Gil watched from the kitchen as Nick kept his attention focused solely on the news broadcast. It was the early evening news, nothing exciting, just coverage about the Christmas Parade and a few local activities. He continued to watch for a few minutes more before conceding that the younger man had taken his warning to heart and was trying to calm down. Not that Gil blamed him for being excited. After two years of near-silence from the rest of the Stokes family, Nick's parents were coming to visit.
About three weeks ago, Jillian had called the home line and Gil, not thinking, hadn't looked at the caller ID when he'd picked up the phone...
“Gil? It's Jillian Stokes.”
Gil blinked in surprise, automatically glancing over at where Nick sat in the living room, tooling around online with his headphones on. He turned away and said, “Hello, Jillian.”
There was a pause and then she said, “I ah, I'm sorry for calling out of the blue like this, but I was wondering if you and Nick would be free for Christmas?”
Gil frowned. “No offense, Jillian, but why?”
She sighed and said, “I miss my son, Gil. So does Bill, though he'd never admit it. We want to see him.”
“Nothing's changed,” Gil felt he had to say. “And if you can't support our relationship, then you can't see Nick.”
“So you're still making decisions for him.”
“In some areas, yes.”
Jillian was silent for a few seconds and then said, “Okay. When and where?”
It was decided on a brief visit to start; dessert on Christmas Eve day to see how things went. Bill and Jillian would stop by late afternoon or early evening, depending on when they arrived at their hotel. And if things went well, they would all go out to dinner on Christmas.
The conversation to tell Nick about his parents' visit had sent the younger man into a panic attack, something they'd avoided for well on almost a year. Nick had even had a session with Michael, something he hadn't needed for almost six months, but wouldn't let Gil stay with him during the session, so he even now didn't know what he'd said. They'd sat down and discussed it though, the strategy for various possible scenarios from his parents not saying anything about the relationship, to gently trying to change his mind about Gil, to an all-out shouting match. In every scenario, Nick was to retreat to the bedroom if he felt threatened and Gil would step in from there.
Threatened, Gil had stressed, not angry or upset. Nick had full permission to shout back or respond however he saw fit if things got loud. They'd moved beyond Nick needing Gil to fight his battles in most cases and weren't about to backtrack.
The doorbell rang and Nick jumped to his feet, looking a little wild-eyed. Gil met his gaze and held out a hand. Nick jogged over to him and took his hand, lacing their fingers together. Gil kissed his temple and said, “You can do this, baby boy. I love you.”
Nick let out a shaky sigh. “I love you, Daddy. And thanks.”
They walked to the front door, which Gil opened. Bill and Jillian looked just as put together as they had the last time; more so, really, since they weren't sick with worry over Nick having been kidnapped. There was an awkward silence as everyone stared at each other and then Gil held a hand out to Bill. “It's good to see you again, Bill.”
Awkward turned tense when the other man didn't immediately accept Gil's hand, but he did eventually shake it. He didn't return the sentiment, but that was fine. Gil shook Jillian's hand and smiled when she did. “You look lovely, Jillian.”
She seemed to relax at the neutral greeting and said, “Thank you, Gil.”
Gil discreetly took a half-step back, putting Nick in the forefront.
Nick cleared his throat and said, “Uh, hey guys. It's, it's real good to see you again. C'mon in.”
Jillian ignored that and pulled him into a hug, squeezing him tight. Nick stayed stiff for a moment and then relaxed, wrapping his arms around her and holding on just as tight.
Gil smiled at the sight of them, relaxing a little himself. It looked like the Stokes genuinely wanted to reconcile. Jillian let him go and Bill swooped in next, holding his son for a few seconds and clapping him roughly on the back as he said, “Great to see you again, Nick.”
“You too, Dad,” Nick said, muffled against his shoulder.
The two men broke apart and Gil motioned towards the living room. “Why don't you have a seat? Are you thirsty?”
“I'd love some wine,” Jillian said, still smiling.
Bill nodded and said, “I'll have a beer, if you've got any.”
Nick grinned at Gil and said, “Me too.”
Gil teased, “Me too, what? Beer or wine?”
Nick rolled his eyes and said, “Mom, Dad, you hungry? We've got some really awesome pie. One of the women at work has a son that owns a bakery and we get great discounts.”
Bill asked, “What kind of pie you got?”
“Apple, pumpkin, and oh, a strudel, too.”
“I'll take some of that strudel.”
Jillian added, “I'll have some pumpkin, thank you.”
Gil urged Nick to go sit with his parents by pushing lightly at the small of his back. “Go and visit. I'll take my time getting things put together.”
Nick swallowed visibly, but nodded and went to join his parents.
Gil walked into the kitchen and dawdled as long as possible plating the food and bringing down the wine to pour and pulling out the beers. He even poured himself a glass of wine, though a small one. Once it was all ready, he brought it into the living room on a large platter, setting it down on the coffee table within reach. Nick had taken the loveseat, while his parents had sat on the sofa, which had everyone almost at odds; physically speaking, at least. Nick didn't look too badly strained, although Gil saw the stress in the way he sat cross-legged on the furniture, hands clasped together in his lap as if really wanting to hold his blanket or his teddy.
Gil handed out the plates first, leaving the drinks on the tray before sitting beside Nick with his own glass of wine. Nick immediately leaned against him, though he didn’t go so far as to hold onto him, instead keeping a grip on his plate. Gil met Jillian’s gaze and asked, “So, what are we talking about?”
She smiled briefly and said, “Nick was just catching us up on how he’s doing at work.”
Gil smiled at Nick. “He’s doing very well. Had a real breakthrough on a recent case that no one else caught. Got a full write-up for it and a commendation.”
“Nick, that’s great!” Jillian exclaimed. “Why didn’t you say?”
Nick ducked his head, abashed, and said, “It’s not that big a deal, honest.”
Gil rubbed his back and countered, “Yes, it was.”
Nick beamed at him and said, “Yeah, okay, it kinda was.”
Bill cleared his throat, ruining the moment when Nick abruptly blushed and looked away from Gil. Bill’s smile looked a little forced when he asked, “Does that mean you're going up for promotion any time soon?”
Nick shrugged. “Budget’s tight these days. We’re lucky to get cost of living increases, never mind a chance for advancing. But that’s cool. I’m happy where I am.”
It seemed the wrong thing to say, at least according to the dull flush that spread rapidly over Bill’s face. The other man stood and said, “Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?”
Nick bit his lip and pointed down the hall.
Bill strode out of the living room and Jillian sighed when the bathroom door slammed shut. She offered a wan smile to Nick and Gil. “I’m sorry. He is trying, it’s just… difficult. He always had such high expectations for you, Nick. And it’s not that we don’t respect what you do, it’s just not what he pictured.”
Nick shrugged again and said, “I know, Mom. He’s never been thrilled with me being a CSI tech and that’s fine. I’m just real glad you guys are here.”
“In any case, let’s not let your father’s issues get in the way of things,” Jillian said with forced cheer. “What else is going on with you? Both of you.”
Nick nudged Gil’s shoulder and said, “Gil got nominated for an award a few weeks ago. There’s a big schmaltzy conference in February and we’re both going to New York for it.”
Jillian’s smile seemed genuine and she said, “That’s great! What’s it for?”
Gil grinned a bit and said, “Nothing you would have heard of. It’s an entomology award. Nick’s more excited about going to Manhattan than the actual award dinner.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “Gee. Three hours in a monkey suit versus a whole weekend exploring NYC. Shocker which one I’m happier about.”
“Nick! That’s terrible!” Jillian scolded. “You should be supportive if this is a big deal!”
Nick’s eyes went wide and Gil was more than a little surprised himself. At Nicky’s uncertain expression, Gil wrapped his arm around the younger man’s waist and said, “Not to worry. Nick was plenty supportive already. Even got me a mug.”
“Oh man, don’t.”
“I think I have to, Nicky.”
Jillian looked between them. “I’ll bite. What’s the mug say?”
Gil chuckled and stood up, leaving his wine glass on the coffee table. He retrieved the mug and showed it to Jillian, who giggled on reading, “#1 Bug Guy” and said, “Very cute.”
Gil returned it to the cabinet and then resettled beside Nick.
Bill rejoined them a few seconds later and said, “Sorry about that, Nick. Gil.”
Gil hadn’t honestly expected even an apology. “It’s fine. How about you? Any interesting court cases you can talk about?”
Bill’s lips went tight briefly and he said, “I retired last year, actually.”
Nick stiffened beside him and there was another awkward silence as he tried to process the information. Gil wasn’t sure just how emotional he would get and waited, ready for anything. It took a few minutes before Nick said, “That’s good. You can, ah, travel now, right? Like you guys always wanted to do.”
Gil was so proud of Nick, handling what had to have been a serious blow, being excluded from such a large family milestone, spectacularly. Gil squeezed his thigh in encouragement and Nick gave him a faint smile.
“We haven’t really done any traveling yet,” Jillian said hastily. “I’m still working. Won’t be retiring for at least another couple of years. Your father keeps busy being a legal consultant and cluttering up the garage with supposed antiques.”
Bill nodded and protested, “It’s not clutter if it has value. Being a consultant sure brings in more money than a judge ever did, plus I get to pick and choose the work, which is a real bonus.”
Thankfully, conversation remained on neutral topics for the next hour or so. It was draining, to be so careful, but Nick looked so relieved when his parents hugged him goodbye that Gil considered it worth the effort.
“So we’ll see you tomorrow?” Jillian questioned.
Gil confirmed, “Reservations are at two. We’ll see you there.”
As soon as the door closed behind them, Nick threw his arms around Gil and held tight. Gil hugged him back, running a soothing hand over his back, and waited for him to calm down. Finally, Nick let out a shuddery breath and said, “They didn’t even let me know he was retiring. It was going to be such a big deal. We were going to throw a huge party and invite half the county. Is it awful if I say I hope the party sucked?”
That startled a laugh from Gil and he kissed Nick’s forehead. “Not awful in the slightest. Come on. Let’s get something to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.” Nick sighed.
Gil put his arm around Nick’s waist and said, “Just something light. Go on and stretch out on the sofa. I’ll make some soup.”
Nick squeezed him tight for a moment and said, “Thanks, Gil.”
Gil smiled. “You’re welcome.”
* * * *
Nick woke up with an unexpected sense of anticipation. The alarm hadn’t gone off and it was just barely light out. Then it hit him… Christmas! Presents! Nick bolted upright with a whoop of excitement and hopped over Gil and out of the bed. He rushed to the bathroom to take care of business and splash some water on his face. When he left the bathroom, Gil was still prone, but rubbing his eyes and groaning. Nick ran back to bed and shook his shoulder. “Gil! C’mon! Presents!”
Gil groaned again. “It’s too early, Nicky.”
“It’s after seven! You said I could get us up if it was after seven and it is!” Nick said, not pouting in the least. Not even a little.
Gil blinked blearily at the clock which read 7:02 a.m. and then gave him an unimpressed stare. Nick put on his best innocent expression, but couldn’t help bouncing on the balls of his feet. Finally, Gil just chuckled and shook his head, pushing upright. “All right. I’m up. Go make some coffee and I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
Nick exclaimed, “Yes!” and ran out to the kitchen. He turned on the coffee maker and had a cup ready by the time Gil shuffled out to join him, dressed in sweats and bathrobe. He stole a quick kiss and asked, “Presents?”
Nick heaved a dramatic sigh, but sat at the kitchen table while Gil puttered around making eggs and bacon. Music filled the kitchen, cheerful holiday tunes, and they both joined in with singing. Nick about died laughing when Gil put an omelet in the shape of a reindeer in front of him, “standing” on snow drifts of bacon. Gil kissed him while he was still laughing and said, “Merry Christmas from Lindsay. She thought you’d get a kick out of that.”
Still giggling, Nick said, “Oh man, did I ever!”
Gil’s omelet was in a snowman shape, which cracked Nick up all over again. It didn’t take long to eat, he was actually hungry enough to eat two reindeer omelets, but was too excited to unwrap his presents to wait for Gil to cook another one. He looked expectantly at Gil who grinned fondly and waved him towards the living room. “Go on. We’ll clean up after.”
Nick hopped to his feet and rushed to the living room. They had a smallish tree, only about five and a half feet, but he’d chopped it down himself. They’d taken a trip to a tree farm outside the city a couple of weeks ago, making a weekend of it, and come home with it. The spruce didn’t take up a lot of room, not as full as other evergreens, but was cheerfully decorated with tinsel - environmentally friendly, courtesy of Lindsey and Catherine - and various decorations they’d picked up over the last couple of years.
There were a lot of presents nestled under the tree and not just for him. Nick had gone a little overboard buying things for Gil, but the man hardly ever allowed Nick to spend money on him. He’d taken full advantage of, “But it’s Christmas!” a lot this year and planned to do so every year going forward.
Nick wasn’t at all surprised to find a few insanely soft stuffed animals wrapped up for him. He now had a small collection of bears, though his favorite was still the first one Gil had bought him two years ago. There were also some dvd nature documentaries that he’d been thinking about getting forever. A few very soft and warm sweaters were also in the mix. The best present, though, was a pair of tickets to a resort that Michael had told him about in passing, where all ‘alternative lifestyles’ were embraced. It was for two weeks and Nick just gaped at Gil. “Oh my God. How much did you have to promise Ecklie to get us both two weeks off?”
Gil chuckled and said, “You don’t even want to know, baby boy.”
Nick threw his arms around his neck and hugged Gil tight. “You’re the best. God, I love you, Daddy.”
Gil squeezed him back and said, “Love you too.”
It was then Gil’s turn to open his presents and he exclaimed happily over the new bug collecting kit as well as the various books and music cds. It was the antique butterfly collection that stole the show, though. Nick had literally spent months tracking the damn thing down. It was from the turn of the century and not terribly exotic, but valuable for its age and previous, well-known owner: Charles Darwin.
“Where did you find this?” Gil exclaimed softly, running hands over the worn, wooden frame.
Nick chuckled and said, “Called in a few favors.”
Gil’s blue-gray eyes practically shone with devotion and happiness as he said, “You are… a gift, Nicky. Thank you.”
Nick blushed hotly in pure pleasure, basking in the attention.
They stayed on the sofa for a couple of hours, watching one of the documentaries. Nick enjoyed being curled up with his legs over Gil’s lap and resting against him with gentle fingers combing through his hair. Eventually, they cleaned everything up and started getting ready for lunch with his parents. There was no ‘conserving’ of water; they each took separate showers, with Gil going first. Nick occupied himself with organizing his new dvds into his collection and setting his new bears in with the other four on their little shelf in the bedroom. He impulsively pulled all of them down into a group hug and then laughed a little at himself for being an idiot before putting them back.
Once they’d been re-shelved, minus his original comfy bear, Nick waited on the bed for Gil to get done in the bathroom. He didn’t have long, maybe about five minutes, before Gil stepped out, shaved and dressed in dressy gray slacks and a soft blue button-down shirt. He looked absolutely edible and Nick grinned and gave him a wolf-whistle.
Gil chuckled and said, “Your turn,” swatting him lightly on the ass when Nick walked by.
Nick didn’t linger in the shower due to nerves and the pressing of time. It would take them about forty-five minutes to get to the restaurant, so they only had about another half hour to finish getting ready. He dried off from the shower and walked into the bedroom to find his clothes laid out: dressy black slacks with a button-down gray shirt and one of his new sweaters, the black one. He got dressed and then walked out to the living room to find Gil checking his email.
“Did the lab implode?”
Gil looked up at his question and smiled. “Not yet. Ready?”
Nick swallowed nervously and nodded. “As I’ll ever be.”
Gil wrapped his arms around Nick’s waist and said, “Yesterday went fine. Today will be fine, too. If you get upset, just take a breath and excuse yourself from the table. I doubt your parents will make a scene, though, if they didn’t yesterday.”
“My dad came close,” Nick reminded.
Gil nodded. “He did, but he controlled himself and I’m sure today he’ll be even better, since we’ll be in public.”
Nick bit his lip and then blurted, “I wish I knew why they were doing this!”
Gil looked surprised, his eyebrows lifting as he asked, “What do you mean?”
Nick rested his head on Gil’s shoulder and said, “Two years without a peep and now, out of the blue, they want to reconcile? What if, what if someone’s sick?”
Gil rubbed his back and said, “Then we’ll deal with it, like we do everything else. Okay?”
Nick sighed deeply, but pulled back. “Okay.”
“You look good, by the way,” Gil murmured, kissing him gently.
Nick sighed again, but this time happily. The kiss was brief and a prelude to leaving the house, unfortunately. His nerves returned halfway to the restaurant, leg jostling up and down as he watched the city go by the window. They arrived with ten minutes to spare and met up with Nick’s folks in the lobby. His mom and dad hugged him again and the handshaking with Gil seemed a little more relaxed than the day before, which boded well.
Their reservations weren’t delayed, which also helped. They were seated almost right away at a table in the middle of the restaurant. It was a nice set-up, with plenty of space between them and the surrounding tables. The waitress popped up almost right away and took their drink order, promising to return shortly.
“That’s a nice sweater, Nick, is it new?” his mom asked.
Nick nodded and smiled, running a hand over the soft material. “Present from this morning, actually.”
His mom smiled back and said, “Well, it suits you. You have good taste, Gil.”
Gil also smiled. “Thank you.”
There was a short pause and Nick picked up his menu, hoping it would prompt the others. It did, thankfully, and by the time the waitress returned, they were all ready to order. Conversation flowed a little better after that, back to safe topics, and Nick couldn’t help feeling sad over just how cautious everyone was. He missed how things used to be with his folks.
The food was good, of course, and it was during dessert that Nick couldn’t take it anymore. And better here than the near-privacy of the parking lot where shouting could start. “So, ah, I’m really glad you called, Mom, but I can’t help wondering why. I mean, neither of you seem very comfortable with this still and Dad, you don’t even seem like you changed your mind about how you feel about us at all. I’m, I’m not trying to, you know, start anything, I miss you guys like crazy, but… why now?”
His mom looked saddened by his words and she reached out to rest her hand on his. “Oh, Nicky, I wish we could say that we just came to our senses, but, well we had a scare. It’s nothing, really, I’m fine. But for a while we thought I had cancer and it got me thinking, as cliché as that might be. Life really is too short. I miss you, we both do, and even though we don’t approve and honestly, we might never do so, I want you back in my life. So does your father.”
Nick felt a little sick at hearing that his mom might’ve had cancer. And then he looked at his dad and asked, “Do you?”
His dad cleared his throat and nodded. “I do, Nick. And Gil… I don’t think you’re right for my boy, but he loves you. And, you obviously love him in your own way. So, we’re just going to have to deal with this. We’re none of us getting younger and we don’t want to miss out on more of your life than we have these past two years, Nick.”
“We can’t speak for your sisters,” his mom continued, sounding sad, “they have to make their own choices. But for us, we want you back, Nicky. And this might be too-little, too-late, but welcome to the family, Gil.”
Nick saw his lover let out a shaky breath and was relieved to see he wasn’t the only one affected by the conversation. He reached out with his free hand to knot their fingers together, giving Gil’s hand a squeeze.
Gil smiled at him and then at Jillian and Bill. “Thank you. And it’s never too late, not when it concerns Nick’s well-being. You’re family and that’s important. I don’t have anyone, well, no blood relations at least, and nothing should get in the way of those ties. I know how much this means to Nick, to have you back in his life.”
His mom laughed, a warm sound that relaxed Nick further, and said, “Well, you’ve got family now whether you want it or not.”
His dad joined in and then they were all laughing, the release of tension almost palpable. Dessert tasted a lot better after that and they lingered over coffee, chatting amiably. When they left the restaurant, after a mock-fight over who would pay for lunch between Gil and Nick’s dad, Bill won, they walked out to the parking lot together. Nick’s mom put her arm around his waist and he draped one over her shoulder as they walked.
“You’re really okay?”
“I’m fine, baby. Your dad nearly sued the x-ray technician for starting the whole thing, although it was the machine’s fault, not the poor technician’s, and it turned out I wasn’t the only one with a false diagnosis,” she answered. “Felt a lot like a pin cushion for a while there, with all the blood they were taking to run tests that kept saying I was fine. It finally occurred to them to just take the x-rays over again.”
Curious, Nick asked, “Why did you get them in the first place?”
She laughed and shook her head. “Fender bender, of all things.”
They reached the rental car and he hugged her tight. “You guys heading back tonight?”
She hugged him back and said, “No, we’re going to relax tonight and leave in the morning. You know your father. He can’t resist being on the road at the buttcrack of dawn.”
“I heard that.”
“You were supposed to.”
Nick chuckled at his parents’ teasing. He kissed her on the cheek and said, “Well, call me when you guys get home, let us know you got back okay.”
His dad hugged him next and promised, “We will, Pancho.”
Nick’s breath hitched at the nick-name he never thought to hear again and held a little longer than he probably should’ve. Stepping back, he said, “Good. Drive safe now.”
Gil took his hand and they waited until the car had driven off to walk to their own. Nick bumped shoulders with him on the walk over, but was still a little too overwhelmed to think of anything to say. That was all right, though; Gil never expected conversation unless he had something to say. Nick climbed into the passenger side and waited for Gil to settle into the driver's seat before he said, “Thank you, for what you said before.”
Gil smiled at him, a little bittersweet, and said, “I meant it, Nicky. It's hard to be without family and yours was always important to you. I hated that you were so alone the last couple of years, missing that connection.”
Nick gripped his shoulder and said, “I'm never alone with you in my life.”
Gil leaned forward and kissed him roughly, hand sliding around to cup the back of his head.
Nick groaned in love and need and opened to it, sliding his tongue along Gil's. The kiss ended, but he rested his forehead against Gil's as he said, “I love you so much.”
Gil gently squeezed the back of his neck and said hoarsely, “Love you too, Nicky.”
They stayed like that a few more minutes and then Gil pulled back. It was a quiet drive back to the house, each lost in thought. Nick barely noticed the trip home, jumping a bit in surprise when Gil parked in the driveway. They held hands on the short walk inside and then took time to get changed into more comfortable clothes. Gil started a fire while Nick poured them some wine. He sat on the sofa, watching his lover feed kindling to the growing flames.
Gil joined him once the blaze really caught, settling with a sigh and putting an arm over Nick's shoulder to draw him in. He kissed the top of Nick's head and observed, “Eventful day.”
“Yeah,” Nick murmured, resting his head on Gil's shoulder. “For you, too.”
Gil huffed a little and said, “I guess that's true. I can honestly say I didn't expect dinner to end like that.”
They sat in comfortable silence, staring at the fire and sipping at wine until the sun faded away, leaving them in shadows painted by the bright fire. It was so nice, not needing to think about anything for a while. Nick thought he dozed a little at some point, but it didn't matter. He had Gil and now he had his folks back, if not his whole family. It looked like he'd been the recipient of some honest-to-God, Christmas magic. He smiled at the thought and said, “Merry Christmas, Daddy.”
Gil gave him a small squeeze and said, “Merry Christmas, Nicky.”