulled him close. After they'd cleared the door and shut it behind them, Coral put an arm around Ryan's waist and led him into the kitchen where the majority of the family were waiting for them.
Omari and Zhara smiled encouragingly and pulled out chairs for the two men.
Topaz moved her chair closer to her husband when Ryan was seated next to her.
Coral didn't miss that gesture and he gave his sister a look, pressing his full lips together.
The young woman turned her face away from her brother. At that moment, with almost identical expressions on their faces, there was a very strong resemblance leaving no doubt that they were related.
Ryan glanced furtively around the room and spoke softly, "First...I'm very sorry for ruining things for everyone. It wasn't my intention..." He glanced around the room again and took a deep breath. His hands were shaking. "I wouldn't blame any of you if you didn't ever invite me back..." He stumbled to a halt, swallowed hard and blinked a few times to get rid of the tears that threatened. "I've never had chestnuts before and didn't know about them poppin' like that." The young man twisted his hands together nervously.
Coral reached over and took one of his lover’s hands in his to still the nervousness and provide reassurance.
Bastien's eyes opened a little wider and he cocked his head in amazement. "You never had chestnuts?" He had a hard time believing it. It was a tradition in the Okoro house for as long as he could remember and he couldn't believe that a man Ryan's age had never had them.
Caitlyn pursed her lips. "He just said he never did, Bas. Clean your ears out."
"Caitlyn!" her father said sharply.
"Sorry, Dad," she replied with a sideways look at her brother. "Sorry, Bas."
"I didn't mean he was lying or anything," Bastien said, giving Ryan an apologetic look, "I just... well..." he shrugged, unable to find words.
Ryan said to the boy, "I'm an only child and...well my parents weren't real big on holidays or tradition."
Kyle's expression turned sad. "Jeez, Uncle Ry, no wonder. I'm real sorry to hear that. It musta been kinda... I dunno... lonely?"
Caitlyn went to her uncles and placed a warm hand over Ryan's free one. "Well, you have us now, don't you?"
Ryan swallowed hard at the children's words and gestures. "It's not so lonely when you don't know anythin' else and I hope I still have all of you after today and what I did." He couldn't help the tears that began to trickle down and disengaging his hand from Caitlyn’s, he swiped them away with his sleeve a bit impatiently.
The young man’s lover began to explain things to the others, "To Ryan, the popping of the Chestnuts sounded like gunshots. His first instinct was to protect everyone."
Coral looked at his little sister when he spoke next. "Ry owns and runs a shooting range near the resort. And being so close to a large patch of forest, hunting accidents have been known to happen.
When he heard what he thought were shots, his first instinct was to protect. He didn't intend to scare anyone."
Topaz relaxed her jaw a little bit, still unsure about whether to let the matter go.
Angela had been hysterical for what seemed like ages afterward even though in reality it had only been about ten minutes. Her heart went out to the young man who was speaking. If what he said was true, and she couldn't believe that Coral would be attracted to anyone who lied, then he had indeed had a very lonely childhood.
"Didn't you have cousins and friends to play with, Uncle Ry?" Kyle asked, eyes full of compassion.
Ryan shook his head. "No, some playmates, but then only when it was arranged." He looked at Topaz. "When I graduated from the police academy I inherited the shootin' range from my grandfather on my father's side. My parents didn't want me joinin' the police force here in Bangor so they set me up there instead. I've been runnin' the range for the past four years or so...until Coral made me come live with him about five months ago. When I heard that first pop it reminded me of a shot from a gun...I only wanted to keep everyone safe like Coral said, not scare anyone."
Topaz looked at the young man, still unwilling to let the subject drop for the moment. "So, you own a shooting range and you can't tell the difference between a gunshot and a chestnut popping?"
"Topie!" her brother said, trying to keep the sharpness out of his voice.
Ryan flushed his fair face turning a beet red. "I know it was stupid and I was stupid for thinkin' that way Topaz. I'm sorry and if I'm makin' you and the rest of the family uncomfortable when we leave I won't come back anymore." He glanced up at the young woman. "The last thing I wanna do is to create problems in this family...you're all so...well fun lovin' and know how to have a good time...you don't need someone around who can ruin things for everyone."
Omari looked at his youngest daughter with a disappointed expression. "Topie, if it had been a real emergency, then Ryan would have simply done what he was trained to do, which was to protect the family. As far as knowing the difference between a real gunshot and a chestnut popping, if you'd never heard the sound before, wouldn't you be startled?"
"She can't answer that, Dad," Coral said, anger tinging his voice, "She's never been lonely. She's never been deprived of anything. She takes all of this for granted. Ryan doesn't."
The young man in question was becoming acutely uncomfortable. It was taking all he had to not jump up and run out of the house and continue to run until he reached the resort. He had promised his partner he wouldn't, so he gripped the arms of his chair hard.
The young lady was beginning to become uncomfortable. It was true. There was a lot she took for granted, and she couldn't imagine what it would have been like to be an only child. "I'm sorry, Ry." she finally said. "Cor's right. I do take all of this for granted. The idea that... well I know everyone is different but the fact that you had such a barren childhood... it wasn't for religious reasons, was it?" she asked hurriedly. "I don't want to offend you."
Ryan shook his head. "No, both my parents are...well busy people with their careers," he said quietly.
When Topaz found herself the center of her family's gazes she flushed and looked down at her baby. She wondered what it would have been like for him if he'd been born to parents who probably hadn't really wanted him in the first place, and who were too busy to pay attention to their only child. She looked at Ryan... really looked... and for the first time saw the lonely, sad child he must have been. She knew then that it hadn't been some stupid prank.
The young man added, "I was a bit of a handful and so they pretty much let me grow up on my own."
"I can't imagine anyone not spending time with their child. Mom and Dad... well, one of them is always around. Even now,” Opal said quietly. "Everything we learned about parenting we learned from them." Her husband Kevin put an arm around her and pulled her close so that her head was resting on his shoulder.
"We even learned what not to do," Coral joked, looking at his mother and winking.
Ryan shared in a soft voice, "When I came out to them and told them I was gay they were pretty upset. I think it's the main reason they set me up with the shootin' range, although they told me it was because they didn’t want me to be in harm’s way serving as a law enforcement officer in Bangor where I had been offered a position after graduation. I could be out of their sight. My father comes by now and then when he’s in the area to check the books and stuff. I knew Coral at the police Academy. He was one of my instructors and took an interest in me. It was because of him I graduated at the top of my class." He didn't tell how his lover and him had gotten together as a result of his drinking problem.
Coral moved his arm from his boy's waist to his shoulders. "Also, Ryan is especially careful around guns and ammo. He's a very careful and caring person. If he weren't then... well, I told you, Mom, that he'd found Castiel at work. I didn't mention that he'd been dropped onto the range by a hawk that lost its grip. If Ry hadn't thought fast..." he let the sentence fade out.
Ryan looking up at Coral and hearing him tell about Cas visibly relaxed and smiled. "Yeah...that was a day. Poor Cas."
"A hawk had him?" Caitlyn asked, concerned.
"And it dropped him?" Kyle asked, eyes wide.
"Poor Cas!" added Bastien.
Ry looked at the children and nodded. "Yes, Castiel was dropped by a fledgling hawk. He was too heavy for the hawk to carry away and when I went to him he was bleeding and I brought him straight to our veterinarian on the resort. He had to have stiches and I cared for him with the Vet until he recovered. Shorty found out who he belonged to and I was gifted with Cas."
"If it hadn't been for Ryan's quick reflexes, the kitten could have been seriously hurt. And that's all he did here," Coral replied, looking at his little sister.
Topie's face visibly relaxed. "I understand now," she said quietly, looking down at the baby in her arms, knowing that if it had been a real situation, that the young security officer might have saved all of their lives. "But you can see why I was upset, can't you, Ry?"
The young man looked at Topaz and asked, "'Cause of the baby?"
"The baby, Angela, the kids in general... and you scared the life out of me. I... I hear about things happening out in the streets but I've never had... I've never experienced it for myself. I was afraid. At first I didn't understand... I thought you were... well... making some kind of horrible joke. I'm sorry Ryan."
Ryan shook his head. "No, I wasn't. I know about the things on the streets too and...well I wouldn't do anythin' like that. I honestly thought..." he sighed. "Well I'll know better should it ever happen again."
Omari smiled, his eyes sparkling. "Well, it will happen again, Ryan Jerome. And you will be here when it does. We'll just have to remind you about it when the time comes."
"And next time Dad is going to be more careful about cutting the shells a little better before putting them in to roast, aren't you Dad?" Zhara asked, her lips quirked up as she tried not to grin.
The young man looked at the whole family shyly and said, "Thank you."
Dono stood up from his place at the table and made his way to Ryan to put a brotherly arm around him. "It's all good now, Ryan, ok? I don't ever want you to feel as though you're not welcome."
Ry looked up at Dono and said, "Thank you...I appreciate that."
Jeff, who had been sitting by quietly, finally smiled, relieved that things seemed to be working out. He'd been worried that Ryan was going to slip out of the basement door. He'd been tempted to tell the Okoros everything, but knew that Coral would have wanted to do that himself. It had been hard to sit by and only tell them basic things until the partners could come back and explain the whole story.
Don patted Ryan on the shoulder and went back to sit beside his wife who still looked a little embarrassed. "I'm sorry I... I guess I overreacted."
The young man gave Topie a shy smile. "We both did, but Cor and Mama and Dad say it's okay now."
Kyle snatched a chestnut from the cloth lined bowl and said, "Think fast!" as he gently tossed one to Ryan, who caught it smoothly. "I don't know about everyone else but I'm ready to eat these!" he smiled.
Ry grinned. "Why don't you divide them up and bring some into Uncle Mutt and the other kids. I'm sure all of you are tired of hearin' us adults talk and you can tell the story about Cas and the hawk too," he told the boy.
"Cool!" Bastien said happily. "The kids'll be psyched about how you saved him. Ah... I'll wait til the little one is in bed before I tell the others though," he said with a nervous look at his Aunt Topie's expression. "I don't want Angie getting upset again." He smiled when she nodded and the boy and his cousins put a generous portion of the chestnuts into one bowl, bringing an empty one into the playroom to put the shells in.
Ryan looked curiously at the nut he held in his hand. He watched as his partner peeled one and did the same.
Coral remarked, “I know that they’re called chestnuts because of some kind of Latin name, but you have to wonder why when they don’t resemble some kind of chest. They look more like someone’s belly to me.”
"Or someone's pot belly at the very least," Jeff joked.
“But then they'd have to change the name to Pot Belly Nuts, and I'm sure that would make people stop buying them," Don quipped. He stuck his own mostly flat belly out as much as he could to show what he meant.
Ryan bit his lip, but laughed at Jeff’s comment and Dono’s action. He began to peel the shell off and looked at the nut interestedly. He put it in his mouth and chewed. "They're good," he said with a smile.
Lucas had been having quite a bit of fun that day. He had loved all the food and his cousins and playing hide and go seek as well as Simon Says and touch football, but his little cousins were getting frustrating with their constant chatter.
The little boy frowned as he tried to watch the movie Angela had selected. Both she and her brother Austin had to chatter about everything in it and Lucas was getting annoyed. "Can't the two of you shut the h...heck up!" he burst out.
"Good save, Luc," Mutt said quietly as he scooped the child up onto his lap. "I'm pretty sure your Papa wouldn't have been too happy if he'd heard what you'd meant to say."
Finding himself in Mutt's lap he blushed a little at having been caught and shook his head. "No Papa wouldn't. Can we build somethin' with the Legos?"
The young man grinned, "Let's find them. I think your Mama and Papa have at least six storage boxes full." He got up, leading the little boy into the far corner where lines of shelves held just about any game a child could think of. He finally found the sweater sized boxes full of Legos and pulled out two of them. "We can start with these and go wherever our imaginations take us," he said.
They went back to the other side of the room where a child sized picnic table stood and they began to take out the small bricks and lay out a foundation.
Lucas helped Mutt, sorting out pieces and making suggestions.
"This is turning out great... whatever it is," the man joked as he began to build higher all the way around. "This could be a castle tower... or maybe the left leg of a dragon. Awww man, I'd love to try to make a dragon," he said wistfully.
The youngster grinned. "Let's do that...I can get more Legos!"
"Excellent!" Mutt said in his best mad scientist voice. "Let us begin constructing our masterpiece." While Lucas went to get more boxes of the little blocks, he began to create the second back leg of the dragon to match the first one.
The little boy grinned and ran over and got another box full of Legos. "Will these be enough Uncle Mutt or should I get more?"
The young man's mind calculated the outcome, size of the blocks, the possible size of each section, how many blocks per section, height and weight of each. "Well, the more stable we make it the more pieces we're going to need. I have some ideas already on how to balance it so it'll stand with its wings spread... if we can prevent them from crumbling as we put them together," he laughed. "Let's just use what we have so far and if we need more we know where to get them. But I won't be surprised if we end up using every block they own."
Lucas grinned and continued to sort out the pieces for his friend to use.
"You start to build the body, Lucas," Mutt instructed, giving the boy an idea of the size and girth it should be. "I'll start assembling the first arm and wing. OK?"
"And don't forget the supports inside so that we don't have to make it solid. That'll take up too many bricks, plus it'll weigh a ton." he laughed.
The little boy looked at Mutt. "Sports?"
"Ummm, well, you know the steel posts in Mama and Papa's basement? Those are supports. So basically you'll be building the body, including stacks of Legos on the inside to make the supports so that it doesn't fall apart from the weight of the head when we finish that and put it on. OK? Here, I'll show you how and you can keep on with it." He showed the youngster what he'd been thinking and grinned
proudly when the child caught on quickly and began to build interior supports as he built the main body.
The youngster looked up at his uncle and grinned. "Mama and Papa will be s'prised."
"Surprised and proud," his friend said, glancing at the boy with a matching grin. "You catch on fast, and this is going to be one heck of a dragon when we're done. You're doing a great job with the body. When you get up to about here," he continued, pointing to a spot a few levels above where the little boy was working on just then, "start to push the bricks outward a little to make the chest... what do you think? Black and red? Red and yellow? A combination? Just use your imagination and let's make this the best dragon yet. And use some of the long rectangular pieces to make cross sections across the inside... like a skeleton."
Lucas frowned and gave Mutt a look at the word skeleton. "I ain't no skeleton," he said a bit huffily. "Mama says I'm gettin' meat on my bones," he informed the man.
Mutt looked confused at first and then remembered how skinny and small the boy had been when he'd first met him... was it only a few weeks ago? "You're right my friend, you're no skeleton that's for sure. You're growing into a fine young man."
The youngster said, "Papa says I'm gettin' heavier too. He groans and makes funny noises when he picks me up."
"Well, Mama and Papa are definitely taking great care of you. I can tell already that you're a little taller than you were when we first met. Pretty soon you'll be taller than me."
Lucas shook his head. "I don't think so Uncle Mutt...yar tall," he told the man who definitely was taller than the little boy. "How 'bout green ones if we got any? If we don't got green then black and red are 'kay."
The man winked at the little boy and then focused back on the arm and wing he was working on, setting it up alongside the body now and again so that he could see where it would fit. "You're doin' great kiddo. Just a little further up, another level at least, ok?"
Mutt huffed in annoyance as he worked to create the wing. "The problem with these blocks is that they're too... well, blocky," the young man said with a lopsided grin. "But we're not going to let that stop us from creating the best dragon ever made."
The man sorted through some of the boxes, picking out as many of the green, red and black blocks he could find. Some of them would undoubtedly be tricky to work with but he knew that they'd make them work no matter what. Mutt, for one, was really getting into the project. He finished the first wing and began the second. He glanced at the body that was coming along beautifully and smiled again at Lucas. "You're doing a great job there, Luc."
The little boy grinned. "Thanks Uncle Mutt. Yar doin' a good job too."
"Thanks kiddo! That's a real compliment coming from you," he smiled.
The youngster grinned at the older man’s words and continued to work diligently at constructing the framework of the body following Mutt's instructions.
The young man finished the second wing and set it, and then the first one, carefully onto the body. "Doin' great buddy, let's start narrowing it down for the neck now. Then we can start constructing the head. I've got the tail in place."
Lucas grinned. “It’s startin’ to look like a real dragon Uncle Mutt,” he commented.
The resort engineer frowned when he began to look for suitable pieces for the head.
They weren't going to have much to work with as far as pointy teeth and flames
shooting out of its mouth the way he'd imagined it, until the imaginary light bulb went off above his head and he went to the desk where craft supplies were kept. He pulled out some toothpicks, tape and red construction paper and set them aside.
Hearing the laughter coming from the far corner of the room, and frankly bored with the movie that his cousin Noah had picked out, Jonathan slipped away to see what Mutt and Lucas were doing. "Wow, that's so cool!" he said loudly.
Lucas worked on the neck of the dragon and looked up. "Uncle Mutt...how's that?" the little boy asked.
"Perfect! Just add the scales to the back of its neck to even out the weight and we can start the head. Hello there, Jon," Mutt greeted the newcomer.
The little boy began work on the scales.
"Can I help guys? Please?" Jonathan asked, putting on his best puppy dog eyes.
Noah, hearing his cousin's raised voice, stood up and went to see what was going on. "Wow, that's amazing!" he exclaimed in a somewhat lower tone.
"Hi, Noah. Check this out, right?" Jon grinned.
"We're nearly finished," Mutt said proudly. "We're just going to construct the head and it'll be all set."
"Can I help, Uncle Mutt, please?" Noah asked.
The man looked at Lucas, "Whadda ya say, sport?"
Jonathan and Noah both looked at their cousin and said, "Pleeeeeeaaaaaassssseeee?"
Lucas smiled at his two cousins. "Yeah ya can help, but ya gotta do as Uncle Mutt says so it don't get messed up."
“Whoo hoo!" Noah shouted, catching the attention of Austin who was still engrossed in the movie. He looked over at his little sister who was half asleep on the couch as were Tamara and Sasha, and went over to the other boys. "What's goin' on? What's that?"
Lucas said, "It's a dragon and Uncle Mutt is helpin' to build it."
"Ok, guys, this is the important and hardest part," Mutt explained. "Take some of those long rectangular pieces and balance them across the top of the neck. Find where the center of gravity is going to be and then we can start building the head." He looked at the thing they'd built which was a good two feet tall and gave it another experimental push. It was solid on its base and he grinned. "You did a great job there, Luc. Ok guys, let's get building. Make sure the mouth itself is nice and wide, ok?"
The youngster looked at his cousins and then at Mutt. "What's center of grave. That thing?"
The young man picked up a pencil and balanced it on his finger so that it laid across, steady as a rock. "Like this. Find where the center is, where you get the best balance, and build from there. Got it? Make sure you put the blocks on a little at a time, and keep testing the balance. As long as we don't make the front heavier than the back, we're golden."
The little boy smiled and nodded. "Got it...whada ya gonna use for its tongue?"
Mutt grinned and picked up the construction paper and the tooth picks. "These are going to be its teeth... we need someone with a steady hand to paint them," he said, carefully cutting the slender picks in half with a scissor. "I forgot the paints though. Whoever is up for the painting part gets to pick out the colors."
"I wanna do it, please?" Austin immediately volunteered. He loved to paint and he had already decided on large, yellow teeth.
"Go for it, Aus," Mutt encouraged. "Just make sure you put down some paper so we don't get paint on the furniture, alright?"
"Ok, Uncle Mutt!" the little boy crowed happily, running to get the paint and brushes.
"Alright then, who wants to cut out the paper to make the flames?"
Lucas said, "Uncle Mutt...I got somethin' we can use for the flames!" He ran into his room and rummaged around in his closet and finding his treasure chest opened it and dug out the oval cigarette lighter he had taken from one of his foster families that had smoked. They were always leaving them around and it would be perfect for the dragon. He closed up the chest, pocketed the lighter, put the chest back in its hiding place and came back out to the living room.
"What'cha find, Sport?" Mutt asked with a grin.
The little boy pulled the lighter out of his pocket and flicked it and a flame shot out. "Dragon flames!" he told his uncle with a grin.
Mutt’s eyes widened in shock and worry, "Holy cr... crow!" he said, getting up to take the lighter from the little boy. "Where'd you get this? What on earth are you doing with a torch lighter!? Don't you know they're dangerous?"
The youngster frowned as Mutt scolded him. "I got it for a long time now. I was savin' it for somethin' special and this seemed to be special," he said and scowled as his uncle took it. "It's mine! Ya can't have it!”
"Lighters are dangerous in a kid's hands, Lucas." Mutt said, trying to remain calm.
"Heck, they can even be dangerous in adult hands in certain circumstances."
"I had it all this time and nothin' bad happened,” the little boy defended.
“Where has it been? You haven't been playing with it have you?" the young man asked worriedly. He still remembered the beating he'd gotten from his father when he'd accidentally set a small fire on his bed when he was four.
"I have it in a secret hidin' place. I've taken It out a time or two to see if the flames still came out," he told Mutt. "It would be perfect for our dragon. He can breathe out real fire!" the child said excitedly.
The man knelt down in front of the little boy and said carefully, "If you had tried to use it to make flames for the dragon, the Lego's would have caught fire and melted and you don't want to breathe in fumes from burning plastic, take it from me. You and I need to go to Mama and Papa and give this to them. Do you have anything else dangerous in your hiding place? Matches? More lighters?"
Lucas pouted and then shook his head at Mutt's questions. "I didn't think it would have melted the Legos or caused them to go on fire or anythin'," he told Mutt.
"And that's one of the many reasons they're dangerous in the wrong hands, Hon. Come with me, please," he said, walking toward the door to the living room. Once there he called into the kitchen, "Jeff? Can I borrow you for a few minutes please?"
Jeff stood up, looking a little concerned by the tone of his husband's voice, and excused himself. He walked through the living room toward Mutt. "What's wrong, Hon?"
"I need to bring Lucas out to Mom and Dad; would you watch the others for a few minutes? Please?"
"Anything I can help with?" Jeff asked.
Lucas looked up at the very tall man approaching and put on a tough look even though he was a little scared now.
"No, it's under control right now, we just need to talk to Omari and Zhara. I'll be back soon. We're building a dragon, maybe you can help with the head while we're in the kitchen?" Mutt replied, trying to smile.
Jeff knew that his husband was perfectly capable of handling whatever the situation was so he only nodded and headed into the room where the boys were all gathered around the picnic table, chattering excitedly and finding the pieces they needed for the head. Austin sat nearby, happily painting the pieces of tooth pick and deciding where to tape them when they were dry enough.
Mutt then put a hand on Lucas's shoulder and led him into the kitchen where everyone else was laughing and joking as they shelled the chestnuts.
"Mama, Papa, can we borrow you for a few minutes?" the young man asked.
"Of course," Omari said, concern creasing his brow a little. "We'll go into the dining room, is that alright?"
"Sure, of course," Mutt said quickly. He knew his smile looked forced but he didn't want to start another scare.
The two elder Okoros followed their youngest and the young man into the dining room. "Something tells me we're going to need to be seated for this," Zhara tried to joke.
Lucas had a dark scowl on his little face now, but went with his uncle.
Once they were seated, Mutt looked to the little boy and said, "I'd like you to tell them. It won't be so bad coming straight from you, I think."
Omari and Zhara both looked at their youngest with interest.
The little boy said, "Mutt's mad 'cause I wanted our dragon to have real fire.... he told me real fire would melt or set the Legos on fire, but I didn't know that. I got him my special dragon fire and now he won't give it back to me." The youngster pouted, crossing his arms and sticking his bottom lip out.
With that, Mutt placed the torch lighter on the dining room table.
Lucas reached out to snag it back.
Omari saw the boy making a grab for it and slapped his hand down onto the lighter, barely missing slapping the child's hand.
"A lighter, honey?" Zhara asked, surprised. "What are you doing with a lighter? Where did you get it?"
Mutt remained silent, still looking at Lucas to tell his story.
The little boy snatched his hand back in surprise. He said, "I got it a long time ago. One of the families I lived with left 'em around all the time. If they couldn't find one they just got another one," he told his foster parents.
Zhara exchanged a look with her husband.
"You are too young to have possession of a lighter, young man," Omari said quietly. "You could have burned yourself or something... or someone, else."
Lucas bit his lip. "I didn't think of that...I never done it 'fore...I mean burn myself or anythin' or anybody else."
Zhara didn't want to sound as though she were accusing her son so she took a breath before speaking. "Many home fires have been started, accidentally, by children getting hold of matches or lighters, Honey. Where have you been keeping this? And do you have any others?"
The child shook his head. "I ain't got any more and I was keepin' it in my treasure chest."
"Lucas, up til now we've been respecting your privacy," Omari said sternly. "However, I believe that this is important. I'd like to see your treasure chest. Now. Mama and I will accompany you to your room and you can show us what else is in there."
Mutt, taking his cue, patted his little friend on the shoulder and left the room quietly. He stopped in the kitchen for some cider before heading back to the playroom.
The youngster's brown eyes went wide. "Nuh uh! Nobody gets to look in my treasure chest! It's mine!" he cried loudly.
"The chest is yours. The contents, as long as they're not dangerous in any way, are also yours. If we find anything that a six-year old shouldn't have, then we will take it. Do you realize," Omari said as Lucas opened his mouth to object, "that if your little cousins had gotten hold of this they could have been hurt?" He picked up the little boy and carried him into the bedroom, choosing to ignore the curious looks from their children and grandchildren.
Lucas surprised at Omari's picking him up and carrying him to the bedroom wanted to struggle, but seeing the looks from his cousins decided to just go along.
Omari set the boy down gently and closed the bedroom door behind the three of them. "Go and get your treasure chest, Hon. Now." He said it quietly but the little boy knew that it was not a request and that his Papa was deadly serious.
The child got a stubborn look on his face. "It's special and it's hidden. No one’s s'posed to know where it is," he said sulkily.
"Second and last chance, little boy. Please go and bring the chest here to me," Omari said, sitting down on one of the lower bunks with his hands clasped between his knees.
Lucas bit his lip. "Whatcha gonna do if I don't?" he asked hesitantly.
Omari tilted his head down so that he could look straight into his little boy's eyes. "What do you think?"
The little boy bit his lip. "Spank me?" he asked biting his lip once again.
"I don't want to punish you, son, but I will if you disobey. If you have nothing to hide then you won't be in any trouble. If you have anything you know you shouldn't have and you didn't tell me, then you will be."
The child debated for a few minutes, then sighed and slipped into his closet, closing it behind him after turning on the light inside. He rummaged around for a bit, then opened the door, turned out the light and walked over to Omari and placed the chest into the large man's hands. "I guess ifn ya and Mama are gonna be my Mama and Papa it's 'kay."
Zhara stood by, her stomach in knots as she struggled inwardly as to how to deal with her son. He wasn't in any condition for a hard spanking, but he couldn't be let off with just a slap on the hand either.
Omari opened the lid and looked inside. On top were pictures of Lucas as a toddler, being held by a smiling couple who looked adoringly at the little boy in their arms. He dug further down and found more pictures, bright feathers and shiny pebbles, small toys and some change. The usual mementos of a six year old. Omari shook the contents of the box out and examined it, a frown of concentration creasing his forehead. He reached into the box and put his fingernails behind a couple of little pieces of wood. A spring-loaded mechanism made a little sproing noise and the bottom of the box came up.
"Noooo! Ya ain't s'posed to look in there!" Lucas cried in a bit of a panic, dashing to Omari and trying to take the box out of his hands.
Beneath the false bottom were several fireworks, including cherry bombs. Beneath that were several stacks of tens with smaller bills mixed in. Omari took the money and counted nearly two hundred dollars. His eyes went wide in shock. "Where did you get all this money, Lucas?" he asked.
Lucas frowned and then said with a bit of his old bravado and belligerence showing now, "It's my share...the older boys gave it to me!"'
"Your share of what, Hon?" Zhara asked, sitting carefully down beside her husband.
"What did you have to do to earn that money from the older boys?" The butterflies in her stomach were turning into writhing snakes, coiling and uncoiling as terrible images came to her mind.
The youngster shrugged. "Ya know, what I was doin' to Uncle Mutt when...well when he caught me."
The coiling snakes relaxed and so did Zhara, marginally. She sighed, expelling the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Honey, the fireworks have to go into a safe place with the lighter," she said quietly, "and as far as the money goes, I'd like to put it into a bank account for you for when you're older. You'll never want for anything you need. You know Papa and I will get you things like clothing and food. You'll always have a home and you'll always be warm and loved. Do you understand why I want to put the money in the bank for you?"
Lucas lost his attitude. "Ya mean I can keep it? Ya ain't gonna steal it from me?"
"We won't steal from you, Hon. Ever," Zhara said, looking into the child's eyes with her own warm brown ones. "It will be safe, and all yours."
The little boy studied both Zhara and Omari and nodded. "'Kay, I believe ya."
Omari and Zhara reached out toward the child to pull him into a hug.
Zhara kissed the boy's cheek before sitting him on her lap. "You'll have to promise me something, Lucas."
He looked at Zhara. "Whada I gotta promise ya?"
You have to promise me that if you find another lighter that you will not pick it up. Or if Papa or I are with you, that you let us know and we'll take it. You are not to touch another lighter again until you're given permission, which won't be for several more years. The same goes for cherry bombs and fireworks. Off limits without an adult nearby, and only an adult can set them off," Zhara said.
“And in the meantime, as Mama said, we'll give you everything you need, and even some of the things you want," Omari said with a soft smile. "And you'll be earning an allowance for doing your chores without being asked, so you'll have money in your pocket if you want to buy something special for yourself."
"Ya mean ya gonna give me money? I don't gotta steal it?"
"Yes, we will, and no, you won't have to steal. If we catch you stealing again... well, you remember what we said after what happened at school?" Omari reminded the boy quietly.
Lucas nodded. "Ya said ya was gonna spank me for stealin' again. I ain't done it since," he told them.
"We did say you'd be spanked for stealing. No, you haven't done it since we spoke to you last and for that I'm proud of you. However, did you know that fireworks and lighters are dangerous in the hands of children?" asked Omari.
The youngster nodded at their words, then shook his head at his Papa’s question about the things he had kept hidden in his treasure chest being dangerous. "I was just savin' the lighter for somethin’ special and the fireworks. I ain't never lit any of 'em 'fore."
"Good boy. Remember now, they're off limits for you. We light fireworks every July 4th and it's always a fun evening. You however, and the other kids, will not be allowed to set them off. You may watch from a safe distance while I or one of the other adults do it. Do you understand?"
The child nodded. "I didn't know they was dangerous. I just liked the way they looked," he told the older couple.
"You're a good boy Lucas. And you've grown so much since you've come to live with us. As long as you abide by the rules you won't get into any trouble. As long as you don't lie to us or steal, for or from anyone, then you won't get into any trouble. Understand?"
Lucas nodded. "Kay." He hugged Zhara and then held out his arms for Omari.
Omari gladly took the child into his arms and gave him a reassuring hug. "That's my boy," he said proudly. "Alright then, Lucas, you may go back and play with your cousins and uncles until it's bed time. We love you, little boy," he told him, planting a kiss on the top of the youngster's head. He put the child down and sent him on his way with a little pat to his behind.
Lucas paused for a moment and looking down at the picture of him and his parents said, "I think Mommy and Daddy woulda liked the two of ya." He placed his treasures back in his chest and hid it back in the closet and then he went on to join his cousins in the living room and to see how the dragon was coming along.
After he'd gone, Zhara breathed another sigh of relief. "I was so afraid of what he was going to say about where the money came from, Omar."
"So was I," her husband confided.
"How's it comin' Uncle Mutt?" the little boy asked as he ran back into the playroom.
"Just in time!" the young man said, glad that the little boy didn't look any the worse for wear. "We're just taping the teeth and flames into the mouth and he'll be ready to go."
"Yeah, we couldn't finish it without you," Jonathan said with a grin.
"I did the teeth," Austin said proudly.
"And I cut out the flames. Check em out," Noah added happily. "I added some yellow too, see?"
Lucas grinned at his cousins. "Looks great, really cool...thanks guys and you too Uncle Mutt," he said happily.
"Our pleasure, Luc. Ready to put the head on guys?"
"Yeah...let's get it on now." The little boy took the head carefully and fastened it to the neck he had constructed for the dragon. "There! Ain't he cool!"
"Cool," Austin agreed with a wide grin.
"We gotta show this to everyone," Jonathan crowed.
"Well, go on into the kitchen and call them in. It should be time for Mama's specialty soon and I don't want to miss out," Mutt ordered in a friendly way.
Lucas grinned. " Noah, Jon, ya gotta tell 'em 'bout it and that Uncle Mutt helped us build it."
"We all built it." Mutt smiled. "All of you helped, and I think we did a great job," he said, taking out his cell phone to take pictures of it and the boys.
Noah, Jon and Austin ran into the kitchen and Austin grabbed his father's hand. "Daddy! Mommy! Ya gotta come see what we made!" he yelled, a great big smile on his face.
"Hang on! Hang on!" his father laughed, "We're coming already!"
Noah and Jon also grabbed their fathers and began to drag them along as the men laughed.
The rest of the adults and older children got up and followed the excited little boys into the playroom. There before them stood a two-foot-tall dragon, it's wings outstretched, gaping mouth full of sharp yellow teeth as it blew blue and red flames at its audience.
Lucas grinned at Omari and Zhara. "What do ya think Mama? Papa? Even if it ain't breathin' out real fire?"
"It's wonderful!" Omari said proudly. "You built this, guys?"
"We all did!" Jonathan said. "Well, we helped with the head. Lucas and Uncle Mutt did the body."
"Well, isn't that the coolest thing I've seen in a long while," Dono said, admiring it from all angles.
"Nice job!" Caitlyn said, a little of the green eyed monster in her coming out. "How come no one asked us to help?
Zhara hugged each of the boys to her, including Mutt. "That's amazing," she praised.
Lucas snuggled into her hug. "Can we keep it together and show Mr. K when he comes back?"
"I don't see why not," Omari grinned, sandwiching their foster son between himself and his wife.
The youngster turned and hugged Omari, "Thank ya, Papa!"
Ryan came into the living room to see what all the fuss was about and grinned at Mutt. "Another one of our resident engineer's projects," he teased. "Maybe we should have a life sized one for the resort and then it can keep unruly visitors in line."
Mutt and Jeff laughed at Ryan's joke. "Why not?" Jeff said agreeably. "I for one would love to have one of these on the resort. Can you just see James's eyes when he got the bill for 20 million Legos?"
Ry laughed and grinned at his partner. "We don't want to give him a heart attack, but then again...Heath would be there to save him." He grinned once again.
Coral laughed at that and hugged his boy to him. "Good thing Heath knows where James lives."
The young security officer chuckled, returning the hug.
The older children gathered around the dragon, exclaiming over the colors and the form. Angela touched it and the head fell off, breaking into several pieces as it landed.
Topie snatched the little girl away before she could do any more damage and looked apologetically at the boys and Mutt.
Lucas seeing Angie break off the head cried, "Angie! Noooo!" He tried to pull away from his parents to run to the dragon.
The little boy began to cry when his parents wouldn't release him. Omari and Zhara held onto him, patting his back and trying to console him.
Ryan looked over in consternation as the scene unfolded with the dragon losing its head.
"Don't worry, Lucas,' Mutt said quickly, "when you play with Legos this is bound to happen sometimes. We can fix it in no time. Honest."
The child began to calm at his uncle's words.
Angela, knowing she'd done something wrong, began to cry and buried her face in her mother's blouse.
Jeff picked up the pieces and looked at them. "Sure, it's mostly still intact, look.'
Mutt took the pieces from his husband one by one and put them back together, adding a few more for extra support, then put the head back on.
"Look," Mutt said, turning toward the little boy, "it's all done. Good as new.”
Lucas glanced over and seeing the dragon whole again stopped crying, sniffling now. "T-thank y-ya Uncle Mutt."
The young engineer got up and walked over to Lucas, adding his arms to the group hug. "You're welcome, Lucas,” he smiled.
"I'm so sorry about that," Topie said, blushing a little while trying to calm her crying toddler.
"Accidents happen," Jeff assured her. "Angie is just a little thing, she didn't know any better. And it's all better now," he added, leaning down to look at the little girl who kept sneaking teary peeks at the dragon. "See?"
Lucas nodded as the dragon was repaired. He let everyone hug him and he wiped his eyes and runny nose on his sleeve.
Zhara winced when she saw the little boy wipe his nose on his sleeve. "It's time for dessert everyone. You all go on ahead, Lucas and I will join you shortly," she promised. "We made a special treat that we can't wait for you all to see." She grinned.
The youngster glanced up at Zhara. "Dessert again?" he questioned.
"You can never have too much dessert on Thanksgiving, I think. Besides, we made this special. We think you'll all enjoy it," she said, winking at her daughters who tried, unsuccessfully, not to laugh.
"We'll wait for you Mom, we don't want you to miss out on the unveiling." Opal grinned.
"Well, Lucas and I will just have to be quick about it. We'll be back in a jiffy," she said, picking the little boy up and turning toward his room.
"Uncle Mutt," Bastien said hesitantly, "are there enough blocks left for us bigger kids to, you know, maybe we can all make something together?"
The young man looked toward the shelves where there were two more sweater sized storage boxes full of Lego blocks and did some quick calculations in his head. "Maybe not another two footer, but something. We can see what we've got to work with and then decide on a design, ok?"
Ryan looked at Mutt as he thought about something the other kids could make and asked, "Can I help?"
The man grinned at Ryan and the older kids. "I'm looking forward to this great surprise, and to be honest I can't wait for all of us to work together to build another masterpiece. We can talk about ideas over dessert since we have another helper.” He winked at the younger man. “Eh Ry?"
Ryan smiled. "Yes, we can." He hadn't built with Legos before and was looking forward to trying his hand at it, pleased to be included.
Lucas held onto Zhara as she picked him up and brought him to his room.
She made a detour into the bathroom and took several tissues to give to the child to blow his nose, then brought him into his room. "Alright my little man, take off that shirt, we're going to put a fresh one on and put that in the wash, then you can wash your hands before we go back out, and you'll be ahead of the game," she said smiling.
Lucas did as Zhara instructed and smiled. "Now I won't have to wash my hands again?"
She could hear her husband calling to the other kids to wash their hands, and the adults once again crowding around the kitchen sink to do their’s quickly.
"Nope," she said, pulling the clean shirt down over his head. "You'll be all set."
The little boy grinned at Zhara as she helped him with his shirt and then went and washed up.
Ryan joined Coral at the sink to clean up.
Zhara, to save time, washed her hands as well and the two of them went back out into the kitchen where a rectangular something sat on the table, covered with a dish cloth.
Opal uncovered the treat with a flourish once her mother and Lucas had returned.
“Cool! Kitty Litter!"
“Gross, can't wait to have some of that!"
Ryan looking on, seeing the green 'chlorophyll' and the turdsy rolls, his eyes going all wide as he saw Zhara taking the poop scoop and serving it out onto little dessert plates turned pale.
Zhara, serving the dessert up, didn't notice the young man's expression at first. "Ry, would you like some?"
The young man stared at what they called dessert, his green eyes going as large as could be and then his face going from pale to green as he continued to watch them putting that stuff on plates for the kids to eat. “Ummm...what are you doin'?" he asked and then shook his head vigorously at Zhara’s question and ran from the room.
Zhara called out to the young man but he was too far away, or too far gone for him to hear her. Coral put up a reassuring hand and went after his boy. Hearing dry heaving coming from the bathroom he ran in. "Ry! Ryan, Honey! It's ok, it's just a dessert the kids like. It's cake, honey, nothing more than cake... and semi melted tootsie rolls."
Ryan had tears streaming down his face now. "H-how c-could they?" he sobbed out. Then his lover's words penetrated. "Cake...and melted tootsie rolls?" he asked in amazement.
"And cookies, and pudding... some other stuff I think. I'm so sorry Honey, I didn't think to tell you that Mom might serve this today, or what it was before you saw it. It's just another of those things I take for granted and don't think twice about," Coral said, taking a clean wash cloth off of the stand and dampening it under the cold tap.
He helped Ry up and sat him on the edge of the tub before dabbing gently at his boy's face with the cloth.
The young man began to cry again. "Cor...your family will never want me back at a family get together ever again."
The older man smiled gently at his lover. "Sweetheart, of course they will. They loved you at first sight, and they'll continue to love you the more they get to know you."
Lucas's brown eyes went wide at the unveiling of the dessert, at first not sure what to make of the disgusting looking stuff, but seeing his cousins grin and digging into the dessert he tentatively tasted his portion and grinned. "It's good! Even though it looks like sh..." he cut himself off and said, "Poop," instead.
Zhara, who was serving out the dessert, gave her littlest a sidelong look with smiling eyes. "Good catch," she said, before looking back up, concern on her face as she wondered how Ryan was doing.
She looked at her husband who only nodded and went after his two missing boys.
The young man sighed as he calmed down. "I feel so..." Ryan stopped before he said "stupid" again. He just sighed and rubbed his face with his hands. "I don't know how you put up with me."
"I happen to think you're wonderful," Coral replied, the love he felt for his boy clear on his face. "I've known you for a long time, Hon, but we've only been a couple for a short time. I... well I love you. The whole package. Everything about you," he said, giving his lover a kiss on the forehead. "Even I forget how literal you are, because I just accept it, and recognize it as being a part of who you are. It never occurred to me to tell Mom or Dad about it because..." he shook his head as he searched for the right words, "because you come as naturally to me as breathing. It's not something I think about doing, it just happens. Do you understand?"
Ryan's teary eyes looked up and he nodded. "Yes. I know you love me Coral." He reached out and hugged the big man tight.
The older man planted kisses all over his boy's face and neck before coming to rest on his lips.
Omari grinned at the sight of his boys and cleared his throat lightly so as not to startle them.
Ryan pulled back from the kiss hearing a throat clearing and seeing Omari looking at them. "Umm...sorry Dad." The young man said softly, his fair face coloring a bit at being caught kissing.
The elder Okoro smiled gently at the young man. "There's nothing wrong with two people in love showing it to each other, Ryan. You'll catch Zhara and I doing that frequently. Same with Tope, Ame and Opal and their husbands."
The young man smiled up at the older man. "Thank you Dad."
"And we're only just learning about you," came Coral’s father’s voice from the doorway. "None of us think you're stupid," he said, knowing what Ryan hadn't said, "any more stupid than the rest of us for not realizing what that would look like to you, especially if you've never had it before."
"Did you explain what it was, Cor?" Omari asked his son.
Coral nodded and helped his lover up. He looked his boy over and nodded in approval. "Ready to go back, Hon?"
"I'm sure mama saved you some dessert, if you think you can handle it? It doesn't look as realistic now as it did a little while ago, I'm sure." Omari grinned.
"And it looks gross but it tastes wonderful," Coral added, cupping Ryan's chin in his palm. "It's just something she makes for the kids on special occasions."
Ryan nodded and said, "Yes, I'm ready to go back and...I'll try some." He gave Omari a little smile. "I'm sorry I've been such a problem since I came." He ducked his sandy head.
"You're no problem Ryan," Omari said, putting his hands gently on the young man's shoulders. "It's all just part of being a family, and getting to know each other better. And we do want to get to know you better, understand? We'll expect you to visit as often as you and Corky are able, got me?"
"Daaaaaaadddd!" Coral said with exasperation.
The use of the nickname Corky made Ryan grin and he raised his face up to the older man. "Yes Dad and thank you...I do love Corky." He shifted his green eyes over to Coral and gave him a mischievous grin.
"I'm glad," Omari smile., "You're good for him. Now, let's go get some of that kitty litter before everyone eats it all up."
Coral waited for his father to leave the bathroom before giving Ryan a light, playful swat on the backside. He leaned down to whisper in Ryan's ear, "Leave room for me for tonight."
The young man jumped a little at the swat but then entwined his arms around his lover and whispered, "I'll look forward to it." Then kissed him with a promise of what would come later.
Ryan came back into the kitchen with Coral and Omari. His face still flushed said, "I'm sorry...the cake looked so realistic..." He faltered. "I'd like to try some Mama," he said quietly.
Zhara smiled in understanding. "I had pretty much the same reaction the first time I saw this at a friend's house," she admitted to the embarrassed young man. She picked up a large spoon and served some onto plates for Ryan, Omari and Coral, placing forks next to the plates for them.
Her son and husband immediately dug into the cake, picking up the misshapen tootsie rolls and taking bites, trying not to laugh at each other as they did so.
Ryan, at first poked at the dessert with his fork, but then put some into his mouth. His green eyes widened. "Wow...this is really good!" he exclaimed in surprise.
"A lot better than it looks, especially when it's still fresh in the pan," Omari agreed with a grin. "The first time Zhara made it I thought she'd gone insane, but the kids loved it."
Coral laughed, "She made it for the first time two Halloweens ago. It didn't help that she was dressed as a cat."
Ry, relaxing, chuckled and said, "Yes, I can understand that perfectly." He continued to eat the dessert until it was gone and then looked to his lover, his green eyes asking if it were polite to ask for more.
Not missing a beat, and without another word, Zhara spooned out another portion not only for the young man but for everyone left at the table. Mutt had since gone with the children into the playroom to begin their project.
Ryan smiled his thanks. "It's really good Mama...I'd like more of this at some time." He ate a semi melted tootsie roll he found in his portion and chuckled. "It does look like one of Cas's deposits in the litter box though."
Everyone laughed appreciatively, glad that the young man was relaxed and enjoying himself once again. "Would you like some coffee Ry?" Opal asked with a smile.
The young man shook his head at the offer of coffee. "No thank you, I'm goin' to join the fun in the playroom if that's all right?"
"That's fine Hon, I'll be in there in a little while. I can't wait to see what you're going to build," Coral said, giving Ryan another kiss before his lover got up to join the others.
"Well, in that case why don't we take the coffee into the living room where everyone can relax?" Omari suggested.
With everyone in agreement, the adults picked up their cups and saucers and were soon comfortably scattered about in the couches and chairs. Dono and Kevin were content to sit on the floor next to their wives.
"I'll be right back," Coral said, "I just want to see what they're up to in there." He grinned. "Jeff, you want in?"
“Sure," the other man replied. "I'll only be a minute," he said to the others, "I don't want my coffee getting cold."
Everyone smiled back, knowing that Coral only wanted another excuse to be with Ryan again, even if it were only for a few minutes.
Ryan joined Mutt and grinned. "What are we goin' to build this time Mutt?"
"Well, the kids have all been suggesting different things, and Jon is the one who suggested that we try to combine them all into one monster which I think will require more blocks than we have," he laughed. "How about you, Ry? Any ideas?
The young man asked, "Do we have enough to make a castle?"
"Why didn't I think of that?" Caitlyn said with a pout.
"That's a great idea, Uncle Ry," Bastien smiled.
Coral and Jeff stepped into the playroom and were listening and observing the action.
"But Uncle Cor, you can't stay here." Kyle said with a worried look, seeing his uncles standing in the doorway. "We want it to be a surprise, so no adults allowed."
"Hey!" Mutt cried in mock indignation.
Kyle blushed but grinned widely, "You know what I mean," he laughed.
"No adults except Uncle Mutt and Uncle Ry," Bastien amended. "Ok?"
"Fine, I can tell when I'm not wanted," Jeff laughed as he gave Mutt a kiss on the top of his head. "We're right next door if you need us. Come on Cor, I think we've worn out our welcome."
Plans began in earnest as soon as the men had turned around to leave. Coral and Jeff looked at each other and grinned. The castle would keep the kids occupied until bed time which would be a nice reprieve for their parents.
Just as they walked into the living room to sit back down they could hear Topie say in a somewhat embarrassed tone, "Are you sure he's not autistic? I mean, the way he acts sometimes, and the things he says. The way he reacts to things. I mean, look at what happened with the chestnuts..."
"Ryan is not autistic, Tope," Coral replied calmly as he walked back into the living room. "And even if he were, would that make a difference?"
"I'm just trying to understand, Cor," his little sister answered, blushing a little at being overheard and quickly looking around for Ryan.
"He's helping Mutt and the kids in the other room. I'm just glad he wasn't here to hear that."
"Then help us to understand, Cor, please?" Opal said, coming to her sister's rescue. "I mean... he's so... he's so..."
"Literal?" Coral prompted with arched eyebrows.
Don swallowed nervously and sighed. "I'm sorry, Cor, but... that kid... I mean Ryan... he's got to have some kind of issues. It would help if we understood."
Kevin, Brayden and the others, except for Omari and Zhara, nodded. Some murmuring to their significant others in quiet tones.
Jeff said, as he came into the room, having overheard the conversation among the others. "Ryan was somewhat of a surprise and an enigma to us as well. He's bright, funny and a very loving and caring person. His literalness didn't really become apparent to us either until he came to live at the resort. Occasionally we would raise an eyebrow at something he said or asked about, but we got used to those little quirks. When he came to be at the resort full time we saw more and more of it, but we learned it was just his way and tried to be patient and help him understand things he wasn't aware of."
"He's led a very sheltered life," Coral explained. "His parents never took him much of anywhere so that he could be with other people. When he started school he was very shy and didn't make very many friends. Only he and a few of the other 'outcasts' made any sort of connection. Even the arranged play dates were disasters, with the other kids playing together and leaving Ryan out. Otherwise, Ryan was left to his own devices. If we'd run into a child now, who is growing up the way Ry did, we'd accuse the parents of neglect. That's what Ry grew up with. He and his parents never went to family functions."
"He never went to church, picnics, gatherings. He was a very lonely child. He was never taught to do the things we take for granted like laundry for example. Christmas usually came and went with little or no notice. His parents were too busy going out to parties themselves for their business associates to think to do anything with their own son," he shared, bitterness in his tone. "And Thanksgiving or any other holiday were met with the same results, as you can probably guess."
Brayden and Kevin blushed varying shades of red, and his sisters merely looked guilty and sad.
"I never knew," Ame said quietly.
Don, with an apologetic expression said, "I'm sorry, Cor. I'd never have guessed. What a sh... cruddy way to grow up."
Omari and Zhara remained quiet, listening intently to the conversation going on around them.
Jeff said, "It's a wonder he turned out to be the kind compassionate person he is. He has his difficulties, but then none of us is perfect. He is a hard worker and has made friends with some of the other residents. I understand that when he was living at the shooting range the friends he had...or so called friends weren't people looking out for Ryan's interest, only their own."
"And he had no way of knowing that, never having had real friends," Coral added. "He's never had a real family life. He's never known unconditional love... until he met Mom and Dad, and I was hoping you guys as well."
Jeff added, "You should have seen the deplorable conditions that young man was living in before Coral insisted he move in with him. According to Mutt the trailer he had wasn't fit for even an animal to live in no less a human being. Ry hadn't invited people to his home after he started working for us part time. We chalked it up to his shyness until...well we learned the reality of his situation. I don't believe the boy knew how to even cook there were so many take out empty boxes around."
"So, you took him in when he was at his lowest," Opal said, nodding slightly. "That's so you, Cor."
"I'm sorry, Cor," Kevin said, looking ashamed, "Don't get me wrong please. I really do like him. A lot. I just don't... didn't... understand him until just now."
"Now that we understand better," Ame said, holding her husband's hand for strength, "I know that I'll be more open minded."
"I'm especially sorry, Cor," Topie added, standing up so that she could go to her brother, "I... what I said... it's only because I care, and because I worry. As you know, I work with kids with special needs. Taking care of special needs children is hard, I know. I just didn't want you to feel burdened..."
"I. Don't. Feel. Burdened." Coral ground out, eyes flashing. "In any way."
Topie smacked herself on the forehead. "That's not how I meant it, Cor... it's just that... a lot of my kid's parents admit to me that they have a hard time dealing with some of the things their kids do. They've admitted to me that sometimes they feel like a burden, but then," she said, cutting off her brother's impending response, "they admit to me how much they love their kids and that they wouldn't trade them for another child any day."
Coral gave his sister a nod, then went on to explain, "He's learned more in the past four and a half months about love and family than he'd learned in his lifetime. He means a great deal to me, and I don't want any of you to shrug him off like his parents did just because you don't think he's... what... good enough for me? Because I can assure you, he is."
"It's alright, Coral," Zhara said quietly. "We understand, and now your brothers and sisters do as well. Knowing now what we do will make it easier for us. And yes, without doubt, he's been good for you. You smile more. You're more relaxed. Happier than I've seen you in a long time."
Jeff put a hand on Coral's shoulder. "Yes, that young man has come a long way in the time he's been with you, Cor. And he's a good pet parent to Castiel as a result," he grinned.
Omari looked at his watch and jolted upright from his relaxed position. "Well, I had no idea what time it was! It's past the kid’s bedtime."
Opal and her sisters immediately got up, gesturing their husbands to stay seated, and went to retrieve their children from the playroom.
"But Moooommmm! We're not done yet!" Jonathan complained when his mother told him it was time to clean up and get to bed.
Ryan was putting the finishing touches on the castle they had constructed, placing the pennants at the turrets. The castle had a moat, drawbridge, and guard houses.
Zhara, hearing the boy's tone, went into the playroom to back her daughter up if need be. She saw the castle and she grinned with pleasure. "You boys have all done a great job on this!" she exclaimed. "Omar! Come see this!"
The men reluctantly stood up and followed their wives into the room where the children had been playing. Their eyes widened in appreciation and they clapped Mutt and Ryan on the shoulders. "This is great!"
The young man grinned. "It was lots of fun."
“But we're not done yet!" Kyle said.
"Looks done to me," Dono replied.
Lucas said, "Mama...Papa...Uncle Ryan and Uncle Mutt are the bestest!"
Coral walked around the structure, taking more pictures to add to all of the ones they'd taken throughout the day.
"I think so too," Omari replied with a smile for his youngest.
The little boy grinned back. "The dragon lives in the castle Papa."
"Hey! We can make a princess to put in the highest tower!" Bastien said excitedly.
Lucas nodded. "Yeah we can!"
“Tomorrow," Zhara said in a no nonsense tone.
Ryan laughed. "I think your parents want you all to head for your beds. We can make the princess tomorrow. We'll all be here for the weekend."
"Yay!" the children cheered. "We can play hide and seek again tomorrow, can't we?" Kyle asked, looking at Ryan. "I want you to be my buddy next time."
The young man grinned at the children. “Sure we can and I’d love to be your buddy this time Kyle,” He told the little boy.
“Now, everyone, gather round and let Uncle Kev take a picture. We want to keep this memory," the matriarch of the family ordered with a smile.
Lucas and Ryan gathered around the masterpieces, Ry giving Mutt a grin.
They took as many pictures as they could. Finally, Kevin set the timer and put the camera on a table so that they could get a photo of the entire family.
Ryan said, "Let me take the pictures instead of that timer thing Kevin." He went to pick up the camera.
"Oh no you don't, young man," Omari said with mock sternness. "Guys, on the count of three... grab him!"
Coral, Jeff, Mutt and Kevin dove toward the young man, pulling him into the frame and tickling him until he laughed.
Ryan, suddenly finding himself being tickled and dragged back by family and friends laughed hard and cried, "No fair!"
The flash went off and Don grabbed the camera to look at the picture. He grinned widely and showed it to everyone.
“This has got to be the best family photo we've ever taken," Zhara said, trying not to cry.
The picture showed the entire Okoro clan, laughing and smiling.
Looking at the photo, Coral grinned widely and showed it to Ryan. "This really is the best family photo ever," he said as he hugged his boy to him.
The young man looked at the group of happy people, adults and children alike and grinned widely. "Well it's the best one I ever seen. Of course I haven’t seen one before.”
Coral handed the camera back to Kevin who promised to have printouts made by morning for everyone.
Lucas asked, "Can we keep our castle and dragon together so Mr. K can see 'em when he comes back?"
"Sure can," Omari and Zhara said at the same time. They looked at each other and grinned, leaning in close for a quick kiss.
"In the meantime," the family patriarch reminded them, "it's time to get washed and dressed for bed."
"Awwwwww," the older kids started to complain.
"Story time for the little ones, and you older kids can read for another half hour, then it's time to sleep, understand?" Zhara said.
Ryan stretched and yawned. "Well I don't know about you rug rats, but I'm tired and ready to find my own bed."
"You're tired, Uncle Ry?" Jonathan asked, surprised that an adult would be willing to go to bed already.
The young man nodded. "It's been a long day. I'm used to workin' all night and sleepin' most of the day. I've been up all day, so now I'm tired," he explained.
"Ohhhhh!" Caitlyn said, understanding. "Well, I guess I could go to sleep too then, if you're tired."
“Me too," Mutt said, rubbing his eyes. "It's been a long day for us old folks," he joked.
“You're not old, Uncle Mutt," Kyle laughed.
"But I am tired, so I bid you all good night," he grinned. His smile widened as Jeff took his hand and led him out of the room and upstairs.
Ryan glanced over at Coral. "Corky, you comin' to bed?" he asked a teasing glint in his eyes.
Coral shot his parents a look and burst out laughing. "Yeah, Angel, I'm ready. Let's go," he said, wrapping an arm around Ry's shoulders and leading his lover to their bed.
"Don't worry about the cups and things," Zhara said. "I'll take care of them."
"Right Mom," Opal said with a laugh. "Like we're going to leave you with the cleanup. With all of us pitching in it'll go that much faster."
Lucas went into the bathroom and washed and brushed his teeth getting ready for bed.
Jonathan and Noah used the little bathroom off the kitchen, and Topie helped Austin get ready for bed before bringing him back downstairs into the room he and his cousins were sharing. The little boy was already half asleep and she tucked him in and gave him a fond kiss on the forehead.
Omari knocked on the bathroom door, alerting Lucas. "Ready, Hon?" he asked through the door.
The little boy opened the door and nodded and allowed Omari to take him to his bed and crawled into it to await his mother, seeing the others parents kissing their children good night and tucking them in.
Omari and Zhara followed the children's parents for goodnight kisses and hugs, spending time with each child and saving Lucas for last. They sandwiched the little boy between them and tickled him before giving him matching kisses on each cheek.
The little boy grinned at being sandwiched between his parents.
"Who gets to read to us tonight?" Noah asked.
Lucas said, "Papa...he reads real good."
"Papa it is then," Zhara said, arching her eyebrows at her husband and bowing gracefully out of the room.
The other adults laughed quietly and left their dad to entertain the little ones.
Omari picked out several books, giving each child a chance to pick their favorite... all except for Austin who had finally lost the fight against the sandman.
"Chicken Soup With Rice?" Noah asked, hopefully.
Lucas said, "The pig story again Papa!"
"Jonathan? How about you? Pick a book," Omari invited, holding out the remaining books.
"Green Eggs and Ham!"
"Excellent choice sir," Omari teased. He opened the first book and began to read.
Coral and Ryan got into their sleep pants and tee shirts, washed, and brushed their teeth before turning off the light and sliding into their own bed. Coral leaned over and kissed his lover hungrily. "You taste better than any dessert we had all day."
The younger man blushed and licked Coral's cheek and said, "You still are the best tastin' chocolate I've ever had...no wonder Castiel likes to nibble on your toes."
The older man replied by nibbling the tip of his lover's nose, working from there to his lover's ear and down his neck.
Ryan squirmed a bit, but relaxed under his lover's ministrations.
Coral pretended to be a vampire and nibbled on his boy's neck before falling back onto his pillow, pulling Ryan close again. He began to sing softly. "Now it's time, to say goodnight. Good night, sleep tight," he continued to sing quietly until he felt Ryan's breathing evening out, and soon after he was asleep as well.
When Monday morning came Lucas ate his breakfast as quickly as Zhara and Omari would allow him. He stacked up the pictures they had taken over the Thanksgiving holiday. The little boy was very excited and for once couldn't wait for his teacher to arrive. He kept looking through the window at the street to see when his car would pull up.
When the vehicle arrived, Lucas jumped for joy. "Mr. K is here! He's finally here!"
"There's my boy!" Mr. K greeted Lucas as he walked in and took off his jacket. "I have something to show you."
The youngster grinned. "I have somethin' to show ya too Mr. K!"
"You first then, Lucas." Mr. K smiled as he sat at the kitchen table.
The child ran and got his stack of pictures. "I had a great Thanksgivin' holiday!" he told his teacher excitedly. "Uncle Ry and Uncle Coral and Uncle Mutt and Uncle Jeff all came and all my other aunts and uncles and cousins. I got bunk beds and my cousins got to bunk in with me!" He showed pictures of the people and the bunk beds. “They ain’t really my cousins, cuz I’m really their uncle but we ain’t telling them that yet cuz we don’t want to confuse them so I call them cousins. Papa and Mama told me my Uncle Coral and Uncle Ry are really my brothers too, but I call ‘em uncles for the same reason.”
“I can see where that could be confusing for your new family, Lucas. So, it’s good you are waiting to tell them,” Mr. K said as he admired all of the pictures the little boy showed him and exclaimed at the ones of the dragon and castle, "Wow, those must have taken a long time to construct! Very well done!"
Lucas grinned. "Uncle Mutt and Uncle Ry helped lots and we got to play hide 'n seek and Simon Says and Uncle Ry won touch football!" Then he added, “We still got the dragon and castle in the playroom and I wanna show ya them for real.”
"Well congratulations on your win.” Mr. K smiled as he looked at the picture of the winning team, which included Lucas being held high on the shoulders of his uncles.
Mr. K's eyebrows rose nearly into his hairline when Lucas showed him the picture of the specialty cake that Zhara had made.
"That's... fascinating," he hedged.
The little boy laughed. "Mama calls it Kitty Litter cake and it tastes much better 'n it looks. Poor Uncle Ryan didn't know and it made him sick. Once he realized it was somethin' good though he ate it up like the rest of us." Lucas grinned.
Mr. K couldn't help but to laugh. That had been his initial response as well and he was glad to know he wasn't the only one. These are wonderful pictures, Lucas," he grinned. "I'm really happy that you had such a great time." He smiled. “You said you wanted to show me the dragon and castle for real?”
Lucas said, "I got the bestest family I ever had Mr. K!"
“You sure do, Lucas." Mr. K said approvingly.
Then the child took the man’s hand and brought him into the playroom to see the creations.
The little boy said proudly, my uncles Mutt and Ryan helped as well as my cousins.”
Mr. K smiled at the child. “These are truly wonderful creations and thank you for saving them and showing them to me today.”
The child grinned at his teacher. “Yar welcome.”
Going back into the kitchen and sitting down the teacher looked at his student. "Now, I have a surprise for you. Ready?"
The youngster looked up at the man. "Yeah, I'm ready Mr. K, what is it?"
The teacher opened his briefcase and pulled out a large hard covered green book with black pages. He opened it up and the first thing the little boy saw was an invitation to Mr. K's daughter's sixth birthday party, along with a picture of little Kimmie herself. The next few pages had pictures pasted in of the little Klemeshevskies, holding signs that said 'Happy Thanksgiving, Lucas!'
The rest of the book was blank and Mr. K reached into his bag once again and pulled out a glue stick and a white marker.
“These are for you. I want you to paste all of your good memories into this book, and write down the names of everyone in them and what you were doing when the picture was taken. If you need help I'm here."
The little boy stared at the book with the pictures, especially that of his teacher’s children holding up signs that said ‘Happy Thanksgiving Lucas’ and smiled at the pictures of his six-year-old daughter. "She's as old as me...when was her birthday?" he asked.
"She will turn six next month, just before Christmas, and she'd be extremely happy if you and your mama and papa could make it to the party. She doesn't turn six until the 21st but we're having the party on the 17th. What do you think? Would you like to come?"
Lucas nodded. "Yeah if Mama and Papa will let me. It sounds like it could be fun."
"It will be. We've arranged for an indoor party. There will be a pool and a bounce house, among other things," the man smiled,
The little boy then began to glue the pictures into the book having Mr. K help him to get them in straight and asking how to spell things as he wrote names and activities down.
Before they knew it their time was up. The teacher reached into his bag once again and took out several sheets of assorted stickers. "Here you go. After I leave you can decorate your scrapbook any way you like. Show me what you did tomorrow, ok?"
Lucas grinned and looked at the stickers. "Put them on the outside or inside?" he asked.
"Wherever your little heart desires," Mr. K smiled back. "And the first one," he said, peeling off a gold star, "Goes right... here..." he laughed as he stuck it on the little boy's forehead.
The youngster giggled as Mr. K put the gold star on his forehead. "I gotta show Papa!" He ran to Omari's office and knocked. "Papa!" he called excitedly.
"Come in!" Omari called, a little startled at the sound.
Lucas barreled in and climbed into Omari's lap. "I'm a gold star Papa! Mr. K said so!"
Omari laughed heartily as he hugged his little boy and admired the star. He turned toward the tutor who stood grinning at the door.
"Lucas has something else to show you."
“I got a picture book too Papa!" The little boy held up the book his teacher had given him. "Mr. K has a little girl and she's gonna be six like me. Can I go to her party?" he asked.
Omari looked at the invitation and smiled. He doubted that Lucas had been able to attend many birthday parties. "Of course we can go, as long as you want to. It sounds as though it will be fun."
The child nodded his head vigorously. "Yeah I wanna go!"
“I’m sure Mama will be very happy to be invited," he said to Lucas. Turning to Klem he said, "We'll be there, thank you."
"It's time for me to head out," Klem said as he tugged his jacket on. "Goodbye for now, gentlemen," he smiled and waved before turning to go.
Lucas watched his teacher leave and snuggled contentedly into his Papa’s arms feeling well loved and for once a child who was part of a family for real.
Kitty Litter Cake
1 (18.25 ounce) package German chocolate cake mix
1 (18.25 ounce) package white cake mix
2 (3.5 ounce) packages instant vanilla pudding mix
1 (12 ounce) package vanilla sandwich cookies 3 drops green food coloring
1 (12 ounce) package tootsie rolls
Prepare cake mixes and bake according to package directions (any size pan).
Prepare pudding according to package directions and chill until ready to assemble.
Crumble sandwich cookies in small batches in a food processor, scraping often. Set aside all but 1/4 cup. To the 1/4 cup add a few drops of green food coloring and mix.
When cakes are cooled to room temperature, crumble them into a large bowl. Toss with 1/2 of the remaining cookie crumbs, and the chilled pudding. You probably won't need all of the pudding, you want the cake to be just moist, not soggy.
Line kitty litter box with the kitty litter liner. Put cake mixture into box.
Put half of the unwrapped tootsie rolls in a microwave safe dish and heat until softened. Shape the ends so that they are no longer blunt, and curve the tootsie rolls slightly. Bury tootsie rolls randomly in the cake and sprinkle with half of the remaining cookie crumbs. Sprinkle a small amount of the green colored cookie crumbs lightly over the top.
Heat 3 or 4 of the tootsie rolls in the microwave until almost melted. Scrape them on top of the cake and sprinkle lightly with some of the green cookie crumbs. Heat the remaining tootsie rolls until pliable and shape as before. Spread all but one randomly over top of cake mixture. Sprinkle with any remaining cookie crumbs. Hang the remaining tootsie roll over side of litter box and sprinkle with a few green cookie crumbs. Serve with the pooper scooper
A/N Reference to emphasizing the H in Cool Whip was from an episode of Family Guy "Barely Legal," season 5, episode 8.
Song: Good Night, by the Beatles