© 2005-2011 Julien Gregg
All Rights Reserved


Chapter 97


"OK everyone what I need is a lot of excitement," Jase called the gathered crowd around the back lot at Sky High Studios. He knew excitement wouldn't be difficult for them. After all they were there to be a part of a Skyler Thomas video. The girls were already screaming. He looked up at the sky and smiled. At least the weather was holding. It was sunny and hot in Los Angeles and it was perfect for the video Jase had mapped out.

A large sound stage had been erected in front of what looked like the entrance of a palace but was really only a studio background. Lights were cleverly disguised in the background so that they would appear to be the sun shining down on Skyler. As luck had it the sun was helping the illusion quite nicely. Three rows of bleachers had been set up across from the stage with a twenty foot round fountain set up between them and the sound stage. The bleachers were filled with one hundred, ninety - nine extras. Sky High new faces, Lucas Evans and Rick Tu were among them to complete the two hundred required extras for the shoot. Some had been given signs to hold up with many different things printed on them. Each was just another way to say "I LOVE SKYLER THOMAS". Skyler himself was in make up and should be taking his place behind the huge white grand piano that had been placed on the sound stage. Hidden amplifiers would carry the sound perfectly as he played the song. All that was left to do was make sure the crowd of extras knew what they were supposed to be doing and to wait for Skyler to be ready.

There were four different cameras set up in each direction that could also move into various other positions when and if needed. Jase loved the high tech digital equipment that Sky High was using for their video shoots and wondered what it would be like to use these cameras to film feature films. He was still thinking about that when the crowd of extras began to scream louder. He turned and saw that Skyler was standing in the arch and ready for his cue. His headset was already on.

"All right, Sky," Jase said, pressing the button for his own mic on his hip. "When I tell you come on out and wave to the crowd. Camera two let's roll."

"Camera two rolling," came Shane's reply.

"Skyler, you're good to go," Jase said. "Action."

Skyler walked onto the sound stage, smiling at the crowd of extras and making them really scream. He was dressed in black jeans, white leather chaps with no shirt and a white leather vest. A white cowboy hat was on his head. He tipped it to the crowd. That was Jase's cue. He pressed the second button on his pad and the computer voice came through the speakers.

"Techno cowboy!"

The extras screamed louder still as Skyler sat down at the piano. The idea was to make the video look like it was a sneak peak of the upcoming tour when the song wasn't even part of the line up in reality. Skyler had said something about adding the video to the concert DVD that would come out soon after the tour was over. Jase thought it was a great idea. He was going to be flying to France to film the final show for the DVD.

"Thank you!" cried Skyler, waving at the crowd again. "I wrote this for my brother, Chad. I wanted to send him a personal message. So here goes."

He began to sing and shortly after to play and Jase called for Shane to zoom in. Then he called for camera three to zoom in and take over. He switched back and forth from camera two and three once more before taking his own shots of the crowd. These would be altered later in the computer gen offices to make the crowd look much larger. They filmed the crowd's reaction to the song after Skyler had thanked them once more and said his goodbyes before leaving the sound stage before Jase called, "Cut. Wrap!"

Skyler went back to his dressing room to change out of the costume. He was happy with the way the video had gone. He'd told Jase that live videos were much easier to shoot. The fact that there had been no complications proved his point. He just hoped that Jase was happy with the finished product. The last thing he needed was for his uncle to think that he'd stepped on his toes and ruined his vision. Skyler had enough to deal with at the moment without upsetting his family. He'd filed the lawsuit against the rags and freelance photographers just yesterday. The press had already heard about it, but surprisingly they were leaving him alone so far. He knew it wouldn't last though.

"Great show, Sky," said Shane Dodds as Skyler came out of his dressing room.

"Thanks, Shane," he replied, smiling. "How soon do you think Jase'll be done with it?"

"Oh it shouldn't take too long," Shane said. "But then I think he'll let you know about that himself."

"Right," replied Skyler. "So how are you?"

"I'm good, thanks," Shane said, smiling. "I took an apartment not far from here. Been seeing someone off and on since we've been in LA."

"That's great," Skyler enthused. "So how's Robert doing?"

"He's loving Australia," laughed Shane. "He calls about twice a week to see how I'm doing."

"Well that's nice of him," replied Skyler. "Listen, tell Jase that I had to head on to rehearsals. I'll see him tonight."

"Sure thing, Sky," said Shane. "Great working with you."

"This wasn't work, Shane," laughed Skyler. "This was fun."

"It was that," Shane said with a smile. "You have a great day."

"Oh I will," said Skyler. "Thanks. I'm off to pick up your brother and his family."

"I'd tell you to say hi for me," Shane said, lowering his head.

"Hang in there, Shane," Skyler said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Chip's a good guy. He'll figure out that he needs you in his life pretty soon."

"Yeah," sighed Shane. "I'm sorry for disagreeing with you here, Skyler. Chip is a good guy, but he doesn't need me. He hates me."

"Hang in there, Shane," Skyler replied. "He'll come around."

"Thanks, Skyler," Shane said, looking him in the eye. "I just gave up hoping a long time ago. Don't worry about it. You go have a good day."

Skyler watched as Shane walked away after that. He sighed as he watched him go and thought about what it would take to get Chip to reconcile with Shane. There had to be a way that they could talk to each other and get through this. He knew better than to try his own hand at making this happen. Chip had already blown up at him once already for hiring Shane. They'd salvaged their friendship and repaired the damage when Chad had first been arrested. He was happy about his friendship with Chip Dodds and he didn't want to do anything that might end it. No, Shane and Chip would have to come to an understanding on their own. He wasn't going to get involved.

He and Brent met up with the rest of the security team and headed off for the airport. Skyler had sent his own jet to Orlando to retrieve his friends, so there would be no waiting around in plain view of the other commuters and other possible dangers. They would make their way through the airport to their own terminal and try not to stop for anything. This last run in with the paparazzi had sealed Skyler's opinion of all of them. He couldn't trust them and he actually feared them now. He'd been leery before. Now there was no way he'd ever let up on his security detail. They'd stay this way as long as he stayed in the public eye. As they drove to the airport Skyler thought about just retiring and moving off to some distant place where he could have peace. He was surprised by how appealing that thought was.

Could he do that? Could he really do that? He could actually see himself leaving it all behind to spend his days at home with Jeff and the children. What a picture it made in his mind. He started to smile as the SUV carried him closer to the airport. The picture was nearly perfect. They were home and happy for the most part, but something was missing. It took him a few minutes to realize what it was. The family wasn't around them, and Clay and Gavin weren't interrupting. His smile slipped as he thought about what that meant. Was he really ready to let it all go and just live a life with Jeff? He knew he had more than enough money to ensure that they could live comfortably virtually anywhere, but what happened when the days got long and the nights just kept going? He sighed as he realized that no, he wasn't ready to let it all go. He loved Jeff and the kids so much it made his heart hurt, but he couldn't just drop his career and run off with them into the sunset to live happily ever after and forget who he was. He wasn't ready for it. He couldn't do that after all.

It wasn't that he didn't want to live with Jeff. He loved living with Jeff. The last few months of spending time at home with him there by his side so much was amazing. That wasn't any part of the problem. He just couldn't stop singing and touring and making movies. It was who he was. He was sure that he'd really want to stop one day but the truth was that day wasn't upon him yet. Then he thought about all that Jeff had really given up to spend this time with him; what he would be giving up in the near future to tour with him. Was Jeff happy? He smiled a lot and he seemed to be content but was he really? Skyler began to worry over that for a moment before he remembered that with Jeff talking was easy. He could ask him how he felt and trust him to be completely honest and up front with him. That's exactly what he planned to do when they were alone together later.

"You're awful quiet back there, Sky," said Brent from the front seat. "You all right?"

"Just thinkin'," he replied. "Nothing major."

"Don't worry," Brent said, misunderstanding completely. "We'll get to Chip and Christian without any problems."

"That's not what I was thinking about," he chuckled. "I've complete confidence in my security, Brent. I was thinking about Jeff."

"Ah," Brent said, smiling. "Good thoughts then."

"Very good," replied Skyler.

* * *

Chad sat back against the wall behind his bed and sighed. Rehab wasn't so bad, he thought. The most strenuous thing they'd had him do since he got there was fold his own clothes after they'd gone through them. Skyler had been a little put off by that. Chad chuckled as he thought about the look on his brother's face when the staff had said they would search anything brought onto the floor. It took him only two seconds of chuckling to remember that he felt like the jerk of the world for being the reason that Skyler was on the rehab floor of the hospital to begin with. That cut the chuckling off quickly. Suddenly he felt worse than ever.

He grabbed the black duffel bag off the floor and sighed as he opened it. There were pictures of the family inside and he took them out one by one to look at them for a minute each. He tried not to feel like a worthless ass as he looked at their smiling faces but when he got to Preston's picture he was in tears. How could he have done this to them? He couldn't believe he'd ever been stupid enough to try any kind of drug. First it had been coke and then it had been a few others he still wasn't sure about. Then he had a needle in his arm and now he was here. He'd done this to himself all because he was a little jealous of Skyler. That was actually kind of laughable. Skyler really had been the one to start Chad's career. He'd even written a song specifically for him to sing. There was never any doubt that he'd sing the exact kind of music that his older brother did, but the fact was that he didn't actually like that kind of music. Sure Skyler made it amazing, but he suspected he felt that way simply because it was his big brother.

What he really wanted was to sing the kind of music he liked. He'd begun to resent Skyler because he wasn't singing the kind of songs he wanted, but it was his own fault. That first song he wrote had been great, but it wasn't supposed to be a sappy love song. Skyler had just assumed or maybe it had been Clay. He couldn't remember anymore. All he knew was that somewhere along the line someone drew the wrong conclusion and he hadn't bothered to correct them. Then the world had loved it. That's what he couldn't understand. He didn't have a smooth and silky voice like Skyler's. His was deeper and a bit less smooth. He knew he had a great voice but it wasn't like his brother's. That's why he didn't know why the fans liked his music. When he heard himself sing it he could tell that his voice was all wrong for it.

But then he had a contract with Maverick and they wanted more of those sappy teenaged love songs. He wanted to do the harder stuff but no one had asked him what he wanted. They just handed him songs to sing and the band started playing the way they always did. He did what he was told because he didn't want to disappoint anyone. Everyone expected him to be the happy one. Cassie was the pretty one, Skyler was the gritty angsty one and he was supposed to be the happy one. So he put on a happy face while inside he was dying. He had so many things that he needed to talk about with someone that he just never talked about with anyone. Then he tried that damned drug and everything got better for a little while. It was only for a little while though. Before he knew it he was strung out, missing recording sessions and pissing off everyone around him.

Now he was in rehab and he was supposed to be talking to a therapist twice a week while he was there. Maybe now he would be able to get it off his chest and talk about it all. He hoped so. He hoped that if he was given the chance to talk he wouldn't just stand there like an idiot with nothing coming out of his mouth. He wanted to talk it out and get over it all. He wanted that very badly. There had to be a way. He didn't understand why Skyler and Cassie weren't as fucked up as he was. They'd grown up with the same shit that he had. Why were they happy when he was miserable?

His thoughts were interrupted when someone opened the door to his room. He looked up into the face of someone he'd known of but had never met before. Before him with the six foot two hundred pound wall of a man that was Maurice, one of the drug councilors was Aaron Carter. They looked at each with, recognition dawning in both sets of eyes and Chad tried a tentative smile at his new roommate. Aaron didn't look good. He was very thin and his eyes were sunken and they looked bruised. His skin was pale and his hands shook. When he opened his mouth and spoke his voice shook as well.

"You're Chad Thomas," he said in that shaking voice, the voice that was all laced with the pain and misery of withdrawal.

"Yeah," Chad said, smiling. "And you're Aaron Carter."

"I used to be," he said softly, bowing his head as he came fully into the room.

* * *

"You're right, Sky," said Christian as they got into the SUV and began to drive away from the airport. "This is the fastest way to get through the throng."

"From now on this'll be the only way I go anywhere," he said, smiling at his friends.

"They scared you, didn't they?" Justin asked, sitting between his father and Christian.

"Well, yes, when it was happening I was plenty scared," he admitted. "I mean let's face it, not too long ago one of them almost killed me. This time I had Ashton sitting in the seat beside me, and I was more afraid of what it was doing to him. Then after it was over I was just mad."

"They're sure havin' fun talking about your lawsuit," laughed Chip.

"Oh I'm sure they are," replied Skyler with a straight face. "My lawyers are sure happy with the suit though."

"I suspect they are," said Christian. "Think you'll win?"

"I don't expect to win," Skyler said truthfully. "I expect a settlement and I demand an apology. They terrorized a child that day, and I want them to pay for it."

"Well it isn't as if you need the money," said Chip, smiling again.

"No," said Skyler. "But it'll sure look pretty divided into four individual trust funds, won't it?"

"It sure will," agreed Christian. "It's great that you're thinking about the kids, Sky."

"Well of course I'm thinking about the kids," he said. "If Ashton hadn't been in the SUV I wouldn't be suing them for all they're worth, but he was. That's what the lawsuit is about."

"So what's the plan for the next few days?" Chip asked, trying to break the tension that was building in the vehicle. Skyler became tense whenever the paparazzi was mentioned, and he supposed that this conversation had him plenty tense. He understood why though.

"Well I thought we'd hang around the house," Skyler replied. "Justin's gig doesn't start for a few weeks, and the release date for the song and video is about two weeks away, so I thought we'd relax."

"Sounds good," said Christian. "I'm tired after the last go round."

"How was the shoot anyway?" Skyler asked. "I've heard nothing about it in the rags or the legit press. MTV hasn't said a word and no one is doing any talk shows to spill the dirt."

"Oh it's been pretty hush hush," he replied. "It was difficult to get certain scenes shot and we were doing take after take after takes, sometimes one scene took up to a week to finish to Guy's liking."

"Yeah, I've worked with Guy," laughed Skyler. "Do you think the movie will be a hit?"

"He let us watch it as soon as it had come back from editing," replied Christian. "We all sat in the board room of the hotel and watched it on a projection screen. I'd say it's going to be a hit."

"So Skyler," Chip said. "Are we going to the house or to the school?"

"Well I'd planned on dropping you three at the house before I headed off to rehearsals," replied Skyler. "Then the flight was delayed so I'm already late. I hope you guys don't mind hanging out at the school for a bit. You don't have to be on camera."

"We don't mind," said Chip as Justin nodded excitedly.

"How's that working out for you, Sky?" Christian asked. "I mean the filming."

"I hate it with a passion," replied Skyler with a grimace. "But it's the most watched show on MTV right now, so I'll put up with it until the tour is over."

"I just can't believe they're filming all of it," Christian said. "I mean, it's one thing to film a movie or a television show, but isn't part of rehearsals just getting it right to the fans don't see the mistakes?"

"Believe me I've had all of those arguments with Clay and Gavin," replied Skyler, nodding. "The only thing I can say is that they don't film a lot of the rehearsing. It's mostly how the dancers interact with each other and stuff like that. Now that we're not telling someone to go home every week they're focusing on how the dancers get along. I don't know that it's all that interesting myself. I mean my dancers, with the exception of Alex, Evan, Cale, Mick, Ren and Duncan have been together for a while. I mean Dale's new, but I've known him since he was old enough to go outside without his mommy and daddy and he was with us for most of the tour last time so he knows everyone really well. What kind of scandals do they expect to film for this thing?"

"I don't know, but I bet you and Jeff will have to be a lot more careful with the cameras following you around all through the tour," Christian said.

Skyler was quiet after that. He had to think hard about it. That was something he hadn't thought of at all. There were so many things they'd have to watch so the cameras didn't pick it up. He didn't like that. That upset things between him and Jeff. After all the reason for Jeff going along on the tour was so that they could be together. This was going to hinder that in more ways than one. He was suddenly very angry about having the cameras following him around. He decided he'd have it out with Clay and Gavin about it as soon as he could.

When they got to the school Clay and Gavin weren't there. Skyler was happy about that because the cameramen had all of their cameras going. He was annoyed by that and still angry over the whole deal. It showed during rehearsals, and James commented on it twice. Skyler asked to talk privately with him after the rehearsals were done for the day. James agreed, but a cameraman tried to follow them into the office behind the gym and Skyler got even more angry.

"Look," he said, shoving the camera out of his face. "When I said I wanted to talk privately I meant off camera. If you boys can't listen to me then perhaps this show is over."

"I'm sorry," said the twenty something blond haired cameraman. Skyler thought he could only barely be out of high school from the looks of him. "Mr. Hunter said we were to film everything."

"Mr. Hunter doesn't own this fucking company," Skyler snapped. "Now, you can either stay outside the office or I'm never coming back to this school. I'll move my dancers to a secret location and stop the fucking show dead in it's tracks. I didn't want this to begin with."

"I'll stay here," he said quietly. "I'm sorry."

"I don't want to hear apologies," Skyler said, letting the octave of his voice drop a bit lower. "I want some privacy to talk to my choreographer. Do you boys think you can give the cameras a break for an hour?"

"Yes, Mr. Thomas," replied the cameraman, blushing.

"James," Skyler said, turning on the spot and going into the office.

"What's got you upset, Skyler?" asked James when they were behind the closed door of the office.

"This show," he replied. "I didn't want this, and Clay and Gavin basically pushed it on me. Now that I've thought it through I'm even more upset because this means that Jeff and I have to be very careful when we were supposed to be relaxed. I haven't even left for the tour yet and I already hate the damned thing."

"I see what you're talking about," sighed James. "There really isn't a way to get out of this now though. We've all signed our contracts."

"I know," he said. "But I want you to understand that other than rehearsals I won't be having anything to do with the dancers. I'll be as far away from the cameras as possible. I'm going to talk to Clay and Gavin about this and if they don't like it then I don't know what will happen. I just wanted to explain my mood to you. I'm sorry for being so short while we were rehearsing. I'm really happy with what you've come up with, James. I want you to know that. This has nothing at all to do with you, the routines or the dancers themselves."

"I understand what you're saying," James said. "I also understand why you're upset. I get it. I'm a gay man myself, Skyler. I just happen to be out of the closet. It's easier for me to be who I am, but I understand how you feel. Before I came out I was in the spotlight a lot and had to hide that side of myself from the world. I get it. You don't have to explain anything to me. You talk to Clay and Gavin, but I'll support whatever decision you make regarding the show."

"Thanks, James," he said, smiling for the first time since he'd arrived at the school.

"You run along and yell at your management," he said, smiling back at him.

That's exactly what he did as soon as he saw them. He first explained to Jeff exactly why he was angry and then Jeff was just as angry as Skyler was. Gavin and Clay looked as if they would rather have been anywhere but at the house as soon as they walked through the door. Skyler ushered them into the office and Jeff followed. When they got a look at the faces that greeted them, Gavin actually tried to turn tail and run, but Skyler was having none of that.

"You both knew," he said loudly as he slammed the door shut after they'd gotten inside the office. "Both of you knew that Jeff demanded time off so that he could be with me while I was on tour. God damn you both, you knew! So what did you do? You made sure that every single thing we say or do will be filmed and broadcasted to the fucking world!"

"Skyler," said Clay, holding up a hand.

"Shut the fuck up," he snapped. "I'm not done. I'm here to tell you that we won't play your fucking game. We're not even going to stay in the same fucking hotel as the dancers. I won't have a single fucking thing to do with anyone connected to the tour this time. The only time they'll fucking see me other than show time is during rehearsals and sound checks. Are you happy? Are you both happy? Don't ever decide anything about me or my family again. No more cameras, no more television shows. No more period. Do you hear what I'm saying? If you pull a stunt like this again you'll have the whole world to explain things to when I decide to turn around and walk off somewhere and never tell you where."

He didn't wait for them to say anything after he'd finished screaming. He just turned around and walked out of the office. Cassie and Darby were standing the living room with wide eyes. Skyler was happy to see that none of the children were on the ground floor to hear him screaming like that. He couldn't believe he'd screamed at them, but he was still angry. He would be for a while now thanks to them. He stopped in the living room doorway for a moment to collect himself.

"Sky, what's going on?" Cassie asked, looking at him with a stunned expression on her face.

"I had to have a few words with my management team to let them know that they screwed up," he said as calmly as he could. "And to think I was actually looking forward to the tour. Well I'm not now."

"Because of the show?" Darby asked as Jeff came up behind Skyler.

"Yes," he said. "My head hurts a little so I'm going to go upstairs and play with my kids." He turned around and saw Clay and Gavin standing just outside the office watching him. "Did you guys want to film that, too?"

"Blondie," Jeff said, taking his hand and pulling him away from his manager and agent. "Let's just go upstairs."

"Yeah," he said, turning to face Clay again. "I'll let you explain to the dancers exactly why I'll be shunning them. Think you can do that without it making it onto national television?"

"Come on, Sky," Jeff said, tugging again.

Skyler's mood did not improve over the next several days. Any time he saw Gavin or Clay he was angry again. It showed during rehearsals and James commented on it a few times. Try as he might however, Skyler couldn't let it go. He did his best to pretend to be happy when MTV arrived to film parts of the rehearsals for their special about the tour. He knew he had to try to calm down soon because he would be sitting across from Kurt Loder with cameras rolling for his interview. He just hoped he didn't say something he'd regret later. Thankfully they only recorded part of one song and he wasn't singing. When he sat down across from Kurt he smiled and tried to remind himself that Kurt wasn't the enemy.

"You look tense," Kurt said as they sat at the table.

"It's a management thing," replied Skyler. "Nothing to worry about. Let's do this."

"Let's," agreed Kurt, smiling at him. "They should be ready for us in a minute."

Skyler turned to look back at the MTV cameramen and smiled. They were filming James talking to the dancers. He wished that he wasn't being backed into a corner with this tour. This was a great group of dancers and he'd been expecting to have a lot of fun with them. Thinking about that made his blood boil again so he turned around to face Kurt and smiled. He really had to calm down. Thankfully Gavin and Clay both had things to do that kept them both from the school. Skyler didn't think he'd be able to keep himself from saying anything wrong if either of them were there.

"So tell me," Kurt said once they began filming them, "are you ready for this tour?"

"I am," he replied, smiling. "My doctor has signed off and I'm in perfect health."

"So no repeats from last time?" Kurt asked.

"Absolutely not," Skyler said firmly. "I've learned my lesson, Kurt. If I even get a headache I'll cancel a show."

"Good," Kurt said, smiling at him. "You had many people, including me very worried last time."

"I think I've apologized to everyone," Skyler laughed.

"James Morris talked with us a few weeks ago about what it's like to work with you," Kurt said. "He had many positive things to say."

"James is a genius," Skyler replied. "Working with him is like nothing I've ever done before. I've worked with some very difficult choreographers in the past. James is easy to get along with and realizes that the dancers are human and need breaks."

"There was a problem with that on the last tour," Kurt said. "Care to comment on Gus Reynolds?"

"No," laughed Skyler. "That's the past Kurt. I've put him and the tour behind me."

"We're going to take a break here," Kurt said, facing the camera. "We'll be back with more of 'Countdown To Techno Cowboy' after these messages from our sponsors."

"And we're out," said the cameraman.

"So I hear that there's tension at Sky High over this tour," Kurt said. "I wanted to ask you about that off camera. Don't worry, whatever you tell me won't leave this table."

"There's tension all right," Skyler sighed. "I'm angry at Gavin and Clay over this stupid show. I didn't want to do a reality show and I never wanted cameras following me around the entire time I'm on tour. I'm not Madonna."

"Why did they decide to do this anyway?" Kurt asked. "I mean it's going great on MTV but everyone knows that celebrities hate these shows."

"This was Gavin's bright idea," replied Skyler. "Trust me if he has another one he'll be looking for employment."

The interview went very well. Kurt was always awesome about not going for the hard questions. They had an agreement between them that Skyler would grant any interview MTV liked as long as they stayed away from certain topics. What made Kurt's interviews special was that Skyler never had to remind him of that agreement. He asked questions about Ashton and Preston but nothing to probative. Then they talked about the upcoming tour, dates and technical stuff.

"That's it for our time with Skyler," Kurt said to the camera at the end of the interview. "Our countdown starts now with a full day of Skyler's vidoes which will culminate in his new video debut tomorrow morning at nine. As we've already discussed, the tour begins May ninth in Barcelona. For a complete list of the tour dates log on to our website."

"That's a wrap," called the cameraman.

"Thanks a lot for the interview," said Kurt as the rest of the MTV people bagan to pack up their gear. "Especially one connected to this show."

"You're completely welcome," replied Skyler with a smile.

"And happy birthday, by the way," Kurt said with a smile. "Any plans?"

"None that don't involve sitting on the floor and playing with my boys," he said and then laughed.

When he got home he got a big surprise. Ashton and Alyssa were sitting in the living room, both with a piece of white construction paper in their hands. Darby and Cassie were standing on either side of them with big smiles on their faces. Skyler and Jeff walked all the way into the living room and smiled at their children. Both of them were wondering just what was going on. Skyler had fully intended to head straight upstairs to play with the kids as soon as he got home. Instead he'd found the two oldest sitting in the living rom.

"Happy birthday, Sky," said Alyssa as she handed him her piece of construction paper. He looked at it and saw that she had used finger paints to paint what looked like a small house with a huge sun above it. "We can go live there and hide from the reporters."

"Oh, Honey," he said, falling to his knees to embrace the girl. "Thank you so much for this beautiful painting, but I don't want you to ever worry about reporters."

He wondered how she knew about them but then he remembered Ashton had been with him the last time he'd encountered insane paparazzi. He supposed that he'd told Alyssa all about them. He didn't like that it had scared the girl so much that she wanted to paint a house for them to live in to stay way from them though. He wasn't going to say anything about that part of it. He just hugged her tight and tried desperately to keep from crying.

"Happy birthday," Ashton said, smiling at him as he handed him his piece of construction paper as soon as he'd stood from hugging Alyssa.

Skyler was shocked to see that Ashton's finger painting was a bit more detailed than Alyssa's. The boy had talent. Jeff looked over his shoulder at it and gasped at what he saw. On the paper was a very recognizable black and brown dog. The detail was amazing for one so young as Ashton. He smiled at the boy and then knelt down to hug him and thank him. That's when he got his second shock. Ashton held on tight and whispered something in his ear.

"His name is Scamp and he'll keep the reporters away from all of us," said the boy. "I wanted you to have him because the reporters follow you all the time."

"Kids," he said, sitting down on the floor in front of both of them. "Thank you both so much for these wonderful paintings. I want you both to know that the reporters can't hurt us now. You've seen all of the new security men, and you know about all of the work going on around the house. That's to keep the reporters away from us. Thank you for these but please don't worry about the reporters anymore."

"Come on, guys," said Jeff, picking up Alyssa. "Let's go upstairs and play with your toys. Your brothers are probably wondering where you are."

Cassie took the paintings and promised to put them in the office. Skyler wanted to have both framed and hung on his bedroom walls so that he saw them every morning partly to remind himself how much the children loved him and also to remember just how scared of the press the children were. He was sad that they were living in fear of the press. It just wasn't normal for a child but there wasn't anything more he could do about it now. He'd hired security, gotten work started on the estate to keep unwanted visitors away and put plans in motion to keep the press away from them. There wasn't much more they could do now.

"Daddy!" cried Preston when they walked into the playroom. He put his arms up and grinned from ear to ear, making almost all of Skyler's worries evaporate.

"Hey, Little Guy," he said, stopping and sweeping the child into his arms. "How's my PJ?"

"Mm-mm," replied Preston. His words were muffled because his face was buring in Skyler's neck.

Skyler sat down on the floor in front of the building blocks that Preston had been playing with and sat the boy in his lap. Preston went back to stacking his blocks in no certain order as Ashton sat down beside them. Skyler reached over and put his arm around the older boy as he watched Preston with the blocks. Sitting with the children to play was always the best therapy in the world for Skyler and Jeff. The kids made everything seem unimportant and when they were with them it was like the world just didn't matter anymore. He was still worried about Alyssa and Ashton's fear of the press but sitting there, it just didn't seem to be the end all - be all.

"You're mellow," Jeff said with a cheesey grin on his face as JR crawled all over him.

"I am," Skyler said with a smile. "Isn't it awesome to just sit with the kids?"

"You know it," Jeff replied. "If only we could just sit here forever."

"One day," Skyler said softly as he squeezed Ashton.

They had a little time before they were supposed to get the kids ready and then themselves. Tabitha had made them promise not to schedule anything that evening. She said she wanted to have a nice family dinner for Skyler's birthday. Skyler wasn't fooled by the family dinner though. He knew that she'd booked The Crystal Room for a private party. The fact that all of the children would be going with them didn't escape him either. Evidently she was throwing a birthday party that was kid safe. That made it all right with Skyler. He knew that the restaurant wouldn't be decorated in red so he had nothing to worry about.

They played with the kids until it was time to get them ready. Ashton and Alyssa were just told to put on their outfits while Jeff and Skyler got Preston and JR changed. Then they left the children in Amy's care to get ready themselves. Twenty minutes later they assembled in the living room to wait for Ben and Tabitha. Then they were climbing into the SUVs. Skyler, Jeff and their kids had one while Cassie, Kaleb, Jase, Ali and Mike took another. Ben, Tabitha and Jason had yet another and the others will filled with all of the security men. As soon as they were all on the street they were surrounded by paparazzi. Skyler knew that they would probably have been less noticeable if they weren't a virtual convoy of black SUVs but he didn't care. This was the only way.

He was happy to see that the entrance to the restaurant was roped off with the ropes sat six feet from the entrance on either side. There were private security men standing on the other side of the ropes and they kept the press back as the SUVs came to a stop and they all got out. They made their way into the restaurant with the press screaming at them. Cameras flahsed over and over again but none of them said a word to anyone. Skyler's heart was pounding and he held Preston tight in one arm and held Ashton's hand in the other. Jeff had JR in one arm and held Alyssa's hand with the other as they made their way inside. Even Jase kept Mike between him and Ali as they made their way inside.

The Crystal Room was named for the thirty-six crystal chandeliers that hung from the ceilings. Each was at least six feet from the fixtures in the ceiling to the tip of the center crystal. There were one hundred and one Austrian Crystals in each chandelier. They were nine inch crystal bars that were arranged in a circle around the spine of the chandelier with each circle underneath tighter than the one above it so that the entire thing formed an upside down cone with the longest crystal bar in the center, hanging down to form the point of the cone. The lights inside each chanedlier were virtually invisible behind the crystals that reflected the light and threw rainbow patterns all over the dining hall.

Normally there were tables set in rows from one end of the hall to the other, each with a crystal vases on each table with red and white roses in them. Small lights set into the tables directly underneath each vase lit up each of the tables. The effect was beautiful to behold and one that was expected when you walked in the double doors at the front of the dining hall. Skyler was shocked to see that the tables were not arranged as he was used to them. Instead they were along the walls with the center of the room open and empty. There was a band at the other end of the hall playing soft music. The vases that were usually on the tables had been replaced with crystal bowls filled with what looked like silver and gold stars.

The walls were usually covered by drapped white silk. On this day there were additions. Framed photographs of Skyler from various sources all the way back to grade school were hung on the walls with lights above each frame. Skyler wondered where they'd gotten these pictures as he looked at them from where he stood by the entrance with Preston and Ashton. They followed Ben and Tabitha to a table at the back where Madonna, Kristy and Brian Krause were already sitting.

"Toy," said Madonna as they all sat down at the table. "You caused an absolute scene out there with that convoy."

"It's the only way to keep us all safe, M," he said seriously.

"Have you filed the lawsuit?" she asked.

"We have," he said, nodding. "We're waiting patiently to see what happens."

"We saw what happened to you," said Brian. "They ran it on MTV every hour that day."

"It won't happen again," he said firmly. "I'll buy a gun if I have to and I won't hesitate to shoot it if they try anything like that again."

"How dramatic," said Madonna. "You'll rot in prison."

"No I won't," he replied. "All it'll take is video footage of the day I tried take Ashton home and testimony from everyone involved in the crash that nearly killed me. The judge would admire my restraint."

"I had no idea that you were this upset," Madonna said, sitting forward in her chair to look at him hard.

"Well he has every reason to be this upset," said Jeff. "They could have killed us all that day."

"I don't dispute that," she said. "You know a way to solve this problem."

"Oh come on," Skyler said with a sigh. He knew what she was going to say. She'd been after him to find an estate in or around London for months. "The press in London are probably just as crazy as the press in America. Australia's press wasn't nice so why should I think that the press is any different anywhere in the world?"

"Let's talk about something else," Jeff said as soon as Skyler stopped talking. "The press issue has all of us pretty tense."

"All right," said Madonna. "I called Clay when I got here and he said he wasn't invited to this party. Care to tell me why you didn't invite your manager?"

"Talk about a tense conversation," sighed Jeff.

"I'm not currently speaking to Clay or Gavin,' Skyler said and left it at that.

"What's happened there?" she prodded.

"Oh let's see," Skyler said, getting angry again. "Jeff demanded time off so that he could tour with me. This way we could take all four of the kids on the road and have a real family time of it."

"I understand that," she said. "What's that got to do with Clay and Gavin?"

"The show," he said. "They've made it so that cameras will follow my every twitch on the road. That means that any kind of family time we had in mind isn't possible. They did this knowing full well that Jeff and I were planning to be relaxed about our relationship among the tour staff. They all know so why hide right? Well Clay found a reason, didn't he?"

"Shit," she sighed and shook her head.

"Well I refuse to put up with it," he said. "I informed him that he can tell the dancers why Jeff and I won't have anything to do with them or anyone else on the staff other than sound checks, rehearsals and show times. We won't stay in the same hotel, and I told him that if I see one cameraman I'll leave the damned tour and never tell him where I am."

"What a mess," she said.

"A mess?" he spat. "This isn't a mess. This is stupidity, and I won't have it."

"Come on guys," Jeff said, putting his arm around Skyler. "It's his birthday. Can't we just have a good time and not talk about all of this?"

"All right," Madonna said. "Tell me about Ashton."

"I've been awarded guardianship," Skyler replied. "We have to see the judge again the twenty-fifth."

"Then what happens?" she asked.

"I'm not sure yet," Skyler admitted. "I talked to the Director of Social Service about adopting him, and though she said she's all for it, she wants us to live together for a while. I doubt that this court date is for adoption."

"So you're going to adopt Ashton," she stated. "That's great. Does he want to be adopted?"

"He asked Sky if he could be his daddy this morning," Jeff said with a smile. "He's ours."

"We've found a therapist that can travel with us when it's time to tour," said Skyler. "He's already working with him and it seems to be working."

"That's a good thing," she said. "I can't imagine how the boy is feeling after what happened to him. You're doing a great thing here."

"He painted a picture of a dog for my birthday," Skyler said. "Alyssa painted a house. She said that the house was a place where we could all go to get away from the reporters. He said the dog would keep the reporters away from all of us but that I should keep him because the reporters follow me all the time."

"So they're scared of the press," she said with a sigh. "This is getting completely out of hand."

"Tell me about it," Jeff said. "If Trisha gets word of this we could have real trouble."

"Surely she knows that anything she does will just rile the press," said Madonna. "Then they'd be after her."

"We're just being a lot more careful," said Jeff. "I'll have a long talk with Alyssa about the press later. We should probably have a long talk with Ashton about the press as well."

"Already planned to," Skyler said, smiling at him.


The next chapter will be posted soon.


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