Look! I still got chocolate under my fingernails.
Yuck, JD! Don't suck on them!
Why? It still tastes like chocolate.
Why did you roll your eyes, Vin? Do you want some ????
JD! Get your fingers out of my face!
???? Okay. ???? So do you want to start telling about this week?
I guess. There's a whole lot to tell about, though, so you've got to help me.
Well, it was Father's Day this week. It was our first whole week outta school, too. Dad said we can sleep late if we want to. But I like to get up early.
Da said he's jealous, because he still has to get up with the chickens. Vin?
What chickens? We don't have any chickens.
???? I don't know. I think that's just what grown ups say.
Can I tell more about the week, now?
Anyway, Mrs. Potter's came home but now her kids, Katie and David, went away this week. They went to stay with their grandma and grandpa Potter for a while. Then they're gonna go stay with their grandma and step-grandpa Harrison. That's Mrs. Potter's mama and step-daddy.
I still think Mrs. Potter's too old to have a mama.
???? JD, that's silly. Grown up folks have mom's and dad's, too. Chris' got a dad and a mom. Grandpa Matt came to visit, even.
Well, Da doesn't have a mama anymore. And he gets real sad when he talks about her. She went to dream with the angels when he was real young.
???? JD, he was twenty! That ain't young!
Da said it is.
???? Okay, but he's got Grandpa Matt for a dad now.
Yep, an' Grandpa Matt said he's gonna talk to Chris' mom bout being his second mama an' bout being our grandma.
That'll be cool!
???? Anyway, since Katie and David ain't here, Mrs. Potter says she's rattling around in her house all by herself.
Vin, that ain't about this week.
Yeah, it is.
No, it ain't!
Sorry, Dad. Okay, let's talk about Father's Day, then.
Gloria Potter watched the two little boys in her care as they ran happily around the backyard. She had to smile as Vin would slow down, obviously shortening his stride to accommodate JD. Then, caught up in the joy of running, he would forget and leave the smaller boy behind. Then he would realize what he was doing and slow down again. She wasn't certain who he confused more: the dogs or JD. Ringo and Elvis would be bounding along beside him one minute, then dancing in circles and barking when he lagged behind. The smaller child would smile when he found himself pacing the older boy, then he would frown when Vin sprinted ahead.
After watching the children for several minutes, she called, "Boys! Come get washed up for lunch!"
Both children immediately changed course, hurrying back toward the house. She stepped back inside, hearing the mudroom door slam, announcing that the boys were inside.
A few minutes later they came into the kitchen in stocking feet, hands and faces still damp from being washed in the mudroom sink. They sat down to meals of beanie weenies, with shredded cheese and applesauce. They were each eating from the special dishware Chris had surprised them with a few months ago. Since the boys would be home all day much of the summer, she had agreed to fix their lunches on their 'special dishes'.
The housekeeper watched as, through the course of the meal, JD seemed to grow more and more thoughtful. She had observed this unusual behavior several times since she'd returned from her niece's house. At the oddest times he would simply sit and stare at Vin, stopping only when the older boy became uncomfortable enough to say something to him.
"JD! Sheesh, would y' stop starin' at me? Every time I turn 'round any more, yer starin' at me!"
"Sorry," the little brunet said, contritely.
"It jist makes me feel funny is all. How come y' keep doin' it?"
"I'm just thinkin'."
"Just stuff!" He replied sharply.
"JD," The housekeeper gently admonished. "That's no way to talk to Vin, he simply asked you a question."
Hanging his head, tears welling up in big hazel eyes, the five year old muttered, "I'm sorry, Miz Potter. I'm sorry, Vin."
Shrugging his shoulders, the little blond said, "If it's a secret, you jist have t' say so."
Shaking his head, young Dunne said, "It ain't a secret. It's just I don't know... it's just somethin' I've been tryin' to figure out."
"Is it something we could help you with?" Mrs. Potter asked.
With a heavy sigh, the little brunet said, "I don't know it's just well I've just been thinkin' about " he shrugged again, "stuff."
Gloria wasn't certain if the child's hesitance was due to confusion or just that he didn't want to share the problem with her. "Well, maybe your Da could help you?"
"No I don't think I can talk to him 'bout this."
Deciding it might have something to do with Father's Day, Gloria said, "Well, what about Chris or one of your uncles?"
Frowning as he considered her suggestion, JD said, "Maybe Unca' Ezra knows a lotta stuff, don't he?"
"Doesn't he; yes, he does."
Hazel eyes lighting up, the five year old said, "Could I call him?"
"Eat your lunch first and then you know the rules."
Nodding, thick black hair bobbing, the little boy recited, "If he's busy, I can't bug him, I just ask 'im to call me later when he gots time to talk."
Agent Standish smiled when he recognized the voice on the other end of the line. His demeanor changed, and he became Uncle Ezra. "Good afternoon, JD, to what do I owe the pleasure of getting a phone call from you?"
The little brunet frowned at the phone, trying to decide how to answer what he figured must be a question. At least it sounded like a question. Finally, he said, "Are you busy?"
With a chuckle, Standish said, "Not at the moment."
"'Kay then can you talk to me?"
"Certainly. What would you like to talk about?"
Looking around to see that no one was listening in, the little boy said, "I wanna talk 'bout fathers."
"No fathers. I need to know what makes somebody a father."
Ezra blanched, his mouth dropping open. They had all heard about the boys' introduction to birth while at Ken Torres' home. And their fathers had discussed things in general with them in regards to Gloria Potter's need to be with her niece recently. He had never dreamed that he might be the recipient of some of the questions that might come up from those events. Clearing his throat, the southerner said, "Why why do you ask?"
With a heavy sigh, the little boy began to pace as he tried to explain what was on his mind. "I was just wonderin'. We was talkin' about it last week 'fore school was over. Mr. B. was askin' us what makes somebody a father an' what makes 'im special. An' it made me start thinkin' 'bout how somebody could be a father."
"I see," Ezra said in a puzzled tone, although he frankly was still confused about the reason for the phone call. "JD, is this something to do with your Da?"
"No not Da."
Frustrated that, for once, the child was being close-mouthed, Standish asked, "Are you certain it isn't about Father's Day?"
"Well, maybe sort'a."
"Is it about what to get your Da for Father's Day?"
"Does it have something to do with the father you had before you came to live with your Da and Chris? Your 'born daddy'?"
"Not my born daddy, I don't gots one." The child replied innocently.
Green eyes filling with sadness at the statement, Standish cleared his throat. "But it's about someone who was like a father to you before your Da?"
With a look of amazement the child gasped as he said, "Yeah."
The man frowned. As far as they knew, JD had been with no one but his mother. Could the man the little boy was thinking about be the one who had murdered Rachel Dunne? The case was as yet unsolved; it could have been a random act, or it could be premeditated. Wondering if some memory had surfaced, he asked, "JD was this someone who lived with you and your mother?"
"No he didn't know my mama."
Noting the hesitation, the undercover agent said, "Is this perhaps something better discussed face to face?"
"Would it be easier to talk about it if I came to visit you?"
Smiling at the excited tone, Ezra said, "Very well, then. Your father is in a meeting right now but as soon as he comes out I'll ask him if I can come visit you this evening. Would that be all right?"
"Yeah! Thanks Unca' Ezra!"
"You're quite welcome, JD," Standish said with a chuckle.
Chris and Buck had both been in a meeting most of the morning. They returned just before lunch and joined Josiah and Ezra at one of the local restaurants. Nathan was back at work now, but had gotten the rare opportunity to meet his wife for lunch and had slipped out a few minutes early.
Ezra dominated the conversation for several minutes, filling Wilmington and Larabee in on his conversation with JD. "I feel that there may be something that has come to mind that he's fearful of discussing with the two of you."
Buck nodded. "They're both still afraid that we'll think they're bad boys and send them away. Doesn't matter how much we try to prove otherwise, they still have that fear of rejection."
"Precisely why I thought that he may open up to me a bit more readily, if that's all right with you?"
"Well, sure, slick. What did you have in mind?"
While the other two agents began to make plans for Ezra's visit, Josiah watched Chris. The blond had become somewhat withdrawn as the conversation progressed. Now he was sitting there, staring into space with a frown on his face. Taking a chance, the big profiler said, "You look like a man with a problem, boss."
Heaving a sigh, the team leader turned to regard the older man. With a shrug he said, "Honestly I'm not sure if there's a problem, or if I'm just reading something into nothing."
"You could share it with someone and try to figure it out," Sanchez suggested.
Smiling, Larabee said, "Like you, for instance?"
A broad grin spreading across his features, Josiah said, "You got anything better to do?"
His smile intact, the smaller man shook his head. "No, I guess not."
Sanchez settled back in his chair, crossing his arms over his broad chest. "Well then, fire away."
"Okay. Well, it's something that happened to the boys right before school ended. Two of the other kids in their class Freddy and Eli Joe tried to start something with Vin and JD. Vin swears he's over it, but I keep getting the idea that something's going on in that head of his that he's not ready to share. I thought it was over at first, but I've noticed some things cropping up again since my Dad left."
"Eli Joe and Freddy, huh? Those two could certainly stand a few sessions with Will Lowery."
"Yeah, right, "Chris replied with a snort, "only if their whole family went. And honestly? I don't see that happening. Both those boys come from single parent homes, and Joe Chavez and Ava Chaney don't seem to be handling their roles well. Joe's too busy beating the concept of machismo into his son and Ava's just plain never home. She seems to think that corporate law is more important than being a mother. Freddy and his brother are being raised by the school and an after-school program.
"At any rate, the boys started going on about me and Buck giving our boys away when we get bored with them, pointing it out that they don't have 'real' fathers, things like that. Biedler redirected them pretty quickly and turned it into a class discussion about fathers. He brought it up in a pow-wow, but since then he just keeps saying he's fine, that it's not an issue with him any more."
"But you're not buying it, I take it?"
Shaking his head, the blond said, "No, I don't. I'm not certain what's bothering him, but I'd lay odds that it has something to do with Father's Day. And it's something he isn't ready to share with me right now."
"Well, it looks like Ezra's going to be busy with JD this evening. What if I see if maybe Vin will talk to me?"
A thankful expression crossed the blond's face. "I'd be more grateful than I can say."
Vin sat cross-legged in one corner of the tree house, elbows on knees and chin on fists. He was gazing out across the yard, but his mind was elsewhere. He wasn't even aware of Ringo sitting nearby, blue eyes staring at him intently and long, red tongue hanging out as the dog panted.
JD hadn't wanted to come outside after quiet time. Instead, he was sitting in their room drawing or something. That was fine with Vin, he wanted some time alone to think. Ever since Eli Joe and Freddy had said those mean things about Chris and Buck, he had been thinking. And the more he thought, the more confused he became.
Chris said that he loved him; that he wanted to be his father forever, and Vin had no reason to doubt that. But did not adopting him mean that he would never really be his dad? Maybe Chris didn't love him enough to be his real dad? Or maybe it was because of Adam. He never expected Chris to love him as much as he had loved his borned son. After all, Chris had made Adam with Mrs. Chris and had known him all his life; and he had been seven before Chris even met him.
He'd overheard his Dad talking to Grandpa Matt while the older man was visiting. He had had a bad dream and, as he had learned to, he went in search of his foster father. Soft voices in the den caught his attention, and he moved toward the sound. Just as he reached the open doorway, he heard a word that he had been pondering for several days. It caused him to stop, listening in on the conversation.
He hadn't meant to listen to the conversation, but he couldn't seem to help himself after he heard Grandpa Matt say that word. So he had stood there, listening.
"I'm just really worried whether or not I'm doing the right thing, Dad, making the right decision."
"It's a big decision, son, that's for certain. You know how rough it was when Craig and Debi decided to adopt Cassidy and Levi. There are risks involved. And, you're right, Chris he's not Adam."
"No, far from it."
"Is that what you're looking for?"
There was a silence, then, "No. You're right, Dad. What was I thinking?"
Vin had found himself rushing back to his bedroom, his heart pounding and tears streaming down his face. He didn't know what had happened and wasn't even certain of what Chris and Grandpa Matt were talking about. All he knew was that it sounded bad.
He just wished he could figure it out.
Just then, Mrs. Potter called him from the back door, interrupting his thoughts. "Vin!"
Peeking out of the tree house, the little blond called, "Yes, ma'am?"
"Your Uncle Josiah would like to speak to you on the phone."
"'Kay!" He hurried down the ramp and sprinted across the yard. He and JD called their uncles sometimes, but it wasn't very often that one of their uncles called them.
Entering the house, Vin noticed that JD was dancing around the den with a big smile on his face. Even though he was still struggling with his thoughts, the sight of his 'brother' doing what he called a 'happy dance' put a smile on the older boy's face. Taking the phone that Mrs. Potter held out for him, he said, "H'lo? Unca' 'Siah?"
"Hi, Vin. I have a favor to ask."
Frowning, the little blond said, "Okay."
"Well, JD has made plans with your Uncle Ezra to go out this evening, and I'm feeling a little left out. Would you be willing to go somewhere with your poor, old, Uncle 'Siah?"
Little Tanner giggled. "You ain't old, Unca' 'Siah. Are we gonna go with JD and Unca' Ezra?"
"Well, I thought that maybe you and I could go somewhere, just the two of us. Would that be okay?"
With a broad grin, Vin said, "Yeah, I'd like that!"
"Good. Mrs. Potter said she's coming into town anyway, so she's offered to bring you to the office."
"'Kay oh! I gotta ask Dad if it's okay."
"He's standing right here and he said it's okay with him."
"Cool! I'll see you in a little bit, Unca' 'Siah!"
Gloria Potter entered the Team Seven suite at four-thirty, JD and Vin all but dancing around her. Both boys had been bathed and shampooed, and were dressed for an evening with their uncles. Coming in a little before the end of the work day also gave the boys a little time to see their foster fathers.
Chris came to the door of his office as soon as he heard the familiar sound of an excited JD chirping at top speed as he regaled his Da with some tale. He smiled at the sight of Vin standing to one side, giggling at the younger boy's antics. JD was perched on the edge of Buck's desk, rattling on about something he'd seen on TV that morning.
Vin looked up and saw his father, smiling as the tall blond shook his head at JD and Buck. Moving quickly across the room, he stood beside his Dad. He couldn't help but grin and giggle as big arms lifted him into the air and he was wrapped in a hug.
"So, Cowboy, you ready to spend the evening with Uncle Josiah?"
Nodding, Vin said in a serious tone, "I even cleaned 'hind my ears an' Miz. Potter cleaned under my fingernails."
Smiling at the child's literal response, Larabee said, "Well, I'll have to tell your Uncle Josiah not to let the girls flirt with you too much then. There's nothing like a guy with clean ears and fingernails to make a girl get mushy."
Making a face, Vin said, "Daaaaa-aaaaad!"
Laughing, the senior agent said, "Hey, one of these days you'll like it when they get mushy."
Rolling his eyes, the seven year old said, "No way!" Girls were yucky and he'd think they were yucky until he was even older than Unca' 'Siah.
Giving the boy a squeeze, Chris said, "Well, don't be surprised if you change your mind about that a long time from now."
The boys made the office suite a lively place to be until five then the entire group left together. There was more than one smile on the face of passersby that saw the two small children giggling and laughing as they made their way toward the entrance surrounded by five grinning men.
In the parking garage the group broke up, Chris, Buck and Nathan watching as Josiah led Vin toward his Suburban and Ezra made his way to his jag, JD in tow. The two fathers watched their sons disappear into the vehicles, a mixture of emotions playing across their handsome features.
Noting the expressions on his friends' faces, Nathan laid a hand on each shoulder. "I'm sure Ezra and Josiah will get to the bottom of all this."
"I sure hope so," Chris replied with a sigh.
"Me, too," Buck agreed.
It was sure fun going with Uncle Ezra to that restaurant, but boy did they have lots of forks and spoons there! I thought at first some of them was for other folks, but Uncle Ezra said they was all for me.
We didn't have lots of forks and spoons, just one of each. We got to choose what we wanted to eat and even watch it getting cooked. I liked going with Uncle Josiah.
I liked it when we all had desert at that dessert place, too.
Oh, yeah! That was really cool. Uncle Josiah got that great big sundae and couldn't hardly finish it. We got to help him eat some of it.
Yeah, that was fun, but it wasn't much fun when Uncle Ezra had to pull over because I got sick on the way home.
That's because you were a pig!
Ezra watched as JD picked around his salad. The five year old hadn't been very interested in having a salad in the first place, but he was trying it. As the little brunet speared a lettuce leaf, the southerner said, "So, JD, what was it you wanted to talk about?"
Frowning, the little brunet studied the leaf, watching the orange dressing dripping from it back to the plate. "Well, I I been thinkin' 'bout how come somebody's a father."
"Are you talking about the biological I mean, do you mean how are babies made?"
"No, I know all 'bout that," Little Dunne said with a matter-of-fact tone. "A lady an' a man lays down an' kisses an' then the lady's tummy gets fat an' a baby comes out."
Suppressing a smile, Standish said, "Well, I'm glad you're so knowledgeable in that area. I'm still confused, however, so maybe we can start at the beginning. What do you think it is that a father does?"
The question caught JD with a large chunk of dinner roll in his mouth. He made himself wait until he chewed up and swallowed the bread before he answered. "Well, we talked 'bout it in school an' a father keeps his kids safe, an' makes sure they get food an' clothes and has a place to live an' he teaches 'em things, an' he loves 'em."
Nodding, Ezra said, "It seems to me that you're very knowledgeable about what a father does. So, are you thinking of one particular person?"
"Nope, I'm just thinkin' about one person who I know that can do them things, but it ain't Buck. An' since I gots Buck, I can't have no other person be my da, right?"
So perhaps that was it. JD thought that he could only have one person fulfill that role in his life. Was he thinking about how Chris also took on the role of a father at times? Was he concerned that acknowledging that would harm his relationship with Buck? "Are you worried that if you think of someone else as your father, it will hurt your Da's feelings?"
Swallowing a mouth full of lasagna, the little boy said, "Sort of. I mean, I can only have one Da, right?"
Wide-eyed, the child's sauce smudged mouth formed an "O". "I can have more than one Da?"
"You might not call them "Da", you might call them something else. But yes, you can have more than one person in your life that you feel is like a father to you."
"Even at the same time?"
"Yes. Have I ever told you that I have had five fathers?"
"FIVE!?" Marinara sauce and bits of pasta splattered the linen tablecloth.
Wincing at both the child's loud voice, and the new decorations on their table, Standish managed to say, "Yes. My mother has been married five different times."
"Was they all good das?"
Averting his eyes before the child could see the pain he felt fill his heart, Ezra said, "No, not all of them."
Squinting his eyes and asking with a clarity that took no account of the pain the words might cause, JD asked, "How many was good das?"
With a wan smile, the southerner said, "Well, I'm not certain I could explain it very well, so let's just say some of them. The important thing is, you can have more than one man in your life that you feel is like a father. JD, could you tell me who it is that you've been thinking of? It would help me help you figure things out."
Heaving a heavy sigh, the boy said, "He ain't a growed up."
Those five words unveiled the person's identity with perfect clarity. With a gold-edged grin, the man asked, "Are you speaking of Vin?"
His relieved smile showing bits of dinner, the tot squealed, "Yeah!"
With an embarrassed expression, Standish acknowledged the startled looks the child's voice brought them. Turning his attention back to JD, he said, "Well, I think that you're right, JD. Vin did take on the role of a father when the two of you lived in the warehouse."
"Yeah, 'cause he maded us our house outta all them boxes and crates an' stuff an' he finded us food in th' trash cans, an' sometimes he finded money so we could buy new food an' he teached me not to talk t' peoples that I didn't know 'cause I was too little to give 'em what they wanted an' he teached me how to tell lies to folks so they wouldn't know we didn't have any growed ups to take care of us. He finded me clothes sometimes when people leaved 'em at the park or throwed 'em out just 'cause they was teared. He did lots of stuff a da would do. Even when he got hurted, he telled me to do stuff 'fore he went to sleep."
Seeing the growing number of fellow customers staring at them as the story of the two orphans filled the quiet room, Standish waited until he saw an opening. "Yes, you're quite right, JD, he was like a father to you. Is that what's been worrying you?"
"Some of it. But mostly I been feelin' bad 'bout somethin'."
"And what would that something be? Are you afraid that if you acknowledge the fact that Vin was like a father, Buck will be hurt?"
"You mean that if I say Vin was my Da when we lived in the warehouse that Da will feel sad?"
"Yes, that's another way to put it," the southerner replied.
"No, I think he'd be happy if I said that."
"I believe you're right. So, what is it that's been bothering you about all this?"
"Well, it's gonna be Father's Day on Sunday did you know that?"
"I had heard, yes."
"An' Mz. Potter's gonna help me an' Vin get gifts for Da and Chris. An' Aunt Raine's gonna help us make dinner for 'em on Sunday since she can't be with her daddy anyway."
"Yes, I had heard about all of that as well." He saw where the child's train of thought was going, but waited until he spoke the words.
"But I didn't do nothin' for Vin! He was like my daddy for a real long time, but I didn't even know 'bout Father's Day then. An' I've told him thank you lots of times, but " He sighed once more, tears welling up in the large hazel eyes.
Reaching out and tucking a finger beneath the child's chin, Ezra looked into the pain-stricken face and said, "But you'd like to show him with a gift, just how important he's been to you?"
Tears splashed down the cherubic cheeks. "It ain't fair that he don't get nothin' for Father's Day, Unca' Ezra."
His heart touched by the child's words, Standish said, "Well, we must certainly remedy that. Do you know what you'd like to purchase?"
Head ducking and his voice dropping to just above a whisper, the little brunet said, "Yeah, I seen him lookin' at somethin' when we was at the store. But it's real 'spensive, so he won't say nothin' 'bout wantin' it."
Not wanting to repeat the problems he had inadvertently created at Easter, Ezra said, "Perhaps if I spoke to Chris about it, we can make some arrangements to purchase it."
The five year old bounced out of his chair and hurried around the table. Heedless of the red sauce on his fingers, the little boy grabbed the man in a hug. "Thanks, Unca' Ezra!"
Inwardly wincing as the marinara sauce seemed to burn through his pearl gray shirt, the man managed to reply, "You're quite welcome, JD."
Josiah watched the little boy across from him struggle to regain his composure. Vin had just told him about the conversation he had accidentally overheard between Chris and Matt Larabee. Although his voice didn't carry beyond their table, he was obviously quite distraught over the whole situation.
"I really didn't mean t' hear what Chris an' Gran'pa Matt said, Unca' 'Siah, I promise." His large, blue eyes glistened with tears as he stared down at the black lacquered tabletop.
"I'm sure you didn't, Vin, I'm certain it was an accident. I also get the feeling that what they said didn't make you very happy."
Sniffling as he shook his head no, the tiny blond said, "I cried a long time."
"And you haven't been able to find out exactly what they were talking about?"
"They was talkin' about Chris not wantin' to be my 'dopted Dad." He shrugged, the picture of pure misery.
"Or perhaps Chris was just discussing how much he wants to be your adopted father?"
Frowning as he peered up at the older man, the little blond said, "It didn't sound like he wanted t' 'dopt me, Unca' 'Siah. Him an' Gran'pa Matt said I ain't like Adam."
"Is that necessarily a bad thing, Vin? Not being like Adam, I mean."
Vin looked at the big profiler as if he'd committed the ultimate sin. "Adam was Chris' little boy, Unca' 'Siah. He was a real good kid, an' Chris loved 'im very, very much."
"I have no doubt that Chris loved Adam very, very much. But Adam wasn't perfect, Vin, and just because you aren't like him doesn't make you less than him. I have no doubt that Chris loves you very, very much, too."
"But I ain't his born son."
"That's only one way to become someone's son, Vin. Let's say you had been Chris' born son, and Adam's little brother by birth. Would Chris love you less than Adam then?"
Frowning at the question, the diminutive blond said, "No, I reckon not."
"So you're saying that he would have had room in his heart for both you and Adam?"
"Yeah. I mean, lots 'a mamas and daddys has more 'n one kid, an' they love 'em. Mrs. Torres has lots a kids, but she sure seemed t' like 'em all th' same."
Stifling a smile, Sanchez said, "Yes, she does. Do you think that if one of her children had been adopted, she'd love them any less?"
"I don't think so," Vin shook his head.
"All right, then what about you? Do you want Chris to be your adopted your 'real' father?"
With hesitation, young Tanner stammered, "I I don't know I mean I "
Realizing that the child was afraid to admit the truth, the big man tried a different track. "Are you afraid you won't love Chris enough?"
"Okay. I thought for a minute that perhaps you didn't think you could love Chris as much as you love your born daddy, Michael."
Big eyes flaring with barely repressed anger, the seven year old said, "'Course I love Chris like I love my born daddy!"
"Is Chris like your born daddy?"
Vin studied the question. All he knew about his birth father was what Randy Carpenter and the other men who knew Michael Tanner told him. Shrugging, he said, "Sort 'a but not all the ways."
"Does that make either of them a bad person?"
"But you have room in your heart for both of them?"
"Sure," Vin looked at his uncle as if he'd lost his mind.
"Then, do you think that maybe Chris has room in his heart for both you and Adam?"
"Maybe. But what I heard Dad an' Grandpa Matt sayin' th' other night "
"Did you hear everything they said?"
Thinking hard, he said, "I I don't know. I don't think so. They was already talkin' when I heard 'em. An they was still talkin' when I left."
"Then you don't have all of the information, do you?" Josiah asked gently.
"No, you don't. So, we need to get all the information about what they said that night."
"Are you afraid of getting in trouble for listening to their conversation, or afraid of what you'll find out?"
With a deep, shuddering sigh, Vin said, "I I don't know. I'm jist scared, Unca' 'Siah."
Reaching across the table, Sanchez tenderly stroked a hand through the thick blond hair. Gently he said, "Buddy, I know this is all very scary, but it's going to be all right."
A tear rolled down his elfin face as Vin said softly, "Are you sure, Unca' 'Siah?"
The gray haired man considered the question. Chris Larabee was difficult to 'read' much of the time, but in one area, he was as easy to see through as a pane of glass. Larabee deeply loved the child sitting across from him. "I'm very sure, Vin. Would you like me to find out what's going on?"
He considered the offer for a few moments before saying, "You don't mind?"
Smiling, the big man said, "I don't mind at all."
With an answering smile and relief brightening his little face, the child said, "Thanks, Unca' 'Siah."
"You're welcome, Vin."
Chris looked up at the sound of a vehicle pulling up to the house. He turned from the computer where he had been catching up on some work to find Buck already on his feet, heading for the door.
Ezra and Josiah were just climbing out of the southerner's car. They helped the boys out of their booster seats and carried them toward the house. JD looked decidedly green as he curled against Standish. Vin, on the other hand, looked more worried than ill. He clung to Sanchez, greeting his father with a shy smile as the bigger man carried him into the house.
A short time later, Josiah and Ezra had settled the little ones in bed and joined Chris and Buck on the deck. The four men settled into chairs, glasses of bourbon in their hands. Ezra began to speak first, explaining what he had uncovered in talking to JD.
Buck shook his head, a smile lighting his face. "I swear, that boy's got a heart bigger than "
"Yours?" Chris said with a grin.
"I told him I'd speak to you concerning the gift. I'm not certain exactly what it is, but he said that Vin had really liked it. He hadn't mentioned it because, again according to JD, it's 'spensive. I thought it prudent to ask your permission before investigating further."
With a chagrined expression, Larabee said, "Yeah, check it out and let us know."
"Yeah, I think that, for once, Father's Day can be a 'big gift' holiday as far as Vin's concerned." Buck added. Blue eyes glittering, he said, "That boy never ceases to amaze me."
"They're both pretty amazing kids," Josiah said. Then he related what had been on Vin's mind for the past several days. As he explained what Vin had overheard, he saw the blond grow more and more somber. As he finished, he said, "I hope I didn't overstep my bounds promising him that everything would be all right."
"What? Of course not," Larabee replied. "You're right on all counts. In fact " he hesitated, looking at Wilmington. When the other man nodded, he said, "Well, we wanted this to be a surprise "
Vin and JD woke the next morning just as the sun was making its presence known on the eastern horizon. While JD finished in the bathroom, Vin shuffled into the kitchen. Finding Chris there, he was reminded of his conversation with Uncle Josiah the night before. Suddenly bashful, he studied the floor.
With a pained smile, Larabee reached down and ruffled the disheveled, blond locks. "Morning, Cowboy."
"Mornin'," little Tanner murmured uncomfortably. Then he blinked as he felt himself lifted into the air. Finding himself eye to eye with his foster father, he tried to show a smile.
Rubbing a thumb over a soft, sleep flushed cheek, Chris said softly, "I'm not angry with you, Vin, and I don't want you to ever worry that I think less of you because you weren't my son at birth. I love you every bit as much as I would have if you had been born to me. I think you misunderstood what you heard the other night. Your Grandpa Matt and I were talking about some sad things that happened to my cousin and her husband. We were also talking about a surprise that Buck and I have for you and JD. Can you hold out a few more days to find out what it is?"
Relief had washed over the tiny face, and a smile grew as he took in the words. With a giggle, the seven year old said, "A s'prise?"
His own relief growing, Larabee said, "Yes, a surprise."
Blue eyes glittering with mischief, the child said, "Did y' hide it in yer room?"
Larabee couldn't help but laugh hardily. "I'm not telling you, and you'd better not go snooping in my bedroom."
"I wouldn't do that," Vin tried - and failed - to keep a straight face. "But I could dust an' vacuum in yer room if y' want me to."
Swinging the giggling boy to the floor, the tall blond said, "No, I don't need you to clean my bedroom, thank you very much, you little sneak. Now, go see where the other rugrat is and tell him to come eat breakfast."
Still giggling, happier than he had been for days, the tiny blond scampered from the room.
The rest of the week was filled with smiles and giggles, unexplained winks, and whispered plans. Gloria Potter helped the boys with their Father's Day plans, making and wrapping their gifts as well as making the cards that went with them. Raine helped them go through their Kids' Cookbook and plan the Father's Day dinner they wanted to make for Chris and Buck Sunday afternoon. That decided, she took them shopping for supplies, several additional things finding their way into the cart as well. Ezra took JD shopping on Saturday afternoon, while Chris and Buck took care of things in the barn. While they were gone Josiah, Raine and Nathan took directions from and helped Vin get the house ready for the next day's festivities.
While the boys were kept busy with their plans, Chris and Buck took care of their own, making arrangements to put into motion the surprise they wanted to give the boys Sunday as well. Amidst all the excitement though, the two men found themselves questioning the plan, wondering if it was the right thing to do and the right time to do it. No matter how often they asked themselves and one another those questions, however, the answers remained the same. Yes, it was the right thing to do and, yes, it was the right time to do it.
???? You know, I thought you were being sneaky getting Uncle Ezra to take you shopping while I had to clean the house.
???? Well, it was fun not to have to do that stuff, because it's boring, boring, boring. But I know that sometimes I've got to do it anyway. If we didn't have to go then, I would have stayed home and helped you. It looked real nice when we got home.
Thanks. You and Uncle Ezra looked really funny trying to sneak my surprise into the house.
???? Yeah, it was real big and we didn't know where we could hide it.
It was really hard to go to sleep Saturday night, too. It was almost as exciting as Christmas or birthdays.
Yeah, I know, I kept trying to go to sleep, but my eyes kept coming open all by their selves!
On Sunday morning, just after the sun colored the sky, Chris and Buck woke the boys. While Wilmington supervised their getting dressed, Larabee readied Peso, Pony, and Beau. Before Vin and JD had rubbed the sleep out of their eyes, they found themselves in the saddle, accompanying their foster fathers on an early morning ride.
Riding to the far end of the meadow, the foursome dismounted. Spreading out a blanket, the two men and their sons settled in and enjoyed a breakfast of breakfast bars and fruit. The boys each sipped at juice boxes while their fathers shared a thermos of coffee.
JD curled sleepily in Buck's lap, yawning between bites. The big brunet ruffled the thick black hair and said, "You look like you could use some coffee there, Little Bit."
Wrinkling his nose, the five year old said, "Ick."
Nearby, Vin was snuggled against Chris, chewing slowly on a breakfast bar. His eyes were wide, watching the early morning sky change colors. He didn't even realize that he had sighed until he felt a strong arm wrap around his shoulders, and the man beside him spoke in a soft tone.
"You sound like you're enjoying the morning."
Nodding, he leaned against the broad chest. "It sure is purty."
With a soft kiss on the thick, blond hair, Larabee said, "It sure is."
Ezra pulled up to the end of the drive, shaking his head when he saw that Josiah, Nathan and Raine were already there. Slipping from behind the wheel of his Jaguar, the undercover agent moved toward the house. The front door opened, and a familiar silver head poked out.
"About time you showed up," Sanchez scolded.
"Our esteemed leader said that they wouldn't return until approximately 11:30 am." Making a show of looking at his watch, he concluded, "It is only 10:00 am, now."
"Yes, but if I recall, we were all supposed to be here to get everything finished up before they got here."
Holding up a large bag, Standish said, "I am in charge of wrapping the gift that JD purchased for Vin. I have plenty of time to complete that task."
Leaning against the door facing, the bigger man folded his arms across his broad chest. Raising one gray brow, he said, "JD purchased?"
"Yes, well he and I struck a bargain. He will perform a few housekeeping tasks for me over the course of the next few weeks," the southerner replied with a sly smile.
Standish simply nodded as he slid past the other man, heading into the house. He heard the other man following him through the house and knew that Josiah was curious about the gift JD had purchased for Vin. Making his way into Buck's bedroom, he went to the closet, opened the door, and slid the clothes aside. At the back of the little cubicle was a rather large, narrow package. Pulling it out, he carried it from the room and continued down the hallway.
"Sure is big, whatever it is," Sanchez said thoughtfully.
"Yes, it is," Ezra agreed. Moving into the dining room, he sat the parcels down long enough to remove the table cloth and centerpiece that covered the dining room table. Retrieving the bag he had just brought with him, he began pulling things from it. A large tube of wrapping paper, decorated with horses, scissors and tape. Last, but not least, he removed a small, stuffed pony that would act as a decoration on the package. The pony was black terrycloth with a white blaze, it was lying down, legs tucked beneath it.
"Nice paper. Sure you've got enough?"
"Quite." He opened the cellophane wrapper and rolled the paper out along the length of the table. Looking up with a slight frown, Standish asked, "Don't you have something to do?"
Pulling out one of the chairs, the big man said, "Nope. I was here at nine, along with Nathan and Raine. We finished up the things we were asked to do."
Heaving a sigh when he realized that Sanchez had no intention of leaving without finding out what gift JD had decided on, he reached down and lifted the larger bag onto the table. Opening it up, he pulled out the long box inside.
"A rocket?" Josiah asked, heavy brows drawing down in a puzzled expression.
"A rocket. You were expecting a tie or socks?"
With a deep chuckle the older man said, "Point taken. I don't know what I expected."
"Something as deeply meaningful as the gesture to acknowledge what Vin did for his surrogate brother, perhaps?"
With a sigh, Sanchez shook his head. "Sometimes I forget that they're children. From one child to another, it's the perfect gift."
Sobering, Standish answered softly, "I fear that at times we only see what their past has done to them, we forget just how short their lives have been."
"That's awfully philosophical for you this early in the morning, isn't it?"
"Yes, well, I suppose this particular celebration has left me philosophical."
Cocking his head, Josiah regarded his friend with a concerned expression. "Something weighing on your mind?"
The answer was too quick, and Sanchez didn't believe a word of it. "You know, sometimes it helps to talk about it."
A wan smile was the southerner's only reply. He turned to the task at hand and began wrapping the gift. After a few minutes, he sighed and turned to regard the other man with sad, emerald eyes. "It's nothing life-shattering, Josiah. JD well, he asked me some questions the other day, about my father fathers."
"And they raised some memories?"
Shrugging, Ezra said, "I suppose. It's just when I told him that Maude had been married 5 times; he asked me how many had been good fathers."
"What was your answer?"
Heaving a sigh the younger man said, "I didn't answer, actually. I as they say 'chickened out'. I didn't think it necessary to inform him that, of the five, only one came close to treating me decently."
"I'm sorry, my friend," Josiah said sincerely.
Offering a smile to the other man, Ezra said, "Thank you my friend."
The four members of the little patchwork family arrived back at the ranch promptly at 11:30. Four faces were flushed and beaming, a sure sign that they had enjoyed the morning. As the horses were reined in at the barn, Josiah met them, reaching out to take the reins.
"I'll take care of the horses; you've got better things to do."
Thanking the older man, Chris and Buck lifted the boys from the saddles and watched both children spring toward the house. Vin sprinted toward Nathan and Raine, while JD ran full force toward Ezra.
Standish braced himself as the three foot tall whirlwind flew into his arms. Swinging the little boy onto his hip, the southerner said, "Well, hello, Master Dunne."
"Hi, Unca' Ezra, is it all taked care of?"
Wincing at the decibel level of the child's question, Standish said, "Yes, it's all taken care of."
Wrapping his arms around the man's neck, the five year old said, "Thanks, Unca Ezra!"
"Come on, Little Bit," Buck said as he joined the two of them, "Let's go get cleaned up for lunch."
Handing the child over to his foster father, Standish nodded gratefully. He said only, "Yes, I'm certain you worked up quite an appetite on your ride." That was exactly the wrong thing to say.
"Yeah, we did, 'cause we had a lotta fun! We rided out to the meadow an' we had breakfas' when the sun was just comin' up an' then we rided some more an' we climbed on the rocks and then we waded in the creek an' then we saw some fishes an' then we tried to catch 'em with our hands an' then we rided some more an' then - "
"Breathe, Little Bit, breathe!" A chorus of adults sang out in unison.
The little brunet blinked in surprise, then smiled. With a giggle, he crowed, "I am breathin'!"
The boys and their fathers went to shower and change before joining the rest of their surrogate family for lunch. Both Buck and Chris were surprised to find part of their wardrobe had been chosen for them. They emerged from their bedrooms with their "World's Greatest" tee-shirts on. The men were soon joined by their foster sons, the boys wearing their "Team" tee-shirts.
"Well, aren't the four of you just the Father's Day fashion plates," Raine proclaimed with a smile.
Affecting a sweeping bow, Wilmington said, "Why thank you, ma'am."
"We ain't got no plates," JD noted as he stared at the adults around him.
"It's just a sayin', Li'l Bit," Buck explained as he headed the child toward the picnic table.
The group gathered at the picnic table for lunch. Raine, Josiah and Nathan had laid out quite a spread, with club sandwiches, raw vegetables, potato salad and a jell-o mold. Neither boy ate much, too intent on telling their aunt and uncles about their adventures that morning. Then, after they finished detailing their ride, JD continued to grow more and more excited.
"Da!" He called out as the adults were finishing their meals.
Jumping, Wilmington yelped, "What!?"
"I'm too 'cited to wait can I do my s'prise now?"
"You don't want to wait until later?" They were going to open the gifts the boys had for them at dinner.
"No!" The big hazel eyes zeroed in on the hapless man. "I wanna do it nooooo-oooooow!"
Making a face and holding his ears, the mustached agent said, "Can you at least wait until we get things cleaned up?"
The dark eyes grew larger and the boy's bottom lip poked out in a pout. "But I'm soooooooooo 'cited, Da! Please?"
Poking his own lower lip out to imitate his foster son, Buck said, "Ten more minutes, okay?"
Heaving a sigh that said he was not happy about waiting for so long, JD said softly, "Okaaaaay."
As soon as everyone had finished eating and the table had been cleared, the five year old began to fidget once more. "Now, Da? Can I get it now?"
Shaking his head, Buck said, "Yeah, come on. Let's do this before you explode."
Vin frowned up at Chris from where he sat beside his foster parent. "What's he gettin' so e'cited about, Dad?"
Suppressing a smile, Larabee said, "I don't know, guess we'll find out in a few minutes."
Ezra had gone with Buck and JD to retrieve the younger boy's surprise for his friend and surrogate brother. The three of them reappeared on the deck, the two men hiding something between them. The five year old called the rest of the gathering up onto the deck with them.
Once everyone had settled in, Vin on Chris' lap, young Dunne's smile grew even wider. He was holding a large envelope and a folder. He opened the folder as he began speaking. "Okay, I gotta say somethin' an' it's real 'portant so you all gotta listen, an' -"
Interrupting the warp speed speech, Buck leaned down and whispered something to his boy. Nodding the child began again. "I gots a s'prise. Unca' Ezra helped me write somethin' an I'm gonna read it." The gathering grew quiet as they waited for him to continue. With a smiling Standish kneeling beside him to help with the wording, young Dunne began.
"When we was were talking about Father's Day, what ev every everybody said made me start thinkin' 'bout a-bout someone special. Someone who taked took real good care of me. He keeped kept me safe. He made sure I had food to eat and he gave me a place to live "
Sitting on his foster father's lap now, young Tanner looked confused. JD had to be talking about Buck, but they weren't going to give gifts until after dinner. He didn't want the other boy to ruin the surprise since they were giving similar gifts to each of the men. Then a soft squeeze on his arm drew his attention, and he looked up at Chris. Larabee winked and nodded, telling the child that it was all right. Smiling back, Vin returned his attention to his friend.
"What he did for me was very brave an' very special. And even when he was hurted hurt he tried to make sure I was aw all right.
"Now he don't doesn't have to take care of me, but he still does. He makes sure no big kids hurts hurt me. He 'minds reminds me when I need to do stuff an' I forget. I have tried to tell him how spes speck special he is to me, but sometimes words ain't aren't enough. So I made some things to help me tell him."
The frown furrowed the little blond's fine features once more. JD couldn't be talking about him?
JD juggled the folder, nearly dropping the envelope. With his Da's help, he retrieved another paper from the folder. This one was decorated and had been slipped into a plastic sleeve. Smiling, the little brunet held it up. "This is a special 'ward award. It says " His little face scrunched up as he tried to decipher the words. Again his uncle stepped in and he read the dedication.
"It says 'This is to cer'fly cer-tif-eye certify, that Vincent Michael Tanner is here by a-ward-ed the on-or-air-ee honorary title of "Dad" for his bravery and ded-i-ca-tion to caring for his friend, John Daniel Dunne that's me."
Vin's mouth had dropped open at the mention of his name, his eyes growing wider with each word. He leaned against Chris, feeling his father's arms wrap around him in a hug. Blinking rapidly, he could only stare at JD.
Unaware of his 'brother's' shock, the younger boy continued. He opened the envelope, pulling out a crudely made cardboard and foil medal that hung from a broad ribbon of blue and gold. "This is a medal, and it says 'Someone Special'. Both of these is for you , Vin!"
The gathering watched as the older of the two boys blushed furiously, tears sprang from his eyes, and he turned to hide his face against Chris' chest.
A few feet away, JD stopped, finally seeing how his friend was reacting to the display. He looked at Ezra then turned to his father, tears welling up in his big eyes. In a trembling voice, he said, "Da?"
Kneeling beside the child, Buck wrapped an arm around the small boy. In a whisper he said, "It's okay, Little Bit, you just surprised him is all." The big man just hoped he was right.
Larabee leaned down, whispering to the little blond, "You okay, Cowboy?"
Nodding, Vin sat up, scrubbing his hand over his face. Sniffing loudly, he turned to smile at the other child. "You s'prised me, JD!"
JD giggled. "That's what Da said!" Tears forgotten now, he sprinted across the deck just as Vin bounced off Chris' lap. With all the pomp and circumstance that the small boys could muster, the younger child handed the hand-decorated certificate to the older and then hung the handmade medal around his neck.
As the adults around them applauded, the little blond grew shy again, his face growing red with embarrassment. Rather than hiding this time, however, he smiled. Uncertain of what else to say, he exclaimed, "This is cool!"
Unable to convey his thoughts into any more words, Vin wrapped his arms around the other boy and hugged him fiercely. JD returned the hug and then the boys were dancing around the deck, still embracing and giggling.
"Wait! Stop!" Little Dunne cried out suddenly. When the two of them stopped, he said, "I gots somethin' else, for you, too!"
"Somethin' else?" The little Texan's eyes widened.
"Yeah! This is somethin' you can play with!" JD began to bounce up and down, pointing to the big, gift wrapped present that Buck and Ezra sat out on the deck.
His mouth dropped open once more. With a little coaxing from his 'brother' and the adults, Vin began to open the gift. First he removed the soft, toy horse that was taped to the box. Smiling, he said softly, "It looks like Peso."
The adults couldn't help but be touched at the reverence in the child's actions as he began to open the unexpected gift. Peeling the wrapping paper back carefully, he gasped when he recognized the picture. It was the fancy rocket he had seen in the store. In a shocked tone now, he said, "JD! This is real 'spensive!"
Grinning, the little brunet said, "I know, an' I know you wasn't gonna tell nobody that you wanted it 'cause it costes a lotta money, but you really looked at it for a long time, so I knowed you really wanted it an' Unca' Ezra borrowed me the money an' I'm gonna do some special jobs to pay him back do you like it?"
With a shocked, amazed, and incredibly excited expression, the older child said, "YEAH!"
It took Raine only a little persuading to take over the bulk of the remaining preparations for the evening meal they had planned. The boys helped clean the vegetables before she sliced them, buttered the rolls, and placed the strips of marinated steak in one pan and hash browns in another. They also took turns mixing the batter for the brownies they would have as part of their dessert, then shared the bowl and spoon after the batter was placed in a pan.
As quickly as they could, though, the children returned to the deck where their fathers and uncles were working on assembling the toy rocket. As soon as it was together, they prepared to fire it.
Vin was given the control device and told how to fire the water-propelled device. A cheer went up from the little crowd as the toy, almost as tall, or even taller than, the adults, shot into the air.
The afternoon passed quickly, the boys - even the grown up ones - took turns shooting off the rocket. Ringo and Elvis spun and danced around their little owners as, time after time, the toy flew into the air.
Chris smiled and shook his head as he watched Vin try to giggle and yawn at the same time. Then, noting the dark circles forming beneath the laughing blue eyes, he called both boys over. After some negotiation, he and Buck got their foster sons to stretch out on either end of the couch to watch a video. Neither man seemed shocked as both boys were asleep before the opening credits finished.
The adults settled in on the deck once more, making small talk. After a short time, Larabee said, "I want to thank you all for all your hard work in helping the boys in setting this all up." He smiled before he added, "And no, I'm not going to sign off for extra days, vacations, or Armani suits."
"I wanna thank y'all, too," Wilmington added. "You've all been amazing in helping the boys out this week."
With a smile, Standish said, "I think I speak for everyone here when I say that it was our pleasure." Josiah, Nathan and Raine all nodded and added their agreement.
Chris and Buck said good-bye to the others a short time later. Raine checked on the dinner and surprised the men by setting the dining room table with the special paper tablecloth and other paper and plasticware that the boys had requested for their special dinner. All of it had a racing car motif.
As the men padded into the den, they saw that the movie had ended, and the boys were beginning to stir. Each father went to where his child was curled up sleeping, unconsciously kneeling at the same time at opposite ends of the couch.
Reaching out to brush a long strand of dark blond hair back from his little flushed face, Chris whispered to his son, "Hey, Cowboy? Ready to wake up?"
Big, blue eyes blinked open. "Dad?"
"Hey, sleepy head."
Nearby, Buck was rubbing a warm little back beneath a red tee-shirt. With a groan, the five year old wriggled around, hazel eyes staring owlishly. "Da?"
"Hey, Li'l Bit, you have a good nap?"
Mouth forming a perfect circle, the little brunet cried out softly, "Did we miss the rest of Father's Day?"
"No, you didn't miss the rest of Father's Day," the big man said with a gentle smile. "You just slept for a little while. Ready to get up?"
Immediately awake now, the child hollered, "YEAH!"
Laughing as he found himself literally bowled over by a tiny tornado. "I reckon that's a yes."
A few minutes later the little family was working together to put dinner on the table. The boys were a little disappointed that they weren't able to do it themselves, but the pans were too large and hot for them to handle alone. Both men made certain to praise the children for their selection and let them do as much of the serving as they were able to manage.
The foursome settled in at the dining room table, filling their plates with the strips of marinated steak and other goodies the boys had decided to serve. Although the men knew that Raine was mostly responsible for the delectable meal, they continued to lavish praise on the children.
After dinner was finished and the table cleared, the boys practically dragged their foster fathers into the den. Assigning the men to their recliners, the boys sprinted out of the room, padding on stocking feet down the hallway. A moment later, they returned, each boy carrying two packages of the same size. JD's were wrapped in paper covered with a variety of fish with a lake background. Vin's was covered in horses, with a meadow background.
The boys came to stand before their respective fathers, broad grins plastered on their little faces. For a few minutes they couldn't do anything but giggle. Then, as if rehearsed, the boys called out together, "HAPPY FATHER'S DAY!"
First the smaller of the packages were handed over. Unwrapping the gifts, the men found a video in a plastic 'library' box, complete with personalized labels. Buck's was decorated with a picture of him holding a laughing JD. Chris' was decorated with a picture of him with Vin riding on his shoulders.
When his foster parent looked at him, the little blond said, "Miz. Potter made a video of me last week while you was workin'."
Smiling, Larabee said, "This is great, buddy, thank you."
Nearby, JD informed his Da, "She made a vid'o of me, too!"
"Awesome! I can't wait to watch it, Little Bit," Buck grinned.
With a worried expression, the little brunet said, "But we ain't done yet, Da."
Chuckling, Wilmington said, "Okay, I'll wait 'til we're done, okay?"
"'Kay. Here's the other s'prise!" He announced as he thrust the larger gift toward his father.
The men opened their second gift, each of them watching their son dancing around before them. They found nearly matching gifts beneath the wrapping paper. Each present was in a large, wooden frame. With Gloria's help and guidance, the boys had made a collage of sorts. But it was much more than that. They had made memories.
Beneath the framed glass, was a candid of each boy, a pair of handprints made of tempura paint, and a poem:
Sometimes you get discouraged, because I am so small.
And because I leave my handprints, all along the wall.
But every day I'm growing, and soon I'll be quite tall.
And all those little handprints will not be seen at all.
So here's a special handprint, just so you can say,
This is how my fingers looked, when I put them here today.
Below the printed poem, each of the boys had written their name.
Wilmington glanced over at his friend through misty eyes. He remembered seeing this poem in another frame several years ago. Chris looked back at him, smiling through tears. These were happy tears, though, shed for the child before him. Perhaps the memory of his gift from Adam was there, but he was happy to see the man focused on the here and now.
Reaching out, Chris gathered Vin in his arms, hugging him tightly. In an emotion-filled voice, he said, "Thank you, son, this is beautiful."
Leaning back to regard him with a wide, puzzled expression, Vin said, "You sure it's okay?"
"Very, very okay, Cowboy." Larabee gave him another hug and kissed him lightly on the forehead. "Thank you so much, son."
Little Tanner beamed. His Dad had called him 'son', not once but twice. Wrapping his thin arms around the tearful man's neck, he hugged him as he said, "You're welcome, Dad."
Nearby, JD was oblivious to everything but explaining the gift to his foster father. "I got to squish my hands in the paint and smoosh it 'round before me an' Miz Potter smashed it on the paper. She had to make sure I didn't mess up the poem so you could read it. An' see, that's my picture. Do you like it, Da?" When he received no answer, the little boy looked up to see the big man crying. "Da? What's wrong? Don'cha like it, Da? Da?"
Lifting the little boy into his arms, Wilmington hugged him fiercely. In a trembling voice, he said, "I like it more than I can tell you, Li'l Bit. This is the very best present I've ever gotten. Thank you, buddy."
Grinning again, the five year old said, "You're welcome, Da, I'm glad you like it!"
After several more moments spent enjoying their gifts, the men exchanged another look. Clearing his throat, Chris said, "Boys, we'd like to talk to you about something."
Frowning, JD said, "Is this gonna be a pow-wow?"
Smiling, Larabee said, "Yeah, it's gonna be a pow-wow, JD." Growing serious, he added, "A very important pow-wow."
Their attention fully on the tall blond now, the boys waited for him to continue.
"We wanted to discuss something with you both. Now, before I say anything more, I want you to promise that you'll think about what we're going to ask. We also want to discuss any questions you might have, okay?"
"'Kay." Vin was certain that it concerned the extravagant gift JD had given him. Surely he couldn't keep something that had cost so much money.
"You boys remember when Freddie and Eli Joe said we aren't your real fathers?" Buck asked.
"Yeah, they was mean to us an' they said mean things to us an' hurted our feelin's an' made us sad," JD answered.
"Right. And when you told us about what they said, it made us sad, too," Chris replied.
Vin frowned. Maybe it wasn't about his rocket ship after all. He wondered if they were in trouble for that fight. Tilting his head, he looked up at his foster father. His Dad didn't seem to be angry or sad or have any bad feelings. In fact, he looked happy.
"So we Chris and me had a talk about it."
"In fact, we had several talks about it."
"And we decided that we wanted to ask you boys something."
Vin grew pale. It was true. Chris didn't want to be his for real dad. That was what this was about. He trembled and wanted desperately to run away and hide, but couldn't make his legs move.
Feeling the tiny body on his lap tense and tremble, Larabee gently rubbed circles on the narrow little back. They couldn't drag this out any longer without risking a melt-down from one or both of the boys.
Taking a deep breath he said, "We wanted to know what you two thought about adoption. Would it be okay with you if we talked to Miss Nettie about adopting you?"
"Could we be 'dopted tomorrow?" JD asked.
Smiling, Buck said, "I think it takes a little more time than that, but if you decide that you'd like to be adopted, I'll talk to Miss Nettie tomorrow."
Vin's mind was still turning summersaults and he had a lot of feelings going through his heart. He wasn't exactly certain what "adoption" meant, but he knew that it was a very big and important thing. But the only thing he could think to ask was, "Can I still be Vin Tanner?"
Knowing how important it was to the child to acknowledge his role as a Tanner, Chris said, "Yes, of course you can still be Vin Tanner. You don't have to change your name unless you want to."
Still studying the man, the child asked, "Will it make you sad if I don't make my name Vin Larabee?"
Tilting the little face up and looking deeply into the wide eyes, Chris said, "No, it won't make me sad. I will love you the same if you stay Vin Tanner, and you would still be my son."
Heaving a sigh, the seven year old nodded and then smiled broadly. "'Kay, I want you to talk to Mz. Nettie 'bout 'doptin' me!" With that, he climbed onto his knees and wrapped his arms around the strong neck. He wasn't certain why, but suddenly he started giggling. The sound grew and grew until he was bouncing on his father's lap.
JD, in the meantime, had grown quiet. Buck looked down at him in concern. "What're you thinkin' about, Little Bit?"
"Da? Do I gotta change my name?"
"Why? Don't you wanna be known as 'Buck, junior'?" Wilmington tried to look hurt, but couldn't keep from laughing.
In a shocked tone, the five year old cried out, "NO!"
I was so prized that Da and Chris wants to be our adopted dads.
Me, too. I was real scared at first cause I thought we were going to be in trouble. I can't wait until Dad talks to Miz Nettie.
Yeah, I can't wait until Da talks to her, too.
And we got so cited that we almost forgot to eat our dessert.
Yeah, but then we remembered and I got chocolate under my fingernails!
???? JD! ???? Don't stick your fingers in my face!
Everyday Heroes Index
Next: A Camping We Will Go
Author's Note: Many thanks to Marnie for the speedy beta job when RL kept me from finishing this.