"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
"No, I'm talkin' in my sleep."
"Oh, uh..." JD stuttered, not certain what to do if Vin was asleep.
"Geez... whattaya want, JD?"
"Um, I... are you awake?"
"Yeah," the older boy was becoming exasperated.
"Okay," the younger boy paused, sorting out what he had meant to say. Finally he began chattering in his usual manner. "Do you wanna go see if San'a came? We could sneak in 'ere real quiet 'n check. If we're real quiet Chris an' Da won't hear us I'll bet then we could sneak back in 'ere an' if we're real quiet they won't know we're awake do you wanna go see? Maybe San'a left one of our presents unwrapped like last year, 'member? An' we prob'ly got stockin's in there, too. Let's go see, do y' wanna?"
"Geez JD, settle down. Y' know th' rules... we cain't go in th' den 'til it gets daylight, an' we gotta wake up Chris 'n Buck 'fore we do. Y' 'member what happened las' year."
"Yeah," the little brunet sighed, remembering. He and Vin had gotten into an argument, which had turned into a wrestling match that knocked over a lamp, broke the limited edition stein Chris had given Buck as a gift, and nearly sent the Christmas tree through the window. Fortunately for the boys, their adopted fathers had heard the ruckus and come running, separating the tiny wrestlers. Christmas had been delayed by two hours, while they had cleaned up the mess and spent an hour in their rooms
"Then shut up an' go back t' sleep."
The dark room was quiet for a good five minutes.
"Yeah," the word was delivered in a sigh.
"What if we only went t' th' doorway?"
"Go t' sleep, JD."
Ezra groaned, trying in vain to get comfortable. Lying on a blanket in the middle of his kitchen floor was not the place to accomplish this. He had no other choice as far as he could see, however. Groaning again, he tried to turn to his side, but found the way blocked by a small body. Moving to roll to the other side, he found a second body resting against him. This one lay on its back, legs in the air, snoring contentedly. And it had gas.
Life was incredibly unfair. He had envisioned himself enjoying a good dinner and an even better bottle of wine on Christmas Eve. He had considered listening to classical music on the impressive new stereo system he had gifted himself with for the holiday, while he entertained a certain young redhead he had met recently.
He never once expected to share the night in the company he found himself in.
Cursing his fate, the Southerner pushed himself stiffly from the hard, cold floor. Managing to gain his feet without disturbing anyone, he padded from the room as quietly as possible, one hand pressed tightly against his bruised backside. He headed for the shower deciding that, if he timed it right, he could make his delivery just as the sun rose. Then, he would bow out gracefully, return home and crawl into bed. If he was very lucky, he would sleep until the new year was underway.
Buck heard the door to his bedroom open, followed by the soft sounds of a tiny pair of feet crossing the floor. He lay still, eyes opened only a crack as he watched the approach of his son. The bed shifted slightly as JD crawled onto the mattress, settling in at the foot. He felt the mattress bounce slightly, but didn't respond. A short time later, it bounced a second time. The motion was repeated for a full minute, but he still lay there, seemingly oblivious.
Still he remained still. The mattress moved again, and he could tell the little brunet was crawling closer.
"Mmmm?" He feigned a sleepy voice.
"Da... you awake?"
"Hm? What? That you, li'l bit?"
"Yeah... you awake?"
"I reckon. What's wrong?"
"Nothin'. Can we get up now? It's almost sunup, Vin said so. Can we?"
Frowning, the big man pretended to be confused. "Get up? Why? Are you late for school?"
"Daaaaa-aaaaa," the small child whined.
"Whaaaaaa-aaaat?" Wilmington responded.
"Get up! It's Christmas!"
"Christmas? Are you sure?"
In response, the little boy launched himself across the bed, pouncing on his father's broad chest. He reached out with chubby hands, working to pry open the big man's eyes. Buck decided he had two choices... open them, or risk ending up with a little thumb in each one. As he opened his eyes, he lifted the tyke above him then lowered him to blow raspberries on the little belly that peeked out from the flannel pajama shirt.
It was then that he remembered the Calamine lotion covered blisters.
Quickly depositing the tiny boy on the mattress, Wilmington made a mad dash for the bathroom to wash the lotion from his lips and tongue. He was just glad that he had already had the Chicken Pox. He just hoped the virus couldn't spread something to his mouth... especially with New Years Eve fast approaching.
As the big man exited the bathroom some fifteen minutes later, still wiping at his mustache, he found his adopted son sprawled in the middle of the bed, sound asleep.
Chris grumbled under his breath as he scuffed toward the front door, wondering who was pounding on the door. He pushed back the curtains and tried to make out the figure standing there in the shadows of the front porch. His mind finally registered the need for light, and flipped on the light. Ezra stood there, a rather battered box in his arms. Pulling the door open, he pushed the smaller man back. "What are you doing here already?"
"It is morning. You said to bring them here first thing in the morning. Here we all are."
"I never expected you to wake up this early!"
"One must go to sleep before one is able to wake up," the Southerner said, rather testily.
Looking the smaller man over, Larabee saw just how rough he looked. Dark circles surrounded the green eyes, and his usually immaculate hair was sticking up in a variety of directions. His clothes were rumpled and dirty, and seemed to emit a strange odor. Smiling compassionately, the bigger man said, "rough night?"
Glaring at the other man as if he had just made the most foolish remark possible, Standish opened his mouth to make an acerbic reply, but closed it before he uttered a word. He feared that if his two surrogate nephews were anywhere in the vicinity their education in foul language would be increased considerably if he spoke at all.
"Okay, look, I'm sorry. I'll try to make it up to you... how about an extra week off?"
"Fine... perhaps I'll even be able to finish redecorating my kitchen in that time."
Wincing, the blond said, "I'll pay for anything you have to repair... I promise. For now, let's take everything out to the barn." He led the way, robe flapping in the cold morning air, carrying the bag he found sitting beside the angry man. Ezra tromped behind him, carrying the box.
"Might I ask, why didn't you simply leave them out there last night?"
"Do you know how loud these things can get?" Turning when he got no answer, he read the look on Standish's face. "Uh, yeah, I guess you do. We were afraid the boys might hear them. Honestly, Ezra, I didn't expect things to get this bad."
The men disappeared into the barn, emerging a short time later without their burdens. Larabee led the way back into the house, ushering the bedraggled man into his master suite. Standish had been set to return home, but Chris had coaxed him to stay with the offer of his shower and bed, promising the young agent he could sleep until the others arrived.
Padding down the hallway, Chris peeked in on the boys. Vin sat on his bed, flipping through the pages of one of the big picture books Josiah had given him. The little boy looked up, smiling broadly as his father entered the room.
Chuckling, the blond man replied, "Merry Christmas, cowboy. Where's JD?"
Shaking his head, the little boy said, "he couldn't wait no more, so he went in t' talk t' Buck. C'n I get up now?"
Smiling, the big man, "sure, we might as well. Let's go check and see if Little Bit's talked Buck's ear off yet."
Vin climbed from beneath the covers, standing on the mattress. Lifting his arms up, he was lifted into the strong arms of his father. Wrapping his arms around the strong neck, he snuggled against the broad shoulder. They moved down the hall to Buck's room, Chris knocking quickly before entering the room. He stopped, chuckling at the sight before him. Buck lay sprawled across his bed, JD draped across his chest. The blond heard a giggle and looked to see Vin peering at the sleeping father and son.
"Reckon we c'n wait a little longer," the eight-year-old said wistfully. Even though he smiled at his father, the big man could see a hint of disappointment in the expressive eyes.
"Nope, it's time to get this show on the road," Larabee said decisively. He strode across the room and slapped a big, bare foot peeking from beneath the covers. "MERRY CHRISTMAS!"
Blue eyes shot open, and the big man jerked as if he'd been shot. His movement caused the little body sprawled atop him to tumble off, and JD's eyes flashed open. He took in the fact that Chris and Vin were standing beside the bed, registered the loud greeting, and bounced to his feet, calling out, "MERRY CHRISTMAS!"
Wilmington groaned, dropping his head back to the pillow. "Y' all are just too da... darn cheerful for this hour."
"And you're turning into Ezra. Now, come on and get up. I seem to remember you volunteering to make your special pancakes for breakfast."
Scrubbing a hand across his face and then holding both hands up in surrender, the mustached man said, "yeah, okay. Give me ten minutes to wake up, okay?"
"PRESENTS FIRST!" Came a chorus from the two smallest members of the family.
Larabee feigned shock. "You mean you'd rather open up presents than eat Buck's special pan - "
"YES!" The duet continued.
Laughing, the blond reached out a hand and helped the other man to his feet. Buck grabbed up JD, slinging the little boy over his shoulder. The little patchwork family went into the den, where piles of presents peeked from around the branches of the big tree in the corner.
The next half hour consisted of Chris and Buck helping the two boys find their gifts, guarding those that weren't to be opened until the rest of their guests arrived, and mentally cataloging how many gifts required "some assembly". At the end of the marathon of flying bits of colorful paper, the boys set amongst an assortment of toys, books, clothes, and stuffed toys. The two men sat in the two recliners, enjoying the looks of awe on the two cherubic faces.
"Well, reckon I'll go start on the pancakes," Buck said, pushing the foot rest down on his chair.
Vin and JD exchanged a look that said quite clearly they had forgotten something.
"Wait Buck!" Vin yelped. "Me 'n JD's got somethin' fer you an' Dad."
The big man settled back in the chair, and grinned over at the blond beside him. Turning back to the boys, he said, "is this what you two were whispering about with your Uncle Josiah?"
Exchanging glances, the two boys rolled their eyes at the memory of Buck trying his hardest to sneak around and find out what they had purchased with their hard earned money. Besides their allowance, the boys had squirreled away money earned doing 'odd jobs' for the other members of team seven since the beginning of October. The big man had tried sneaking up on them while they discussed their plans, attempted to gather information from the usually loose-lipped JD, and even made a go at bribing them. Nothing had worked, and he was just as in the dark now as he was then.
The two boys giggled, but didn't answer Wilmington. Instead they hurried from the room, the sound of small, running feet, echoing through the big house. They were back in a minute, roughly wrapped gifts clutched in their hands. JD slid to a stop in front of Buck, and Vin skidded to a halt before Chris. They shyly presented the gifts to their fathers.
On their parts, the two men quickly recognized the importance of this moment. They sat up in the seats, accepting the gifts, each man smiling broadly. They spent several minutes admiring the crude wrapping jobs, complete with thick masses of cellophane tape across the jaggedly cut edges. Their admiration drew impatient stares from the two boys.
"C'mon, Da," JD fussed, "open it!"
"Yeah, c'mon, Dad!" Vin chimed in.
The two fathers carefully opened the gifts, managing to break through the over abundance of tape to do so. Finally they opened the gifts. And both men fought back tears at the almost identical gifts. Each boy presented them with a leather picture frame, each with a special message stamped along the front edge. Chris traced "I love you Dad... Vin", while Buck gazed lovingly at "For My Special Da... JD" beneath the glass of Chris' was a picture of he and Vin on a Pony's back. In Buck's was a picture of he and JD holding up their catch during a fishing trip.
Vin rested a hand on his adopted father's knee, gazing up at the blond's face with a worried expression. As Larabee looked into his little face, he said, "Dad? Is it okay? Are y' dis'poin'ed?"
"What? No!" Larabee hurriedly scrubbed a hand across his eyes and scooped the distressed little boy into his arms. "It's perfect, little man, absolutely perfect."
Vin smiled proudly and hugged his father's neck. "I's afraid y' didn't like it. I'm... I'm glad it's okay."
JD was watching his adoptive father's big eyes fill with tears, and gulped. Pushing the unruly mop of dark hair back off his face, he said in a near-whisper, "Da? Are you okay?"
Grinning from ear to ear, the dark-haired man pulled the tyke into his lap, holding the framed picture so they could both admire it. "I couldn't be more okay, Li'l Bit. I couldn't be more okay."
The only sound for several minutes was the soft music of Christmas Carols, as the two men sat, arms wrapped around their sons, as they all shared the moment. Then, just as Bing Crosby finished crooning "White Christmas", JD wiggled in the big burnet's lap.
"Da, my shicken pops are itchy, can you paint me pink again?"
Buck Wilmington's pancake banquet went over well, the boys allowed to eat to their heats content. Ezra had even made an appearance, surprising not only the boys, but Buck as well. The auburn-haired agent had stared in open amazement at the wide variety of foodstuffs spread out across the sideboard. Wilmington had started the night before, and had not failed to impress one and all with his culinary expertise.
Blueberry, chocolate chip, walnut, banana, buckwheat, even plain pancakes, all surrounded with a variety of toppings. The table was filled with bowls, cups and pitchers of whipped cream, strawberries, cherries, blueberries, powdered sugar, peanut butter, raspberry jam, and, finally, at least five types of syrup.
Standish joined the family for breakfast, watching as even Chris Larabee indulged in rather unique combinations from the offering. He expected to watch Buck Wilmington devour a short stack of banana pancakes covered in peanut butter and Karo syrup. However, watching the blond construct a tower of alternating chocolate chip and walnut pancakes, smothering the entire thing in warm maple syrup was certainly nothing he had ever expected to witness. Partaking in buckwheat pancakes and a cup of black coffee, Standish returned to his borrowed bed for another nap before their fellow agents joined them.
Looking over his fourth cup of coffee, Chris winked, giving Buck a signal. When his friend smiled in return, blue eyes glittering with excitement, the blond cleared his throat. "Well, the others won't be here 'til this afternoon, so I guess we'll have time to do some chores. Why don't you boys go get dressed and we'll go see to the horses?"
The two children looked disappointed, but didn't comment. Thoughts of spending the rest of the day in their pjs, happily exploring each of their gifts, gave way to the bright light of reality. Putting on brave faces, they left the room, not witnessing the quiet bouts of laugher their father's shared. Ten minutes later, they returned, dressed for work. Joining the two men, they trudged toward the barn.
The horses were tended, Chris and Buck keeping the boys talking and distracted until the work was finished. Larabee had brought a boom box with them, playing the soundtrack from How the Grinch Stole Christmas far more loudly than usual. From time to time either Vin or JD would note a strange sound coming from the far end of the barn, but the adults would shrug it off, saying that it was probably only the wind.
It was only after the music was turned off that they heard the noises clearly. Vin stared at JD and then looked up at Chris. JD stared at Vin and then looked up at Buck.
"Da, that sounds like a puppy," little Dunne said in a serious, worried tone.
"Mebbe someone dumped on off up th' road 'n it found it's way here," Vin said, just as seriously.
Feigning a frown, the blond managed to keep a straight face as he said, "maybe we'd better check it out, huh?"
Nodding in tandem, the little boys crept toward the sound, their hands clenching those of the two men. Just as they reached the farthest stall, a high pitched, forlorn howl erupted. The boys jumped, JD wrapping his arms around one of Buck's legs, while Vin stood as close to Chris as a self-respecting eight-year old could. The two men exchanged looks, caught between continuing the ruse and keeping the children from having nightmares on Christmas night.
The appearance of a little black nose between the slats of the stall sent the nightmares scurrying, as the little boys realized that there was not threat beyond the wooden walls. JD squealed, dropping to his knees and peering between the boards.
"VIN! Come look... PUPPIES!"
Little Tanner tumbled down beside his friend, peering into the stall. Little mouth opening and closing in shocked amazement, he turned to their guardians. "Puppies! I... we... puppies? Dad? We... Santa brought us puppies?"
Pretending to be puzzled, the blond said, "I don't know! Why don't we go check things out?"
Nodding, Vin gained his feet and took his father's hand. JD followed suit, and they entered the stall. Two roly-poly puppies stumbled and tumbled through the straw and immediately pounced on the boys. Vin found himself the recipient of sloppy, wet 'kisses' from a black and white, blue-eyed Malamute. JD was pinned to the floor by a brown eyed, Golden Retriever.
The barn was filled with squeals, yips, and laughter as the two men watched their sons become acquainted with their special Christmas gifts. They were also amazed at the fact that the puppies gravitated toward the child they had been purchased for. Weeks of carefully crafted ruses to discover each child's favorite canine been followed by an exhaustive search for the right puppies. That led to three weeks board with a trainer who worked with the little dogs on rudimentary obedience. In the end, it had all worked far better than either man could have hoped for.
The two fathers stood leaning against the stall's wall, joyfully watching the boys and the puppies. Buck smiled broadly, looking over at his oldest friend. Lightly punching the man in the arm, he said happily, "I think we done good, pard."
The big house was filled with wonderful smells and the sounds of happiness. Josiah, the Travis family, Nettie Wells and her visiting niece, Casey, and the Potter family had all gathered for a gift exchange and dinner at the big house. All of the visitors had been carefully screened and found to have already had chicken pox. Ezra emerged from Chris room, clean-shaven and dressed in a borrowed outfit from his host. David and Katie Potter, Casey Wells and Billy Travis were all taken to the barn to see the Christmas puppies. The two proud owners spoke wisely about the little canines, from their hours of experience with them. They were each trying out names, but neither had settled on one yet.
It took some coaxing to get the children to come inside to eat. They were sent to wash up, then settled in at the table set up in the den. They watched A Christmas Story while they ate, squeals of laughter erupting from the big room from time to time as something funny occurred on the big screen TV.
After dinner and its clean up, the children were distracted from the movie so they could open yet more gifts. Both Vin and JD were surprised to find several presents had appeared that were for their new pets. The little Malamute received a harness and leash in blue while the Retrievers came in red. Chew toys, balls, and beds large enough to grow into were received.
The guests left shortly afterward, leaving the two agents to help their sons get the dogs settled in. The boys had collected a list of names throughout the day, and began to try them out on the little canines. Calls of Balto, Simba, Rocky, Sam, Blue, and Dave netted no results. But Vins dog bounded toward him at the call of Ringo, while JD was the recipient of a wet kiss at the call of Elvis. Buck looked aghast at the choice, but the others agreed that it seemed to fit.
The boys and their dogs spent the evening playing in the den, and learning about the responsibilities of pet ownership. Elvis learned about not chewing on extension cords, and Ringo learned about not waiting to go outside to relieve himself. Each incident was used as a learning experience for both boy and dog, with their fathers patiently teaching them how to deal with each issue.
JDs chicken pox began to wear on the little boys patience, and Buck took him for another soak in the tub. Elvis trailed behind them, leaving Chris, Vin and Ringo in the den. Chris watched from his recliner as his son lay on the floor, the little dog stretched out beside him.
Howd Sana know? The little Texan asked, looking up at his Father with a puzzled expression on his face.
How did Santa know what?
That I wanted a dog like Ringo? I didnt write it in m letter r nothin.
Larabee opened his mouth, closed it, and tried to think of an explanation. He and Wilmington hadnt considered this particular question. Well I guess he just knows your wishes.
Vin looked up at the blond, studying him for a moment. Finally, with a sage nod of his head, the child said, reckon so.
Finally getting the excited and exhausted children ready for bed, Chris and Buck escorted them to their room, carrying the puppies. Neither boy was happy to see a large pet crate placed between their beds. Even the promise that the dogs would be allowed more freedom as time went by left Vin staring tight-lipped and stoically at the big cage, while JD cried openly at the thought of his new best friend being put in jail at night.
Settling the boys into bed, Chris sat beside Vin while Buck settled in beside JD. Blue eyes and hazel slowly gave in to the long hours without rest, drooping slowly closed. Inside their crate, Ringo and Elvis followed suit. The two men sat at their little ones bedsides for a while longer, watching the little faces relax and grow peaceful as they drifted toward dreams of running through green fields with their dogs.
Chris Larabee yawned broadly, stretching as he lounged in his recliner. The long, hectic day was ending, leaving him with mixed feelings. While he liked the fact the hub-bub of Christmas was over, he felt a little sad at the thought that the magic would fade now, leaving them living ordinary lives until the holiday season returned.
Silence filled the happy home, as he unwound with a glass of wine and watched the evening news. Looking across to the couch, he smiled. Buck lay sprawled out on the couch, snoring softly. The blond wondered at the changes in his life the year had brought, thankful for most of those changes. He wondered at the promise of the coming year, and the miracles it would bring. He knew that he would have to go far to be as happy and content as he was at that very moment.
Life was good.