Okay, I couldn't leave Christmas morning hanging there, so it seemed a good place to start. Hope you all enjoy, and please review and let me know what you think!

I do not own, nor do I profit ....


Chapter 1: A Special Gift

After everything that had happened, Craig wasn't sure that he was going to be able to enjoy Christmas the way he had pictured it in his mind. That particular holiday had impacted him so strongly the first time he had experienced it, and he had been aching for that same feeling. Now, as he watched Angel going through the packages, checking the tags, he wasn't so sure that he could ever see that holiday, any holiday, in the same way again. His mother wasn't there to lead him through it and prove to him that he was wanted by someone and loved, and good enough.

He knew at some level that his brothers cared, and they would be there, but on another level that fear of losing that feeling of belonging would always hover around him. He had promised himself that this was going to mark a new start though. He wasn't going to let himself fall into the fears that were lurking just below the surface of his conscious thoughts. He was going to get past them, and he was going to beat them.

His brothers had put a lot of thought and effort into making this day feel as normal as possible considering the events of the past few days, which only added to the desperation that had overwhelmed him since the day his mother had been shot. He wasn't going to let the past month haunt him for the rest of his life, and this was the beginning of getting past that. Despite telling himself that, it didn't ease the feeling of loss. His mother's absence on this day was going to be the most difficult thing to face.

Craig sat on the end of the couch nearest the tree with Jack on his right, a space in between them to leave room for the boxes to be stacked up as they were unwrapped. Bobby sat in a chair on the other side of the coffee table, using it for holding his coffee mug, for a change. Angel was planted on the floor, sitting cross legged, handing out packages as he went through them. He would stop to open anything with his own name on it. His brothers had been at each other from the moment Angel came running down the stairs yelling that it was Christmas. He'd gotten Jack out of his bed in the dining room and had thrown a fit when Bobby said they had to wait for the coffee to run. Craig didn't mind waiting, he was sorry to lose the peaceful, quiet, half sleep that he'd fallen into and the time helped him to get his thoughts in order for the big event that Angel was so excited about.

Blue jeans, shirts, underwear, and socks, just what Craig had expected for the most part, Christmas was always the time to stock up on clothes. What surprised him was the large box that contained the sketchpads, charcoal pencils and pastel chalk. The real supplies that artists used, not the kids stuff you would buy in the arts and crafts section at Wall Mart. No more number two lead pencils, though he was used to the feel of those. He'd adjust, he was sure, and he would do it happily.

He had always wanted the real stuff, had always begged his mother for the big sketch pads, the ones that had real texture to the page, and the charcoal pencils so that he could get the deeper shades that he needed. Evelyn had said that one day, when she was sure he could appreciate the level of commitment needed to be a real artist, she would make sure he had all of the supplies he needed.

The pastels would be different, he would be able to fill his pages with real color now, and he wouldn't be limited in what he put down on the paper. He didn't know which brother had given him the gift. There had been no name on the tag identifying the giver; it had only held his name.

The other large box that had been for him, the one that his brothers seemed so anxious for him to open went untouched until he'd gone through all of the supplies in the box. He didn't really care if he opened anything else, he would have preferred to take his box to the dining room table and open everything up, testing the feel of the paper under the new drawing utensils, which came in their own separate wooden cases. Nothing in the box was cheap, he knew that, and he wished he knew who to thank. Rather than asking at that moment he decided to catch each of his brothers alone and ask them one at a time. For some reason they hadn't put their name on the package, maybe they didn't want anyone else to know. He had a suspicion that it was Jack. With his music being so important to him, he would be the only brother who could relate to his connection with drawing and understand the importance of the contents of that box.

He would have gone through his new art supplies much more thoroughly if Jack hadn't reached over from next to him on the couch and pulled the box from his lap. "Come on, you got more to open." He pushed the box onto the coffee table, clearing the way for Angel to drop the other large box on Craig's lap. It was defiantly heavier than the art supplies.

Craig looked at the tag; this one was from all of his brothers, including Jerry. He was struggling against a nagging guilt for not having something to give to each of them. They had given him much more than he'd ever expected, they had gone through hell for him, and there was nothing under the tree from him to them. He carefully pulled the tape apart at the top of the box, and started to peel the paper back. Jack sighed heavily and reached over. "You need to learn how to open presents, you don't need to preserve the paper; it's disposable." He started ripping at the seams of the wrapping, pulling it away to reveal a game system. He grinned big and pointed to the box. "You know this has a guitar with it."

"The hell with that, they got a war game for it and it's like you're really there, the graphics are amazing." Angel spoke up, holding his arms up as if he were holding a rifle and imitating the motion of firing off some rounds.

"Screw those." Bobby spoke from the chair he'd pulled closer to the coffee table. "What the hell, you all gonna give away the rest of it before he even opens them?" He grinned and winked at Craig. "They wanted this so they could play, you know that, right?"

Craig stared at Bobby for a long moment, "Did you get Grand Theft Auto?" He asked; sure Bobby was just as excited to have the game system as Angel and Jack were, and that game seemed to fit his oldest brother more than any other he could think of.

Bobby grinned, "My kind of fuck-freakin' game." He corrected himself a little too late. Craig wondered how long it would take him to forget his promise to watch how he talked around his youngest brother. It wasn't natural for the man, and Craig was sure it wouldn't last long.

Angel lifted the game system off of Craig's lap and set it down carefully on the floor next to Bobby's chair. There weren't many packages left. Once the rest of the gifts had been opened Bobby scanned the mess of paper and ribbons that were scattered around on the floor and piled up on the empty chair that Angel was sitting in front of. "You think we should get a trash bag?" He asked.

Angel looked up at Bobby and then shifted his stare to the various hills and valleys of blue, red, green and gold, "Probably." He sighed. "The last thing I want to listen to is Jeremiah's bitchin' about the house bein' a wreck."

"Besides, we'll need to clear the way for the rest of the presents when Jerry's family and Sofi get here." Jack pointed out. "Then we can clean it all up a second time."

Craig reached for his box of art supplies and pulled it back to him. He started pulling out the wooden boxes to re-examine their contents and try to get familiar with everything that was there.

"You can't put that down for nothin', can you?" Angel looked at Craig, his voice was teasing, and he had a small grin on his face.

Craig looked at Angel, and he couldn't contain his curiosity any longer. He had wanted to wait and ask each one in private about who had gotten him what he'd wanted more than anything in the world, but he needed to know who to thank. "Who got it for me?" He looked from Angel to Bobby, and then shifted his gaze to Jack, certain he was the brother he would be thanking.

Jack looked at Bobby, his mouth opened but he didn't speak. Craig looked at Bobby as well, from Jack's reaction he expecting him to be the one to confess to getting the art materials, but Bobby just drew in a deep breath and glanced at Angel. Craig was starting to feel a little hesitant, not understanding what the big deal was. He looked at Angel; the expression on the man's face was blank as he shook his head and pointed to Bobby.

Craig returned his stare to Bobby. "Why won't you tell me?" He asked.

Bobby drew in a deep breath, cleared his throat loudly and started nodding his head. "I found those in Ma's closet." He told the teen. "They were in a brown bag that had your name and 'Christmas' written on it." He spoke a little too fast, and his voice sounded a little choked at the moment. He cleared his throat again before going on. "She was good at that. Finding shit ahead of time and buyin' it to put up for Christmas." He forgot to correct his own cussing. "She had some things for the girls too, but this was the big one." He pointed to the box in Craig's lap. "I guess she knew you pretty damn well, huh? You can't put it down." He laughed.

Craig looked down into the box. Yeah, she knew him pretty damn well. He felt tears trying to pool and he didn't want to cry. He let one of his hands rub down the edge of the wooden box containing the large variety of pastels. He felt his bottom lip starting to quiver. Evelyn had said she would make sure he had all the supplies he needed when she felt he appreciated the commitment it would take, and apparently she thought he had reached that level. He had always wanted to make her proud of his drawing, and she had always said that she was proud, he just hadn't been sure; he'd never felt as if he'd really done well enough to make her proud of him. Knowing that she had spent the time to find just the items he'd been wanting, and to pay for the real thing, not the cheap stuff, he felt it now. She really had been proud and had really understood. The tears fell, and he reached up to wipe them away.

"She loved you kid." Jack reached out with his hand and let it rest on Craig's back. "That's not something that will ever go away, you got that?" He spoke quietly.

Craig nodded his head, but the tears were still coming and he felt choked up. "I miss her." He managed to get the words out but his voice trembled.

"Yeah, we know exactly how you feel." Angel moved from his position on the floor to the couch, trying to slip himself into the narrow space between Craig and the couch arm. Jack moved the boxes between them onto the floor and Craig moved towards Jack enough that Angel could squeeze in.

Bobby stood and stepped over the coffee table with little trouble. He slid some more boxes down towards the end of the table and sat down on it directly in front of the boy. "You know, I think she's still hangin' around here, watchin' to see what the hell we're up to." He laughed as he looked at Angel. "She always had her eye on us. We couldn't get anything by her."

"Yeah, too bad you never realized that when you were a kid, man you would have saved yourself from a lot of bullshitting." Jack laughed.

"What does that mean?" Bobby asked, trying to look shocked by the words.

"Like when you got caught coming home drunk when you was sixteen, trying to sneak in the basement, all staggering around in the dark." Angel spoke up, a grin on his face. "Ma had been watching you for weeks, knew when you snuck out and when you were sneaking in. She even followed you a few times. She finally had enough of it and busted you comin' in one night. You started layin' on a line 'bout someone tryin' to break in and you were just protecting your brothers and your beloved mother, trying to keep us all safe and sound." He laughed, and had to take a breath. "You even went as far as to describe what the intruder looked like, the whole time you were holding a bottle of beer in one hand, and you were using your other hand to hold onto the wall so you wouldn't fall flat on your ass."

"Yeah, and she just let you ramble on and on about it, until you were ready to drop. Then she dragged your butt to the kitchen, sat you down and started making out a list of all the extra chores you were gonna have for the next month." Jack nodded his head. "I believe she locked that basement door for a few months too."

"What about you?" Bobby looked at Angel. "I'm sure you felt just a little weird when she came home from work early and busted you and Sofi in the laundry room, on the washing machine." He spoke a little louder than he needed to, but he laughed. "I would have given anything to see the look on your face when she stepped in, just as calm as could be and asked both of you to meet her in the living room, that she needed to talk to you."

"Not to mention the look on your face when she handed you a box of condoms and proceeded to explain to you how to use them. Didn't she open one and actually show it to you?" Jack pointed to Angel. "Tell me something Angel, what did that feel like?"

"She caught us by accident, it was not planned." Angel insisted as he shook his head.

"Oh, you think Ma carried a box of condoms around in a paper bag all of the time just in case the opportunity came up to embarrass one of her sons?" Jack sat back into the couch, letting out a pleasant sigh. "She knew for a while before she did that. You all thought you could get one past her, and you never could."

"Yeah, you really should have thought to turn the knob on the washer to the 'off' position Angel. I have to admit it took her a little longer to figure out than it should have, she just didn't understand why it was always set to spin." Bobby turned his attention to Jack, "And what about you, Mr. High and Mighty, thinking you could get yourself a nose ring without her finding out about it." He laughed.

Jack shrugged his shoulders. "I still say that wasn't so bad, it was just gonna be one little ring." He reached up to the middle of his nose and pinched where the ring would have been, and he seemed to frown at the memory.

"You didn't think that she would notice a freakin' ring hanging out of your nose?" Bobby laughed a little harder. "You weren't even sixteen."

"Well it's not like I got it, now is it?" Jack looked a little irritated.

"Well of course not. I'm sure that guy wasn't about to poke any holes in you after your Mommy marched into his shop, giving him what-for. The guy knew you weren't old enough and he was gonna pierce your nose anyway." Angel leaned up and grinned at Jack. "So what did it feel like Jackie Poo, having your Mommy grab hold of you by that nose and haul your ass out of there?" He laughed.

"How did she find out about that anyway? I never told anyone I was going there, not even you guys." Jack seemed genuinely curious.

"Who knows Jackie; it's amazing what a parent can know without ever being told a thing." Bobby let his gaze fall on Craig. "What about you? You got anything she busted you for?" He asked.

Craig shook his head slowly. "Not really." He muttered.

"What about that paint job you did at the school?" Angel asked.

"That wasn't planned, the school called her about that." Craig muttered. "She wasn't happy." He remembered the lecture his mother had given him about putting himself in a dangerous situation by crawling out onto the second story ledge.

"Oh I bet not." Angel grinned. "By the way, I got a question for you." A thoughtful expression crossed his face.

Craig looked at Angel, "Yeah?" He was feeling a little less like crying, enjoying the stories of how his mother had taken control of his brothers, putting them in their place when it was needed. It felt good to remember her, to feel as if she were t here with them.

"Who is that girl you painted on the school anyway?" Angel asked.

Craig felt a smile creep across his lips. He hadn't wanted Angel to see his work at the school, but he had the feeling it was too late to prevent that. "Who does it look like?" He asked, eager to see if Angel had an idea.

Angel's eyes narrowed. "That was not Sofi." He sounded as if he were trying to convince himself.

"Sofi thought it looked pretty good." Craig commented. "She wasn't real happy with where it was, but she thought it looked good." He leaned away from Angel slightly, letting Jack pull his arm around his shoulder when he seen the look on Angel's face.

"How do you even know what she looks like naked?" Angel cried out.

"I don't. I've seen her in her bikini though, and I just guessed at the rest." Craig pulled a little closer to Jack when Angel leaned towards him.

"We are gonna get that paint off of that school by the end of the week." The man spoke firmly.

"Mom already paid the school to remove it, but they never did." Craig muttered, remembering the guilt that he'd felt for his mother having to pay out so much money for his stunt.

"Screw the school, I'm gonna go up there and get it off myself." Angel looked at Bobby. "You knew the whole time, didn't you?" He shook his head.

Bobby laughed. "No I didn't, but it sure did look like her." He looked at Craig and shook his head. "What the hell made you pick Sofi?"

Craig shrugged his shoulders. "I didn't know anyone else besides Camille, and you don't think Jerry would have killed me if I'd painted her?" He looked at Bobby; the answer should have been obvious to his brother.

"You didn't think Angel would kill you?" Jack asked. He tightened his protective hold on the boy when Angel leaned a little closer.

"Angel wasn't here." Craig defended his choice, looking back to Angel's narrow stare, "Jerry was."

"It's coming down." Angel spoke quietly. His eyes were fixed on the boy. "Wait a minute. Sofi knew?" He cried out, his eyes widening as he sat straight up.

Craig nodded his head, "Mom made me tell her." But he didn't bother to add that after the initial explosion Sofi had gone down to the school and taken pictures.

Angel grinned at that. "So, Mom did bust you down good for the stunt. I thought so." He nodded his head.

"I was grounded 'till hell froze over." Craig remembered the look on his mother's face when she'd told him that. He let his body relax next to Jack. He waited for a few minutes to see if Angel was done. When nothing else was said he drew in a deep breath. "What about Jerry? Did he ever get into trouble?" He asked, keeping his gaze downward, at the art supplies in the box that was still on his lap. He already knew the answer, but it was a chance to change the subject.

That brought on more stories than Craig had ever expected. Jerry it seemed had a much more colorful past than he would have ever guessed. He knew all of his brothers had been in jail at various times, and he'd known that Jerry had been no saint when he was younger, but it seemed Jerry was involved in a lot more trouble than the law had known about. Evelyn had caught him though, and Craig was sure that it was her unique form of parenting that pushed him to set more productive goals for himself.

Eventually the stories had to stop so that the shredded and crumbled wrapping paper could be cleaned up. Bobby helped Angel from his chair, but when Craig and Jack started to help they were both told not to even think about it. The gifts, except for Craig's box of treasures which he held onto, were all boxed back up and set back under the tree, towards the back, to make room for any gifts that Jerry and Camille would bring. Angel went upstairs and returned minutes later with an armful of new presents, all labeled for Jerry and his family, and he positioned them under the tree carefully. "That looks good." He sounded proud of his efforts.

Craig and Jack both sat on the couch, eating cereal, while Bobby and Angel went around the house cleaning. Sofi walked in a little after ten with large ham in her arms. Angel went to her car to retrieve the rest of the holiday meal and the presents she'd brought with her, and then she took charge of the kitchen, kicking the men out.

Craig was enjoying watching Bobby move things around to one area only to have Angel come behind him and move them back. Finally Jack excused himself to go take his medication and Bobby brought Craig's wide variety of pills to him. He was surprised when Bobby told him he could go upstairs and get a shower, under his watchful eye of course, since the meds would make him groggy. He hadn't been looking forward to having to wash out of a basin in front of his brothers.

It took nearly two hours for the three men and teenager to shower and dress. It was longer than Craig was used to seeing. They would take turns in the restroom, and Craig was surprised when Bobby insisted that they all dress for the holiday, just like Evelyn had always preferred. He was even more surprised to learn that Bobby could actually put the proper knot into a neck tie, and was thankful for that since he couldn't tie one himself. It seemed strange not be heading off to church, as Evelyn would have made them do if she'd been there, but no one else mentioned the morning service, so Craig didn't bring it up. He didn't think he was feeling up to it, and he was sure his brothers weren't either.

The rest of the day seemed to play out like Christmas always did, and the familiarity of it was comforting. It gave Craig the chance to shut out the memories of the past week, and forget about the confusion that had been overwhelming him before. He found he was able to laugh a little at some of the jokes his brothers passed back and forth, and he enjoyed watching his nieces open their presents. The gifts from their grandmother were hats, scarves and mittens that she'd knitted herself, and he could remember holding the yarn up in his hands for her as she worked. Bobby had gotten each girl a doll, and Jack had given them toy guitars, which wasn't a surprise. The presents the girls seemed most happy with seemed to be the trucks Angel had given to them. The girls rolled them across the floor and smashed them into each other, over and over again. Bobby made a remark that they might be girls, but they were definitely Mercers.

Dinner had been eaten under the rumble of everyone talking at once. Craig hadn't argued when Bobby made sure he was sitting next to him, though it did irritate him, just slightly when Bobby went on to fill his plate for him the same as he had been doing before. He fought it down, knowing good and well why Bobby was still treating him as if he didn't trust him to eat. He didn't feel like eating and he had to force every bite down. He was sure it would get easier with time; at least he hoped it would, but with every bite his mind would think about the crackers that he'd lost in the basement. He reminded himself that he had been hungry then, and would have given anything to have a dinner as nice as what was in front him at that moment.

He pushed the thoughts back, and concentrated on what was going on around him, and hearing his brothers laughing and talking just like they always had. Angel asked Sofi about the painting of her at the school and she just smiled and said something about being the first great work of a future great artist was a privilege. It embarrassed Craig a little and when he flushed Bobby couldn't let it go. All in all it was a good day; one that Craig was sure would fill several pages in one of his new sketch pads. Though by the time dinner was over his head was starting to ache dully and the sounds of the forks and knives clinking against the plates seemed to vibrate through his skull.

After dinner, while the rest of the family moved to the living room, Bobby gave him his pills and then pointed to the bed, "You need to get a little rest, you don't look too good." He spoke calmly as Craig downed the last pill with the glass of water Bobby had provided.

Craig didn't argue; he was feeling a little drained. He moved from the table to the bed and curled up on top of the blankets, not wanting to mess it up too much. He watched as Jack joined Sofi and Camille in the living room with the girls, and his other brothers started clearing the table, insisting they were going to clean up. He wondered if they would all manage to stay in the kitchen long enough to get the task accomplished this time. He could hear Jack's guitar after a while, strumming out a soft melody. He wasn't sure what song it was, but it was soothing, and he could feel his mind drifting along with the tune, floating off into a dream that for once wasn't full of monsters.