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CONNECTIONS

J. Rocci



The Courting Series #6




SMASHWORDS EDITION

Copyright © 2017 by J. Rocci


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This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.


Contains Adult Reading Material


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Author's Note


Josh and Garrison are two of my favorite characters to write: former Marines, one a cop, the other a lawyer, both reserved but so obviously in love. Connections is the sixth short story in the Courting Series, but can be read as a stand-alone story. I originally wrote this as a short story for Torquere Press' Holiday Sips line, released in December 2010. I hope you enjoy Connections, and check out the other stories in the Courting Series:

Commitment

Cornerstone

Concordant

Concur

Competition





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CONNECTIONS


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Josh's phone alarm vibrates intermittently like a buzz-saw on the nightstand, heralding Christmas Eve morning. Groaning, Josh burrows in closer to Garrison's broad back, trying to wedge his own wide shoulders between his husband and the mattress, head under his pillow.

A sharp elbow from Garrison is enough to prompt Josh to silence his phone. He rolls over with a pitiful groan and lies with his arm outstretched, phone dangling from his limp hand. Why did he set it for so early again? Oh yeah -- guests coming, hosting a Christmas party, etc. Serves them right for being sociable.

Garrison sighs softly when the noise dies, and Josh figures he has a few more minutes of lazing around before Garrison really wakes up for the day.

A shift of Garrison's hips has Josh gasping, waking up pretty damn quickly for a man who went to bed exhausted. His pelvis rolls forward of its own account, his cock hardening as it presses against Garrison's ass, separated only by thin cotton.

"Mmm," Garrison hums, still half-asleep and pushing back into Josh. He nuzzles along Garrison's shoulder, leaving tiny kisses that tease even as his hand skims over Garrison's waist to the crease of his lover's hip. He runs a fingertip lightly over Garrison's cock, grinning when it twitches under his touch.

Garrison moans loudly enough that Josh shushes him, hand starting to pump his cock through Garrison's boxers. Garrison's more awake now, working his hips back to provide Josh with enough friction to go from interested to wanting.

Broad hands fumble past Josh's, pushing the elastic waist band of Garrison's boxers down before slipping into the slit of Josh's lounge pants to free his cock. The feel of his sensitive dick on sweaty, hot flesh makes Josh groan out loud.

"Shh," Garrison returns the earlier shushing with a grin, ass still rubbing Josh in all the right ways.

Josh would be content to get off just like this, but Garrison has other ideas, and the pop of the lube cap makes Josh take notice. Garrison's hand is slick and wraps around Josh's, jacking his cock with Josh until both their hands are coated. Josh muffles his groan in Garrison's back, listening to the wet noises of their fingers sliding together.

Garrison's hand leaves his and reaches back to capture Josh's dick and spread a new palm full of lube messily enough that it's coating Garrison's ass crack and lower back as well.

Hurriedly, Josh presses forward, straining with his slick hand slipping from Garrison's cock to his hip for better leverage. Garrison's hand replaces Josh's on his cock and there's just the sound of them writhing against each other, close enough to Garrison's hole to tease Josh, from sleepy to hot and needy, and the clench of Garrison's ass cheeks as he comes is enough to send Josh over the edge as well.

Josh shudders through his orgasm, the hot splash of come marking Garrison's back, before he flops back to his pillow. Garrison reaches for the tissue box, cleaning himself up before leaning over Josh on one elbow.

"Merry Christmas Eve," he purrs in his deep baritone, giving Josh a chaste peck on the lips that Josh tries to turn dirtier, but Garrison has this thing about morning breath.

"You better clean up quick before the kidlets wake up," Garrison warns him and rolls off the bed as Josh frowns in protest. He heads off to their bathroom, bare ass tempting Josh to follow him.

Instead, Josh mops himself up with tissues and a pack of hand-wipes he finds in his nightstand next to his badge and his cuffs. He doesn't remember how the wipes got there, and he's not asking. Instead, he's going to bask in his afterglow.

The patter of tiny stocking feet past the cracked-open bedroom door has him finally sitting up with a yawn. Their knee-high ninja is awake. So much for sleeping in. Blearily, he gropes on the floor for his track pants and jams his feet in his battered running shoes before heading out to the hall.

Henry is sitting on the foyer floor, face screwed up in concentration as he tries to pull his sneakers on without undoing the Velcro straps. Muttlee is sitting between Henry and the door, gray muzzled face vigilant as the youngest member of the household finally succeeds in getting his shoes on. The German Shepherd has adopted Henry as his favorite person ever, mostly for the carelessly dropped chicken nuggets and French fries at meal times.

"Hey, buddy," Josh says quietly, keeping his voice low in deference to the still-slumbering member of the household. "Are you jogging with me this morning?"

Henry nods vigorously, not looking up as he single-mindedly pulls a holiday sweater over his head. He's already wearing three T-shirts that Josh sees, and Josh can just imagine the state of his dresser drawers.

Chuckling, Josh kneels down to help pull the sweater over his ears, untangling the short ends of Henry's cornrows from the collar. The braids are still holding a week later, so Josh counts it as a win for himself. Garrison's attempt at braiding had only lasted through two days of a very energetic five-year-old who approached daycare like it was a contact sport.

Reindeer sweater straightened, bright orange fleece pants pulled all the way up, and his sister's knit hat with the cat ears pulled snugly over his head, Henry looks expectantly up at Josh with an arched eyebrow that he's definitely learned from Garrison and all the fashion sense of a five-year-old.

"Hands," he says quietly, easily lifting Henry up in the air and setting him on his feet. The hard soles of his tiny sneakers thump on the foyer floor, and he looks up at Josh with wide eyes.

"Shh!" Henry puts a finger to his lips, voice at a stage whisper, but still quieter than his normal speaking tone. "We gotta make no noise."

Nodding, Josh smothers a grin and retrieves Henry's jacket, unsnapping Henry's mittens so the boy can tug them on. He quickly pulls his own sweatshirt on, then the knit cap he wears for running. For the first time since they moved to Vermont, they aren't going to have a white Christmas, but the taste of snow is in the air and it’s a few degrees above freezing outside.

Muttlee wisely chooses to stay inside when Josh opens the front door, but the excited scrabble of claws on hardwood floor echo-locate Munchkin. The Chihuahua comes zipping out of Gabriella's room and down the hallway. Josh just steps to the side as the five-pound fur ball launches himself out the door and off the porch. Munchkin has his collar for the electric fence on, so Josh lets him go.

Gabriella had insisted on taking the collar off every night when Munchkin started sleeping in her room, but one morning of a missing dog when Munchkin went exploring without his collar on and that had stopped. Josh still isn't sure who was more traumatized after the ensuing hysterics from the kids -- Gabriella or Garrison. Luckily, Josh had been at work, but he'd seen enough of the aftermath that he hadn't envied Garrison handling that crisis, as horrible as that sounded.

But this is their life now, he thinks as he ushers Henry out the door, locking it behind them and tucking the key in his pocket. It still hits him, moments of bemusement and joy and disbelief. They have two awesome kids and have to deal with all the little and big things, and it's as terrifying as it is exhilarating. The adoption was finalized almost six months ago, and they're all still settling, discovering little things about each other, but Josh likes to think they're happy.

Henry has friends at daycare, enough that they have two standing play dates a week, and he's started taking karate classes three days a week. He may need to see a speech pathologist to help with his enunciation, but he's a talkative, resilient kid and a real sweetheart who just wants to be loved.

When it comes to his older sister's adjustment, though, sailing is a little less than smooth...

Josh and Garrison went to all the parenting classes, and the social workers handling their case warned them that Gabriella took a while to warm up to people, if she ever did. So they knew, going into it, that they'd have an uphill battle, but… Well. There are good days and bad days, but it's been a little more difficult since she was suspended from karate class a week ago for yelling at the sensei.

When Josh thinks about how an eight-year-old can get so cynical and distrusting, he wants to meet the parents that abandoned her and Henry and do more than give them a piece of his mind.

Henry's mittened hand slips into his for balance as they go down the porch steps, and Josh focuses on the present. Normally, he'd jog to the end of their country road and back, a good five miles, but with Henry along, he'll see how long the little guy lasts.

Today, his jogging pace is more a quick walk, with Henry running beside him in spurts, getting a few feet ahead and stopping to look back at Josh.

"Come on, come on!" Henry yells excitedly, not afraid to be loud now that they're away from the house. Sometimes Josh wonders at the way the kids tiptoe around so carefully if either adult is sleeping. But when he's on-call or works a split-shift and sleeps during the day, he definitely appreciates it.

"We're having an adventure," Henry explains as he runs ahead again. "We gotta go fast over the plank, or the pirates will get us with the alligators, and then we'd be eaten!"

If Henry hadn't been on a Disney kick, that would make no sense to Josh, but he's learning to translate. Kind of.

"I'm coming," he calls back, keeping his pace steady.

"Rawrrr! They're coming! Go faster!"

They make it all the way down their long driveway to the mailbox before Henry is sniffling and wiping his runny nose on his jacket sleeve, dry coughing from the cold. There's only four other houses past them on their country lane, but Josh doesn't like to run where there's cars when he has the kids with him.

Henry pauses, dramatically bending over with his hands on his knees and sucking in deep breaths. "Oh, I've got no air."

"You're doing fine, buddy."

Josh takes a moment to stretch. In the distance, he hears the front door open again and Muttlee come tearing out, barking his fool head off. Probably chasing squirrels or birds. But that means the rest of their household is up.

"Sounds like your papa is awake," he comments, knowing that Henry will remember the promise Garrison made the night before.

"Pancakes with jam! Pancakes with jam!" Henry does a little dance, wind milling his arms. "Pick me up, Da."

It's still a kick, referring to Garrison as someone's "papa," and himself being "da." Gabriella just eschews names for them altogether, but Henry chose the monikers and has taken to using them with his usual enthusiasm.

Laughing at the way Henry is jumping around, Josh easily swings the boy up into his arms, letting Henry wiggle until he's perched on Josh's right forearm and gripping the collar of Josh's sweatshirt.

"Go, go! We gotta get back before Ella eats 'em all!" Tiny sneakers kick out, jamming his ribs, but it doesn't hurt. Henry's so little, he weighs less than the rucksacks Josh used to haul around in the Marines.

Just to make Henry giggle louder, Josh takes off running back up the driveway, grinning as Henry makes a guffawing noise with each bouncing step. Muttlee joins in halfway up, running alongside Josh and barking.

They're laughing together when they reach the porch, chilled and windblown, but the foyer is toasty warm. Josh helps Henry out of a couple layers of t-shirts as the boy squirms in excitement. Letting him run off to the kitchen is like letting one of those whirring wind-up cars go, the ballistic trajectory of an excited five-year-old thundering after pancakes.

"There's my guy," Garrison exclaims, and Josh enters the kitchen to find Henry already perched on Garrison's hip, farthest from the stove, telling Garrison all about their morning adventure.

Josh doesn't hesitate to give Garrison a quick kiss over the top of Henry's head and snags the remains of the first pancake off the plate at Garrison's elbow.

Displays of affection between them were just one of a hundred topics they'd discussed at length when they were getting ready for the kids to arrive. The social worker they'd spoken with had recommended that they just act normal, showing Henry and Gabriella that the relationship between them was strong and steady. The kids didn't seem to mind.

"There were alligators, huh?" Garrison asks Henry as he flips a pancake with one hand.

He's good with multi-tasking, a total Super Dad, and Josh has another of those surreal moments, watching him with their son in their kitchen, the sense of belonging. Garrison's already dressed for the day in slacks and a red button-down shirt, his head freshly shaved and his gold jewelry on. Even now, with Henry grabbing the collar of Garrison's expensive shirt in his small grip, light brown skin in stark contrast to Garrison's darker tones, Garrison doesn't seem too concerned about staying presentable. Never mind that they're going to have company soon, he'll probably manage to stay perfectly groomed throughout the day, like magic, while Josh gets wrinkles and finger paint and food all over his own clothes.

"Would you like some apple juice?" Garrison asks Henry, but Josh takes that as his cue to hit the fridge.

Henry wriggles until Garrison sets him down and comes over to "help" Josh liberate a juice box or five. The kid hoards food if given the chance. Garrison and Josh are both over six feet tall, and they work out -- not as much as they used to, these days -- so the house is set up for towering adults who don't mind lifting heavy objects. Now they have these two little beings living with them, but they still aren't sure what to put within the kids' reach.

"Could you go see if Ms. Gabriella's awake?" Garrison interrupts his thoughts with a smile. Josh can only imagine what expression had been on his face, and he flushes, embarrassed at being caught out.

Gabriella's bedroom door is only open a sliver. She'd argued to keep it closed completely, but sometimes she has nightmares, and they want to know, since she rarely mentions it to them.

Josh knocks and listens for a moment before pushing the door open. The lump of blankets shifts with a moan before Gabriella gazes out with a grumpy expression, her tight brown ringlets an angry halo around her head. She'd wanted her room painted in hues of blue with purple highlights, and normally it looks bright and airy, but in the overcast morning light, it just looks gloomy.

"Merry Christmas Eve," he says with a grin, not offended when she rolls her eyes at his good cheer. His tactics for dealing with her crankiness generally run toward being positive in the face of all adversity.

"Is there snow?" She asks, still burrowed.

"Nope, but it looks like it wants to."

"Hmph."

"Garrison's making pancakes with jam centers," he says when she doesn't seem inclined to move. "Grandma and Grandpa should be here in a couple hours with Aunt Sherry and Uncle Pierre."

She peers out at him. "Don't they have kids?"

Funny how, even at eight, she categorizes anyone under the age of twelve as "kids."

"Jeremiah and Lily. They'll be here, too."

"Great." She sighs, totally put out with the world. Then she gives him an expectant look. "Well? I can't get dressed with you watching."

He's pointedly quiet at her tone because if she back talks like that around Garrison's mom, she'll get sent to her room in a heartbeat, and she sighs again. "Fine. Please can I get dressed now?"

Not exactly what he was hoping for, but he'll take it. "Five minutes to chow time," he says and raps his knuckles on the doorway before backing out. They've learned that, if they don't give her a time limit, she'll get distracted by any number of things and not emerge for an hour. Yesterday was her color pencils-by-numbers; the day before that was her pastels and sketchpad. At least she's creative.

Henry's merrily stabbing his pancakes with a fork at the table, and Josh makes a beeline to the steaming mug of coffee on the counter. Garrison hands him a plate but holds onto it until Josh kisses his cheek.

"Your mother called while you were out," he says, setting aside another plate of pancakes for Gabriella. "Her flight's going to be on-time."

He's starting to sound a little stressed, so Josh just grins and bumps hips with him. "Wouldn't be the holidays if it wasn't busy, right?"

Garrison takes a deep breath. "Crazy, more like it."

Not only is this their first Christmas with the kids, but also the first time hosting both families at their house for the holidays. When they'd decided to stay home rather than subject the kids to the stresses of travel, all three grandparents had protested and started making plans to descend.

He almost regrets giving his Mama the number for Garrison's parents. Almost. Garrison's parents came out for Thanksgiving, so the kids know them now, and Mama has another source of pictures, taking some of the pressure off Josh to constantly supply them.

But Garrison's been cleaning the already-spotless house for the past week, even enlisting the kids to help, in preparation for more overnight guests than they've ever had. They have the only ranch-style house in their sleepy mountain town, smaller than some of the other houses around them, but there should be enough room for everyone. Josh hopes.

Gabriella shuffles out and mumbles good morning, accepting her plate with a yawn. She's dressed in jeans and a blue sweater, an adamant tomboy, much to her Grandma's despair, even if Josh kind of thinks that they lucked out.

They all sit down at the kitchen table, and Josh recognizes it for what it is: the quiet before the storm. Soon, their house will be invaded; at least one child will get tired and throw a tantrum; the dogs will destroy something either before or during the dinner party; and miraculously, there will be enough food to feed sixteen people.

He reaches over and captures Garrison's hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. At least they're in it together.


***


They have just enough time for Josh to take a quick shower and Garrison to wrangle Henry into proper clothes before the dog alarms go off, Muttlee and Munchkin barking outside and rapidly getting louder. They must be chasing a vehicle up the driveway.

Josh heads outside, followed closely by Gabriella, as a Lincoln Towncar pulls up next to Garrison's Mercedes SUV. Sherry's Ford Explorer parks behind Josh's truck, and then there's a deluge of car doors slamming and kids yelling.

He gets to the Towncar in time to open the door for Garrison's mother, Grace, while his father, Hugh, levers himself up out of the driver's side to stretch with a long grunt.

"Merry Christmas!" Grace sings out, a flurry of motion in an expensive coat and designer perfume, her high heels making the top of her perfectly curled hair reach Josh's shoulder. She's stopped dying her hair, so there's a distinguished streak of gray from her temple now. "And here's Ms. Gabriella!"

Gabriella gives Josh a deer-in-the-headlights look as she's embraced, obviously still uncertain about this grandparent thing. She and Henry hadn't known their biological grandparents at all, and she'd spent Thanksgiving nervously circling Grace and Hugh like they were social workers, whereas Henry had dived right in.

"Sir," Josh greets Hugh with a genuine smile as the man comes around the car, shaking hands. "Hope the trip wasn't too bad."

"Only the usual delays getting out of Boston," Hugh says as he claps Josh on the shoulder. "You finally get your cable fixed?"

"Yes, sir. They replaced the lines last week."

"NHL channel?"

"Coming in crisp and clear."

"Good, good."

No one else in Garrison's family will watch sports with the man, and if Boston wasn't so far away, Josh would probably be over for every hockey game of the season. One of the things Josh loves about Hugh is that he's a man of few words and a gentleman in the old school sense of the term. Josh can usually see echoes of Garrison's manners in his father and has picked up a few himself.

Josh comes from a blue-collar family of printers in rural Ohio, where he spent a lot of time in the paper mill as a kid and was never expected to go to college, let alone the Marines or police force. Just enlisting had gotten him disowned.

Garrison's childhood can’t have been more different, coming from an affluent family where Hugh made a name for himself by working his way up the ranks of a prestigious Boston law firm back when being a black lawyer was almost a novelty. Garrison followed in his father's footsteps at Northwestern Law through joining the Marines, but after he met Josh, well... at least one of them has a high-paying job now. Garrison's sister is an attorney, too, but their little brother is a tour guide in Alaska after a string of other random jobs. He's at some spiritual retreat, so he won't be meeting the kids until the next holiday he wanders into town for.

"And you, Joshua!" Grace exclaims as she pulls him into a fierce hug. "Look at you, I swear the bags under your eyes have bags, honey."

"I worked doubles all week to get Christmas off, Mom," he says dryly.

"Well, don't you worry. We have enough of Ms. Anne Marie's home cooking to feed an army, so all you boys have to do is provide the turkey."

Ms. Anne Marie is the Williams' cook-housekeeper-former nanny who puts many a drill sergeant to shame. Since Josh can't cook to save his life, and Garrison handles basic recipes, her contribution is a godsend.

"Now, where's my Henry?" Grace dismisses Josh with an absent pat to his broad chest.

He moves aside and finds himself with an armful of four-year-old, Lily blinking up at him with tear-stained eyes from under her pink pom-pom hat.

"Merry Christmas," Sherry says with the harried look of a mother who's been trapped in a van with a pre-teen and a toddler for hours. Pierre, her husband, doesn't look much better. "Careful, she just got over an ear infection."

Lily looks ready to start wailing, so Josh rocks her gently and heads for the house. Gabriella is close behind, determinedly tugging in Grace's suitcase. They're only staying overnight, but apparently that warrants checked luggage.

Grace is holding court on the couch, Garrison settling her in with a cup of coffee and cookies from his favorite bakery in Burlington. Henry's already curled up in Grace's lap, draped around her shoulder like he's touch-starved. Maybe he is, because he's the most physically affectionate kid Josh has ever encountered.

Josh quickly tucks Lily in on Grace's other side, and the girl hides her face from Henry before shyly glancing at him.

"Hi!" Henry chirps, and Josh supposes that's enough in kid-speak to cement a lifelong friendship, because they're chatting a mile a minute at each other after that. He catches Garrison's eye, quirks his lips, and grins when Garrison laughs.

Returning to the outside, Josh exchanges backslaps with Pierre and helps unload the back of the SUV. Jeremiah, at eleven, is surgically attached to his iPhone and still sitting in the back seat with ear buds firmly in. It looks like he's playing Angry Birds.

Pierre nods toward his son and rolls his eyes. "An early present from his maman. He has not left it in days."

Even though he's lived in the United States for over fifteen years, Pierre's French accent is still pronounced. An atheist from the mostly-Islamic Senegal, he doesn't really celebrate Christmas, but Josh has had enough conversations with him over the years to know that he loves the secular customs of the holiday. The Williams' tendency to shower their loved ones with expensive gifts is something they've both had to adjust to.

"It's all right," Josh commiserates quietly. "Gabriella has an e-book reader waiting under the tree with a gift card. I'm not sure we'll get two words out of her again until she's off to college."

Pierre laughs and hefts a duffel bag onto his shoulder. Josh seizes a box of Tupperware containers, and it smells heavenly. Gabriella reappears to grab one of the smaller bags and lugs it into the house behind them.

"Jeremiah! Nous allons!" Pierre calls out and waits for his pre-teen.

Gabriella sticks close even as Josh leaves the box of food in the kitchen and heads to the renovated garage, now Garrison's office, where Hugh and Grace will be staying on the pull-out couch. They'd debated having the kids all stay in one room and the adults in the kids' rooms, but Gabriella had overheard the plan and, one screaming fit at Garrison later, they'd decided that it would be best not to change too many things while the kids are still settling in.

Sherry and company are crashing in the basement on a guest bed and air mattresses, so Josh pokes his head down there after affirming that the office is in order. Sherry is already sacked out on the guest bed and Josh sneaks back upstairs, carefully not tripping over Gabriella when she turns out to be right behind him.

They find Pierre and Garrison in the kitchen unpacking the food containers, Jeremiah sitting at the table with his phone plugged into the nearest outlet, now playing a Nintendo DS. Gabriella slides into the seat across from her cousin, giving him wary glances.

Josh comes up behind Garrison, hands going to his husband's shoulders out of habit.

"What's for dinner?" He asks as he kneads Garrison's tense trapezius muscles with sure fingers. Garrison just groans and lowers his head, bracing a hand against the counter.

"Vegetables, vegetables," Pierre mutters as he unloads the containers. "Merde, more vegetables. Ah, prosciutto, some cheese-- Those are for appetizers, yes? Bread. Something that looks like meat..."

Josh laughs and gives Garrison's shoulders one last rub before drawing away, but Garrison catches his hand and pulls Josh back in under his arm.

"You'll have to leave for the airport soon, but could you find out what the rabble wants for lunch?" he asks Josh, pressing plump lips to Josh's temple.

Josh blushes for no good reason. "Sure."

"And how about you, Gabriella?" Garrison turns to where she's perched on a chair at the table, doodling on a paper napkin. "What would you like for lunch?"

"Peanut butter and jelly," she says quietly. Garrison clears his throat and she adds a grudging, "Please."

Josh pops his head into the living room. Hugh is already in a recliner, snoring away, while Lily and Henry are playing with the village under the Christmas tree. They've been keeping the village in a box when unattended ever since Munchkin ran off with a figure skater from the little mirror pond. They still haven't found it.

Grace must have plugged the lights in because the tree is lit up in all its flashing glory, looking like the lopsided angel perched on its top had vomited up tinsel and glittery icicles all over it. But Gabriella had made the paper chains herself, and Henry had dictated the placement of the plastic, kid-friendly ornaments.

The small pile of presents next to the tree has grown exponentially, now a mound of ribbons and tissue paper.

Grace looks like she's starting to doze off, too, but she's watching the kids play with a smile on her face.

"Mom?" He asks softly. "Would you like some lunch?"

"I'm fine, honey. We stopped for fastfood right off the highway. Your father was refusing to eat the snacks Ms. Anne Marie packed." She gives Josh a look and he nods. When Hugh's blood sugar gets too low, he can get more than a little contrary and stubborn.

"You did it wrong!" Gabriella shrieks in the kitchen. "I don't want it!"

Henry drops his part of the locomotive with a clatter, eyes huge. Hugh startles awake with a snort, and Grace's eyebrows climb high. With an apologetic grimace, Josh heads for the commotion. Next, the dogs were going to destroy something.

"You asked for peanut butter and jelly. I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," Garrison says patiently. "What don't you like about it?"

"The bread's all wrong! And there's crusts." Gabriella looks like she's about to burst into tears.

"Ella, this is the same sandwich I made for you the other day, and you liked that one perfectly fine."

"I don't want the stupid sandwich! And my name's not Ella!" At that, she does burst into tears, face scrunched up. She runs from the kitchen, followed by the sound of her bedroom door slamming.

Garrison sighs and rubs a hand over his face. "That went well."

"They only get worse," Pierre mutters.

"God forbid."

Josh steps in close to touch Garrison's elbow. "I'll talk to her."

"Yeah," Garrisons says, sighing again. "Good cop to my bad cop?"

"I prefer we both be neutral cops?" Josh asks jokingly, enough to get a small grin out of Garrison. "Maybe I should bring her with me to pick up Mama."

"There are a lot of people in the house," Garrison admits ruefully. "Maybe a break from all of us would be good."

And Josh has to kiss him at that, just to drive off the tendrils of defeat in his eyes.

"My two introverts," Garrison murmurs for Josh's ears only.

"Bah, you two are like newlyweds," Pierre says, jokingly. "You make me wish my wife were awake."

Josh rolls his eyes and breaks away, bracing himself before he knocks on Gabriella's door.

"Go away!" She yells through the door.

Josh opens it a crack. "Not happening, kiddo."

She's curled up in the corner of her bed against the wall, hugging her stuffed hippopotamus to her chest. There's a sniffle or two, but she isn't crying anymore, and Josh figures part of it is embarrassment now.

"Hey," he says and comes in to sit on the foot of the bed. She gives him a half-hearted glare, but he can wait her out. They've noticed the pattern where she yells at Garrison the most and is quicker to fill Josh's silences.

It's kind of sad to think how much of his tactical training he applies to parenting...

"I'm not hungry," she finally says with a sniffle. She's trying the sad puppy dog eyes on him, and he has to admit that he's only partially immune. They're easier to resist when she's just been screaming at Garrison, though.

"You asked for a sandwich," he points out mildly.

"It didn't look right."

"So you said."

She bites her lower lip, squeezing her hippo tighter. "Mom used to make us PB&J's for breakfast on Christmas. For dinner, we'd get mac'n'cheese."

He'd thought it might be something like that. Her blow ups seem to revolve around them not being her birth parents, never mind that she and Henry have been in the system for a couple years, and she's seen a half-dozen counselors over it. Some things kids just don't forget or get over.

His heart aches for how lost and confused she looks, and he wants to hug her, but he's not sure how she'll react, so he settles for resting his hand on her ankle. Her bones are so tiny under his hand, easily dwarfed by him.

"Well, we can't be your mom for you," he says, treading lightly into land-mined territory. "But we can make new traditions with you and Henry. You're our family now, and we love you."

"You barely know me," she says mournfully. "You won't want me when you know me."

"That's not true at all, and you know it," he says gently, giving her ankle a little shake. "You've learned a lot about us this past year, yeah?"

Reluctantly, she nods her head.

"Well, we've been learning a lot about you, too. You're our girl, and we're not letting you go."

He lets her think on it. They'll have this conversation again, he's sure, but he's hoping that time and repetition will help her believe them.

After a long moment of silence, she asks softly, "Is he mad at me?"

"No, but he's upset that you yelled," he says honestly.

"I gotta apologize again, don't I?" she asks, her expression glum.

"It's the right thing to do when you yell at someone."

"All right." She screws up her face in determination, setting aside her hippo to crawl to the edge of the bed. Josh holds out a hand to help her down, and she stands straight, but still hesitates to go back out to the hallway.

"How'd you like to come with me to pick up your Nana?" Josh asks her quietly.

She takes a moment to consider, the sounds of the kids running in circles around the living room a pointed background noise.

"Okay," she responds, just as quiet. "But I haveta apologize first."

Josh nods and stands up, her cue to head out.

Garrison and Pierre are still in the kitchen, doing something mysterious to a turkey that will hopefully produce edible food, and Josh clears his throat from the doorway as Gabriella walks in.

When Garrison turns around, she takes a deep breath and says in a rush, "SorryIyelledthesandwichwasfineyoucancallmeElla."

Blinking, Garrison sets down the gizzards. "Thank you. I can pack the sandwich for the car trip if you're going to the airport with Josh?"

She nods quickly.

"All right. And we'd like to call you Ella, but we won't if you're not comfortable with it."

Wrinkling her nose, she says, "I don't mind. As long as you don't call me Gabby."

Garrison nods slowly. "I think we can handle that."

With another sharp nod, she launches herself at his leg, hugging it and giving him a quick kiss on his rib cage, since that's as far as she can reach, before running to the living room. Garrison watches her go with a bemused smile.

"I will never understand children," he drawls.

Josh shrugs. "I think the human brain can't anymore, once we reach a certain age."

Garrison looks at him with a grin. "Sounds like you found your Zen place, babe."

Josh just smiles when Pierre snorts at the both of them.

"Zen and SERE," Josh says flippantly, referring to survival, evasion, resistance and escape training.

Garrison laughs, loud and bright, and motions for him to get going with his elbow.

"We'll be back in a bit," Josh calls out. He looks in the living room, but Lily and Henry are now plunked in front of the TV with Jeremiah watching the Justice League cartoon while their grandparents snore on.


***


Getting Gabriella out to the Mercedes is a lot quicker than bundling Henry up, so they're on the road in no time with her buckled into her safety seat. He hates driving Garrison's SUV, mostly because it has so many bells and whistles that he's afraid it's going to decide it's tired of his driving and take over, making him bow to his robotic overlord.

Gabriella directs him to fiddle with the satellite radio until she finds the Disney station, so Josh gets to listen to The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.

They're fifteen minutes away when Mama texts to let him know her debarking is late due to some taxiing mix up on the runway or something to that effect. Her plane has landed, but it's out there circling the tarmac, so they have some time.

Burlington Airport is a nightmare with holiday travel, but they park the SUV after following some poor travelers back to their car to nab the spot, and then head in to the baggage claim. Gabriella steps in close, her hand tangled in the fold of his jacket right at his hip, and it's familiar enough now that he automatically adjusts for her presence as he navigates the crowds.

The last time he came to this airport was four Christmases ago, the day he found out his father had died of a heart attack and his family needed Josh there to read the man's will. After being estranged for seventeen years, Josh had been afraid his family would reject him -- and Garrison -- but he'd been welcomed with open arms.

His brother, sister, and nephew are staying in Ohio this Christmas, but this is the first time his mother is coming out to visit. It's only been four years since his father passed away, so he was worried that she wouldn't want to travel for the holidays, but Toby, his little brother, thought it would be good for her. She's sounded enthusiastic every time Josh has spoken to her on the phone.

Of course, the new grandkids are probably a huge part of that.

He finds a clear space against a pillar to wait and leans back against it. He's worried that Gabriella will get bored, but she just parks herself in front of him, sagging back against his legs until he hooks his hands under her arm pits and holds her up, letting her sway back and forth as much as she likes. Big as they are, Josh and Garrison have adjusted to being portable jungle gyms.

They get a couple stares as people pass by, mostly older folks waiting for their luggage. Yes, he's a white man with a biracial daughter, he wants to say to them, but the same attitude prevails that helps him when people question why he's openly gay on the force or in an interracial marriage. They're his kids, it's his and Garrison's business, and everyone else can stuff it.

No one questions Garrison when he's out with the kids, but Josh has had to put up with people who think it's okay to just outright ask him where Henry's parents are, or worse, where he got Gabriella from. Inside their house, race isn't an issue, but the rest of the world is far from color blind.

It could be worse, he supposes. No one's ever asked him if he's the kids' nanny, like one of the other mothers in their parenting class who has had to deal with the question on multiple occasions.

"What's that?" Gabriella asks, pointing at the machine to pay for parking. Josh hands her the ticket and takes her over to explain it. She's feeding his credit card in when he hears his mother behind them.

"Joshua Edward Dabbs!" Mama exclaims, and he half turns. "I swear you get taller every time I see you."

"Hey, Mama!"

Her hug is even stronger than Grace's, and Josh feels his spine pop. Gabriella is clinging to his leg, staring at his mom with huge eyes. Josh plucks his credit card and the parking receipt from her fingers and nudges her forward.

"You must be Gabriella," Mama says in her best grandmother voice. Gabriella ducks her head shyly.

"Pleased to meet you," she says to the ground.

"Oh, aren't you adorable?" Mama breathes and crouches down to give Gabriella a much gentler hug than the one she gave Josh.

People are waiting to pay for their parking so Josh ushers them to the side as soon as he can. Mama only has one bag on her shoulder, and she's staying for a week, so he asks, "Do we need to pick up your luggage, Mama?"

She shakes her head. "Heaven's no, I travel light. I hardly trust the airlines to get me where I'm going, let alone my bags."

That settled, they head for the SUV, Mama keeping up a running commentary the entire way back to the house on Josh's family, including Toby, Kayla, and Kayla's son Anthony, explaining who everyone is for Gabriella.

"How's the mill doing?" Josh asks when he can get a word in. He gets bi-weekly updates from his sister and brother, but he likes to hear Mama's take on their employees. He kept a quarter ownership of the company, and it gives their accountant no end of grief.

"You remember Sue, our lead engineer? Her oldest son is off to college--" And she goes off on a tangent.

Then she starts asking Gabriella about school and karate classes before the suspension, and Ella is actually answering politely without Josh having to wag his eyebrows at her.

It is the season of miracles.

Roby's motorcycle is in the driveway when they return, and Mama looks surprised to see so many vehicles.

"We invited a couple friends over for dinner," Josh says, half-apologetically because he hadn't really told her before. But Mama's the social type, so he hopes it's not an issue.

"I've heard so much about your friends, I'd love to meet them. After all, a big Christmas Eve dinner is family tradition," Mama says softly, and Josh knows she's thinking of his dad and the big dinner Kayla is probably hosting as they speak.

Muttlee and Munchkin play the welcoming committee, so Mama's covered in dog drool and fur by the time they get in the door. She's laughing, though, and it lights up her lined face.

Introductions are as chaotic as everything else that day, with Mama meeting Grace and Hugh, then Sherry -- who looks much more sociable after her nap -- and Pierre. Roby's skulking in the kitchen around the food with Garrison and the kids, showing Henry and Lily a card trick he learned from one of the EMTs on the night shift.

"So you're the infamous partner I've been hearing stories about," Mama says with mock severity when he introduces Roby.

"I assure you, ma'am," Roby says solemnly, taking her hand. "They were all lies. Unless they were good stories, in which case, they're all true."

She laughs, and Josh growls, and then Garrison is steering him away from his Flirty McFlirty partner. Thinks he's charming...

"All in good fun, babe," Garrison says with a chuckle. Josh sniffs disparagingly.

The house smells like rosemary and turkey, with an underlying hint of cinnamon, which Josh hopes is Ms. Anne Marie's pumpkin pie. His stomach grumbles, and he realizes he never had lunch.

Garrison laughs at him, and diverts him toward the dining room, where Jeremiah is grudgingly setting the table.

"C'mon, this will make it go faster," Garrison prompts, pushing him toward the good china cabinet. The kitchen table has been dragged in and added to the end of the dining table, almost into the living room, and there may just be enough chairs for everyone.

When they're finished with that, Josh wanders into the kitchen and gets shooed right back out by Garrison when he tries to pick at a couple of the sides. But at least he's sent out to the living room with a tray of cheese and prosciutto, and he's even nice enough to share.

Sinking into the recliner opposite Hugh's, Josh kicks back and watches a hockey game while Mama and Grace chat on the couch in the background. Lily and Henry are still gazing at Roby adoringly, even though the man says he's terrible with children, and after a while, Gabriella wanders in to perch on the arm of the couch nearest Josh. He reaches out to ruffle her curls even more, and she gives him a small smile instead of a grumpy face, so he counts it as a win.

The dog alarms go off again, but Josh stays in his chair. It's very comfortable.

"Rick!" Both Gabriella and Henry yell as Rick and E come through the door.

Rick and E look like polar opposite husbands at first glance. Rick is a wiry, white tattoo artist, covered in ink with his hair in long dreadlocks, and he's become their go-to babysitter. The kids love him, probably because he's so laid back and can always think of a craft project to do, even with the stuff just lying around the house. E, short for Emmanuel, is another lawyer and a former Marine who Roby initially introduced them to for an additional sparring partner at the gym. He’s quiet and understated, especially compared to Rick’s excited flailing and enthusiastic hugs as the kids run to him.

After Henry introduces Rick and E around the house, Pierre laughs and says, "So four lawyers walk into a room--"

Sherry groans and covers his mouth with her hand. "No lawyer jokes. You promised."

"Ah, cherie, I promised as a Christmas present, so technically, that starts tomorrow..."

Garrison claps his hands, breaking the moment. "All right, people. Turkey's almost ready to carve, so get your drinks and find a seat, so we can start serving."

Josh levers himself up out of the chair, standing beside E, who just raises an eyebrow at the heap of presents by the tree.

"First Christmas with new grandkids." Josh sighs. "The kids can sense a sucker a mile away, let alone three."

E laughs, and nods at Roby. "Make that four. Think he'll babysit for us one day?"

Josh smirks. "I have way more dirt on him than you, and he won't babysit for me."

"He give you the 'chicks dig kids' line, the old player?"

"Only once."

They're snickering as they sit down, and Roby glares at them suspiciously, which just sets them off even more. Garrison takes the seat next to Josh, between him and Hugh, while Mama sits between Josh and Grace. He's glad to see that they're getting along so well -- he figured they would, but he also figured one of the kids would have a tantrum and the dogs would destroy something, so he's fifty-fifty for today.

As Pierre starts passing out the side dishes, Josh looks at the people around the table and relaxes into his chair. Garrison is at his side, holding Josh's hand absently as he carries on a conversation with his father. Gabriella is at the kid's table helping Henry with his juice box, while Henry watches her movements closely and tries to replicate it on his own. They have grandparents from both sides here, with their closest friends.

His and Garrison's life may not be perfect, but they're perfect for each other, and they have great people to share it with.

This is their family. This is their home.



End



Since 2006, J. Rocci has published LGBT romance stories, ranging from contemporary to steampunk to fantasy. Rocci currently lives near Washington D.C. with the love of her life and their furry children, and loves giving her characters happy endings. You can find Rocci on the web at:

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