"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
Notes: Follows Coming Home Again and From the Heart. Thanks to Rick for beta-ing for me on very short notice!
The chandelier shimmered in the grand ballroom, it's crystals reflecting light onto the couples on the dance floor below. At a small table to the left of the dance floor sat a blond ATF Team leader in a tuxedo. His companion was a pretty blonde in a beautiful blue gown. Though they made a striking couple, neither was focused on the New Year's Eve party, nor the person across the table. They made pleasant conversation but soon realized neither of them wanted to be at the party.
It was a charity event and A.D. Travis had insisted it would be good public relations for the Bureau. The Assistant Director had asked Chris to escort his former daughter-in-law, Mary. She had lost her husband, Orrin Travis's son, only a few months ago and was a little hesitant to get back into the social scene.
Chris smiled slightly. Mary wanted to be home with her son, Billy. She had called home three times in the past hour and a half. He shook his head realizing that he wasn't much better. While he had not actually called, he had four messages on his cell phone from two little boys.
His eyes searched the ballroom tracking the rest of his Team. Nathan and Raine were on the dance floor in their own little world. Chris could remember a time when he and Sarah were just as obvious in the display of their love. Continuing to sweep the room, Chris caught sight of his undercover agent talking with a finely dressed brunette near the bar. Everything about the woman said "money" and "class". Chris smiled, recalling Buck's harassment of the southerner asking why he wasn't wearing his stylish new tie. Chris had to admit, Ezra had gone above and beyond the call of duty to let Vin know how much he appreciated his Christmas gift. Chris shuddered. Damn, that tie was ugly. Ezra had some flippant comeback about the fact that Buck had chosen to purchase his menagerie of ties, while his had been a loving gift from a seven-year-old. Chris shook his head. Off to Ezra's right stood Josiah. The philosopher of the Team seemed to be deep in conversation with Evie Travis, Orrin's wife.
Scanning further, it took a few minutes to locate Buck. Chris smiled at the sight of the ladies man in the tuxedo, as he recalled Buck dressing for the evening. Five-year-old JD had been full of questions as Buck donned the tie, the cummerbund and the jacket. Not satisfied with Buck's answers, JD had come to Chris and asked why Buck said he was wearing a monkey suit because monkeys didn't wear suits. JD had read all the "Curious George" books and he knew that monkeys didn't wear suits. Chris had heard Buck's chuckle down the hallway at the question, but was saved from giving the answer when Vin took it upon himself to explain about 'seedos' and why they got all dressed up. Chris couldn't help but wonder where Vin had learned about tuxedos.
Buck's date, the lovely Miss Anne was on her third outing with the mustached agent. She was a paralegal at their attorney's office and Chris had figured Buck wouldn't stand a chance with her. She was all business and very good at her job, but when the job was finished, Buck had been pleasantly surprised when the redhead agreed to dinner. She was well aware that Buck came with JD attached, but seemed to enjoy the fatherly image and thought JD was too cute for words. It was great to see a smile on Buck's face again. Anne seemed to be a good match for him.
"What do you think Chris?"
Chris looked to his companion. "I'm sorry, Mary," he apologized. "I didn't hear what you asked."
She smiled sympathetically. "I wondered if you would mind taking me home. I really want to check on Billy."
"Oh, sure." Chris tried to keep the relief out of his voice. It wasn't that he didn't like Mary, he simply had other priorities right now - seven-year-old Vin Tanner, and five-year-old JD Dunne. "I'd be glad to take you home. Then I can go check on the boys too. Give me a minute. I want to let Buck know I'm taking the boys home."
"I'll get my wrap and meet you by the front doors," said Mary with a relieved smile.
As Chris walked around the dance floor to find Buck, he wondered how his boss would feel about him calling it a night at ten-thirty. "Buck?"
"Hey, Chris. Looking good there, Pard," replied Buck with a smile.
"Not too shabby yourself considering you're wearing a monkey's suit." Chris intentionally used JD's misunderstanding of Buck's attire. Chris noticed the little flash of guilt on Buck's face and tried to ward it off, knowing he felt badly for leaving the boys with a sitter. "Look, Mary wants to go home and check on her son. I'm going to head over to Nettie's and get the boys. Take 'em home."
"Something wrong?" asked Buck with concern.
Chris chuckled. "Not really. But I figured after a few phone calls that maybe tonight is too soon for two little guys to deal with separation anxiety." He tossed his cell phone to Buck. "Check out the messages," said Chris with a smile.
"Do you mind?" Buck asked Anne.
"No. Go right ahead," the redhead replied.
Buck grinned and retrieved the messages on the phone.
"You have four messages. First message received at eight-fourteen p.m."
"Yeah, yeah I know. Get to the message already," said Buck as he punched the appropriate numbers.
"Mr. Chris? Do we hafta stay?" It was Vin's voice. "Oh. It's your message thing, ain't it?" There was a sigh and the message ended.
Buck punched the buttons to retrieve the second message.
Buck looked at Chris with a grin. "I'd know that sigh anywhere Pard. Vin has quite the way of communicating without words." Chris nodded and Buck smiled more broadly. He could picture Chris sighing too, wanting to be home with Vin. He punched up the third message.
In the background another voice spoke. "Vin? No honey. Don't hang up. Are you calling Mr. Larabee?" There was a moment of silence and both men could picture Vin nodding instead of speaking. "Well honey, he won't know it's you unless you say something. Why don't you tell him what you want?"
Buck smiled at Ms. Nettie's encouragement.
"Um... Chris...Mr. Chris... It's me. Vin. Um... I hope you have fun at the party," said Vin sadly.
The message ended abruptly. Buck and Chris exchanged glances, both knowing that wasn't what Vin wanted to say.
Buck sighed. "I didn't think he was that upset about staying at Nettie's."
Chris shook his head. "Listen to number four."
Buck punched up the fourth message. It was a different voice. A voice that made him smile again.
"Mr. Chris? It's me. JD. Can you say 'Hi' to Buck for me? I tried to call him but I was looking in Miss Nettie's notebook and I don't know how to spell Wilmington. But Vin called you and said all I had to do was push the button that says 'r-e-d-i-a-l' and it would call you. So can you say 'Hi' to Buck for me?"
The voice stopped briefly for a commotion in the background. "I can too! You're not my boss! Miss Nettie let Vin call and I can call too. Stop it!" They heard the sound of the phone being dropped on the counter and a girl squealing, "Aunt Nettie! Aunt Nettie!" Two thumps. Then giggling. Then an unrecognized voice came on the line.
"Hi, I'm Casey... Hey!"
"You said 'hi', now let me finish!" ordered JD. For a few moments all they heard was the sound of JD's breathing. "Casey! You made me forget what I was gonna say!" They heard the sound of giggling in the background.
"Mr. Chris, did you know Casey is a girl? A GIRL!" JD sighed. "But she's okay. She can do lots of stuff. We's been playing. Vin's playing with Miss Nettie. He's helping her make that big picture puzzle. Vin misses you lots. An' I miss Buck but don't tell him that. Vin says it will make him sad and you're supposed to be having fun tonight." Another sigh made its way through the phone lines. "We just wants to stay up and say, 'Happy New Years' with you. You're gonna come back and get us, right? You said we were gonna live with you." JD was quiet for a moment. "I love you, Mr. Chris. Tell Buck I love him too. Bye."
Buck shut off the phone, blinking back his tears. Anne laid her hand on his sympathetically. He looked up at her and winked. She was one in a million. She wouldn't begrudge him going home to be with his boy, but that wasn't fair to her. "Annie?" Buck ducked his head slightly to one side, "How would you feel about ringing in the New Year with a couple of half-pints and going somewhere private later?"
"Sounds like a perfect evening to me," she quickly agreed.
Chris dropped off Mary and headed for Nettie Wells' house to pick up the boys. He should have known the boys weren't ready to spend the night away from home. Vin's therapist had warned Chris that Vin and JD would likely struggle with a mild form of separation anxiety. Dr. Lowery had tried to encourage him that in a way the anxiety was a good thing. It meant that an attachment had been made. Vin was still angry about being taken away from Chris, and he was leery to trust, but they had decided to try it, knowing the boys would need to deal with it sooner or later.
Chris swore to himself. "They're only seven and five. They can deal with it later." Chris turned off the highway onto a surface street. "Hell, most kids don't even do sleepovers until they're nine or ten." He grimaced realizing that he was a great deal responsible for Vin and JD having a miniature crisis over something that most kids passed with ease - going to a baby sitter's house.
The scene that had played out earlier that evening filled his mind as he drove. He had been dressing for the evening out, and Vin had been dragging his feet about packing.
"Come on, Vin. Hurry up," called Chris from the bathroom as he straightened his tie. JD had been ready to go a half an hour ago, but Vin seemed to be dallying. The effects of the medication he had been given to control his behavior while at the children's home still slowed him some, but Chris figured this was something more. He walked to the bedroom door and looked in. Vin was still sitting on the edge of the bed, the clothes Chris had set out for him to pack were still in disarray next to him. It didn't take fifteen minutes to put a change of clothes and his pajamas in his backpack. Chris took a deep, calming breath before speaking.
Vin looked up, startled by Chris' arrival. He quickly grabbed a shirt and stuffed it in the backpack. He didn't want Chris to be mad at him, but he really didn't want to go. He dropped his socks on the floor in his haste as he continued stuffing clothes in the canvas bag.
Chris watched Vin fumbling with the simple task of packing his clothes. He walked over to the bed and picked up the socks from the floor. "Are you feeling all right?" asked Chris, depositing the socks into the backpack and laying the back of his hand against Vin's forehead. "No fever."
"I'm fine," muttered Vin, pulling away from the touch and lowering his eyes.
"Then what's the problem? We're going to be late." Chris sat on the bed next to the seven-year-old.
Vin mumbled something that Chris couldn't quite catch, even sitting next to the sullen child.
"Tell me," Chris insisted.
"I don't wanna go," said Vin with the barest hint of a whine in his voice.
Chris sighed. They had already covered this ground. Under normal circumstances, the team going out for the evening wouldn't have been a problem, but child care for Vin and JD had become an issue. Mrs. Potter was taking her children to a party at her church, and every baby sitter they knew of was already reserved for the evening. He had finally placed a call to Nettie Wells, the boys' social worker to see if she had any recommendations of people that she trusted. Chris was not keen on the idea of leaving the boys in just anyone's care, especially after the trauma they had experienced when they were removed from Chris and Buck's care. He was to the point of canceling his date whether his boss approved or not, but Nettie had volunteered to watch the boys, inviting Chris to bring them to stay with her and her great-niece Casey. They had decided to pack overnight gear for the boys in case the party ran too late.
"I thought you liked Mrs. Wells," said Chris.
Vin's eyes shot to the man sitting beside him. "I do like her!" he protested. "She's real nice. I just...just," Vin stammered, trying to say what he felt. How could he tell Chris that he was afraid? Chris had told him that it would only be for one night. Just a sleep over for ONE night. But Vin found himself terrified that he was being taken away and would never be able to come back. If he told Chris he was frightened it would make Chris feel bad. He would think that Vin didn't trust him. And Vin did trust him. He was just...well, he was scared.
"It's one night Vin. JD will be with you, and it's Mrs. Wells," Chris assured.
Vin nodded and zipped his backpack closed with a sigh.
"Are you going to take your cat?" Chris asked. The doctor had suggested having the boys take something that was personally comforting along with them to ease the anxiety.
Vin shook his head vigorously. He couldn't take the cat. In his way of thinking, if the cat were here he'd have to come back for it. If he took it, he might be leaving forever.
Chris smiled and ruffled Vin's hair lightly. He knew that Vin was apprehensive about spending the night even though he had assured him it was just one night. He couldn't blame him. Vin had been through so much in seven short years and the recent trauma he had experienced in foster care left him not only angry, but also very insecure.
"Here's my cell phone number, Vin," said Chris, pressing a paper into Vin's hand. "We'll be at that big fancy ballroom downtown."
"The one with all the pretty windows?" asked Vin.
"That's the one. So we won't be far away." Chris helped Vin put on his coat. "You can call if you want."
Vin nodded uncertainly, grabbing his backpack and following Chris to the front door where JD was waiting.
JD had been disappointed that they wouldn't get to stay up until midnight with Buck and Chris, but he was excited about the prospect of playing with this "Casey" kid. Chris laughed as he remembered JD's proclamation when he delivered the boys to Nettie's house and JD laid eyes on Casey.
"You ain't a boy!" he exclaimed.
"Well, of course not! Casey snapped at him.
"Vin?" JD looked to his protector for support. "She's a girl!"
"So?" shrugged Vin.
"I got GI Joes," Casey announced.
"Really?" JD raced to the playroom hot on Casey's heels.
"Crisis averted," said Nettie with a smile. "Welcome Vin."
Vin hugged his backpack tightly, looking up at Chris with a worried face.
"Just one night," assured Chris. "You can call me."
Vin nodded and waved reluctantly as Chris walked out the door.
"Come on Vin. Let's find something for you to play with."
Nettie wasn't surprised to see Vin make his way to the window and watch for Chris. She spent a great deal of the evening distracting him, getting his help on her jigsaw puzzle. He seemed to enjoy the challenge of matching up the pieces, and in fact, was quite adept at it. She tried to get him to play with JD and Casey, but he wouldn't engage. The picture puzzle and the front window were his for the night.
JD on the other hand would play raucously with Casey for long periods of time before growing quiet and searching the room. It was obvious to the social worker that JD was looking for Buck, but when he'd catch sight of Vin, JD would settle in and play again.
A simple evening of play should never be so traumatic to a child. Nettie regretted the circumstances that had amplified the boys' fears. Her leave of absence had allowed Edith to take over her cases and send the boys to different homes. Nettie regretted that she had not been here to prevent the additional trauma to the boys, but she had no option but to go to care for her niece. Casey's mother was dying and six-year-old Casey had no one. Nettie would not let her go into foster care and had been appointed her great-niece's guardian. So here they were, two frightened boys, a grieving girl, and an old lady.
Nettie wasn't surprised when Chris showed up early to pick up the boys. She figured he was suffering his own case of separation anxiety. She quietly woke up JD and Casey who had fallen asleep on the playroom carpet about twenty minutes earlier. Vin already had his backpack in hand and was standing next to Chris with a grin on his face. Nettie waved farewell to two tired but happy boys as she carried Casey to her bed.
It was eleven-fifty p.m. and JD was going strong. He was bouncing on Buck's lap regaling Miss Anne with the adventures of the evening. His attention was diverted to the program on the television showing a big ball of lights in some place called New York. JD peppered Buck with questions.
"What's New York, Buck? What's that ball? Why's it got all those lights? Why are all them people there?"
Anne smiled as Buck patiently answered each question.
"Do we get to yell yet?" asked JD.
"Not yet, Little Bit," said Buck. "Three more minutes."
Buck glanced over at Chris sitting on the couch. The other side of the room was a different story. Vin had lost the battle to stay awake. He was draped across Chris' lap totally relaxed in sleep. Chris absently stroked Vin's hair as he watched JD bounce around.
"You gonna wake him?" asked Buck.
"I'm not sure he'll wake up," said Chris. He hated to wake Vin when he was so relaxed, but he also knew it was important to Vin to, as JD put it, say 'Happy New Years' with them. He shook Vin gently but got no response. He lifted the boy to a seated position and Vin stirred slightly. "Wake up Vin. It's time."
"Hmm?" murmured Vin.
"Come on, Vin. It's almost the New Year," urged Chris.
Vin forced his eyes open as everyone began counting with the Television, "Ten...Nine... Eight..." He fought to grasp what was happening as he pulled himself from the comfort of sleep. "Seven...Six...Five...Four..." Vin blinked hard and rubbed his eyes. "Three...Two...One... Happy New Year!"
"Happy New Year!" echoed JD jumping up and down cheering excitedly.
"Happy New Year," said Buck softly as he leaned over and kissed Anne.
"Happy New Year, Vin," said Chris to the boy in his lap.
Vin looked up at him then snuggled against his chest with a yawn. "Happy New Year, Chris," he said softly.
"Is that all?" asked JD, slightly let down.
"Well, yes, Little Bit," said Buck.
"No presents?" he asked disappointedly.
Anne turned away to hide her laughter.
"Not for New Year's, Little Bit," said Buck, "But tomorrow all the guys are coming out and we will watch football, football, and more football, and we'll eat all the junk food we can stomach."
JD yawned widely. He looked at Vin who was asleep again. That didn't seem like a bad idea to him now either. "Is it time for bed?" he asked.
Buck grinned at the thought of JD actually asking to go to bed. "It sure is."
Chris stood awkwardly, shifting Vin's slight weight to a better position and carried him to the bedroom. He overheard the last piece of the conversation as he reached the bedroom door. "Thanks for bringing us home, Buck. Vin was real scared."
"But you weren't?" asked Buck softly.
"Nope. Vin was with me. 'Sides, I knew you'd come." JD laid his head on Buck's shoulder as he carried him toward the bedroom. "Love you."
"Love you too, JD," said Buck. "Happy New Year."