© 2005-2010 Julien Gregg
All Rights Reserved


Chapter 95


"Sky, I think it's a great idea," Jeff said when they were leaving the hospital and he told them all what had happened. "You know we can take better care of this boy than a foster parent."

"I just didn't want you to be upset because I did this without talking to you," replied Skyler.

"Sky, you did the right thing," he said. "I'd have told you to do it if we'd had a chance to talk. Stop worrying so much. Did you get to see him?"

"I did, but he was asleep," replied Skyler. "I'm going to go back after we talk to Clay."

"Do you want me to come with you?" he asked.

"Of course I want you to come with me," laughed Skyler. "He's going to be living in our house, Jeff. I think it's important that he get to know you as soon as possible."

They rode back to the house in silence after that. Skyler wondered what Deacon was thinking about all of this. He hadn't been able to see Landon yet, but Skyler could always send him over to the school when he and Jeff returned to the hospital. He needed to talk to Clay. He also needed to make sure that there was a place for Ashton. He thought he'd probably need to be in a room close to them and he thought about the unused nursery that was adjoined to their room.

He called Clay as soon as they got to the house. Then he thanked Amy for taking care of the children and told her that there would soon be one more coming to live with them. He explained Ashton's situation and she was instantly worried for him. Then he went down and talked to Chad and Darby.

"So he's coming to live here?" Chad asked.

"Well I'm not sure how soon he'll be out of the hospital," replied Skyler. "I'm going back to the hospital as soon as I talk to Clay and Gavin about all of this. I know I missed my meeting, but this is much more important than the show."

"I think this is a great thing you're doing, Sky," said Darby, smiling at him. "That boy's going to need a lot, and you're in the perfect position to see that he gets it."

"Cassie called," informed Chad. "She and Kaleb will be here later this evening. I think you'll be filming though."

"I was wondering when they were going to come back from their honeymoon," laughed Skyler. "But aren't they supposed to be going to Orlando to spend Christmas with Kaleb's mother?"

"She's coming with them," replied Chad. "Cassie wants to be here for a while, and Kaleb didn't want his mom alone for Christmas. So they'll be staying in Kaleb's apartment here. It's big enough."

"All right," said Skyler as Clay and Gavin came into the house. "I'll be with you guys in just a minute."

"Take your time, Sky," said Clay as he and Gavin headed for the office.

"Seriously, Sky," said Chad. "This is a great thing you're doing. I'm sure Jase will be fine with it."

"Well it's now more important than ever that Dad doesn't come over here screaming," replied Skyler.

"I'll call Dad and let him know the situation," said Chad. "I'm sure he won't want to cause a scene in front of Ashton after what he's been through. Don't worry about it."

"Thanks, Chad," replied Skyler with a smile. "And you tell Cassie to keep her butt in the house until I come home tonight."

"Will do," chuckled Chad. "And you just mind what you say to Simon."

"I always mind what I say to any reporter or talk show host," said Skyler seriously.

"You know what I mean," Chad said, giving him a lopsided grin.

Skyler sat down behind his desk in front of Gavin and Clay and sighed. He wasn't sure what Clay would have to say or Gavin for that matter. It was done though. That was the important thing. It was done and it couldn't be undone. He wouldn't undo it. It felt right to help Ashton. After what he'd heard from the doctor about the extent of what the boy's parents had done to him he knew that he'd be better off in his care than anywhere else.

"We saw the news," said Gavin after Skyler had been silent for a full three minutes. "Care to tell us what's really going on?"

"We found Ashton on the street on the way to the school last night," Skyler said slowly. "All I knew then was that he was hurt very badly. He said that his parents had hurt him and begged me not to make him go back to them. We called 911 and waited for the police and ambulance to arrive. Then I just followed the ambulance to USC Medical Center."

"And there you got into an argument with Jane Sprick from Social Service?" Clay asked. Skyler was shocked that he knew about that. It must have shown on his face because Clay went on. "She called our offices this morning to ask you to back off."

"Well," he sighed. "That's not going to be happening. You can rest assured that she won't bother us though."

"All right," said Gavin. "Why don't you tell us why she won't be a problem and why you won't be backing off?"

"All right," he said evenly. "I wanted to talk to the two of you about what happened this morning anyway. I went back to the hospital to check on Ashton and met with Mary Worthington, she's also from Social Service, though higher up than Jane Sprick. She informed me that Social Service had performed an emergency background check on me."

"Why would they do something like that?" Clay asked, leaning forward in his chair.

"Well they could do it because I'd already been cleared to adopt Preston," he said. "They gave me guardianship of Ashton today. We have to be in court tomorrow morning to finalize it."

"They're having court on Christmas Eve?" Gavin asked with wide eyes.

"It's an emergency session," explained Skyler. "They need this order signed by the judge, and she agreed to open court on Christmas Eve to get it done. Ashton will be moving in here for the time being. I'm not sure how long this will be."

"Well I want to say that I think you've done a great thing here," said Clay, shocking Skyler completely. "That boy will need a lot of care and private counseling from what I've heard about what he went through. I've also talked with Mary Worthington. I knew about the guardianship, though I didn't know about the emergency court session. What are your plans for the boy?"

"Well first of all I want to make sure that I'm in LA until the tour," he said. "No promotions that take me outside of LA or anything like that. I want to be here for Ashton. I don't think traveling would be the best thing for him right now."

"And when it's time to tour?" asked Clay.

"Well by that time they'll either have moved him to a permanent home or he'll be well enough to travel," said Skyler. "I'll hire a tutor. We've done it before."

"Well that's certainly an option," Clay said slowly, watching Skyler's guarded expression. "You're acting as if Gavin and I are going to object to this, Skyler. I've told you I think it's a great thing you're doing. I don't know what you think we're going to object to."

"I'm not sure," sighed Skyler. "I'm just waiting for the bottom to fall out of something. I can't explain it, but I just feel like something is about to go wrong."

"That's just nerves," said Gavin. "Frankly I'd be surprised if you weren't nervous right now. You're about to take on, for all intents and purposes a new son. That's got to be stressful."

"Maybe that's it," Skyler said after thinking it over for a moment. "I just want to make sure that Ashton never experiences anything even close to what he's been through before."

"You know that he's going to need a little help," said Clay. "How are you going to get him the help he needs on the road?"

"Well I'm sure that I can hire someone," said Skyler. "I'll find a psychologist, someone that can travel with us for the tour. That's all dependant on them leaving him in my care that long."

"Oh I'm sure they'll leave him in your care that long," said Clay. "Skyler, you've no idea how packed the system is right now. I did some checking before we came over here. There's been a great shortage of suitable foster parents, the state homes are all full and they're looking into other avenues to house these children."

"That's horrible," Skyler said, thinking of all of the children that were stuck in limbo because the system was too overloaded to help them.

"Yes," agreed Clay. "That's why I think that you'll have Ashton indefinitely."

"Well then I'll start looking for someone to travel with us at tour time," said Skyler. "I don't want him to see more than one person though. I'm no expert, but I'd say that therapy works better when it's consistent."

"Oh I agree there," said Gavin. "I'm sure we'll find the right person for this, Sky."

"Thanks, guys," he said. "I don't want to rush you out, but when I saw him this morning he was sleeping. I want to get back to the hospital. I want to be there when they tell him he's going to be living with me when he's released."

"Then you'd better get back there," said Clay. "How are we doing with security? Are there any problems or vacancies that need to be addressed?"

"No," said Skyler. "Security is fine for now. If I think we need more for Ashton I'll let you know."

"Why don't I start looking just in case?" Clay asked.

"That's probably a good idea," he said after a moment of thought. "Please make sure that they're all checked out thoroughly."

"Of course," said Clay. "Now get back to your boy."

They dropped Deacon off at the school to visit with Landon and then headed back to the hospital. The press was still out in throngs, but their security was good at keeping them at bay. Several of the reporters screamed out at them that it was unfair that Skyler wasn't commenting and he actually laughed. He couldn't believe the nerve of the paparazzi.

"I see that you're causing a stir continuously," said Jane Sprick when they made it inside the hospital.

Skyler looked to Brent, and then smiled as Brent told her that she'd have to leave Skyler alone or they'd call the police and press charges for harassment. The look on her face was priceless as they filed past her to the elevator. Skyler was able to wait until they were safely inside the elevator and headed for the fifth floor before he laughed.

"You know she might cause problems for you if you keep this up, Sky," Brent said softly.

"I'll handle her," Skyler replied. "She's just a bully."

"Just be careful," he said.

Ashton was awake when Skyler and Jeff got to his room. The boy looked so small and fragile in the bed. His face was covered in bruises, and his lips were still swollen. Skyler was happy to see that there were no stitches in his lips or anywhere on his face. The last thing the kid needed was scaring where the world could see.

"Hi there, Ashton," he said, smiling at him. The room was absolutely filled with flowers and balloons, and Skyler was happy to see him clutching the teddy bear he'd bought in the gift shop. Almost all of the flowers and balloons had been sent by Skyler or Jeff as well.

"You really are Skyler Thomas," the boy said, but Skyler could tell that he was still in too much pain to show excitement.

"I really am," Skyler replied, placing a hand on Jeff's shoulder. "This is Jeff Timmons."

"I know who he is," replied Ashton, trying to smile. "Did you really save me?"

"Well we called the ambulance when we found you," Skyler said slowly. "You got away on your own though."

"But you made it so I don't have to go back," the boy said seriously. "Thank you so much."

"About that," Skyler said, pulling a chair up to the side of his bed. "You're going to be coming to live with us after you get out of here. What do you think about that?"

"I'm going to live with you?" he asked with wide eyed excitement.

"If you want to," Skyler said, remembering that no one had asked Ashton what he thought about moving in with strangers.

"I want to," he said. "Why do you want me to live with you?"

"So I can protect you," Skyler replied. "No one is going to hurt you anymore. I promise."

"When can I leave here?" he asked.

"Well you need to heal a bit more before I can take you home," replied Skyler. "You listen to your doctor and the nurses and you'll be out of here pretty soon."

"Will I have to be on television?" he asked, wrinkling his bruised brow.

"No, buddy," said Skyler quickly. "You don't have to be on television."

"Are you my new dad?" Ashton asked with curious brown eyes.

"Well I'm your guardian," said Skyler carefully. "You'll stay with me, and I'll get you the help you need and keep you safe."

"But you can't be my new dad?"

"Well right now we'll just see what happens, all right?" Skyler asked as the thought of adopting the young boy occurred to him for the first time.

His lunch came shortly after that. Skyler helped him get his tray table all set up and cut up his chicken strips for him, silently wondering if a dietician could do something about the quality of his food. Ashton had a million questions while he ate. He wanted to know about Preston and Jeff's children, though he didn't know their names. Jeff told him all about Alyssa and Junior while Skyler showed him pictures.

When it was nearly time for dinner Skyler and Jeff left the hospital, promising Ashton that they would return in the morning. Skyler had time before he had to be at NBC Studios, so the pair went shopping and caused quite a stir as they scoured toy stores for gifts for Ashton and the other children. They had presents at home for the others but they wanted the three children to have something to open at the hospital when they met Ashton and he was opening his gifts.

Wrapped boxes nearly filled the backs of all three vehicles as they pulled into NBC Studios. They ate at the studio deli and talked about how to be there for Ashton Christmas morning. So many people were coming to their house for Christmas that they felt they had to be there, so in the end they decided that Ashton would open presents after court on Monday and then on Tuesday they would take turns spending time with him throughout the day.

Wrapped boxes nearly filled the backs of all three vehicles as they pulled into NBC Studios. They ate at the studio deli and talked about how to be there for Ashton Christmas morning. So many people were coming to their house for Christmas that they felt they had to be there, so in the end they decided that Ashton would open presents after court on Monday and then on Tuesday they would take turns spending time with him throughout the day.

"The Simon Reckel Show" was an hour long entertainment news show that aired on NBC every Sunday night just after the "NBC Nightly News" broadcast. Each Sunday's episode of the show was syndicated to five other networks and aired at various times throughout the day. Simon Reckel had been the entertainment news anchor for the network for over twenty years until he'd been given his own show. He was in his early fifties though his dark hair had no gray in it. His dark eyes were kind and his brow was strong. He was a head taller than Skyler and dressed in a tan three piece suit.

"Welcome to the show, Skyler," he said, smiling as he shook Skyler's hand. "You'll open the show tonight. We'll do a quick interview and then you'll be free to go."

"Thank you for the welcome, Simon," Skyler said, smiling back. "I've watched the show many times, and I have to say I like your style."

"Thank you for the compliment," Simon replied, smiling wider. "I believe that there are enough tabloid trash shows on television, so I wanted to bring the people the real stories that the tabloids want nothing to do with."

"Which is why your popularity is so high among celebrities," Skyler said.

"I'd like to think so," said Simon. "You have a seat here in the green room and they'll let you know when we're about to start. I've got to get to make-up."

Twenty minutes later Skyler was seated at the black oval table with Simon and the cameras were rolling. Simon asked routine questions about the movie and reality show. He asked about the upcoming tour and accepted Skyler's answer that nothing had been finalized on the tour. Then he got to the questions about Ashton.

"I've been awarded guardianship for the time being," Skyler said clearly.

"So he'll be coming to live with you when he's released from the hospital?" Simon asked.

"I've taken steps to make sure that I'll be here in LA until the tour so that Ashton has time to recover," said Skyler. "We'll be staying in my home in Beverly Hills."

They talked about Preston for a moment and Skyler told Simon that the boy was excited to meet Ashton, but he wouldn't tell him when that was taking place. He didn't want to subject the children to the press on Christmas Eve, and he really didn't want to give the tabloids fuel for their Skyler – Jeff stories.

Skyler and Jeff returned to the hospital after the interview. Ashton told them that he'd seen the show and was smiling at them when they sat down. He wanted to know when he was going to meet the other children, and Skyler smiled at him.

"Well I was thinking that after I talk to the judge about you coming to live with me for a while, I'd bring the kids and spend some time with you tomorrow," he said.

"That'll be so cool!" beamed Ashton, wincing instantly from the pain his smile had caused by stretching his sore lips.

"Don't get too excited, Ashton," Skyler warned. "Before you know it this will all be old hat."

"What do old hats have to do with anything?" the boy asked, making both Skyler and Jeff chuckle.

"It's an expression," replied Skyler. "It means you'll be used to all of this in no time."

"I just wish I could stop hurting," the boy said softly, looking down.

"It'll stop hurting soon," said Skyler. "I promise."

They both kissed his face before they left for the night. Skyler was looking forward to the day he could just take Ashton out of the hospital with them. He hoped that it would be soon.  He thought that Ashton's recovery would be much smoother outside of the hospital.

Cassie and Kaleb were waiting for them at home. Skyler was happy to see that Deacon had made it home on his own as well. He walked into the living room and took his little sister into his arms and spun her around.

"God it's good to see you!" he said, squeezing her tight. "How was your trip?"

"It was amazing," she said, smiling widely. "Oh, Skyler you wouldn't believe how much fun we had."

"Oh I'm sure I would," he laughed. "It's good to have you home though."

"I had to come when I saw what was happening on the news," she said. "Tell me about Ashton."

He told them everything about finding Ashton on the street to what had happened to him at the hands of his parents. He told them that he was healing well from the surgery so far, but he wanted to bring him home where he thought his recovery would go faster. Then he told them what he and Jeff had planned for Christmas.

"That sounds good," she said. "Well as good as you can do at this point."

"It would be so much better if we could just bring him home," Jeff said.

"We will soon," Skyler replied, smiling at him. "We need to get the nursery ready for him. I'm sure he doesn't want to spend his nights in a room decorated with Disney characters."

"Can I take care of that?" Darby asked. "I have a nephew his age, so I know what to do with the room."

"Sounds good," Skyler said, nodding at Jeff. "You can start after Christmas though."

"Great," she said, smiling. "All of the costumes are designed and ready to wear so I was without a project."

"Well you have a project now," laughed Jeff. "We don't know when the doctor will release Ashton though."

"Don't worry," she said, smiling. "I'll be quick. It shouldn't be too hard."

"Just let us know what you need," Skyler said. "We'll get it for you or order it."

"Great," she said. "That's going to keep me active; though I should probably hire painters."

"We can do that," Skyler replied.

They had a rather loud dinner after that. Everyone had questions about either Ashton or Cassie and Kaleb's honeymoon. Skyler was happy to see everyone happy. He just wished that his father and step-mother could be there and be happy with them. He'd have liked Alex to be there, too. He knew without a doubt that his father and Alex in the same room together would not be a happy occasion.

Bright and early the next morning they packed all three SUVs for the trip to the hospital. They dressed the children in their Sunday best and headed for court. Judge Amy Dawson was in her late thirties with blonde hair and gray eyes. She wore very little make-up and looked beautiful for it. She smiled at Skyler when he took his seat at the table next to Tom Schultz, a Sky High lawyer.

"Mr. Thomas, I think it's wonderful that you've stepped up in this matter," she said.

"Ashton needs a safe home, Your Honor," he replied.

"And he'll get that with you," she said, leaning forward to sign the guardianship agreement. "Has the doctor said anything about when he'll be releasing Ashton?"

"No, ma'am," he replied. "He's still healing from the surgery. I assume it won't be too much longer."

"Well why don't we see each other again on the twenty-fifth of February to see how things are going?" she asked.

"That sounds fine," he replied, smiling at her. "Thank you for signing the order."

"Mr. Thomas, when you have the head of Social Service in your corner there isn't much reason to throw up obstacles," she said. "Take good care of Ashton Burke."

"I plan to, Your Honor," he replied seriously.

Ashton's face lit up when he saw them pushing carts of presents into the room. He was even more excited when he saw the three children come into the room. He sat up straighter and tried to look like he wasn't in pain. Skyler noted that the boy was much more excited about meeting the children than about the presents. It told him a lot about him.

"Hey, buddy," he said, smiling. "I don't know if they told you, but tomorrow is Christmas!"

"Yeah," he chuckled. "Why are you bringing presents in here though?"

"Well I thought you'd like to open your presents with the other children," said Skyler. "They've got a lot to do tomorrow, so we all thought we'd have Christmas today."

"You mean some of those presents are for me?" he asked, looking at the carts with wide eyes.

"Well of course some of those are for you," Skyler said, coming to sit next to him in the bed. "You're part of the family now, Ashton. You're going to have a whole new life."

"I've never had Christmas presents before," he said, shocking everyone.

"Well let's change that," said Skyler, handing him the first of the gifts on the first cart.

Ashton was so excited when he opened the game system that Skyler had bought him. Skyler smiled as he watched him open the box of games that Jeff had bought for him. There were gifts from each member of the security staff as well. Brent had told him that all of the guys were very upset about what had happened to Ashton and they wanted his Christmas to be special. Skyler wondered what they'd say if they knew that theirs were among the very first Christmas presents Ashton had ever received.

Later when he went down to the cafeteria to see if they had any pie, Skyler noticed that a man was standing outside Ashton's door. It was the same man who'd been there two hours before when they'd arrived. He decided to find out who he was and what he wanted. The dark haired man was at least six feet tall and muscular. His blue eyes followed Skyler's every move.

"Who are you?" Skyler asked when he came to stand in front of him with the tray of pie in his hands.

"My name is Roman Rossier," he replied. "I'm part of Ashton Burke's security staff."

"Ashton's security staff?" Skyler asked. "When did Ashton hire a security staff?"

"Mr. Thomas, I signed the confidentiality agreement when Gavin brought it," said Roman. "He said that I was to stand here and make sure that no press or anyone not on the list gets into Ashton's room but to stay out of the kid's way."

"Gavin hired you?" Skyler asked.

"Clay Silver hired me and three others," said Roman. "Gavin just brought the agreement."

"All right," Skyler said slowly, exhaling. "Thank you for keeping him safe."

"It's an honor, Mr. Thomas," said Roman, smiling.

"Call me Skyler," he replied.

He made up his mind to call Clay and get to the bottom of this as soon as he had a chance. Then he remembered the show. Clay and Gavin would both be there for the filming. He'd talk to both of them then. He was happy that Ashton had security, but he wasn't happy about the fact that they'd hired his security without telling him.

He put it out of his mind as he had pie with Ashton and the kids. He took pictures of them all with their presents even though Ashton's face was still very bruised and swollen. He wanted some kind of memento of his first Christmas presents. By the time they had to leave Ashton was falling asleep so Skyler didn't feel so guilty. He made sure that Ashton could keep his presents in his room and told them about the security only to learn that the hospital staff was fully aware of who the security men were.

He was dreading the filming as he got ready that evening. Jeff would be taking the kids and spending the evening with Ashton while Skyler was filming. Deacon would ride along to the school and spend the evening with Landon. Skyler couldn't wait for the show to be over completely so he wouldn't have to worry about it anymore.

The cameramen were out front to catch the arrival of Skyler, Clay, Gavin and James. The sidewalk to the front doors was roped off and people were crowded on either side, screaming his name. He sighed as he got out of the limo and joined Clay, Gavin and James.

"You two have some explaining to do," he said under his breath as he smiled at the fans.

"You're talking about Ashton's security," Gavin stated.

"Yes," he replied as they began to walk down the sidewalk toward the entrance of the school.

They waived at everyone and smiled as cameras flashed from both sides. Skyler hated this, but at least this part was like any other event that the fans knew about in advance. He wanted to tear into Gavin and Clay but he couldn't do that in front of the cameras. He couldn't wait for the filming to end so he could really let them have it.

Skyler and James went back to the dressing rooms to talk with the dancers while Gavin and Clay played announcers for the live show. He knew what was expected of him tonight, but he didn't like it one little bit. They made their way to what used to be the main lobby area of the school where the Christmas tree with all of the stupid gifts could be seen. Brody and his group were already there waiting for them.

"As you all know some of you have to go home tonight," said Clay as he looked back and forth from one group to the other. "When I call your names, please come forward and get your gift. Inside each wrapped box is a present. If your box contains a tour t-shirt you are safe for the next round. Gentlemen, are you ready?"

He called all of their names and Skyler was pleased to see both Alex and Evan open boxes with tour t-shirts inside. He'd been a little worried about those two. He wanted his uncle to win the competition, but he was taking no steps to make sure he did. Evan was a great dancer and Skyler liked the guy. He wanted him to win as well.

"Those of you who have shirts will have seen by now that they are for either Skyler or Brody," said Gavin. "Could Skyler's group please move to the left of the room while Brody's group moves to the right?"

It was hectic while the guys all got into position. Skyler looked around at the room and how it was decorated. He held in a laugh at the painted half dressed cowboys on the walls. It was made to look even sillier by the red and green garland that was strung all along the wall where it met the ceiling. The tree was huge and decorated with red, gold and silver bells with brilliant silver ribbon draped over its branches. At the top was yet another half dressed cowboy only this one was lit up. He was almost unable to hold in his laughter at this one.

Once the guys were on their proper sides the real presents were brought out by Gavin and Clay. Each of the would-be dancers received gift certificates to one of two restaurants. For Skyler's guys it was The Crystal Room LA. For Brody's guys it was Club Rock LA. The certificates were for two hundred dollars each.

After that they sat around talking about what Skyler and Brody expected out of them. Skyler wondered as he told these young men about the tour schedules and what it was like to live on the buses what Brody had to say. The man had never been on tour before. He didn't have past experience to provide any examples.

"But it's totally cool, right?" asked Evan, making Skyler smile.

"It's cool when you hear yourself on the radio or see a video of yourself performing on stage," he said. "What you guys are about to experience is rehearsals; dance rehearsals, sound checks, bus life, five AM wake up calls, cold showers and little sleep."

"Yeah, but the tours are a lot of fun, too, right?" Alex asked, smiling at Skyler.

"Oh they can be fun," admitted Skyler. "The first few weeks are a blast. Half way through the tour you find yourself wishing it was over. When you reach the home stretch you don't care anymore because you think you're going to die before the end of the tour party."

"Tell it like you want to scare them off, Sky," laughed Jason. Skyler wondered when his little brother was going to show up. He was one of the four dancers from the actual line up who were part of the show so far.

"Hey, bro," he said, smiling at him. "I'm only telling them the truth."

"Well yeah," chuckled Jason, turning to look at the others. "He is telling the truth about how it feels to tour. What he isn't telling you is that we have all sorts of fun all through the tour. We play jokes on each other, have video game marathons and go clubbing. There's always a distraction. You just have to make sure that you don't get yourselves caught in a compromising position, follow the contract rules and make sure you're on time for rehearsals and show time."

"Well said," Skyler said, putting his arm around Jason's shoulders and pulling him close. "We'll have a great time, guys. I just don't want you all to get the idea that it's all fun and games. It's a lot of hard work and sacrifice, too."

"Well it's that, too," agreed Jason with a crooked grin. "Just don't think it'll kill you."

Skyler stayed at the school for a while after the filming was over. Clay told him that as far as they knew so far it was very popular on the television line up. Skyler just sighed as he thought of how terrible it was that people tuned in just to watch stuff like this. He thought about that as he rounded up Gavin and finally sat down to have his chat with his management staff.

"We took the initiative to hire the security for Ashton because the hospital reported that several reporters had tried to sneak into Ashton's room," said Gavin before Skyler could even ask any questions.

"Reporters were trying to get into his room?" he asked in outrage.

"Yes," said Clay. "The nurses stopped them each time, but we thought it would be better if we acted fast and got someone in there that wasn't on the hospital staff and wouldn't be susceptible to bribery."

"You were right," he sighed, his irritation fading. He couldn't believe the press. "I met Roman today. I expect to meet the other two over the next few days. When he's released I think we'll keep them on staff. I don't want to let them go just because he's out of the hospital."

"You have almost the largest security staff of any celebrity I know, Skyler," said Clay. "What will you do with three more men?"

"Well aside from the obvious," he said, looking at Clay hard. "I plan to use one or two of these guys every time Jeff or I take any of the children anywhere. That way it frees up the other security to do the jobs they were hired for. Think of these three as the security for the children."

"That's actually a good idea," said Gavin. "And it isn't exactly unheard of."

"Yes," said Clay. "I'm just getting a little worried about the amount of security you take with you wherever you go, Skyler."

"In case you've forgotten," Skyler said in a hard tone. "Those freaks almost killed me. I won't give them that chance again, Clay. With my name in the press and this damned show running every week the press are thick again. I'll hire and use any security men I want."

"It makes the rest of us feel better when he has all of his security around him," Jason said quietly. "We were terrified when he nearly died. We don't want to ever have to go through that again. The reporters are too dangerous now. They'll do almost anything to get a story or photo."

"Jason's right about that," said Skyler. "You two aren't the ones sticking your neck out every time you leave your house. I may be paranoid, boys, but I have a damned good reason to be."

They said nothing more about security that night. Clay noticed that Skyler was a bit off with him for the rest of the night. He felt bad for making him angry, but he really was worried about the amount of security. He was worried that Skyler was getting a bit too paranoid. With Jason speaking up for the family on Skyler's side he knew that getting him to see the light would be nearly impossible. He just hoped that the press remained calm and didn't do anything to prove Skyler right.

Over the next three days Skyler spent a lot of time at the hospital with Ashton. He took the children with him, and most of the time Jeff was there as well. Cassie and Chad made it a point to go and see Ashton, bringing Jason along with them as well.

Darby got to work on the nursery very quickly as well. Skyler hired four painters and let her have free reign to give them instruction. He thought it was a little strange that she made sure she was nowhere near the room while they were painting but chalked it up to a quirk. She got the room done in two days so he had nothing to argue about.

When he walked into the room after she'd declared it finished he was amazed. The soft green walls were now a foamy sea blue. Clouds were carefully painted in a row around the top of the walls. The ceiling was deep midnight blue. Stars had been glued to the ceiling in an interesting pattern. Skyler smiled when Darby turned off the lights in the room and showed him that they glowed. They weren't the cheap plastic stars either. With the lights off it really looked like you were looking into space when you looked at the ceiling.

There was a Nerf basketball hoop above the closet door. The bedside lamp was a baseball bat with a catcher's mitt for a shade. A baseball sat in a glass display case at the base of the lamp. Skyler was shocked to see that the ball was signed with several signatures. He made a note to ask Darby about that later.

The floor looked like a miniature football field. A smaller soccer net was against the wall at the end of the bed to act as a laundry hamper. Hockey sticks were criss-crossed on the wall opposite the bed. Hockey pucks were stuck to the wall in a circle around them and each was signed by a NHL star. The room was amazing. He couldn't wait for Ashton to see it.

"It looks amazing, Darby," he said, smiling at her when they were back in the living room. "Who signed the baseball?"

"I bought that at a sports store in Hollywood," she replied, smiling. "It's signed by a lot of people and cost quite a bit of money."

"I'm sure he'll love it," he replied. "I liked the signed hockey pucks, too."

"The football is signed as well, but I'm sure you didn't see it," she said. "It's on the shelf under the lamp."

"You went all out," he said, smiling. "I like the stars, too."

"Well my nephew is into every sport imaginable and anything to do with outer space," she laughed. "I figured Ashton wouldn't be much different."

"I can't wait for him to see it," he replied, beaming at her. "Thank you."

"You're very welcome," she said, smiling back.

Christmas had gone smoothly. Skyler missed his father, and he was sure that Jason, Chad and Cassie missed him as well, but they had a nice dinner together and everyone met in the living room to open gifts. Once that was all cleaned up Skyler took more gifts and a plate of food to the hospital and spent some time with Ashton.

"Hey big guy," he said when he came into the room. He took one look at Ashton and knew that there was something wrong. "What's going on?"

"I don't feel so good," the boy said in a soft voice. He was gripping his stomach as he looked up at Skyler with red rimmed eyes.

"I'll get a doctor, buddy," said Skyler. "Just a minute."

He went to the nurse's station and asked for the doctor. A tall nurse with long red hair told him that the doctor on call was on another floor at the moment. Skyler sighed in frustration as he read her name tag. Her name was Amanda Woodard.

"Amanda, Ashton Burke is having some stomach trouble," he said.

"I'll be right there, Mr. Thomas," she said. "Let me just page Doctor Kimball."

"Thank you," he said, relieved that she was taking action.

He went back to Ashton's room and told Roman to expect the doctor. Ashton was clutching his stomach when Skyler came back into the room. The boy looked pale and was starting to sweat. His injured lips were thinned out in what looked to be a painful grimace. Skyler went to him and took his hand.

"The doctor is coming, Ashton," he said.

"Skyler, it hurts," the boy said through clenched teeth. "Why does it hurt so bad?"

"I don't know, buddy," Skyler said, squeezing his hand slightly. "But we'll find out and make it better."

"Please," the boy said in such a pitiful voice that Skyler lost his heart to him right then and there.

He knew that he would walk to the ends of the earth for this child and he would never let anyone hurt him again. He vowed silently that if he had to lay his life down to save him from pain he would do it in a heartbeat. There was no way they were ever going to take this boy from him. He was his now and that was all there was to it.

The doctor, a thirty something year old man with dark hair and eyes came in and examined Ashton. He pushed on his stomach a few times, making Skyler want to call Roman into the room to work the man over. Then he told the nurse he wanted blood work and an ultrasound. Skyler watched the doctor leave the room and then turned to the nurse.

"What's wrong with him?" he asked.

"It could be some residual damage from the anal trauma," she said softly. "We'll find it, Mr. Thomas. I promise you we'll find it."

"Anal trauma?" Skyler asked, looking at her hard. "They didn't say anything about any anal trauma."

"Mr. Thomas, I don't know the extent of his injuries," she said. "I'm not his nurse. I'll have Doctor Kimball talk to you as soon as he's done the ultrasound."

"Thank you," he said, sitting down in the chair beside Ashton's bed again.

The phlebotomist came in to take the blood and urine samples just as Doctor Kimball came in again followed by Amanda, the nurse. She was pulling a cart behind her with a monitor on it. They were going to do the sonogram right there. Skyler sighed with relief that Ashton wouldn't have to leave the room. He waited as they set everything up, and he held Ashton's hand as they performed the sonogram. The doctor said a few cryptic things to the nurse before he left the room again.

She cleaned Ashton's stomach, took his temperature once again and then left the room herself. Skyler was frustrated but kept his cool by focusing on his breathing. A few minutes later he was still practicing steady breathing when Amanda came back with a syringe. She injected an amber liquid into Ashton's IV and then smiled at Skyler.

"It's for the pain, Mr. Thomas," she said. "We didn't want to give him anything until we knew what we were dealing with."

"And what are you dealing with?" he asked.

"It's just a blockage that we're about to take care of," she replied. "You may want to step outside. I'll be giving him an enema. Doctor Kimball will meet with you in the little office at the end of the ward. He'll tell you everything about Ashton's case."

"Thank you so much, Amanda," he said, smiling at her. "You're really a great nurse."

"Thank you, Mr. Thomas," she said. "But I'm just doing my job."

An hour later, after hearing some of the most horrifying things he'd ever heard, Skyler returned to Ashton's room to find him sleeping peacefully. Skyler thanked Roman for standing guard once again and then followed Brent to the elevator in silence.

"Sky, what's happened?" Brent asked when they were safely inside the elevator.

"Oh, Brent," he moaned. "The things those people did to him. His bowel was blocked because they shoved something up his butt. The doctor told me that it could have been much worse. They'd examined him and made sure that there was no tearing or anything like that, but there was an infection. He's been receiving anti-biotics by IV for the infection. They had to give him an enema tonight to clear the blockage."

"Some people don't deserve to live," Brent said in a hard voice.

"I agree," replied Skyler and meaning every word.

Skyler told Jeff everything that Doctor Kimball had told him as soon as he got home. They went upstairs to their room to talk. Jeff listened to everything that Skyler said, but his face blanched with each detail that Skyler gave him. Finally Jeff put his hand up to stop the information. He couldn't take it.

"Sky," he said, tears running from his eyes. "We can't ever let him go when he gets here. We have to keep him."

"I'm way ahead of you," said Skyler, smiling at him. "I'm going to talk to Mary about adoption. If Social Service is for it I'm sure a judge will let me adopt him. I just wish that we could adopt him together."

"We will be," Jeff replied, smiling. "It may not be legal, but Ashton will be just as much my son as he is yours. Skyler this will be our first."

"I'll talk to her about it tomorrow," Skyler said. Then he remembered. "Shit. I've got the video shoot in the morning."

"What about lunch?" Jeff asked. "You can invite her to lunch and I'll stay here or go sit with Ashton."

"That could work," he said thoughtfully. "It's only seven-thirty. Let me call her."

At five AM the next morning, Skyler headed for the movie set with Jase to film his video after extracting a promise from his uncle that he'd be free for two hours starting at eleven AM. He told Jase exactly what he was doing and why. Jase was instantly agreeable to his lunch excursion and told him that if they didn't have the video shot by eleven he'd keep everyone waiting until Skyler got back.

Jase had rounded up over a thousand people to sit in the auditorium where the concert scenes had been shot. They were already there when he and Skyler arrived. Skyler went straight to make-up and Jase talked to the crowd of extras about what they would be doing. When Skyler heard that he'd just be singing the song to them with his band like it was a concert he knew that his part of the shooting would be done in no time. After running through two rehearsals of the song they were ready.

The lights went on, cue cards were raised to tell the audience to cheer, but they needn't have worried. As soon as the crowd saw him with the microphone in his hand they were screaming. It sounded like thousands of people and Skyler felt right at him as the music started and he prepared to sing.

"Lying beside you here in the dark, feeling your heart beat with mine," he sang. "Softly you whisper. You're so sincere. How could our love be so blind? We sailed off together and drifted apart, and now here you are by my side.

"So now I come to you with open arms, nothing to hide. Believe what I say. So here I am with open arms, hoping you'll see what your love means to me. Open arms," he sang and walked to the front of the stage to reach out and touch the tips of the screaming extras' fingers as the music played on.

He had no idea what was going to make it into the video. He just hoped it was great. He trusted his uncle to do right by him, and he knew that it would be.

"Living without you, living alone this empty house seems so cold. Wanting to hold you, wanting you near, how much I want to bring you home.

"But now that you've come back and turned night into day, I need you to stay. So now I come to you with open arms. Nothing to hide, believe what I say. So here I am with open arms, hoping you'll see what your love means to me, open arms.

"What your love means to me, open arms," he sang and let the music fade out as the crowd of extras screamed.

Jase told him that his part was finished as he thanked the audience of extras for their time and told them to line up outside the offices to leave their information for payment. Skyler was free to go and it was only ten. He changed out of the wardrobe and showered to get the make-up and hairspray out of his hair. He was just coming out of the trailer when Mary pulled onto the lot.

They drove to the Crystal Room and ordered salads and wine to get them started. Skyler was nervous about what she would say when he asked her about adoption, but he wouldn't let Ashton down. He rubbed his sweaty palms on his jeans and just opened his mouth.

"Mary, I asked you to lunch today to discuss Ashton," he said slowly.

"I figured that might be why," she said, smiling. "I've been informed about his latest problem. Is there something about that you'd like to know?"

"No," he said, shaking his head slightly. "Doctor Kimball explained everything to me after the sonogram. What I wanted to talk to you about was adoption. I'd like to adopt Ashton and raise him as my son."

She was quiet for a moment as she digested what he'd said. He was worried that her silence indicated an adverse reaction to what he'd said. He was sure of it when she smiled at him. He didn't know if a judge in California would let him adopt without her in his corner, but he wasn't going to give up if she told him she was against it.

"Skyler," she said, putting her fork down. "First of all I think it's great that you're starting to feel this way about Ashton. His parents pled guilty to all counts this morning. They'll be sentenced to the maximum for each charge. They won't be out of prison until after he is of legal age if we're lucky. That would have meant that he would have to enter the system at some time."

"But that's not what any of us want," he said carefully.

"No, it isn't," she agreed. "I will tell you that you'll have to spend some time living together before I'd sign anything saying that I was in favor of the adoption. I'm not saying I'm not in favor of it now, but I have to cover my own bases."

"I understand," he replied, thankful that she was at least open to the idea.

"Well then you have your answer," she said, smiling again. "I think it's a great thing you're doing already. Knowing that you care enough for this child to adopt him says a lot about you. Let's face it, whith his background and his age he would be hard to place with a family that wanted to adopt him. then there's the space issue with state funded homes and facilities. I'm inclined to leave him in your care for an extended amount of time. What we can do is petition the court for custody of the child first. then after a few months if you're still interested, as I'm sure you will be I'll talk to the judge about adoption."

Skyler's cell phone vibrated in his pocket as she said that. He was smiling as he fished it out of his pocket. She was going to help him adopt Ashton. She was going to help him. He was going to adopt Ashton and raise him safe and sound.

"Just a second, Mary," he said, looking at the number and seeing that it was Cassie.

"Take your time," she said, smiling.

"This is Skyler," he said into the phone.

"Sky, it's Chad," said Cassie's frantic voice. "He's gone."

"What do you mean he's gone?" he asked, feeling a sinking in the pit of his stomach.

"He left a note," she said. He could tell she was crying. "He left some time in the night. The note said he can't go to prison and for us not to look for him."

"Cassie, I'm coming home," he said quickly. "Call Dad."

"Dad?" she gasped. "Sky, Dad doesn't want to talk to any of us. He told me so himself."

"Cassie, call Dad," he said again. "When you tell him what's going on he'll want to talk to you. Trust me."

"All right," she said. "But please come home."

"I'm coming," he said as he closed the phone and looked at Mary's worried face. "I have to go home. There's an emergency with my brother."

"I hope everything is all right," she said as he stood and fished his wallet out of his pocket. Brent saw him get up and stood to be ready.

"This should cover lunch," he said, tossing two hundred dollar bills on the table. "I'm sorry to run out on you like this. Thank you so much for coming and agreeing to help me. I understand what you said, and I agree that's the best way to go. I'll call you tomorrow."

"Go, Skyler," she said, shoving the money back at him. "I'll get this. Take your money and go see to your emergency."

He explained to Brent on the way to the car. Brent sighed as he listened. He'd known that something was up with Chad the day before but hadn't said anything because Darby seemed to have him well in hand. Skyler was worried, but he was sure that they'd find Chad and that would be the end of it. He kept telling himself that as they reached the car and left the lot.

Cassie flung her arms around him as soon as he was in the house. Skyler saw their father standing behind her and Jase standing beside him. What shocked him completely was Alex standing beside Jase. He held on to Cassie as he asked if there was any word.

"We've called all of the hotels in the city," said Jase. "Bus stations, trains and the airport. He hasn't left the city and he isn't in a hotel."

"Did he take one of the cars?" Skyler asked.

"No," said Alex. "Ben checked your garage and the only vehicles missing are the three you took this morning. He must have called a cab."

"Call the cab companies," said Skyler.

"We've tried that," said Ben. "None of them remember Chad. Trust me they'd remember him."

Skyler, Cassie and Jason began calling every celebrity in the city that might have given Chad a ride anywhere. Skyler was shocked to learn that Justin Timberlake and Brian Littrell were in town. He called both of their phones and discovered that they were together in Hollywood. Neither of them had seen Chad. He made it through every celebrity in his phone book and still had no luck. None of them had given Chad a ride or even heard from him in the last forty-eight hours.

"Where would he go, Sky?" Cassie asked, clutching his arm as he flipped his phone shut.

"I don't know, Cassie," he replied. It killed him to admit it, but he hadn't been paying close enough attention to Chad lately. So much had been going on that it was nearly impossible to pay close attention to anyone.

"We have to find him, Sky," she said, putting her arms around his waist and holding him tight.

"He isn't exactly the most inconspicuous guy around, Cassie," Skyler replied, holding her just as tight. "He can't get far without someone recognizing him."

"But he can't run from this," she said. "He can't just run away and think that it'll all go away."

"We'll find him," he vowed.

They hadn't found Chad or anyone who had seen or talked to him by that night. Skyler hated to do it, but he had responsibilities to attend to. He headed over to MTV Studios to meet Mark and talk with Bryce Appleton about the new reality show that Mark was hosting. The first episode had been filmed and was slated to air that night on MTV. Skyler was supposed to talk to Bryce about the rest of the season. Filming was moving off their studio lots and back to Sky High.

All through the meeting he was hoping that someone at home had either found Chad or heard from him. When he got home and learned that no one had heard anything he began to worry. Where had he gone? It wasn't as if a celebrity as well known as Chad Thomas could slip into anonymity with ease. Someone had to have seen him. They had to have.

The next day he spent his time divided between spending time with the children in Ashton's hospital room and searching for Chad. He blew off interviews and rescheduled photo shoots. Normally Jase or Jeff would get on his case about something like that, but they were doing the same thing. Jase had rescheduled the meeting with the editing department for the movie, and Jeff had completely blown off his meeting with his management. All of this was to find Chad. Skyler just hoped they would find him soon.

He was in Ashton's room the next evening when the call came in. He was so shocked that it was his father who had found Chad, and at first he was so happy to know that Chad had been found. Then he realized that his father sounded strange.

"Dad, what's wrong?" he asked as fear rippled down his spine.

"Skyler, come downstairs," his father replied. "I found him on the bathroom floor of his room at the Plaza. Skyler, he's overdosed."


Open Arms is a song by Journey.
The next chapter will be posted soon.


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