Hi computer. JD is outside, so I'm going to tell about this week. It all started at school. There are a lot of kids at school. JD knows more of them than I do cause he's more friendly. I don't make friends as easy. I'd rather be at home with Chris and playing with Ringo or riding Peso than at school. Sometimes school is fun. It seems easier this year. But I was going to tell about JD.
He has a lot of friends, but one is real special to him. I think he likes her, as a girl. She's okay. For a girl that is.
It was Friday afternoon and JD and Vin were waiting for their dads to pick them up. Being 'bored, bored, bored' with waiting, JD and his friend, Joey, asked, and received, permission to go out and play on the playground equipment.
"I want to go on the slide, JD."
The two kids ran to the playground and climbed the ladder. As the dark-haired five year old and the little blond headed girl played, seven-year old Vin Tanner sat quietly doodling and waiting. He and his dad, Chris, had big plans for the weekend. They were going riding in the hills behind the ranch and staying out overnight. Buck was taking JD into Denver for the day to see a movie and an evening meal at Mickey D's. They had invited Vin and Chris, but the two blonds had declined, opting to go riding.
The two men were secretly thrilled at the obvious advancements the two orphans were making. Six months ago, the two would have never dreamed of being separated overnight if there was anyway around it. Now they were comfortable enough to be away from each other for short periods of time. Eventually, the men hoped they would have the confidence and sense of security to spend more time apart from each other.
Hearing a door slam outside, the blond glanced at the door. He knew who it was when JD and Joey ran in through the side door. One look at his little brother confirmed that the two ATF agents had arrived. Vin stood and trailed behind the two younger children.
"DA!" JD cried out. He bounced up and down as the two men entered, assuring that he would be seen.
Larabee moved in Vin's direction while the mustached agent approached the energetic bundle, grinning. "Hey, Little Bit. You 'bout ready to head home?"
JD clasped his hands together as he nodded his head. He turned slightly, opening his arms to encircle the quiet girl standing next to him. "Buck, this is my friend Joey. 'Member me telling you 'bout her? She likes to ride horses and play tag and she's real good at spelling."
The man dropped down on one knee and listened to the little boy ramble about his new friend. The six-year-old girl was bigger than JD, as tall, or taller, than Vin. Buck remembered that she had enrolled in the school at the end of last year. The little boys had mentioned her arrival, but only in passing. This year, however, she and JD had become fast friends. Both boys were starting to develop different friends, at least within the confines of school and the playground much to the men's delight.
Seeing JD wasn't going to wind down soon, the man held out his hand to the smiling girl. "Well, hello, darlin'. I've heard a lot about you since this boy started back to school. It's nice to finally put a face to the name."
Color rose in the young cheeks and she giggled when Buck took her small hand in his and kissed the back. As he released Joey's hand, he saw JD reach over to take possession of that hand.
Wilmington glanced at his son and noticed him frowning slightly. He wanted to laugh at the boy's expression and obvious disapproval, but remained quiet. Still squatted in front of the two kids, he asked, "So, you like horses? Have you ever ridden?"
JD's eyes lit up and he pulled on the girl's hand. "Yeah, Joey, you can come out and see the horses and Buck can " JD hesitated a moment before continuing. " or Chris yeah, Chris can take you for a ride. Uncle 'siah has a real nice horse. You could ride with him. Does your daddy ride?"
The blonde child shook her head, but JD was undeterred. He had locked on the idea of the girl coming to the house.
"That's okay. You can ride with one of my uncles, if your daddy can't ride. Right, Buck?"
Hazel eyes looked up imploringly. Buck ran a hand from the top of the dark haired head to the small chin. "Sure, Little Bit. We'll find someone that will ride with her. But she'll have to get permission from her folks first."
"DADDY!" The blonde pulled away from the little boy and headed to the doorway as a tall man entered. He stooped and swept the excited child up into his arms.
"Josephine. How was your day, Baby?"
"Good." She planted a kiss on the man's cheek before squirming in his grasp to be set down. She immediately tugged him toward where Wilmington stood with JD, as well as Vin and Chris, who had joined the duo. "Daddy, this is JD and his daddy."
Buck extended his arm, saying, "Buck Wilmington"
"Matthew Granger. Pleased to meet you." The man was as tall as Buck, but slimmer. He was blond like his daughter with fair skin and light blue eyes. He bent down and extended his hand to the dark haired boy. "It's a pleasure to meet you, JD."
Taking the offered hand, the boy smiled. "Hi. Can Joey come out to the ranch and ride horses?"
Buck dropped a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Whoa, Little Bit. Is that anyway to greet someone?"
The boy turned and looked up, a quizzical look on his face. "I said 'hi'. Isn't that what I'm s'posed to do?"
Wilmington closed his eyes and shook his head. A snort from Chris brought his attention back to the small gathering of people.
"Mr. Granger, what my son is trying to ask is, would you and your family like to come out to our place for an afternoon? JD would like to show your daughter our horses."
"Elvis and Ringo, too" JD added.
Granger smiled. More than once he had been in similar positions with his children inviting people home without first consulting his wife or himself. He turned an understanding face to the mustached man. "Sounds like fun. I'll have to ask my wife, though. Let me call you."
JD bounced up and down, clapping his hands. He pointed to Vin and informed the man, "Vin has his own horse. His name's Peso." Turning back, he said very seriously, "I don't ride by myself yet, but I could. But I wouldn't cause I'm not allowed." He looked up at Buck after that statement. He received a look and a raised eyebrow for the statement. "I wouldn't."
"I know. I trust you, son."
The man leaned over to tousle the dark hair, drawing a giggle from the boy. Standing, he extended his arm. "So, Mr. Granger, here's my card. The number to the house is on the back. Chris Larabee " Buck indicated the man that stood at his side. " Chris has a great place. Lots of things for the kids to do. We'd love to see you all out there. Seriously. Ya'll are welcome to come and enjoy the day outdoors."
"Sounds like fun. Can I call you tomorrow?" to which Buck nodded.
The two men shook hands and then Matthew took his daughter's hand and they moved off to gather her things and begin the weekend. Buck squatted down next to the dark haired boy.
"JD, you're always welcome to invite friends out to the ranch. But you need to ask Chris or me permission first. Okay?"
The small mouth turned down and long dark bangs hid the boy's eyes, so Wilmington reached out a finger and raised JD's head. Their eyes met and JD nodded. "Sorry, Buck."
The man placed his thumb on the boy's chin and waggled it back and forth. "Don't be sorry. It was very nice of you to invite her out. You just need to clear it with us first."
The boy's smile returned as he replied. "I can do that, Da. I promise."
"That's my boy. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm ready for the weekend. Why don't you get your books and we'll get going."
"Yeah. Come on, Vin." He grabbed the older boy's hand and they trotted off.
Larabee clapped a hand on his old friend's arm. "He likes her."
Buck turned to Chris, a grimace on his face. "I don't think I'm ready for him to start liking girls yet."
Larabee chuckled as he slapped the other man's back. The two boys returned and the four headed out to begin their weekend.
Sunday morning found JD quietly watching cartoons and eating cereal as he waited for Buck to get up. Soft footfalls drew his attention and he rolled over and grinned up at the man.
"Morning, Little Bit."
"Morning, Buck." He spoke around the mouthful of Cocoa Cocoa Puffs.
Wilmington just shook his head and continued to the kitchen. He started the coffee maker and dropped some bread into the toaster. A clinking sound had him turning to see the boy placing his bowl onto the counter.
"How about a piece of toast?"
"With honey, please."
"Sure, if you sit at the table."
JD nodded and took a seat at the table. Buck set about getting butter, honey, a glass of milk and his coffee onto the table as he waited for the toast to come up. The boy sat quietly humming the theme song from some cartoon. Buck wasn't sure which one, only that he knew the tune.
The toaster dinged as the bread popped up. The man grabbed a plate and dropped the toast onto it. He took a seat and buttered a piece before passing it to the boy. He watched as the small hands wrapped around the honey bottle and JD carefully squeezed the sweet liquid onto the bread. Setting the bottle back, he licked his fingers and grinned. Buck had to laugh as the boy picked up the toast and ate the sticky mess. Try as he might to be neat, he was fighting a losing battle. Each time he took a bite out of one side, the honey rolled across and dripped off the back. JD flipped the toast around and licked the honey from the crust. After finishing the toast, the boy swiped his finger across the drops of honey that dotted the plate. Making short work of that, he began to lick his fingers.
Buck had finished his coffee and toast. After setting the dishes in the sink, he turned to the boy. "I think that we best get you cleaned up and then we can get to work."
Buck scooped the boy up and placed him on his hip, his back to Wilmington's chest. JD hung over the man's strong arm, laughing.
After cleaning up, the two headed out to the barn. JD fed the chickens while Buck led the horses to the corral and turned them out. He returned to the barn and started cleaning the stalls. The boy lay down a bed of clean hay in the now clean stalls. Afterwards, they moved to the house and cleaned up the dishes. By the time the beds were made, the floors swept, and video games from the previous evening put away, it was near noon.
JD volunteered to make sandwiches so Buck moved the step stool over to the counter as JD got the jelly out of the fridge. A jar of peanut butter was in a lower cabinet for easy access for the kids and the boy went for that next. He got the bread and a flat knife and then climbed onto the stool. As the boy lay out the bread and began to build the sandwiches, the man poured some chips into a bowl and grape juice into glasses. The sound of the stool squeaking on the floor had him turning.
JD had stepped down and was pulling the plastic plate from the counter. He crossed the floor and set the plate on the table before hopping up onto a chair. Buck bit his quivering lip as he sat down, also. The three sandwiches were sloppily made with peanut butter and jelly squeezing out around the edges. There was almost as much PB and J on the outside of the bread as the inside and there were definite finger impressions in the bread, but it looked like a five star meal to the man, any imperfections diminished by the pride that shone in the hazel eyes of a five year old child.
JD smiled up at the man as he sucked the jelly from his fingers.
"Did you manage to get any jam inside the sandwiches?"
"Sure. There's lot of jelly, but you need to tell Miz Potter that we need some more peanut butter."
Buck glanced at the counter and the smears of food that now graced it. He shook his head as he said, "I'll leave her a note. Okay, let's eat and get the kitchen cleaned up and then, after we rest for a few minutes, we might have time to go for a ride before Chris and Vin get back."
"I'm not tired."
"Maybe not, but we have to let our meal settle before we jump onto a horse," the man reasoned.
"Oh, okay. I can't wait for Vin to get back so I can tell him about the movie." He took a big bite of the sandwich, leaving jelly and peanut butter on each side of his mouth. "I ve a ell "
"JD, don't talk with your mouth full."
The little boy swallowed hard and then took a drink of juice. "Sorry, Buck" JD said. He then continued. ""I have to tell 'im about the new game at the arcade. He'll like it cause you get to shoot a gun. Do you think he and Chris had fun without us?"
"I'm sure they did. Just like we had fun without them. But we'll have more fun when they get home. Right?"
By the time they were finished, JD had peanut butter and jelly on his hands, shirt and face along with a purple mustache 'to match yours, Da.'
Once finished with the meal, they cleaned the kitchen. The man told the boy to go wash and change his shirt. Buck went to the living room and slipped a video into the machine, knowing JD would protest if he suggested a nap. The boy plopped onto the floor with a stuffed tiger as a pillow as 'The Jungle Book' began to play. Before the opening credits had stopped rolling, the little boy was sound asleep. Buck let the movie play, knowing the sudden silence would wake him.
Buck picked up the paper and started to read. He figured Chris and Vin would be returning in a couple of hours, long enough for him to finish the paper and relax and JD to nap.
Two hours later, a small hand patting his leg awakened Wilmington. He cracked his eyes open to see JD standing, sleepy-eyed at the side of the chair. The movie had apparently stopped, rewound and now was playing again since this scene was early in the movie. Smiling, he reached down and pulled the boy onto his lap.
"You sleep good, son?"
The dark hair nodded as the boy relaxed against him. Buck noticed the child's hair was stuck to the side of his face where he had lain on the tiger pillow. He smoothed the silky hair away from the flush cheek and then patted his shoulder.
"Okay, how about we go get ready for Chris and Vin? First, we'll make some Kool-Aid so it can be chilling and then we'll go outside and wait. They should be home soon. How's that sound?"
The man shook his head. "Don't think we have time now."
"Oh, okay. Maybe we can tomorrow?"
"Sounds good." Buck set the boy on his feet and then stood. They were headed to the kitchen when JD suddenly made a run down the hall. Wilmington chuckled as he heard the bathroom door slam.
He was just reaching the kitchen when the phone rang. Grabbing the instrument, he glanced at the Caller ID as he punched the button.
"Yes, Mrs. Roquette. How can I help you?"
"I'm so sorry to call on a Sunday, but a matter has come up that Mr. Beidler and I feel the parents need to be aware of before class tomorrow."
"Yes, Ma'am. I'm listening," Buck said cautiously and then added, "Chris isn't here at the moment. Is this something that I can relay to him? Or would you need to be talking to him, yourself?"
"No, no. You can certainly pass this on."
Buck listened as the woman explained. A chill ran up his spine at the news and his eyes were drawn down the hall to see if JD was coming yet. He asked the teacher a few questions, making sure he understood.
"The boys have their own counselor-Dr Lowery. If they need to, we'll take them to him."
"Of course." The woman knew the boys' background, the circumstances of their discovery in a warehouse and the subsequent foster care placement with the two Federal agents. "The counselor will be there tomorrow to deal with any immediate reactions of the children. If you have no other questions, I have a few more parents to call. Should anything come up, or if Mr. Larabee has any further questions, you have my number. Please do not hesitate to call."
"Thank you. We'll see you tomorrow. Good day, Ma'am."
"Good day, Mr. Wilmington."
The man disconnected the call and stood looking down the hall, wondering how he was going to tell the five-year old about the accident. Hearing the toilet flush and the door squeak, he called to the boy just as he came into view. "Wash."
He had to smile as the little form slid to a stop and reversed direction. Buck hung up the phone and grabbed a pitcher to make the Kool-Aid in. He was just pouring in the powder when JD reappeared. The boy climbed onto a stepstool kept in the kitchen for the boys and took hold of the spoon. Buck moved the pitcher closer; holding onto the handle as the boy vigorously stirred the mixture.
Buck ruffled the dark hair as he pronounced the Kool-Aid done. JD pulled the spoon out and dropped it into the sink. He climbed down and opened the refrigerator door for the man and swung it closed after Buck stepped back.
Wiping his hands together, he smiled and said, "All done. You wanna go outside?"
"Sure thing, Little Bit. Let's go see what Elvis and Ringo are doing."
They were outside almost an hour when Chris and Vin appeared at the top of the ridge. JD ran to the corral and climbed to the top rail while Buck strolled slowly behind the boy.
JD waved and yelled at the two riders and was delighted as they waved back. They rode in slowly, giving JD time to climb down and open the gate.
"Hi, hi. Did ya'll have fun? We had fun. Whadda see, Vin? Anything new? We gots the stalls ready. Can I help brush Peso?"
The five-year-old pulled the door to Peso's stall open as Vin dismounted. Chris moved past and began to unsaddle Pony.
"So, how did your day go, Buck?"
Not getting an answer, he turned and looked at his old friend. He could tell something was troubling the man, but a minute shake of the head had Larabee turning back to caring for his animal.
Buck stepped over to Vin and took the saddle from the boy. Blue eyes smiled up at him from out of a dirty face.
"Looks like someone could use a bath." Buck laughed as the boy rolled his eyes.
"I have to take care of my horse."
Buck winked at him. "Good boy."
JD had already pulled the comb and brush out and was busy swiping at the crusted dirt on the animal's chest. Peso endured the treatment by nuzzling the dark hair. The boy swiped at his now wet head. "Stop it, Peso."
Vin chuckled at the antics. It had become their routine for JD to rub down the animal while he checked the horses' hooves. Chris had been leery of allowing the seven-year old to work on the mischievous animal's hooves, but while the horse pranced and raised havoc with the adults, he stood quietly when the young boy cleaned and inspected the big hooves.
By the time the boys had finished with caring for Peso, they were both in need of a bath. Chris had finished rubbing down Pony, so the four, along with the two pups, headed for the house. The boys were instructed to strip to their underwear in the laundry room while Buck drew the bath.
Chris headed to his own room to shower but stopped at the boys' bath where Buck was busy getting the room ready. He had started the water and then adjusted the temperature when the hot water finally arrived and then tossed in some bubble bath and a couple of toys. Turning to get the towels, he saw the blond standing in the door, a questioning look on his face.
"I need to talk to ya after ya'll get cleaned up."
Chris frowned, so Buck started to explain. "Mrs. Roquette called. Something happened that we need to tell the boys. One of "
Before he could continue the boys came running in.
"Ah, Vin, you beated me again. You're supposed to let me win sometimes."
"Yeah? Who says?"
JD crossed his arms over his small chest. "Well I don't 'member, but it's not fair cause you got bigger legs."
The men stared down at the toothpicks that served as legs for the child. Vin was a slender youth at best. Add to that, the fact that he had been on the street for an unknown amount of time, caring for himself, plus the fact that he had been injured and seriously ill when he and JD were found and rescued from the warehouse they called home, and you have an underweight child with poor muscle development. While he had started to put on weight and height, he had a long road in front of him.
Buck clapped his hands together and stopped any further debate. "Okay, let's get you boys cleaned up. From the looks of you two, we might have to bathe ya twice to get all the dirt off."
JD pulled off his underwear and held up his arms to be set in the tub. Buck obliged him and then took a towel and held it up for Vin to strip down behind. The shy blond boy climbed into the tub and the two set to playing. Wilmington turned to see Chris mouth the word 'later' and he nodded. As Larabee headed off for his shower, Buck turned his attention back to the boys. "Hey, let's keep the water on the inside of the tub, okay?"
After the boys were clean, Buck got them dressed and sat them down in the den with a video game. Telling them he would be right back, the big agent headed down the hall to Larabee's room. He found the man just pulling a t-shirt over his head.
"Hey, stud. You feeling human yet?" he asked as he leaned against the door frame.
Chris made a sound deep in his throat, a grunt of acknowledgement. Running his fingers through his damp hair, he glanced at Wilmington. "So, what's going on?"
"The school called and asked that the parents talk to the kids. There was an accident yesterday, one of the kids was hurt. The little girl that JD asked to come out and ride?"
"Joy? No, Joey, right?"
"Yeah." Buck's voice softened as he remembered the shy giggle he had heard two days earlier.
"Did Mrs. Roquette say what happened?"
Nodding, he recounted the details to the man.
"She was at home, riding her bike. Mrs. Roquette didn't have all the details, but apparently the little girl's grandmother hit her with the car."
Buck watched Larabee's face close down. "Is she "
"She's in the hospital."
"And " Larabee prompted.
"They had to take off one of her legs." Merely saying the words sent a cold chill down the man's spine, making his knees weak. Apparently Chris had the same reaction as he stepped back to sit down on the bed.
"Ah, damn. Does JD know?" He threw up his hand. "No. Of course, not. You'd wait for us to get back. Only makes sense to talk to both boys at once."
"Stud, I don't know I mean how do you tell kids "
Chris stood and approached the upset man. "We talk to them like the strong kids they are. We talk to them and we listen to them. Right?" he asked as he placed a comforting hand on the other man's arm.
Buck took a deep breath and straightened up. "Right."
They headed back to the den side by side.
"Ah, you got me, JD."
The younger boy dropped his controller and jumped to his feet, clapping in delight. "I beated you, Vin. I never beated you, a'for."
Vin smiled at the little boy. He rolled over and closed his eyes. "Guess I'm just too tired to play good."
The younger boy crossed his arms and pouted. "But I won."
"Yeah, you sure did, JD." The seven year old glanced at the boy he had taken under his wing, basking in his delight. He had purposely lost to him, but Vin didn't mind. He liked to see his family happy.
"Boys? We need to talk" Chris said as he and Buck entered the room.
Knowing the tone, both boys immediately lowered their heads and dropped their eyes to the ground, prompting the two men to look at each other, bittersweet smiles on their faces. The boys had been with them for almost a year and still, they doubted the security of their home. If they thought the men were upset, their demeanor became submissive and contrite.
In response, each man reached out and gathered up their kid. Buck sat in the recliner with JD on his lap while Chris moved to the couch and sat Vin next to him. He ran his thumb down the side of the boy's face and placed it on the slender chest.
"No one's in trouble. We just have to talk to you about something." He looked at Wilmington only to have him look away. Chris sighed and continued. "Mrs. Roquette called earlier. There was an accident yesterday and one of the kids at school was hurt."
Larabee felt the young boy relax under his hand. Blue eyes looked up. "Are they dead?"
Chris saw JD lean into Buck's chest and the man's hand wrap around the dark head. Wilmington stroked the boy's bangs back and kissed the boy's forehead. "It's okay, Little Bit."
"What happened, Da?"
Buck took a deep breath and said, "Well, someone got hit by a car while riding their bike. And they got hurt."
The man could feel the small frame trembling in his arms.
"How hurt?" This came from Vin as he huddled against Chris' side.
"It was pretty bad, guys." Wilmington's hand rubbed up and down the back of the huddled form in his lap. JD had dropped his head and sat quietly, fingering one of the buttons on Buck's shirt. "Her leg was damaged and the doctors had to remove it."
That got a reaction from the younger boy and he looked up. "But legs don't come off, Da. How's she going to walk on one leg?"
"Well, I'm not sure, Little Bit. I know people that have an artificial leg. The doctors can make a leg that allows people to walk. Sometimes you can't even tell that it's not a real leg."
The youngest boy chewed on his lip as he listened. "Why didn't they just fix her leg? They fixed Vin's arm."
"I know, baby, but her leg was badly damaged and would never heal like Vin's arm."
The little boy nodded. There was silence for a few moments. When JD looked up again, he asked the question Buck had been dreading.
"Who got hurt?"
Buck smiled sadly as he looked into the hazel eyes. "It was Joey, JD."
JD didn't move for a moment and then he looked over to where Vin sat quietly. The older boy looked sad, but not distressed.
JD nodded. "Will she come back to school?"
"I don't know, son. Maybe the school will know."
"Oh." JD looked again at Vin. He knew that look. Vin had practiced it with him. It was Vin's 'empty' face. You weren't allowed to show what you felt-fear, anger, sadness, nothing. It was the face Vin had used when the big people were around, before they had Chris and Buck. Vin had shown JD the face and told him that he must always use that face if Vin was; the older boy had told him over and over.
JD hadn't seen the 'empty' face in a long time, not since they came to live at the ranch with their new dads. He figured that they wouldn't need the 'empty' face, since they had Buck and Chris and all their uncles to protect them. But Vin was the smart one, the one that had found him and fed him and taken care of him and JD followed Vin's lead. Always.
So, he swallowed his fear for his friend and put on his own empty face. But he was out of practice and found it hard to keep his concern hidden, so he smiled up at the man and then jumped down, pointing at the puppy lying on the floor.
"I have ta feed Elvis." JD trotted out of the room. "Come on, Elvis. Ringo. 'S ya hungry?"
Buck just blinked as the little boy disappeared into the kitchen area. Frowning, he turned to Larabee. "What "
Chris shrugged and then looked down at Vin. "Vin? Are you alright?"
Clear blue eyes looked up at him. "I'm okay. I don't know her that much. JD always played with her."
"Okay. Why don't you go help JD with the dogs?"
Chris patted the small bottom as the boy stood and headed to the kitchen.
"That was strange." Buck stared at the blond with a confused look. "Either that went really well, or it went really bad. I just don't know yet."
Vin went to the door and looked out to see Elvis and Ringo running from one bowl to the other, trying to eat from both. JD sat on the top step, his face smiling slightly at the antics of the two pups. Vin pushed on the door and joined the younger boy on the stoop as JD sat with his hands supporting his head.
"What 'cha doing?"
"Nuf'in" was the mumbled response.
The seven-year old boy nodded and, putting his head in his hands, sat quietly watching as the two dogs finished their meal. The two animals trotted over and joined their masters by plopping down on the porch next to the boys. The foursome sat in silence and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains. While this was not an unusual thing to see Vin Tanner do, it was very out of character for the energetic five-year-old at the his side. The young blond turned to study the profile of his friend.
The boy merely nodded his head. Vin frowned. "You sure?"
Again the dark haired boy nodded.
"You want to talk?"
This time the boy shook his head.
"You want to go inside? We could watch a video."
"Can't. I's busy." JD had continued watching the sunset as he spoke but now he turned an emotionless face to the other boy. "I have to practice." That said, he turned back to the spectacular view, though the wonder of it never showed on the young boy's face.
Young Vin frowned at the words, wondering what JD was practicing by just sitting, staring at nothing. Before he could ask what the younger boy was talking about though, Chris' voice was calling them in for supper.
"Let's go eat, JD."
The little boy nodded and stood and together they walked back into the house. The table was set and the food was served after the boys had washed their hands and returned to the kitchen. It was a simple meal of cold sandwiches and hot soup. Chris knew that Vin would tire quickly, he hoped the same thing of JD. The blond man watched as the little boy listlessly played with his sandwich. He knew he had only taken a couple of spoonfuls of soup, but looking at Wilmington, they silently agreed to not push him, knowing the injured child was a good friend.
"JD, that all you want?" Buck asked softly. Sad hazel eyes looked around the fist holding the dark head up.
"You okay, Little Bit?"
JD glanced at Vin to see him eating the last bite of sandwich, his bowl empty. "I'm fine."
After the kitchen was cleared, the family retreated to the den and Chris put a video on for the boys. Both men were surprised, but heartened, when the boy started to sing along with the video. JD and Vin had watched the 'Lion King' many times and knew the tape by heart. Nathan had bought them the DVD when it came out last month because the VCR tape was beginning to drag in parts. The two men watched and laughed as JD bounced around, pretending to be Simba, even dragging the tired Vin into the dance.
It was almost the end of the movie when the phone rang and Chris answered. After a moment he glanced at Buck and indicated he was going to the kitchen. JD barely noticed while Vin's eyes followed his father's back until he disappeared. Blue eyes turned to Buck and the man gave the older boy a wink and a smile. Chris reentered the room just as the credits were rolling up the screen.
Slapping his hands together, he stated, "Okay, time for bed, boys. You have school tomorrow."
With only a minimum of protest, the two boys headed to their room as the two men followed. Buck glanced at Larabee and the man mouthed, "Ezra. It's going down in the morning. At five."
Wilmington eyes widened. "Five? AM?"
Chris shrugged. "I called Gloria. She can't be here until six at the earliest, so Rain volunteered to come out and stay with the boys until then. She'll still be able to get to work that way."
"You going to tell the boys?"
After a moment's hesitation, Larabee nodded. "Yeah, wouldn't be right to have them wake up and us both gone."
They had reached the bedroom and found the two boys changing into their pajamas. Buck helped JD struggle into the shirt and combed his dark hair down straight. Vin climbed into his bunk as JD was 'flown' across the room and belly-flopped onto the mattress. The mustached agent sat down on the bed and rested his hands on the boy's back as he lay there.
Chris moved closer and placed a hand on the upper bunk Vin used. "Boys, Aunt Rain will get you up in the morning." Chris saw the frown begin on the seven-year old's face. "Buck and I have to go to work early in the morning."
"Da?" JD had sat up at the announcement and now sat on his knees, his arms resting on Wilmington's leg.
Buck looked at the little face and saw the quivering chin. He moved one hand around to rub the boy's back, slightly surprised at the tremors he felt. The other hand cupped the small boy's cheek. "It's okay, Little Bit. We just have to meet some people."
"Is Uncle Ezra coming home?" Vin asked.
Larabee nodded. "Yes, Ezra is coming home."
JD looked at the older boy and saw the worry. If Vin was worried, JD reasoned he should be worried, also. "But you have to take us to school."
"Mrs. Potter will take you," Chris stated.
Vin worried his bottom lip between his teeth, torn between wanting his dad there when he woke up and wanting his uncle home once again. He swallowed hard as he considered how to handle the problem.
JD had only one thing on his mind. He didn't want any more surprises, no more bad news. He had decided his course of action and started to wail, "Nooo. You have to take us and Miz Potter picks us up. That's the way it 'pose to be."
Buck pulled the sobbing child onto his lap. "JD, I want to be here when you get up, but Chris and I have to go help Ezra. Don't you want Uncle Ezra to come home?"
"I don't want you to go. Please, Da," he sobbed.
"Then who's going to go get Uncle Ezra?"
The little boy sat sniffing and finally shrugged his shoulders, "You and Chris?"
Buck hugged the small form. "Good boy. Don't you worry, we'll be home tomorrow, same as usual." The man bent down and, in a stage whisper, said, "Maybe we'll drag Chris out to Mickey D's. How's that sound?"
Once again the boy shrugged before pushing against the broad chest and standing up on the man's lap. JD hugged Buck. "I love ya." JD released the man and stepped off the muscular legs. Dropping to his hands and knees, he crawled to the head of the bed and under the covers without another word.
Buck frowned at the uncharacteristic reaction to the announcement, unsure of what was causing the boy's fear. He looked to Larabee for a helpful hint, but the blond simply stood there, frowning. While the boys always worried about the men, JD had never pleaded with his father before.
Wilmington turned back to the huddled lump and patted what he hoped was the boy's back. "JD? What's wrong, son?"
"Nuf'in" was the sniffed answer.
The two men looked at each other, perplexed at what to do. Vin climbed down and crawled onto the bed. JD pushed the boy away, though.
"No, I ain't a baby."
Vin set back on his legs, studying the younger boy.
"I'm fine. I just want to go to sleep, Vin." He pulled the covers back up and rolled away from the others.
Chris ruffled the blond boy's hair and gathered him up to place him back in his bed. Vin flipped around after slipping under the covers to look at the man standing close. He whispered, "He's scared."
Chris nodded. "I know. You take care of him for us?"
The little boy nodded and said, "When he goes to sleep, I can go to him." And Chris winked.
Meanwhile, Buck once again rubbed the little boy's back before leaning over the placing a kiss on the exposed hair. "I love you, son. I'll see ya, tomorrow night."
Standing, he joined Larabee at the door. Chris stepped out and Buck followed, flicking the light off and pulling the door almost closed.
Vin rolled over and waited, listening to the sniffles coming from the bed below.
The two men rose early. The deal was going down at five that morning. They still needed to get into town, meet up with the others and get to the meeting place. Rain arrived at two in the morning and would stay until Gloria arrived.
Sleep had been fitful for both men, worrying about the undercover agent as well as the boys. They rose and prepared for the day. The last thing they did before leaving was to peek in on the kids. In the soft glow of the nightlight, they could see that at some time during the night, Vin had once again crawled into bed with the younger boy, but this time he was allowed to stay and offer comfort and support by curling around his young charge.
A deep sigh from Wilmington had Larabee placing a hand on his friend's shoulder.
"Try not to worry, Buck. Vin'll keep an eye on him until we get back. He'll be fine as soon as he knows you and Ezra are safe."
Wilmington shook his head. "Maybe. But I have a feeling there's something else wrong, something he's not saying. The little girl?"
"Yeah, maybe, but he didn't seem too upset yesterday."
They stood a few moments longer. Buck looked at the huddled forms, vowing to get to the bottom of his son's problems as soon as he got home. Hearing a light knock on the door, the two men turned away, ready to meet the day and coming confrontation.
Vin stayed close to JD the entire day. The younger boy acted normal, running around the house, getting ready for school. Mrs. Potter took them to school and dropped them off, saying she would be there that evening to pick them up.
The first thing that happened that morning was a school assembly about the accident that Josephine had suffered and the aftermath. Mr. Beidler introduced a man named Dr. Newman. The man talked about the feelings people felt when something bad happened to someone they knew. Dr. Newman told them that he would be there for a couple of days if anyone needed to talk. Mr. Beidler and Mrs. Roquette moved through the children to offer comfort and a shoulder where needed. There was sniffing heard around the room, a few kids crying. Vin sat next to JD, but the little boy showed no reaction to the events of the assembly. He sat quietly, listening, but never looking around.
The rest of the day, Dr. Newman and Mr. Beidler moved through the classes, checking on the kids. Classes were quiet and subdued without the normal laughter and running feet.
The afternoon arrived and the children waited for their parents. Vin and JD sat quietly until the doors opened to reveal the two ATF agents walking in.
"DA!" JD cried. He ran to the now squatting man. Long arms wrapped around the small body as it molded itself to his chest.
"Hey, Cowboy." Vin moved to Larabee's side and felt the man's hand rest on his shoulder as it pulled him in close.
"Everything go okay, today?" the little boy asked.
The slender blond nodded, smiling. Patting the boy's shoulder again, he said, "Grab your stuff and let's head for the house."
JD didn't make a move to release his father, so Buck stood up, shifting the boy to his side. He followed Vin across the room and lifted the boy's blue backpack. Holding out his hand, he took Vin's red pack, also. Blue eyes looked up as the man took the bag, a question in those eyes. Buck winked and smiled, inclining his head toward the door and Larabee.
Vin joined Chris and they headed to the door, holding it open for Buck to pass through. Chris bent down and told Vin to go open the door for Wilmington and he'd be out in a minute. As the boy trotted after the other man, Larabee turned and headed to where Carolyn Roquette stood.
"Mrs. Roquette. I was just wondering how things were today?"
The woman sighed. "It was a little quiet. The children were very subdued by the announcement about Joey's accident. Dr. Newman seemed to think that it went very well."
Chris nodded and glanced around before asking, "How was JD today? Did he seem alright?"
The teacher frowned and her eyes moved from side to side as she thought. "I don't remember anything in particular, but there were a lot of children upset today. I didn't speak with JD, or Vin, today, other than regular schoolwork. Is there a problem?"
"No, not really. Just checking. Thanks, Ma'am."
"Good evening, Mr. Larabee."
Chris turned and headed to the truck. He found the boy's were buckled in and having an animated conversation with Wilmington. Giggling greeted him as he opened the door.
Patting the seven-year-old's leg, Buck turned around and buckled up. "So, you ready, partner?"
"Yep." Chris glanced at his old friend and nodded slightly before glancing in the mirror. "So, anyone want to go to McDonalds'?"
The two boys nodded, "Yeah."
"Okay," Larabee responded, smiling. "Let's go then."
Sitting in the playroom, the two men watched as the two orphans crawled through the bubble tunnel. Their food sat on the table partially eaten, forgotten in the fun of play.
Buck sat back and relaxed. He waved as JD appeared at the junction and looked his way. As the boy disappeared around the bend, he turned to the man sitting beside him.
"So, what are ya thinking?"
Chris shifted in his chair, but did not look over. "About what?"
"The boys, their reactions?"
Larabee shrugged. "To tell ya the truth, Buck, I'm having a hard time figuring this out. I think that Vin is fine, sad, but handling it. JD on the other hand, he seems fine at times and then other times, he acts totally out of character."
"Yeah, same here. I'm not sure what to do."
Chris shook his head. "Maybe we should make an appointment with Lowery."
Buck's head jerked around. "You really think that's necessary?"
Wilmington looked worriedly at the play area before nodding. "I'll call his office tomorrow."
Chris cut his eyes over to the slumped shoulders of his oldest friend. The man was an open book and Larabee knew how he felt about the boy. Larabee nodded as he returned to watching the boys.
The boys came running back a few minutes later, breathless. Falling into their seats, they each grabbed a cup and took a long drink. They ate some of the cooled food, but seemed more interested in the drinks.
"You boys about ready to head home?" Chris asked.
Dual "No's" were his answer, but a raised eyebrow had both boys heading for the shoe locker. Moments later they returned. While Vin sat next to Chris and slid his feet into the sneakers, JD padded over to stand in front of Wilmington, his shoes held out to the man. Buck smiled and took them and, pulling the boy onto his lap, slipped the sneakers on the offered feet.
As Vin finished tying his laces, he asked, "Can we go see Uncle Ezra?"
JD bounced on Buck's lap at the idea of finally being able to see and talk to his long missing uncle.
"Sorry, son. Not tonight." Chris told the boys. He saw the disappointment in both young faces and quickly added. "Ezra's resting tonight, but he told me to ask if you would mind if he came out tomorrow night?"
JD had gone still and drawn his legs up onto Buck's lap. "Is Uncle Ezra all right?"
Wilmington wrapped his arms around the boy and hugged him close as he tried to reassure the boys that the undercover agent was in good health. "He's just fine, Little Bit. He wanted to come see you guys, but he was tired. He's been away from home for over five weeks and he wanted to take a bath and sleep in his own bed for the 'remainder of the evening'."
The boys listened quietly, but then giggled as they remembered how the man had looked at the Halloween party, complete with beard and earring.
"Yeah, Uncle Ezra needed a bath. He looks funny with a beard," JD's hands covered his mouth as he spoke.
"I liked the earring," Vin stated and turned to look at his father. His gaze was met with a raised eyebrow. Vin smiled and opened his mouth, but his father's waving hand stopped the words.
"Don't even think about it."
The little boy grinned and shrugged. "I just thought it looked cool."
"No piercings or tattoos."
"Ah, Dad." Vin ducked as Chris swatted at the long blond hair before wrapping his arms around the lean boy.
JD giggled in Buck's arms as they watched the two wrestle.
Chris sat up with a sigh, "Guess it's time to head home."
Picking the boys up, the foursome headed out. Arriving home, the boys unpacked their book bags and showed the men their work papers from the day. The evening was spent playing the Scooby Mystery Mansion board game.
The foursome teamed up with Chris and Vin going against Buck and JD. Before the game was over, bedtime arrived and it was decided the game would wait until the next evening.
Twenty minutes later, two freshly bathed boys crawled into bed. The two men tucked the boys in and wished them a good night. Buck picked up the book they had been reading and started to read, but a hand on his shoulder had him looking up into the smiling face of Chris. Following Larabee's eyes, the tall agent glanced over to see the slack features of JD's face, as he lay splayed out on the bed. A quick look up revealed a lax hand draped over the railing of the upper bunk.
Buck stood up, grinning. "Well, that was easy."
"Yep. Between the playground and the 'physical' board game, I think they wore their selves out," the blond man whispered.
"Maybe we should tell JD that he doesn't have to act out the Scooby part every time we play," Buck suggested.
They looked at each other, "Nah."
They turned off the light, leaving just the nightlight on, and pulled the door mostly closed. The men headed to the family room, not hearing the soft moan. But Vin heard and once again deserted his bed to comfort the younger boy in his nightmares.