"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe

Buck Wilmington drove slowly through the crowded holiday traffic, stealing a glance at the forlorn child strapped in next to him. They had been shopping the entire morning, yet they hadn't found that elusive gift that JD was hunting for. Both JD and Vin had gone shopping the previous week with their surrogate 'uncles' and gotten Christmas presents for their adoptive fathers, all except something for Chris from the youngest. Nothing had appealed to him, so Buck had promised to take him again on Sunday before Christmas to find something.

The day had dawned with a cold, crisp morning. The two dark haired family members had eaten a breakfast of hot oatmeal and toast with juice, fortifying themselves for their trek into town. The boy was positive that today he would find the perfect gift for the man who was his second father. But as the day wore on and store after store was checked off, nothing had struck his fancy. With morning turning into afternoon, Buck had suggested they take a break and have lunch. JD’s response was a listless nod.

Wilmington pulled into the parking lot of a favorite pizza parlor and was glad to see the hazel eyes look up with interest. He unbuckled the five-year old and they went in, joining other shoppers for a respite in the hustle and bustle of the season’s shopping. Buck found a table and placed the boy on the seat, instructing him to wait while he located a booster seat. Soon the two were sipping cold drinks and waiting for their order to arrive. 

"So, Little Bit, you have no idea what you want to get Chris?"

Dark hair flew back and forth as the boy shook his head. "I want it to be perfect. It has to be something that Chris loves."

"Well, then I think that you need to consider what Chris likes." Wilmington smiled as the little boy wrinkled up his face in concentration.

There was a momentary distraction as the pizza arrived and the man put a slice on each plate. Placing a stack of napkins close at hand before draping one down the front of the child, Buck picked up a piece of the hot pizza and took a big bite, breaking the stringy cheese with his finger.

"Hmmm. Good. It’s hot, Little Bit. Blow on it first."

Buck watched as JD picked up a piece and brought it to his mouth, flipping the pizza over as he did. Small chunks of meat dropped and bounced off the napkin bib, leaving small grease marks. The pizza flopped to the plate as JD waved his hand in front of his open mouth.

"Hot. Oh, it’s hot."

Buck brought the cup up for the boy, shaking his head as JD latched onto the straw and sucked.

Biting his tongue to prevent the ‘I told you so’ from escaping, he instead asked, "You okay?"

The boy looked up, tears in the hazel eyes, and nodded. Wilmington chuckled as he wiped the boy’s face.

"Why don’t we let it cool for a minute? So, what about Chris’ gift?" he asked as he caught JD’s arm as itcame up to swipe his eyes. The man gently dabbed at the moisture as he once again prompted. "He likes horses."

JD thought about that as he poked at the pizza with his finger, testing its temperature. As he licked the grease off his finger, he turned to his foster father. "I don’t have enough money for a horse, Buck."

Wilmington’s eyebrows shot up as he choked on the bite he had just taken. Coughing slightly, he nodded. "Well, I didn’t mean you should buy him a horse, but there’s plenty of things with horses on them or things for a horse."

JD was already shaking his head. "No, Vin got him one of the Br..brem…brey…you know, the horses like Adam got ‘im."

Buck nodded. One of Chris’ treasures were the Breyer horses that Adam had presented him with for Christmas each year.

"Okay, so horses are out. What else does he like?"

"Well, he likes guns and black clothes and…his truck… and…" He picked up the cooled slice of pizza and took a cautious bite. Finding it cool enough, he took another big bite as he continued, "an’ dawfs…a Miffs Twfis…an’ foo’ baw’.." He stopped to swallow and got a quizzical look on his face before turning to Buck. "Chris don’t really like a lot of stuff, Buck. Not like you."

Buck smiled at the statement. Chris Larabee was not known as the most cheerful man around. The face he displayed to the world in general was a somber one, the heartaches of his life evident on his features, but Wilmington knew the funny-loving man that was hidden beneath the gruff exterior. Each day, layers of protection over that interior were being peeled away, all due to the love of two small boys, but for now, the gruff facade was still in place.

"Chris likes a bunch of stuff. He just doesn’t show it very well."

They ate in silence for a few minutes. Buck tried again. "So what do you think Chris loves?"

Without a moment’s hesitation, JD responded, "Vin."

"Well, yes, but he loves you, also."

JD took another drink of cola before responding. "Yeah, but not like he loves Vin," the boy stated matter-of-factly.

Before Buck could formulate a response to that statement, the boy noticed the look on the man's face and placed his hand over Buck’s and patted it in comfort as he said, "That’s okay, Buck. I know Chris loves Vin more, like you love me more. And Chris loves me like you love Vin."

Looking at his father’s amused expression, JD tried to explain his views. "Me and you like to talk and Chris and Vin don’t. That’s why Chris likes Vin mostest, 'cause he’s quiet."

"Oh" Buck mumbled behind his hand as he covered the chuckle at the simplistic logic that the boy used. Buck wiped his mouth and fingers and then tossed the napkin onto the table. He lifted his hip to retrieve his wallet and after removing a bill to drop next to the check, he replaced the wallet. Stretching his arms upward, he brought his hands back down to rub his stomach. "Well, you ready to get looking again for that ‘perfect’ gift?"

JD leaned back and patted his own stomach. "I’m ready."

Smiling at the waitress as she cleared the table, the ATF agent slipped out and held out his hands to the boy. JD scrambled out of the booster seat to leap into the waiting arms, knowing Buck would catch him. Wilmington hoisted the small form onto his hip and turned toward the door. After a quick stop at the restroom for a pit stop and a quick cleanup, the two once again headed out to tackle the chore of locating a gift for Chris Larabee.

The next few hours were spent moving in and out of stores, wading through the crowds of holiday shoppers, but to no avail. JD could not find that one thing that he judged to be the perfect gift for the blond man. Buck made suggestions. Belt? No. Buckle? No. Shirt? Nooo. Each idea was dismissed as not ‘perfect’.

JD had grown tired and cranky by the time the sun painted a purple horizon in the west with Buck was almost as tired as the boy, but he remained calm as he told the five year old that they could try again on Wednesday and prompted a temper tantrum from the exhausted child. JD balled his hands into fists and stomped his feet as he wailed that he couldn’t go home yet.

Buck took a deep breath and waited. He had expected a show and JD did not disappoint him, making him glad that he had selected a quiet corner to announce the end of shopping for the day. Knowing the child was tired, the man knew the tantrum would not last long. JD was just too worn out to carry on for very long and he quickly wound down.

"Here, let’s wipe your nose," Buck said as he pulled a tissue from his pocket. He wiped the tears from the little face and then wrapped the tissue around the button nose. "Blow."

Big tear-filled, hazel eyes stared up as the man wiped the runny nose. "I don’t want to go home, yet" he whined.

"JD, son, you’re tired, I’m tired. We've got plenty of time to find a gift. I have to work tomorrow, but then I have off until after Christmas. That's two whole days to go looking again." He waited for the boy to respond.

Sniffing, the boy nodded even as he said, "I don’t want to come again."

Gathering the boy into his arms, he stood up and shifted him to his hip. Buck pushed the dark hair back from the hazel eyes and placed a light kiss on the dark locks. "I don’t really want to come again, either, but we’ll just make the best of it."

Patting the boy’s back as he hung on Wilmington’s hip, Buck said, "I have to make one more stop. I promised to get a card for Travis. After that, we’ll head home. Okay?"

The boy’s answer was to lay his head on the man’s shoulder and yawn.

Wilmington headed down the mall, sticking close to the wall and the edge of the crowd. He slipped into the card shop and headed to the large selection of Christmas cards. The men of Team Seven had purchased a small gift for the man who had formed their team, and his wife, but had failed to get a card. Buck volunteered to get one since he would be at the mall anyways, swearing to pick one appropriate for the season.

Engrossed in looking at the cards, he did not notice as the boy on his hip slowly turned from the cards and glanced around the store. A gasp and a whispered ‘Buck’ drew his attention to the boy on his shoulder.

Pulling back to look at the young face, Wilmington saw his attention was focused on the display behind them. He turned and JD swiveled to keep his found treasure in sight.

The boy pointed at the display as he proclaimed. "That’s it. That’s the perfect present for Chris."

Buck looked at the shelves but failed to see what the boy was going on about. He set the boy down and held onto his hand as the five-year old tugged him forward.

"See? It’s perfect. I know Chris will love it."

Buck’s eyes sparkled as he finally saw what JD was talking about. And he agreed. It would be perfect for the man. Finding one in a box, the two finished picking out a card and headed up front to pay. The grin on the boy’s face as he clutched his prize more than made up for the day spent fighting traffic and crowds of people.

By the time Buck located his truck, JD was fast asleep on his shoulder. He sat the limp form in the car seat and buckled him in. Placing the sack on the floorboard, he wrapped the ever present blanket around the small body to keep the chill off and then went around and got into the vehicle. He turned the key and, as he waited for the engine to warm up, he glanced over at the sleeping child and smiled a bittersweet smile. He reached out and stroked the cool, soft cheek as he offered up a prayer.

Thank ya, Lord, for putting this boy in my life. I guess you knew better then me what I needed. He’s a special soul and I'm humbled that you entrusted him to me. I swear that I'll do my best to do right by you, and him. Amen.


Christmas day dawned cold with a new layer of snow on the ground. Both little boys rose early, but stayed in their room, playing quietly until they heard the sound of the men moving around. The four had breakfast and cleaned up. Chris and Buck took care of the morning chores and by the time they had returned, the boys were vibrating with excitement. To the orphans' credit, they sat side by side within inches of the gifts but had not touched a thing. They waited. Impatiently, but they waited.

Buck had grabbed a trash sack and sat down, waiting for the older man as he checked the fire in the fireplace, renewing the warmth. He grinned as Larabee slowly made himself comfortable, drawing out the tension for the two boys. Finally, JD could not stand it anymore.

"Chrrriiisss!" he cried, drawing the name out.

Looking innocently, with eyebrows drawn up, he said, "Yes, JD?"

"Aren’t you ready, yet?"

"Ready? Ready for what? We already had breakfast."

JD jumped up and ran over to the tree, holding his hands out, pointing to the brightly wrapped gifts. "Ready to open the presents."

"Is it Christmas already?"

Vin had sat quietly, but now he moved over to stand next to Larabee. "It’s Christmas, Chris. Can we open the presents? Please?"

Chris wrapped his arms around the boy and hugged him. "Christmas? Already? Well, in that case, Merry Christmas, Vin, JD. Why don’t you two hand out the gifts?"

The boy’s blue eyes sparkled as he moved to the tree to join JD, who was bouncing in place with excitement. They dropped to their knees and began to paw through the packages. After locating a gift for each family member, the boys sat down on the floor at the feet of the two men and everyone opened their gift.

So it went. A gift was found for each person and each was opened together. It didn’t take long for the gifts to dwindle down to the last few. While the boys still had a few things to open, Buck and Chris were left with one apiece.

Vin handed his gift to Buck, while JD quietly held his out to Chris. Everyone waited as the blond accepted the package. He smiled at the boy as he gently shook the bright red box.

"You pick this out yourself?"

JD nodded.

"Pretty wrapping paper. Did you wrap it, also?"

Uncharacteristically, JD didn’t speak, only pointed at Buck.

"Well, guess I better see what’s inside," Chris said. He loosened the tape and peeled the paper back. Lifting the box lid, he peered inside. Larabee felt his heart skip a beat at the sky blue eyes and smiling features that stared back at him.

He lifted the picture frame out and looked at the picture of Vin that it contained. The frame was silver, brushed metal with a laser engraved scene of horses running and on the bottom there was a small button. Larabee frowned as he looked at the button. He looked up to see the dark haired youth chewing on his lower lip, wide hazel eyes staring at him. Chris pushed the button.

"Hi, Dad. Hope you’re havin’ a good day. I miss you. Come home soon."

When Chris didn’t move for a moment, JD felt compelled to explain. "I wanted to give you something you’d love. Since you love Vin and ya miss him when you have to work, I thought that maybe if you could see and hear him, that you wouldn’t miss ‘im so bad or feel sad."

Larabee glanced at the boy and then looked back down at the picture. Finally, he reached out to run one hand down the boy’s face as he said, "JD, I think this is one of the best presents I have ever received."

The boy finally smiled with his normal enthusiasm. Clapping his hands together, he twirled in a tight circle in front of the man’s chair.

"There’s only one thing wrong with this," Chris said, bringing an abrupt end to the orphan’s dance. The boy frowned at the man and then the frame, trying to see if there was some damage to it.

Chris put the frame down and grabbed the boy as he said, "I have two boys but only one picture." Then he began to tickle the five-year old.

JD laughed and fought the hold, his head thrown back as he tried to pull away.

"Ahhh. Help! Help me, Vin." JD was pushing at Larabee’s hands as he cried out.

The seven-year old immediately came over to assist, but Chris had been waiting and as the little blond approached, he wrapped one arm around JD as the other snaked out and grabbed the older boy. Bringing the two small bodies together in front of him, the man slipped out of the chair to roll onto the floor, dragging the two boys with him.

They lay in a tangle of arms and legs, wrestling for the upper hand. Chris managed to contain the two wiggling bodies for a couple of minutes, but Vin finally slipped loose and pounced on the man’s unprotected back, his hands running up and down in a vain attempt to locate a ticklish spot.

Chris curled up, wrapping his body around the younger boy, who once again began to squeal for help between gasps for air. The man’s vision was suddenly obscured as Vin Tanner wrapped his small hands around his head to cover his eyes. When Chris reached up to remove the hands, JD made his escape.

After moving away, the dark haired boy heard his father laughing and looked over to see the man doubled over in mirth. Glancing back to see Vin had Chris’ full attention, JD turned to his father. While Buck was not looking, the little boy scrambled up the arm of the chair to climb onto the man’s back and drape his arms across the strong shoulders.

Buck gasped as the boy’s weight registered in his mind and he sat up. He grabbed JD’s stockinged feet and leaned back, using the boy as a back rest. Wilmington laughed as his ‘back rest’ began to squirm and kick.

"AHH! You’re squishing me," the boy cried out, though Buck was not putting any weight on him.

"What? Who was that talking behind me? Hey, where did JD go?" Buck made a big show of looking around the room.

"I’m back here, Da. You’re squishing me." JD had tightened his grip and he was able to hoist himself up to wrap his arms around Buck’s neck. He released one hand and waved it in front of the man’s eyes. "Help, Da."

Releasing the boy’s feet, Buck took hold of the two arms and lifted JD over his head to sit him in his lap. "Now, how did you get back there? I thought you were on the floor with Chris."

Taking a deep breath, JD wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "Whew, Da. You almost squished me."

"I did? I’ll have to be more careful, won’t I?"

JD planted his fists on his hips. "Yeah. Miss Nettie'll be mad if you smushed me like a bug."

Buck laughed and hugged the boy as he ruffled the black hair. Chris was sitting cross-legged on the ground with Vin secured within his arms. Both of their faces were flush with the exertion of the wrestling match, grins on their features.

Chris smoothed down the boy’s soft blond hair as he looked under the tree. "Looks like there’s a couple of packages still back there, boys."

Both boys looked at the tree and gasped at the forgotten, unopened treasures and, after a moment's hesitation, they scrambled up and headed to the tree.

Larabee swiveled around to place his back against the chair he had occupied earlier and watched as the packages were ripped into and the boys held up the contents. He and Buck both nodded and clapped over the new jackets and shirts on display. The kids slipped the jackets on and, like mirror images, ran their hands slowly over the colorful sleeves, smiles adorning their young features.

Chris tore his eyes away from the scene to look at his old friend and saw the moisture in Wilmington's eyes as the man looked his way. Buck smiled and nodded slightly, as he softly spoke the words that Chris was thinking.

"We've got to be two of the luckiest men on earth, stud."

Chris nodded. Buck was right. It had been a long time since he had felt such peace and contentment, and he knew that it was all due to the two gentle souls that had been placed in his path, whether by luck or divine intervention didn't matter. All Larabee knew for sure was that he had been blessed not once or twice, but three times, to be the caretaker of innocent souls and he said a prayer of thanks as he watched the two boys playing on this Christmas day.


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