The Most Expensive Christmas Ever

Author:  Orrymain
Category:  Slash, Drama, Holiday, Established Relationship
Pairing:  Jack/Daniel ... and it's all J/D
Rating:  PG-13
Season:  Beyond the Series - December 22, 2012
Spoilers:  None
Size:  39kb, short story
Written:  December 19-21,23-24, 2008 Tweaked: April 25, 2011
Summary:  Jack, Daniel, and the brood help another family to discover the true joy of Christmas.
Disclaimer:  Usual disclaimers -- not mine, wish they were, especially Daniel, and Jack, too, but they aren't.  A gal can dream though!
Notes:  
1) Sometimes, Jack and Daniel speak almost telepathically.  Their “silent” words to each other are indicated by asterisks instead of quotes, such as **Jack, we can't.**
2) Silent, unspoken thoughts by various characters are indicated with ~ in front and behind them, such as ~Where am I?~
3) This fic stands alone, but it does reference my other fic(s), “A Christmas Miracle”
4) Thanks to my betas who always make my fics better:  Irina, Ali, Tammy, Claudia, Bernice, Mama Bear!

The Most Expensive Christmas Ever
by Orrymain

Rayna Oliver turned off the engine of her SUV and turned to address her two children, Tootie and Cliff.  The African American woman was a lawyer for a successful firm in Colorado Springs.  She was known within her office for doing more pro bono cases than any of the other attorneys, and she was considered to be a woman with a big heart.  She'd worked hard to get her education, but had been fortunate in that she did receive help from her middle class parents.  Her father, a mailman and her mother, a dental assistant, had been determined to see that their only daughter was able to reach her full potential.

The dark-skinned beauty had always believed she could achieve greatness in her life, thanks in part to the support her parents had given her and what she'd seen on her favorite television show, “The Cosby Show.”  She had watched 'Clair Huxtable' be a successful lawyer, wife, and mother, and that was her goal now, too.  She'd even named her daughter Clair, though the seven-year-old was called Tootie, after another famous TV character that they'd watched in reruns, “The Facts of Life.”

Not only was Tootie named after the iconic TV series, but so was Rayna's son, six-year-old Cliff.

Today, Rayna was about to take her children into the very busy Toys-R-Us store.  It was the last Saturday before Christmas, and the place was packed with adults scurrying for last-minute buys and children 'demanding' this or that toy.

“Now you both remember that we're buying presents for your cousins and friends today.”

“And our special gifts,” Tootie piped up excitedly about a gift that would be from her parents but that the two children were allowed to pick out.  It was tradition for the Olivers to let each of their children choose one expensive gift that they really wanted and actually buy it right then.  It was a pre-Christmas ritual the kids looked forward to annually.  “I hope they have Beth Anne,” she added anxiously about the brand new doll that had been one of the hits of the holiday season.

“But that's it,” Rayna stated firmly while unbuckling her seatbelt.  “No goofing off.”  After the warning, she reminded, “t's very cold outside. Coats snug, hat on over your ears, and scarves wrapped tight. Don't forget your gloves.”

As the children got out of the vehicle, Cliff noticed a girl near the entranceway who was smiling and chatting with two other boys.  A man was behind them, urging them inside.

~She's beautiful,~ the young Cliff thought, perhaps on the verge of his very first crush.

The object of Cliff's observation was Aislinn Jackson-O'Neill, the six-year-old daughter of Jack and Daniel.  Her beautiful brown hair was flowing as she twirled around excitedly.  She had on a long black coat and a bright red scarf with its matching red tam.  Red gloves warmed her hands, too.  Cliff thought she looked like a picture postcard.

It was Daniel who was trying to shoo the youngest Munchkin, along with Ricky and Jonny, inside the store.  The three were about to join the rest of the family in doing some important holiday shopping.  At this point, Jack and the rest of the brood had already been in the large store for a half-hour.

====

“Tamba will like that, Mommy,” Tootie stated about the toy she'd just picked out for one of her cousins.

“I agree,” Rayna replied as she continued to look over the toy.

Just then, Tootie looked over and couldn't help overhearing a conversation taking place among some other children.

--

“No, Jonny, it's on my list,” Little Danny argued.

“But I saw it first,” Jonny claimed.

“Did not.”

“Did so!” Jonny insisted.

“Daaaaad!” Little Danny exclaimed, doing his own special 'Danny pout'.

--

~They have bad manners,~ Tootie opined to herself.  ~Mommy and Daddy tell us not to argue like that.~  She looked up at her mother, who had just asked her if she was absolutely positive that the toy was the one she wanted for Tamba.  “Yes, Mommy.”

As Rayna and her children headed down the aisle, passing the Jackson-O'Neills, Tootie could hear the two boys making their case with their father.  Looking back, she frowned when she heard how the debate ended.

--

“I know!” Little Danny exclaimed.  “We'll both get one.  I need more money, Dad.”

--

~I don't think their parents taught them right,~ Tootie thought as she rounded the corner.

====

A bit later, Tootie gasped with excitement, reaching onto the shelf and pulling out the very last Beth Anne doll that Toys-R-Us had.

“Thank you, Mommy.”

“You've earned it, Tootie,” Rayna praised.

As the Olivers walked on, Tootie heard a large sigh of regret.  Looking back, she caught part of the conversation.

--

“That girl got the last doll, Daddy,” Aislinn complained in what sounded to Tootie like a combined sniffle and whine.  “Darn, I wanted that doll.  We *have* to go to another store, okay?  I *have* to have *this* doll, Daddy.”

--

Tootie hadn't been able to make out everything Daniel had said in reply, but she did hear him say they'd check the Denver stores.

~I'm glad I got Beth Anne, but I wouldn't have made Mommy go to Denver.  That girl's really spoiled.~

====

Minutes later, in another of the store's many aisles, Tootie was helping Cliff choose a present for another of their cousins.  She was focused on toys, but Cliff's attention shifted to the kids a few yards away from them.

--

“Noa, it's not good enough,” David claimed.

“You don't need to get the best one,” Chenoa argued.

“It makes a difference,” the boy insisted.

With a huff, Chenoa walked away, calling out, “You're wrong.”

--

Cliff felt Tootie tugging on his arm, drawing his attention back to her and their task.  Still, he glanced back at the children and frowned.

~Shouldn't argue over presents.  That girl is right; don't need to have the best to have fun.~

===

It was an hour later when the Olivers had finally finished their shopping.  They were waiting in line at the checkout stand that was right next to the one that the Jackson-O'Neills were using.

Tootie tugged on her mother's dress and said, “Mommy, those children are so spoiled.  Look at all those toys.”

It was hard for anyone to miss the Jackson-O'Neill purchases.  After all, there were ten very-stuffed shopping carts lined up, back to back, all full of toys and gadgets.

“That's ridiculous,” Rayna heard herself say as she took in the sight of what looked like half the toy store.  She sighed, but deciding it wasn't any of her business, she opened her purse to get her compact and check her makeup.  ~I'm so proud of Toots and Cliff for understanding what Christmas is really about.~

“They're spoiled rotten,” Tootie informed her brother.

Cliff nodded.  He'd seen several of those children arguing about toys during their shopping.  He just couldn't understand it.  It was the opposite of what his parents had taught him and his sister.

Tootie was thinking the same thing, and the two siblings began to talk about it, until they heard a voice calling out to them.

Crossing the short distance between the aisles, Jonny accused, “You're saying bad things about us.”

“Jonny, get back here,” Jack ordered, his general eyes glaring and prompting the oldest Munchkin to sneer at the gossiping children and then hesitantly return to be with his siblings.

====

As it turned out, the Olivers were parked just two cars away from Jack's truck, which Daniel had driven to the store.  The SUV that Jack had driven with most of the brood was one aisle over and a few cars down.

“All those toys,” Tootie sighed, shaking her head.  “How can they play with all those?”

“Maybe they're a baseball team,” Cliff suggested, seeing just how many of the children were together.

“They fight over toys, Cliffie.  You never do that, okay?” Tootie asked and ordered her younger brother.

“No, we don't!” Jonny argued, having run over from his family's vehicle.

“I heard you!” Tootie argued back, her hands on her hips as she faced the oldest Munchkin.

Aislinn had followed her brother and chimed in, “But ...”

“It's not nice to argue over toys like that,” Tootie insisted.

“But they're not for us,” Aislinn objected.

“Huh?”

“You need to learn how to listen,” Jonny accused, feeling his accusation was justified by the falsehood being tossed towards the brood.

“Come see,” Aislinn invited, reaching out and taking a blushing Cliff by the hand as she led him one car over to the truck.

“Cliff!” Rayna called out, sighing as she tried to put the toys she'd purchased into her car while keeping an eye out on her children.

“I'll get him,” Tootie responded, though she was inwardly happy at being given the opportunity to see what the strange little girl was talking about.

Standing by the truck, Jonny was explaining about the toy that he and Little Danny had fought over.

“It was on my list, and Little Danny's list, but we didn't know it.  We like to get different things, but this time, we're getting the same thing.  Little Danny's smart like that.  He decided it would be okay, this time,” Jonny advised the Oliver kids.

“I don't get it.  Why can't you play with the same one?” Tootie asked.

“Ash told you,” Jonny replied impatiently.  “They aren't for us.”

“Then who are they for?”

“A lot of them are for the kids at the shelter.  We got one of the Mavericks there,” Jonny explained.

Before Tootie and Cliff had a chance to ask what or who a ‘Maverick’ was, Ricky joined in the conversation, saying, “Some are for the homeless kids at Mon'ment.”

“Monument Creek, Ricky,” Jenny corrected her twin.

“Homeless?” Cliff questioned.

Jack and Daniel were keeping an eye on their children and the discussion that was going on, but they remained out of the verbal sparring for the time being, letting the kids handle it while they continued to put the gifts into the bed of the truck.  Jennifer and Jeff were still bringing out some of their carts from the store.

“I didn't know there were kids living in tents,” Tootie replied sadly after listening to what the brood had been telling them.

“I hope Randi is still there,” Aislinn stated.  “Well, part of me does, but I keep hoping her mommy will find them a home.  She was there on March First Day.”

Again, the brood had to explain about their special day when the kids would visit the homeless encampment and bring things to help make the lives of the homeless a little easier.  Aislinn had met this little girl then.  Randi had a little doll, whose head was half-cut off and had only one very torn and dirty dress.  The girl had named her doll Beth.

“That's why you wanted Beth Anne,” Tootie realized, seeing a nod from Aislinn.

“We go to Monument Creek a couple of times a year,” Little Danny told the Oliver kids.  “We call it March First Day, or sometimes our Un-Christmas Day.”

“Why do you call it that?” Cliff asked.

“Because everyone thinks of the homeless and the orphans at Christmastime, but hardly anyone does the rest of the year,” Little Danny explained.

“And Christmas should be every day,” Jonny added.

The children then began to talk more about the shelter, explaining that's where'd they'd found Brianna, one of their older sisters.

“Bri, look over here!” Jonny shouted to the tomboy, who was over on the far side of the truck.

“Huh?  What?” the tomboy asked, a package in her hand as she looked over at the Munchkin.

“See, that's Bri!” Jonny told the Oliver kids, totally ignoring his older sister, who then just shrugged and continued helping her fathers with the toys.

The younger Jackson-O'Neill children told the Oliver children a little bit more about Brianna and then about the Mouseketeers having spent time at Molly O'Hanlon's shelter.

“Tootie!  Cliff!  Now!” Rayna called out.

“Bye,” Tootie said to the brood as she walked away, holding Cliff's hand.

The intelligent child felt bad about her earlier condemnation of those children, who had turned out to be remarkably selfless.  She make a silent resolution not to judge people by first appearances in future.  Halfway to her where her mother was waiting, Tootie glanced back at Aislinn, who was smiling and waving at her.

Back at her own SUV a few seconds later, Tootie looked up at her mother and asked, “Mommy, is Beth Anne really mine to do whatever I want with?”

“Of course she is, Toots,” Rayna answered, smiling at her daughter.  “She's your special gift.”

“All mine?”

“Absolutely.”

Surprising her mother, Tootie reached into the SUV and retrieved the doll.  She ran over to Jack's truck and stopped in front of Aislinn.

“Little girl, give this to Randi for me, okay?”

Aislinn grinned and asked, “You sure?”

Nodding, Tootie smiled brightly and said, “I love her, but I have lots of dolls.”

“Me, too,” Aislinn replied.  “But what if Randi's not there?”

Tootie paused, thinking hard about the possibility.  Then she smiled again, feeling certain about her decision.

“I'll bet there'll be another little girl who needs a doll who will love Beth Anne.”

Aislinn grinned, taking the box with the doll inside of it, and hugging Tootie while saying, “My name's Ash.”

“I'm Tootie!”

“What's going on?” Rayna questioned, coming over to see what was holding up her children and why they seemed to be sudden friends with the children that they had been scornful of earlier.

The woman's presence caused Jack to pause his loading job and walk over to her.  After being filled in by the kids, he realized how strange it must seem to Rayna.

Pulling out his business card and holding it out, Jack introduced, “Ma'am, I'm Jack Jackson-O'Neill.  My ...” he paused, not certain how the stranger would feel about same-sex marriage or how she was teaching her children.  He decided to take the simplest option and simply said, “Daniel and I own it.”

Taking the card and studying it, Rayna observed, “General.”

“*Major* general,” Jonny corrected proudly.

“And Grandpa is a lieutenant general,” Aislinn added with equal pride.

“Retired, Ma'am,” Jack added.  “But we're still known at Cheyenne Mountain, so ...”

“Cheyenne Mountain?” Rayna questioned skeptically.  “I thought the Air Force didn't use that place anymore.”

“They moved NORAD, but it's still in use,” Jack responded.  “Storage, things like that.  Gotta keep those light bulbs somewhere,” he mused.

Rayna nodded, apparently accepting the response, although she realized that Jack wasn't telling the entire truth.  She'd lived in Colorado Springs long enough to understand the military had things going on they wouldn't divulge.

“A couple of years ago, I was in a bad accident.  I couldn't remember my name, and those people at Monument Creek took care of me for a while.  When I got back home, the kids wanted to do something to say thanks.  It's become part of our Christmas tradition,” Jack explained.

“I see,” Rayna replied, amazed at what she was hearing.  Like Tootie earlier, she was beginning to feel a little ashamed of her earlier judgment of the family.  “And this shelter?”

As Jack explained how the family supported shelters, Little Danny's mind began to formulate a plan.

All of a sudden, the highly intelligent child interjected, “Ma'am, do you like dogs?”

“Dogs?” Rayna chuckled at the interruption.  “Yes, I do.”

“We have two,” Cliff announced with a huge smile on his face.

“Beagles!” Tootie explained, seeing the smiles on the faces of the brood who were in on the discussion.

“Munchkin!” Little Danny called out, using a code word that instantly resulted in the brood huddling together.

“What are they doing?” an intrigued Rayna asked.

“It's usually best not to think about it too much,” Jack answered ruefully as he grimaced from watching the huddle.  ~What are they up to now?~

“Jack, I need a hand,” Daniel called out.

Nodding, Jack looked at Rayna and said, “If you have qualms about what we've said or who we are, Ma'am, call our office or the shelter.”  He reached out for the card, taking it back and then writing something on it with the pen he'd extracted from his pocket.  “Evelyn Bodine runs the shelter.  Great lady!  Give her a call.”

Rayna stared at the card and found herself watching the two men and several of their older children helping to load the now half-full truck with toys.  As she pondered what to do, if anything, about the Beth Anne doll, her children continued to talk with some of the younger Jackson-O'Neill kids, who had now broken out of their huddle.

“They'll like the toys,” Cliff opined about the homeless children.

“I think they'll like the coats, too,” Little Danny added.

“Coats?” Tootie asked, blinking at the strange comment.

“Do this,” Little Danny advised, taking off his coat, scarf, gloves, and tam that he'd been wearing to keep warm.

It had been exceptionally cold this week in the Springs, and a light mist was permeating the air.

Tootie and Cliff took off their protective gear and began to shiver.

“See!” Little Danny said.  “They don't have a warm car to get into or a warm house to go home to.  They live like this, all the time.”

“With coats that are torn, and no gloves,” Chenoa said sadly.

“Or they have holes in them,” Little Danny pointed out.

“We bought the toys, and Dad and Daddy bought all the coats and things,” Jonny stated.

“And there's a lot of them, all sizes and colors,” Jenny chimed in happily.

“Did you really buy all those toys?” Rayna asked the brood, having heard the last part of the discussion.

“We worked hard *all* year,” Little Danny answered.

“I cleaned Aunt Sam's floor.  That was really hard,” Aislinn stated.

“And Grandpa pays us to do stuff at his house,” Chenoa stated.

“Mrs. Miller paid me to put out her garbage can when Mister Miller was out of town,” Jonny added.  “She didn't even get mad when I knocked it over.”

“It was an accident,” Little Danny reminded his brother.

“Your parents didn't put in *any* money for those toys?” Rayna questioned skeptically.

“Daddy,” Aislinn called out.  “Did you pay for any of these toys?”

Daniel looked over, surprised by the question.  He hadn't planned on telling the children that their money hadn't quite been enough, but as they had asked and since honesty was important in their family, he answered truthfully.

“We had to pay about fifty dollars to get everything, Ash, but the rest you earned through allowances and the little jobs you did all year for our family and friends.”

“And the bake sale and the lemonade stands,” Jack added.  He smiled at Rayna and said proudly, “They're hard workers, and they know where to place a lemonade stand for optimum success.”

“At the Mountain,” Jonny announced with a huge grin.

“And the office,” Little Danny noted with a pleased smile.

“And at Uncle Pete's police station,” Ricky added.

“*His* police station?” Rayna questioned.

“Uncle Pete is a detective,” Jonny explained.

“Mommy, I have lots of coats at home, and it's really cold here.  Can't I give the homeless my coat?”

Rayna put her hand on her little girl's head, caressing her lovingly.

“Mine, too,” Cliff offered, getting a proud smile from his mother.

“We bought lots of coats and things, but we collected a *whole* bunch from our neighborhood, too,” Little Danny explained.

“Here are three more,” Rayna stated, her voice almost cracking as she removed her coat and protective outerwear, handing it to the smiling children.  “Tootie, Cliff, please get into the SUV.  I don't want you catching a cold.”

“Ma'am, the shelter needs more toys.  Maybe you can give them some, too,” Little Danny dared to say.

“Son ...” Jack admonished, feeling like maybe they were pushing the woman too hard.

“But, Dad, they called us special,” Little Danny argued back as he twisted around to look at his older father.  Turning back to Rayna, he elaborated, “They're having money problems.  They called us because the kids might not get a good Christmas this year.”

“Ah, you see, Ma'am, this shelter is a special place for us.  We donate presents there every year.  They called to give us the numbers and warned us that it was possible our gifts might be the only ones this Christmas because of some unexpected repairs they had to do on the roof.  They wanted to ask us if we could try and make sure we had something for all ages.  When I told the kids, they got together and decided to raise more money, so each child at the shelter could have three presents each.  That's what they wanted,” Jack stated, nodding towards the brood.  He took an audible breath and nodded, pride in his throat as he added, “And that's what they did, on their own.”

“They have to pay for the food and stuff, too,” Ricky explained.  “Can't afford toys.”

“How about Santa?” Cliff asked with big eyes.

Rayna was sure this would be a difficult query to respond to, but she saw Little Danny's sad eyes as he replied.

“Santa does his best, but there are so many children in the world, he needs help to make sure *everyone* gets a good Christmas.”

“Oh,” Cliff responded simply.

“You should come to the shelter with us,” Little Danny urged, as did several of his siblings.  “You'd be surprised what you might find there.”

“Find there?” Rayna asked, somewhat confused by the odd statement but getting only a cute and coy smile from the young genius in reply.

Finally, the Olivers left, leaving the Jackson-O'Neills to finish loading up the truck and the SUV.

====

About ninety minutes later, the Jackson-O'Neills had finished taking in their gifts to the shelter, leaving the rest of the items secured in the truck and SUV.  Jennifer and Jeff were remaining with the vehicles, just making sure no one absconded with the items in the truck that couldn't be 'locked' in.

“Thank you all so much,” Evelyn Bodine said graciously.  “This is going to help a lot.”

“These, too!” Tootie exclaimed, running over with a bag of gifts.

“And Mommy has lots, too,” Cliff stated excitedly, pointing back towards Rayna, who was weighed down with bags of toys.

Immediately, Jack and Daniel hurried over to help her, relieving the woman of the heavy baggage.

“Thank you,” Rayna announced.  “We looked up the address,” she explained, “after we did some more shopping.”

“Aren't you children cold?” Evelyn asked the Oliver siblings.

“Only for a while,” Tootie answered, rubbing her arms.

“We'll get warm at home,” Cliff added.

“So will I,” Rayna stated softly.

====

With the gifts safely stored away and out of sight of the shelter's children and waiting to be wrapped by the staff, the Olivers were being given a tour of the place, with the Jackson-O'Neills accompanying them.  Rayna was learning a lot about a way of life she'd never given much thought to.  She'd had a happy life, growing up as part of middle class America.  Times had often been tough, but they'd never experienced anything like this.

Then the group came to one of the dorms, and Rayna and her children were stunned to see a single little girl, sitting alone on her bed, crying her eyes out.  Immediately, Evelyn hurried to her, trying to comfort the child.

“Why is she crying?” Rayna wondered aloud.

“That's Julie,” Brianna answered.  “She's feeling unloved and unwanted.  I know because that was me just a couple of years ago.”

“I'm gonna go talk to her, too,” Aislinn said, hurrying forward before her parents could stop her.

Feeling pulled in, Rayna followed Aislinn over to the bed.  She sat down and looked into the girls' sad eyes.

Several minutes passed.  Evelyn was no longer the one comforting Julie, but it was Rayna with her loving smile and a few short jokes that made the girl laugh.

Tootie looked over and saw Little Danny and Jonny exchanging high-fives.  She was curious about that, but decided to go meet the little girl.

“Cliffie, come on,” Tootie suggested, taking her brother's hand and going over to the little girl's bed.

“Excuse me a moment,” Rayna requested, getting up and walking towards Jack and Daniel, though she stopped halfway, pulling out her cell phone and dialing.

Tootie watched curiously, but she only heard her mother's last words: “Carl, you have to meet this little girl -- now!”

~Wonder why Mommy wants Daddy to come here,~ Tootie thought inwardly.  She looked over at the Jackson-O'Neill children and knew they'd heard part of the conversation, too.  Once again, high-fives were covertly being exchanged among the triplets.  ~They sure are happy about something.~

====

Carl Oliver, having been pulled away from a Saturday afternoon business meeting, arrived at the shelter in less than fifteen minutes.  He was wearing a suit, with all the appropriate outer wear.  He was handsome and looked very snappy to anyone watching.

Having been led to the dorm, Carl was introduced to the Jackson-O'Neills, who briefly caught him up on the afternoon's events.  The man stared at his wife, seeing her talking to a young girl.  He knew that look.  Somehow, out of the blue, his wife had fallen in love with a stranger, and it was a little girl who needed a home.

“Julie will grow up here, alone,” Brianna told the man, looking over at Jonny, who seemed to nod subtly.  “No friends; at least, not real friends.  She'll probably get hooked on drugs or something.  I probably would have, if my parents hadn't adopted me.”

“It's worse, though,” Chenoa spoke quietly, on the verge of tears herself just watching the sadness.

“How could it be worse?” Carl asked innocently, about ready to join his wife and see if his suspicion was correct.

David walked forward, staring at the emotional orphan.  He swallowed hard as memories of his past flooded through him.  He twisted around to face Carl and explain what he knew.

“She's afraid that she's never going to see her sister again.”

“Sister?” Carl asked, gulping afterwards.

“That's her,” Chenoa interjected, pointing as the shelter's assistant, Beth Carradine, walked in, holding a toddler in her arms.  “That was me once.  They were gonna take me away from Jen and David,” she sniffled, instantly feeling Jonny and Little Danny at her side, both making sure she knew how much she was wanted and loved.

~I could play dumb.  Who says I know what that look on her face means?~ Carl told himself.  He was calculating the cost of sending not just one, but two more children through college.  Then he heard his voice asking a question in spite of his resolve not to get involved.  “Why would they separate them?”

“It happens all the time,” Jack stated in a subdued tone.

“Jen and Noa are my natural sisters,” David explained.  “Our parents died in a car accident, and there was a family who wanted Noa, but not me or Jen.”

“Vanessa might be adopted,” David spoke, looking at Julie, who was crying again and reaching out for her sister.  “I bet that's why she's been crying so much.”  He looked at his parents and said, “They've found Vanessa a home.”

Carl stared at Jack and Daniel and then at the brood.  He noticed David had walked over and was hugging Chenoa, as if reassuring himself that his sister was still with him.

When Carl looked over towards his wife, his eyes widened.  Rayna was now holding Vanessa, and the toddler had laughed.  Julie, too, had a small smile on her face.  He stood there, staring at the scene for a minute.  Tootie and Cliff were smiling now, too.  He thought Julie actually looked a little like his Rayna as a child.  After all, they'd grown up together, and even as a small boy, he'd thought she was the most beautiful little girl in the world.

“General,” Carl began a bit sternly, still watching the scene.  “You and your family have just made this the most expensive Christmas of my life.”  He walked forward and then looked back, smiling as he added, “And probably the best one, too.”

From her vantage point, Tootie saw Jack and Daniel look at each other, grinning.  She also heard the cheering of the brood.  She wasn't sure why, but she knew it had to be good.

“Daddy!” Tootie greeted, getting up and running to her father, who picked her up and gave her a hello kiss.

Smiling at his wife in acknowledgement, Carl spoke, “I see you've made some new friends.”

“Carl, this is Julie and Vanessa,” Rayna spoke, her eyes watering.  “They're sisters, and Mrs. Bodine tells me that a couple is interested in Vanessa, but not Julie.”

“The Hardison's,” Evelyn informed the tall, handsome man.  “They like Vanessa very much, but they have a small home and no room for ...”

“They don't want me,” Julie interrupted flatly.  “I'm too old,” she said, bowing her head.

Carl looked at Rayna and saw the tears rolling down her cheeks.  Her eyes were pleading.

“Mrs. Bodine, is it finalized?” Carl asked.

“No, there's no commitment on either side at this time.  They're coming by this evening to ...”

“Shop?” Carl asked sharply.  “They can shop elsewhere.”  He looked at Tootie and smiled.  “Think we have room for two more?”

Tootie's mouth opened, and her eyes grew as wide as they could.

“Oh, Daddy, two new sisters?  I've always wanted a sister,” Tootie responded happily.

“What do you think?” the father asked Cliff.

“Women everywhere,” Cliff whined.  He saw Julie's horrified look and quickly grinned.  “Just kidding!”

Rayna smiled, her hold on Julie loosening a bit.  She caressed Vanessa's arm and reached forward to take Cliff's hand in a moment of pride at her son.

“Rayna?” Carl called out, knowing his wife would pick up on his unspoken question of whether she was sure about what was happening.  It was, after all, a huge decision that they were making and not one that could be reversed.  Changing their minds later would be worse than walking away now for both Julie and Vanessa.  ~We need to be sure.~

“Julie and Vanessa are the best two Christmas presents ever,” Rayna cried, her tears of happiness turning into sniffles of joy.

The new family shared a hug, during which Tootie saw the Jackson-O'Neills beginning to leave.  Quickly, she broke away from the hug and ran over to the family, Cliff following her.

“Wait!” Tootie exclaimed.  “Thank you.”

“For what?” Jonny asked.

“I don't know, but thank you.”

“Thank you, too,” Cliff said to Aislinn, walking over and giving her a kiss on the cheek, causing her to giggle.

Jack and Daniel exchanged a look and then gave nods of goodbye to Rayna and Carl.  Then they smiled at Evelyn Bodine, who gave them an incredulous ‘how did you do this’ smile in return.  The couple simply grinned and nodded towards their children to indicate that they were responsible for it, not them.

“Bye!” Tootie and Cliff exclaimed, waving at the brood.

Cliff ran back to be with his parents, but Tootie stayed, watching and listening as the large family filtered out of the dorm.

“We did good!” Jonny exclaimed.

“Two for one,” Aislinn added proudly.

“Gotta find a home for Cary,” Little Danny began.  “He's almost ...”

Tootie's face tightened from the discussion as she struggled to understand its meaning.  Had her family just been manipulated into adopting two children?  Then she remembered her earlier resolution in the store's parking lot about not jumping to conclusions and decided that it didn't really matter, anyway.  However things had happened, she was happy because not only had she learned a huge lesson on this hectic Saturday, but she'd also acquired two new sisters.

“This is the best Christmas ever!” Tootie exclaimed as she ran over to her newly expanded family.

“The very best,” Rayna agreed.  “Oh, Carl, we have to talk about adding a couple of new traditions to our family.”

“Like what?”

“March First Day, or something like that,” Rayna answered, though her husband could only shrug, having no clue what it meant.  “We'll talk about it at home.”

====

Three hours later, after a long getting to know you session with their new daughters and beginning the adoption process, Rayna and Carl were speaking privately with Evelyn.  They'd just covered everything they could for one evening and were slowly making their way to Beth Carradine's office, where Tootie and Cliff were waiting.

As she walked, Rayna asked quietly, “Evelyn, who are those people?  The ones who were here earlier.”

“The Jackson-O'Neills?” Evelyn asked, seeing the woman nod.  Looking over at the large recreation room where the new gifts were being wrapped, she smiled and answered, “They're Santa Claus, and their brood are Santa's elves, bringing joy to the world and happiness wherever they can.  They have a knack for it, and they do it as often as they can.  They're ...”

“Christmas,” Rayna interrupted, getting a nod from the shelter's administrator.

“They're everything Christmas is supposed to be about,” Evelyn opined.  The woman paused, even as Rayna hurried to catch up with her husband.  Evelyn walked over to the large room, full of presents for the children.  “Thank you Santa.  You've brought Christmas to our children this year.  God bless you.”

Taking a deep breath, Evelyn turned around and caught up with the Olivers.  It had been an amazing day for all of them, thanks to the Jackson-O'Neills, and it was one that would make this holiday season forever unforgettable.

~~Finis - Finished - Done - The End - But is it ever Really?~~
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