Chris looked down on the mountains far below, as his plane readied for its descent. From high in the air, it was hard to distinguish mountains from hills. He couldn't wait to get home and spend at least one day relaxing with his family - actually, it wouldn't even be a whole day, but it was the most he would get for now.
Lately it seemed like every week was turning out to be hectic, and as far as he could tell there was no end in sight. This week had been one of the most chaotic, but on the bright side, they were that much closer to the adoptions being final.
On Monday evening, they'd had to attend an informational meeting, something that was required of all potential adoptive parents. Chris had gotten a little new information on a subject he'd been wondering about. Second parent status was something usually granted in a custody battle, to a step-parent or other guardian, but with the four of them living together as a family, of sorts, with both men taking an active part in the parenting of both children, Chris felt each of them needed some sort of legal status where the other boy was concerned. In case anything would ever happen to either Buck or himself, he wanted to avoid any uncertainty as to the custody of both boys.
With Buck, it had always been difficult getting him to face up to issues that had anything to do with their mortality. He did his best to try and avoid the subject whenever he could. Even now, he'd argued that things were fine the way they were and having something written up legally was only asking for trouble. When Chris tried to point out a few of the other factors that could possibly affect them in the future, Buck had compared Chris' idea to drawing up a 'prenuptial agreement'.
It was true that if, for some reason, one of them were to get married or move away, the second parent status would help ensure that both men were granted some type of access to both boys, but Chris hadn't been worried about custody issues between the two of them. He'd tried to explain that to Buck and let him know that he trusted Buck, knew that he loved both boys and would always do right by them. Although Buck had still seemed a little leery, he'd promised to think about it further and agreed that they needed something in writing, in case of emergency.
The fact that he'd just been forced to spend the night in a hotel room, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa made him all the more determined to persuade Buck into having something legal drawn up.
Originally, his flight from Chicago had been scheduled to land in Denver around 3PM, Saturday afternoon, but not long after the plane had taken off from O'Hare it had been redirected to a nearby airport. Apparently there had been a bomb threat called in and all flights out of O'Hare had been delayed and those already in the air had been rerouted. He'd tried to get another flight, but ended up spending the night in Iowa instead of spending it at home with his boys, like he'd planned.
Alone, in the hotel room, he'd had more than enough time to think up all sorts of potential disasters waiting to happen. Either one of them could be killed at any time, not only on a case, or an airplane, but walking across the street, or driving into work and where would that leave the boys?
Nettie Wells, always one to speak her mind, had said as much when she'd made her home visit on Wednesday evening. The visit had been one of the last requirements on their long list of adoption prerequisites. The men had been nervous wrecks, cleaning and checking to make sure everything in the house was in order, even though Ms. Wells had been to their house before and already expressed her belief that the boys were where they belonged.
After spending some time with the boys, she'd sat with Chris and Buck a while, answering all of their questions and letting them know what sort of things to expect over the next couple weeks.
Thursday they had attended the boys' parent teacher conferences. Afterwards they'd hit McDonald's before taking Chris out to the airport to see him off. Buck had been excited about JD's conference. The teachers had told him that JD qualified to take some sort of special academic tests up at the university. The tests would allow them to better gauge his level of intelligence and possibly allow him to take advanced classes, if they chose to do so.
JD had been present for his conference, but afterwards seemed indifferent to whatever information they'd been given. Buck more than made up for JD's lack of enthusiasm, but Chris managed to convey to his old friend that Vin's conference had not been as upbeat as JD's and was grateful when Buck toned down his exuberance a little.
Academics came easy to JD, and he was already considered advanced for his age. Vin, on the other hand, had to struggle just to catch up and then keep up with his age group. It was a reality that Vin needed to learn to deal with and make the best of, and Chris was determined to help and support him in every way he could.
There hadn't been anything negative about Vin's conference, nothing that Chris hadn't been expecting to hear. Vin was well-behaved, helpful and he always put his best effort into his schoolwork. Not for the first time, however, the possibility of the boy being mildly dyslexic had been brought up. That, along with the recent attention to his minor speech problem, was likely to affect his self-esteem, but Chris felt confident that they'd be able to help Vin work through it all.
Chris thought back to the conversation he'd had with Buck that day, while the boys were off playing at McDonald's.
"Top one percent," Buck commented, the moment the boys headed for the playroom. "I knew he was smart, but who'd have guessed. Heck, that boy could grow up to be the president of the United States."
"Keep in mind, Buck," Chris tried to warn, "He's a little kid, and you only get to be a little kid once. With all the chaos he's had in his life already, maybe the best thing for him, right now, is just to have some stability."
"You wouldn't say that if we were talking about Vin," Buck said, suddenly sounding defensive.
Chris narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean?"
"You were ready to send him off to somewhere else for speech class."
Chris stared at him, finding it hard to believe that Buck could even compare the two situations. "That's not the same thing."
Chris sat back, folding his arms across his chest. "Well, first of all, that option was offered incase he was too embarrassed to take the class at school. I didn't want anyone to give him a hard time."
"That isn't all that different, Chris. You were willing to spend extra money, do whatever was best for Vin, so why shouldn't I do the same for JD? Tell me, what's different?" Chris couldn't tell if Buck was really not getting it, or if he was trying to be confrontational.
"You tell me what's different, Buck," Chris said in a neutral voice.
"Okay, okay," Buck nodded. "I understand what you're getting at, but still it's not all that different. We both want what's best for them, even if it means having to send them to different schools. Besides, it wouldn't be every day, all day."
"JD's a bright kid, and I'm sure he'll end up going far, whatever you decide to do right now. I'm just trying to tell you that you need to think about this. You need to keep in mind that he's still settling into this life and this routine. Make sure it's something he wants to do so you don't end up punishing him for being a smart kid."
Buck's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "What? Punishing him? I'd never do that."
"Not on purpose, but JD's going to want to do whatever he thinks you want him to. If he thinks you want him to take these tests and accelerated courses, then he's going to do it just to make you happy, whether he actually wants to or not. He's a five year old kid, Buck, how many five year olds do you know that want to take tests and do extra schoolwork?"
Chris could tell by looking at Buck that at least he was thinking on a different level now.
"But, maybe it'll do him some good."
"I'm sure it will, but at what cost? The school already challenges him. They allow him to do work that's above his grade level. They aren't holding him back."
"I know that. But, I don't want to hold him back, either."
Something about that statement made everything click into place. Chris knew that Buck had been an average student. Like a lot of kids, he'd been smart, with a lot of potential, but he hadn't taken school seriously and his mother had never pushed him to excel. Now, he wanted to make sure that JD didn't make the same mistakes. Was there anything he could say to that, or was it something Buck would need to work out for himself?
"Maybe, at this point, you need to ask JD what he wants to do, but I'd make sure to act neutral on your opinion, so he doesn't base his answer on what you want. His opinion should have some weight in your decision. Whatever you choose, in the end, it isn't going to make JD any less intelligent." Chris grinned. " And I'm sure they'll be just as happy to take your 200 dollar fee to test him, next year."
Buck relaxed a little and smiled. "Yeah, you're right. Two hundred bucks, geeze." He shook his head in disbelief. "It would make more sense to give the two hundred bucks to the poor kids who have to take the tests."
Both turned at the same time to check on the boys and that's when they noticed Vin and JD sitting nearby putting on their shoes. JD was smiling, one shoe on the wrong foot, although he'd managed to get it tied. When he went to put the other shoe on, he frowned, apparently realizing something was not right. He tilted his head, holding one shoe next to the other then, with a giggle, he took off the first shoe and started all over again.
Vin, on the other hand, had both shoes on and was looking at them uncertainly. Chris wondered how much of their conversation he'd heard. "Done playing already?" Chris had asked.
Vin nodded. "There's a big, mean girl bossin' everyone around." He glared in the direction of the play area. "Ain't fun with her in there." Chris followed his gaze and found it easy to spot the 'big, mean girl' his son was referring to. She was standing in the midst of the colorful, plastic balls, hands on her hips, yelling something at one of the other kids. She looked at least twice as big as Vin and had ketchup stains all down the front of her pink shirt.
"She stepped on my fumb," JD complained, holding his thumb out for inspection. Chris could see no damage and when Buck asked him to wiggle it, he'd been able to do so, but they both admired the wound as expected.
By the time they got out to the truck, Chris was pretty sure Vin had heard too much of their talk. He was staying well away from Buck, even when the big man offered to hoist him up into the truck.
Vin gave him a sullen look and shook his head no. "I'm big. I can do it myself."
Buck immediately nodded, his smile never faltering as he gestured for the boy to climb up into the truck on his own, but Chris didn't miss the look of hurt in his partner's eyes as Vin buckled himself in to his car seat.
Vin obviously had heard part of the conversation, but Chris couldn't tell what was upsetting him and he didn't think he'd get the chance to find out more until he got back from Chicago. He had faith that Buck wouldn't let the boy stew too long, though. Buck had become fairly adept at dealing with both boys, no matter what was troubling them.
With all the security at the airport, Buck couldn't help the thoughts that went through his mind. Anything could happen between here and Chicago, or on the way back. He'd done a good job of acting upbeat, although the thoughts were troubling him while they were saying goodbye, too. Vin had been moody since they'd left McDonalds, so he couldn't tell if he was worried for the same reasons that Buck was, but JD was still too young to be worried over things, without someone giving him a 'heads-up' and Buck wasn't going to be the one to do that.
Once they got home, JD sat down in the living room and began playing with Elvis, while Vin headed back to the bedroom. After checking the answering machine. Buck went back to the bedroom to check on Vin and found the boy sitting at the table, writing in a spiral notebook.
Leaning against the doorframe, Buck tried to get a look at what Vin was writing, but the moment Vin spotted him, he covered the page and gave him a suspicious look. With a smile, Buck managed to fold his lanky form into the little chair across from Vin. "What are you up to, Junior?"
"Nothin'." Vin shrugged.
"Looks like something to me."
Vin shrugged again. "It's nothin' important."
Okay, if Vin didn't want to show him, Buck wouldn't press things. "Is everything okay?"
"If there was anything bothering you, you'd tell me, right?"
"Well . . ." Vin tilted his head, frowning a little. The thing that was bothering him most was that he'd heard Chris and Buck talking about JD going to another school. He knew JD was real smart and although sometimes it bothered him, he'd gotten used to it, mostly. His dad and Buck and his uncles had done a good job of reinforcing in him that everyone was different, and everyone had different strengths and different abilities. They'd told him over and over again that he was smart too, and just because a person had to work harder at some things didn't make them dumb. He hadn't understood it much at first, but he had thought about it a lot and he had it all pretty much figured out now. Still, he didn't like the idea of JD going to another school, without him. Who would watch out for him and take care of him if Vin wasn't around? "Is JD gonna go to another school?"
"Well now, we're not sure about that yet. It's possible that he might take some classes at another school, but that wouldn't be all the time, the rest of the time he'd still go to school with you."
Buck waited, thinking there had to be more. When Vin remained silent, he rested his arms on the table, leaning forward a little too far, and accidentally catching a glimpse of the drawing on the paper.
"Buck!" Vin had caught him and slapped his hand over the picture.
"Sorry, sorry!" Buck couldn't stop himself from grinning. "So . . . what are you planning to trap?"
Vin's eyes went wide. "How'd ya know?"
"I've made one or two of those before," he admitted with a chuckle. In fact, he vividly remembered helping Chris and Adam make one that Adam had planned to use in catching a rabbit.
"Sure. The only thing we ever caught was a barn kitten, though." He could remember Adam's delight and he and Chris' surprise to see the trap had been sprung. When they'd lifted the lid there had been a tiny gray kitten tangled up in and still battling the twine they'd used.
Vin's mouth twisted and he got a thoughtful look on his face. "Maybe you didn't use the right bait."
Buck winked and nodded. "You're probably right. So, what are you planning to catch?"
"Well, the boy in the book catched a rabbit, but I's thinking I'd try to catch a turkey," he confided, his face lighting up. "Ya know, for Thanksgiving dinner?"
"A turkey? Buck sat back and folded his arms across his chest. "Aren't you one of the boys who decided against having turkey for dinner last year?"
Vin blushed a little then lifted his chin, his eyes meeting Buck's. "Yeah, but that was different."
"Yeah, he was a pet." As if that should be obvious.
"Ah, I see." Buck grinned to himself. Apparently Vin was able to differentiate animals for pets and animals for food -- when it suited him. He couldn't help but wonder what JD would have to say about things, though. Then he reminded himself of the chances of having a turkey actually stroll under a cardboard box propped up on a stick. Turkeys were pretty stupid animals, but not that stupid. "Okay, I'm gonna go get started on some chores."
Later, Buck was in the kitchen when Vin came out of his room. With his construction plans in one hand, he started looking through the cupboards.
"What are ya looking for, Junior?"
Vin shut the cupboard door, and went to the refrigerator. "Bait."
"Bait?" asked Buck, puzzled.
"Yeah, for the trap," he said, standing on his toes to get a better look inside the fridge.
"Ah." Buck reached over him to close the refrigerator door.
"Maybe I can help?" he offered, casually. "How did the boy in your book catch his rabbit?"
"Well," Vin licked his lips and leaned against the fridge, looking thoughtful. "The book said to use a carrot. Ya tie a string to it, then tie it to the stick. When the rabbit goes to eat the carrot, it pulls the stick and the trap falls down on it. I ain't sure what to use for a turkey, though."
"Well, let me see . . .." Buck rubbed his chin, looking around the kitchen. "What about chicken feed?"
"I thought about that, but I ain't sure turkey's would like chicken feed . . . or horse feed."
Buck gave him a bemused look and ruffled his curly hair. "Okay."
Suddenly, Vin's face lit up and he pointed toward the shelf. "Hey! How about stuffing?"
Buck almost choked. "Stuffing?"
"Yeah, turkey's must like stuffing," he said, enthusiastically. "They always got a belly full of it!"
After almost choking on his laughter, Buck reached for the box of Stove Top stuffing. He knew that he probably shouldn't let Vin waste a good box of stuffing, and he couldn't think of a way for him to tie the string to the bits of bread crumbs, but he couldn't bring himself to disappoint the boy. "I reckon it's worth a try."
Vin took the box of stuffing and a paper plate and headed for the barn to get the cardboard box he planned to use. Not long after he'd gone JD came into the kitchen. "Where's Vin?"
"He went outside a few minutes ago," Buck replied, glancing out the window. "He says he's gonna make a trap."
"Can I make a trap, too?"
"Well, why don't you ask Vin if you can help him?"
"Okay! Can I go outside?" The little boy was bouncing up and down with energy.
"Alright, but put your coat on first!"
JD found Vin out in the barn, in a little room they used for a storage area. His 'brother' was holding a huge box upside down and was knee deep in little white Styrofoam pieces; they were clinging to his clothes, his hair and practically everything else in the room.
"What ya doin', Vin?"
"Getting a box."
"For the trap?"
"Yeah," he answered hesitantly.
JD grinned. "Can I help?"
"Well . . .." Vin squinted at him, appraisingly. "If ya listen to me and do what I tell ya."
Vin started lugging the box toward the door. "Help me carry this," was his first order.
JD cheerfully complied and they left the barn, carrying the large box between them. When they got to the spot Vin had chosen, the boys set down the box. "We need to find a good stick," Vin told JD.
"A big stick?" JD asked, wanting to be sure he did everything exactly the way Vin wanted.
"Not too big," Vin replied, kneeling down to lift one end of the box up to what he figured was a proper height. He studied it for a second, trying to remember exactly how tall turkeys were. "About this big," he let the box drop and held his hands out to display for the younger boy, the estimated measurement of the stick they would need.
"Okay!" JD immediately began searching the yard for a stick, while Vin opened the box of Stove Top stuffing and poured some out onto the paper plate. He wondered how he was going to fix it so the stick would collapse when the turkey took the bait.
"How you doing with the trap?" Vin nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of Buck's voice. He'd been so deep in thought that he hadn't even heard him come up.
"I's tryin' to figure out how to set it up right. With rabbits ya just tie the string to the carrot, but I ain't sure how to do that with the stuffin'."
"Well," Buck said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, "let's see . . .." He glanced around the yard as he thought, and spotted a familiar little figure crawling around in some brush, eyes searching the ground. Behind the first figure, two other figures trailed along, tails wagging in the air. "What are they doing?" he asked with a chuckle.
Vin glanced at JD and the pups and smiled. "Lookin' for a stick."
Okaaaay, he thought, shaking his head. "Well, I reckon you could try punching a hole in the plate, then tying the string through. If the turkey moves the plate it'll pull the stick down." He figured the chance of that happening was about as good as the chance of a turkey coming anywhere near the trap. What did they have to lose?
Vin's face lit up. "Yeah!" Apparently, in Vin's eyes, the idea was brilliant.
"Do you have the string?"
"There should be some twine in the barn, "I'll run and get that, and you go on and help them," he gestured to JD who was now laughing and rolling in the weeds, wrestling with the two dogs, "find a stick."
Buck went into the storage area to get the twine and couldn't help but notice the room was full of those damn Styrofoam packing bits. Vin must have emptied them out of the box he was using. He tried to avoid the Styrofoam as he walked over to retrieve the spool of twine, but by the time he got out of the room, there were little pieces clinging to his pant legs.
"Junior," he said when he got back to Vin. "You know you have a mess to clean up in there?" There was no way he was going to attempt picking up the annoying little things.
"I'll help, Vin!" JD offered enthusiastically. He snatched one of the clingy bits off of Buck's pant leg and snapped it at his brother. Vin flicked it back at him.
It didn't take long to get the trap set up. Buck allowed the boys to watch from behind a bush for a while, then tried to explain the how a watched pot never boils theory, hoping to get them to clean up the mess in the storage room and come inside for dinner.
Almost an hour later, Buck had dinner ready, and there was still no sign of the boys. He decided that they'd been on their own for way too long and decided it was time to check on their progress. One step inside the barn and he halted, noticing that the Styrofoam bits had somehow managed to escape from the storage room and were invading the barn. He'd always suspected that the little things somehow multiplied.
He was about to call out to the boys when he heard both of them burst into laughter. Shaking his head, he made his way toward the back room, braving the little bits that seemed to move on their own. In the room, he found both boys covered with Styrofoam, it clung in their hair, on their skin and their clothes. As he watched, Vin stuffed a handful down JD's shirt. JD tried to retaliate by flinging a handful at Vin, but the ones that didn't remain clinging to him floated back to the ground without ever hitting their target.
"Lord, what a mess."
"Hi, Buck!" Vin grinned at him, tossing a bunch of pieces toward the garbage can. They missed, completely.
"Da!" JD tried to toss his handful at him, but they only swirled to the ground.
There was a broom and a dustpan laying on the floor, each covered with Styrofoam bits and there were more bits clinging to the outside of the garbage can, than were inside. They were on the walls, the shelves, everywhere. Buck scrubbed a hand over his face. How would they ever get this cleaned up?
And then he caught a glimpse of the Shop Vac, off in a corner. Yeah, that might work, he thought. He could suck them up and spit them back out into a garbage bag. Plugging the cord into an outlet, he grinned at the boys as he aimed the hose at them. "Hold still now."
It took about another half hour to get most of the Styrofoam sucked up and then trapped in a garbage bag. Buck was sure they'd be finding odd pieces floating around, for years to come. Whoever invented that stuff was definitely an evil person.
It wasn't until they sat down to dinner that JD voiced his plans for the turkey.
"What are we gonna name him, Vin?"
"Name who?" Vin asked distractedly, as he looked in wonder at the little round, green things on his plate. They'd eaten their chicken nuggets, and now had to face the inevitable. "What are these again?" he asked.
"Brussels sprouts," Buck told him. "Try one, they're good."
It looked kind of neat, but he suspected it was a vegetable. It was green, and in his experience most green food turned out to be vegetables, and vegetables sure didn't taste good.
"What are we gonna name the turkey?" JD clarified his question.
"We ain't gonna name him, JD," Vin said firmly.
"How comes what?"
"How comes we ain't gonna name the turkey?" he demanded.
Vin shrugged. "Cause ya don't name food, that's why."
JD's forehead creased. "What d'ya mean . . . food?"
"We's gonna catch the turkey to eat for Thanksgiving. It ain't gonna be a pet."
"Oh, okay." JD popped an entire brussels sprout into his mouth, chewed it up with a grimace and swallowed. "Ew."
"JD," Buck said in warning. "You only have to eat two, but if you complain, I can give you more."
JD stuffed the other in his mouth and chewed quickly then smiled brightly to show he was all done.
Vin took a deep breath, closed his eyes and stuffed his first brussels sprout into his mouth, then took a big gulp of milk, nearly making himself gag. It tasted even worse than he'd expected.
Buck looked down at his own plate, forcing himself not to laugh. He couldn't figure out why the two kids had such a strong dislike of vegetables.
"Viiiiiin!" JD whined, slapping his hand on the table in frustration. "Hurry up!"
Buck raised an eyebrow. "You done eating, son?" he asked JD.
"Yep." He smiled, showing off his empty plate.
Vin couldn't seem to get rid of the horrible, disgusting aftertaste. He set down his now empty glass of milk and studied the one remaining brussels sprout. "Can I have some more milk?" he said in a voice that was close to a whine.
"Sure, you may have more milk."
Buck poured him another glass of milk then gestured toward the bathroom. "Come on, Little Bit. Let's get started on your bath."
"Awww . . . what about Vin?"
Vin sighed, miserably. Chris was gone, Buck was thinking up new, awful tasting vegetables to torture them with and their only reward for eating them was a bath. He couldn't even sneak the brussels sprouts to the dogs, either, because when he'd kind of accidentally dropped one on the floor, both dogs had sniffed it and turned up their noses. Then Buck had put another one on his plate. Sometimes life just didn't seem fair.
"Can I take a shower by myself tonight?" he asked as Buck began guiding JD out of the kitchen.
"Sure you can," answered Buck.
JD came to a sudden halt, almost making Buck trip over him. "I wanna take a shower, too!"
Buck rolled his eyes. "Not tonight, Little Bit."
Buck swirled his hand around in the bath water before allowing JD to climb into the tub. He'd allowed JD to pour the bubble bath, so there was a cloud of bubbles as tall as the tub. JD plopped himself down in the midst of the bubbles and grinned up at his father. "Don't move around too much or you might get lost in there, Little Bit."
JD scooped a couple of handfuls of bubbles onto the top of his head, not quite covering his dark hair. "Can ya still see me?"
"JD?" Buck feigned alarm. "Where'd ya go, son?" When he bent down to search the bubble cloud, he was hit in the face with a handful. "Thanks a lot."
"You're welcome," JD said, happily. In the blink of an eye the boy's smile was gone and his little face was suddenly filled with disappointment. "I wanted to take a bath with Vin."
"I know, but this way me and you get a chance to talk a little."
"What'd ya wanna talk about, Da?" JD asked, as he tried scooping all the bubbles toward him.
"Well," Buck said, still trying to work things out in his head, "you remember we went to your conferences today?"
"Yeah," the boy answered distractedly. He was trying to mold the bubbles into a bubble mountain, but it wasn't working very well.
"Your teacher was real proud of you, and so was I."
JD glanced up, looking happy and proud.
"She said you're a real smart little guy, and you do excellent on all your school work."
JD beamed at him for a moment, then dunked his head under the water.
Buck waited for him to come up before he continued. "Yep, she thinks that maybe the school work they give you there is too easy for you."
JD carefully poured a liberal amount of shampoo onto his palm then started rubbing it around his head. "Sometimes, I know all the answers already," he confided.
Buck couldn't help but smile. "I'll bet you do. So, anyway," he said, lathering the boy's hair a little better, "she was wondering if we'd want to check into some other things, maybe see if there were some classes that might be more challenging for you."
"Like what?" JD asked.
"Well, she said there's some tests you can take . . ."
JD glanced up, his smile turning to a frown. "Tests?"
"Well, yeah, tests. You take these certain tests and the teachers can tell you what classes would be good for you."
"Oh." JD went back to sailing his tugboat.
"Is there something wrong with that?"
He shrugged. "No."
"You don't have to take them. It would be up to you."
Buck waited a moment to see if the boy had anything to add, then asked, "Mrs. R said you can wait and take them next year, or the year after . . . whenever you feel like it. But, if you're getting bored at school-"
"I ain't bored at school," JD interrupted, looking up with sincerity. "I like school. It's lotsa fun."
Buck grinned. "Okay, okay. I know you like school. If you want to take the tests you can, if not, we can do it another time. It's up to you." He knew giving the boy time to think about it would probably do no good. He didn't think JD was mature enough to reason things out, but still, it wouldn't hurt. "Mrs. R said we can let her know next week, okay?"
"Okay. Can I rinse my hair now?" He reached for the shower attachment so apparently, as far as he was concerned, the discussion was over.
Buck turned the faucet on, watching as JD sprayed the suds from his hair. Nobody had ever told him this dad stuff could be so stressful.
When the bath was over, JD hurried to his room, leaving Buck to clean up the aftermath before going to get Vin so he could take his shower. Every now and then Vin would decide he was too big to take a bath with JD, and opt for a shower instead. JD was never happy about this, but Buck had explained that Vin was at an age that sometimes he liked to think he was more grown up. Buck suspected that Vin's need to be grown up tonight had a lot to do with the fact that Chris was away for the next couple days.
He set a towel out and then went to the boys' room to tell Vin everything was ready. The bedroom door was open just a crack and Buck paused at hearing JD's voice inside. "Do you think I should, Vin?"
"I don't know, JD."
"I don't think I wanna take a test."
"You're good at tests."
"I know, but they're boring."
"Yeah, I don't like to take 'em either. I hope you don't have to go to a different school."
"I won't, Vin. I'm gonna go to school with you forever."
"JD, you're lots smarter than me and someday we might not get to go to school together anymore."
Buck shook his head outside the door. They'd tried to drill it into Vin that just because some people had to work harder at certain things didn't mean they weren't as smart.
"But, I want to stay with you!"
"I know, but maybe when we get bigger, we might have to go to different schools."
Buck heard both boys sigh heavily, then JD said, "That won't be for a long time though, right Vin?"
"Well . . .we'll see."
"Viiin, you said that's what Chris and Da say when they don't want to tell us something bad."
Buck decided it was a good time to interrupt things and pushed the door open. "Hey, Junior. Shower's all ready. You need some help getting the water the right temperature?"
"No thanks, Buck. I can do it."
"Okay, then. Try to keep some of the water inside the shower." He winked as Vin grabbed his PJ's and headed out of the room.
"Da, will I have to go to a different school than Vin?"
"C'mere, Little Bit," he held out an arm, inviting JD to crawl up in his lap. "Part of the reason Chris and I like your school so much is because you and Vin get to be together. So, for right now, we think that's best for you two, but maybe someday--"
"When we get big?"
"Yep, someday when you get bigger you might have to go different schools--"
"But that's a long time away though, right?"
Buck smiled, knowing that a few years was an entire lifetime to a little boy JD's age. "Yep, a long time from now."
"Good, 'cause I want to stay with Vin, and I don't want to take no tests." He wrinkled his nose and stuck his tongue out to emphasize his dislike of the thought.
"You don't want to take any tests."
JD looked at him incredulously. "That's what I said." He couldn't figure out why everyone was always repeating him.
Chris called home around 8:00, wanting to make sure he got the chance to say good night to the boys. Somehow, Buck managed to get them both in bed before 9:00. They weren't happy about that, especially since there was no school the next day, but Buck convinced them that it was for his sake -- he was very tired, which was the truth -- and they went with little protest.
Friday morning they all woke up bright and early, and they all worked together, making chocolate chip pancakes for JD, and plain ones for Buck and Vin - pancakes were the one food Vin preferred chocolate-less. JD rambled on and on about the turkey trap. Vin listened, smiling and nodding at the younger boy's ideas. As soon as the breakfast dishes were cleaned up, the boys hurried to get their shoes and coats on so they could go outside.
Buck was zipping JD's coat when the phone rang. "Wilmington Pleasure Palace," he answered, already knowing it was one of the guys, from the caller ID.
When the boys dashed out the door, he covered the phone with a hand and hollered after them, "Stay in the yard!" He could too easily picture the boys taking off for parts unknown and then coming back with a 'you didn't say we had to stay in the yard' defense. He'd learned over the months that behind each of those sweet, innocent little faces lurked a brilliant defense attorney.
"Wilmington Pleasure Palace?"
"Yep," replied Buck. "We aim to please. What's up, Ez?" As Buck listened, he glanced out the window, spotting the boys on hands and knees checking out the still upright cardboard box. "The boys are outside checking their turkey trap."
"Turkey trap? Now, that sounds like an interesting endeavor."
"It's kinda soggy," JD said, wrinkling his nose as he inspected the stuffing mix bait beneath the box.
"Yeah," Vin agreed, his nose was wrinkled, too. "Maybe it'll dry out later. Looks like some of it's gone, too."
JD looked up, tilting his head. "Ya think a turkey came when we was sleepin' and ate some?"
"I don't know. Maybe." He glanced around the grassy area. "Look, there's some over there."
"How'd it get there?"
Scratching his head, Vin admitted, "I don't know."
Just then a black bird swooped down and plucked a big bread crumb that had been strewn a few feet away. "Hey!" JD shouted, climbing to his feet. "Get outta here!"
"Yeah!" Vin also climbed to his feet, waving his arms to shoo the bird away. " Go on! Get! You ain't no turkey!"
Inside, Buck hung up the phone, chuckling as he watched the two boys. Maybe he'd have to think up something else to use for bait. Unfortunately there weren't any female turkeys living nearby.
The day went by too fast. Buck did the chores that needed doing. Part of the corral fence had come loose and he'd fixed that with Vin's help. JD had protested that he was big enough to help, but Buck knew from experience that JD couldn't even stay still long enough to hold the plank steady. After lunch they stripped the beds and while Buck did some of the laundry, he let the boys go back out and check their trap. They weren't gone long before they came back. Vin was complaining that JD talked too much and no turkeys were gonna come as long as he was out there.
JD put his hands on his hips and glared up at the older boy. "I don't think no turkeys are gonna come anyway."
"Hey," Buck clapped his hands, trying to divert their attention. "You boys ready to go to the video store?"
Vin looked up and down the aisles and all around the store for Buck or JD. Each time he ran to a different part of the store, he'd hurry back to the kid movies, because he knew JD usually picked a cartoon or a Disney show. He was growing frustrated, so much so that he almost wanted to cry. What if Buck and JD already got their movie and left? What if they forgot that Vin was with them? Finally, he spotted one of the employees straightening the nearby shelves. "I don't know where my dad is," he said, almost in tears.
"It's okay, I'll help you find him." The girl looked over the tall display shelves then smiled and took his hand. A short distance away, in a section of new releases they found Buck and JD. "Is that your dad?"
Vin had been trying to be brave, but he'd been scared. When Buck turned to look at him, smiling, Vin couldn't seem to make his chin stop quivering. He stood there for a moment, clutching his selection of movies in one hand and rubbing his eyes with the other.
The girl kneeled down beside him. "Is this your dad, sweetie?" she asked kindly.
Vin managed to nod, at the same time JD stepped forward and said, "This ain't his dad."
"This isn't your father?" the lady asked, looking down at Vin with uncertainty.
Vin's shoulders slumped and he shook his head no.
Buck smiled his most charming smile and stepped forward, putting a hand on Vin's shoulder. "I'm his foster father," he told the woman.
JD tugged on his sleeve, pulling his hand away from Vin. "You ain't his foster father," he insisted.
The woman stood up, regarding him suspiciously, while images of him spending the night in lock up and the boys at juvenile hall flashed through his mind. "I'm not actually his foster father, I'm his . . .. Well, his uh, father . . . is out of town, but he's with me. Aren't ya, pal?"
Vin took a step away from the little group, looking as if he wanted to be anywhere else, at the moment. He clutched his two movies tightly to his chest as he glanced warily from Buck to the store clerk and gave her a small nod.
She stood there for a moment longer, then nodded and backed away.
Buck let out a long, shaky breath thankful the uncomfortable situation was over. He really just wanted to get their movies and go home. JD was being uncharacteristically moody. Going from one extreme to the other without warning. He hadn't realized Vin had wandered away from them, and thought he was lost. The truth was, the poor kid was still looking a little lost. "Hey, pard," he gave Vin a squeeze. "You okay?"
Vin nodded silently, but his eyes were red and he looked a little shaky. Buck glanced around the store. It was like a maze, with rows of tall shelves that he imagined would be pretty intimidating to a little kid who couldn't see past the end of each aisle.
"What movies did you pick out?" JD stepped up to Vin. "I got Ice Age."
"I got this one." Vin held up a dvd box that said Hellboy.
Buck gave it a closer look and grinned. "Uh, I don't know about this one, Junior."
"But, look," Vin pointed at the demon-like man on the cover, "I saw him in a commercial. He looks like Uncle 'Siah."
Buck couldn't help but laugh at that. He wondered what Josiah would think about the comparison. "Well, you're right he does look a little like Josiah, but I'm not too sure this would be a good movie for you young'uns to watch."
"Okay, well, how 'bout this one?" Vin held up City Slickers.
"That one looks stupid." JD scowled, folding his arms across his chest.
Instead of arguing, Vin just backed away from JD, his expressive eyes showing his displeasure.
"I said you both could pick out a movie," Buck told them gently. He didn't know why JD was being so difficult.
"Okay, but we're watching mine first!"
Vin gave the younger boy his best imitation of the Larabee Glare. JD glared back, lifting his chin defiantly.
Next time Chris went out of town, Buck thought, he was gonna find away to fit both boys in his luggage.
As they stepped up to the counter, Buck groaned quietly when he noticed a squad car in the parking lot. There were two officers coming toward the building. He had a pretty good idea of what they were there for and gave the clerk a look of exasperation. Usually, a trip to a store with the boys got him a date, not arrested.
Setting the movies up on the counter, he turned and bent closer to the boys. "Boys, now I don't want you to be afraid, but I think this nice lady here was a little worried that maybe Vin didn't belong with us, and I think she called the police."
He watched as understanding dawned and Vin's eyes went wide and he looked toward the doors. "Don't worry, Junior," he said calmly. "Everything will be okay." JD was looking at the doors, too, and Buck could tell from his expression that he didn't understand the implications. Buck straightened and pulled out his wallet, before the cops got through the doors then turned again to the counter clerk. She hadn't even begun to ring up their movies yet; she, too, was watching the door.
The two officers walked toward them. One was a stocky young man with dark hair and a friendly face; the other was a very tall, blonde, woman who looked more like she belonged on the cover of a fashion magazine. They both looked like they were right out of the academy and Buck could only hope that wasn't the case.
"Sir," the male officer called to Buck, "could I have a word with you?"
The female officer deftly inserted herself between him and the boys, guiding the boys back away from him and the counter. "Hey there, my name's Officer Keller."
"You're a girl!" JD exclaimed.
Buck heard Vin whisper, "Girls can be policemens too, JD."
"Yes they can, JD. What's your name, buddy?" she asked Vin, but Vin lowered his eyes and remained silent.
Buck kept an eye on the boys as he stepped closer to the door with the other officer. "Is there a problem, officer?"
"That's what we're trying to figure out. Are these your boys?"
"Yes, they are my boys. The little one is my foster son, and the other boy is my partner's son," Buck explained. His wallet was in his hand and he lifted it so the officer could see his ID. "I'm a federal agent. My partner is out of town right now, but I can give you my supervisor's number, the boys' social worker's number, whatever you want. But please, they've had a rough go of things, so for their sake, don't make this anymore frightening for them than it probably is already."
The officer nodded, taking a moment to study his ID. "We don't mean to cause any trouble for you or them, but we wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't at least check the situation out."
"I understand that." He looked over his shoulder and got a glimpse of the boys. JD was grinning, chatting to the female officer. From what he could see, she was a pretty young thing and JD obviously had taken a shine to her. Vin, on the other hand, was looking a little like a deer caught in the headlights. His face seemed pale; his big, blue eyes were flickering nervously from the female officer to Buck to the door. Buck had an unsettling feeling that Vin was actually thinking about bolting. Stay calm, Junior, he thought.
Suddenly it occurred to him that he did have proof of sorts, hopefully it would be enough. "Here, look," Buck reached out for his wallet. "I got both boys' medical cards in here. Their names and addresses are right here." He held out the cards for the officer to see.
The officer looked them over, comparing the information with Buck's license, and then with a nod he handed the cards back. "Sorry to inconvenience you, sir. Like I said, we're just doing our jobs."
A few minutes ago, Buck had been ready to tear somebody a new one, but now all he felt was relief. "Like I said, I understand."
"It's okay, Laura," he told his partner, who was laughing at something JD was saying.
When the female officer stood up, Buck hoped that the two of them would meet again someday, under better circumstances.
"You have a great kid, Mr. Wilmington," she acknowledged him, smiling.
He winked at JD, then returned her smile. "Just call me Buck."
"So, can ya come?" JD asked, looking up and up and up at the tall, blonde officer.
The vision of loveliness leaned closer to Buck and with a twinkle in her eye, she explained, "JD invited me out to the ranch to watch movies tonight."
Well, alright, JD.
"I was trying to explain that we'll have to do it another time, since I'm still on duty." Buck breathed in the subtle flowery scent of her perfume and thought it ought to be a crime for a police officer to smell so good.
The boys sidled up on either side of him, JD pulling on his sleeve. "Can she, Da? Pleeeease?" JD asked.
"She's working right now, Little Bit."
"Yeah, but can she another time?"
All he could do to avoid a scene was nod, which prompted JD to shout, "Yay!" He glanced at the officers and gave them a helpless shrug. JD was pulling on his sleeve again, apparently having moved on to another topic. "Can we get cotton candy, Da? Pleeeease?"
"Sir, do you still want to rent these?" The store clerk called out, holding the movies up at the counter.
"Uh, yeah. We do." He wasn't going to be mad at the woman for caring about the welfare of a child, even if it had caused him a little grief.
The police officers said good bye and left the store. Buck turned to find JD grabbing packages of cotton candy and placing them up on the counter. Vin was still beside him clutching his hand, apparently needing a little extra security at the moment. "JD, you can get one package of cotton candy and that's all."
"But I can't make up my mind. Green, or blue, or red, or purple, or . . .."
"Do you want cotton candy?" he asked Vin.
A pair of solemn eyes looked up at him and the boy shook his head no.
"Let me guess, chocolate?"
That at least earned him a tentative smile. Yep, the way to Vin's heart was through chocolate.
Their pillows and sleeping bags covered the living room floor. A half eaten bowl of popcorn sat on the coffee table, JD was snoring loudly on his right, and to his left, Vin was wide-awake, enthralled in the movie he'd chosen.
JD had been ornery all evening, and fallen asleep in the middle of his movie - which Vin had finally offered to let him watch first. "I reckon he's just tired," Vin had whispered to Buck after JD had complained that he was starving to death - but the only thing that he could possibly eat was a McDonald's happy meal.
When Buck had refused to go all the way back into town to get him his desired meal, he swore he'd never eat again but eventually settled for a bowl of cereal. JD was usually a sweet, thoughtful boy but once in awhile he got grumpy and totally unreasonable. Buck hoped the mood swings weren't signs of things to come, but now that that he'd had some time to think, he had to admit that every time JD had acted that way he'd been overly tired, and they'd had a busy week.
He glanced at Vin whose eyes were fixed on the television. "Maybe we ought to save the rest of this movie for tomorrow?" he said to Vin.
Vin looked up at him, big blue eyes wide. "I ain't tired. I want to see the end."
Buck thought about it for a moment and then nodded. "Well, okay. But let me know if you change your mind."
Vin had already turned his attention back to the screen, but he nodded. "Okay."
Vin had woken up in a good mood Saturday morning. His dad was supposed to come home that day and he could hardly wait for the afternoon. They'd been about ready to leave for the airport to pick him up when Chris called to tell them he wouldn't be coming home until Sunday.
"Vin, are ya mad at Chris?" JD asked, picking up different puzzle pieces and setting them down, without really trying to fit them in anywhere.
"No, JD," Vin assured him, "I ain't mad." He was disappointed though, and maybe a little scared. Chris had said that he was stuck in Ohio, or maybe Iowa -- somewhere that was far away - because they'd thought that something was wrong on his plane, so they'd had to land it. He'd been looking forward to having his dad home, but now he had to wait a whole 'nuther day. It was only one day, both Chris and Buck had told him, but a day seemed almost like forever to him.
Chris had promised him that everything was okay, but just to think that something could have happened -- could still happen - to his dad made him a little bit scared. He knew everything would probably be okay, but he still wouldn't be able to feel right until Chris was home and safe with them.
JD hopped up onto the sofa and turned on the television, while Vin went back to working on his puzzle. Sometimes putting the puzzle together made time go by fast, but today it wasn't working.
When Buck came in from the barn he found JD asleep on the couch and automatically laid a palm against his forehead. It was rare that the boy fell asleep in the middle of the day. Thankfully, JD didn't feel too warm, but he'd be sure to keep an eye on him. He knew the boy was probably upset over the phone call they'd gotten a while ago, and for that matter . . . he glanced over at Vin who seemed intent on his puzzle. He couldn't tell if the older boy was actually getting anything accomplished on it or not, but when he got closer he saw that he was sorting through the tiny pieces, trying to match them up.
The puzzle was taking longer to finish than Buck had thought it would, but then again, Vin was pretty young to take on such a big project - even if he did get lots of outside help. Buck admired his determination. Any other kid probably would have lost interest by now.
"Hey there, Junior," he said when Vin looked up at him.
"I found part of the foot," Vin told him, pointing toward two pieces that obviously had to be one of the hooves.
"I'm tryin' to find the rest of the 'em."
"Need some help?"
Buck pulled up a chair and sat down, studying the pieces laid out before him. "You're really coming along on this, son."
Vin glanced up at him, suddenly looking apprehensive.
"What?" he asked when he noticed Vin's eyes still on him.
"Come on, pal, you know you can talk to me."
"Well, I been thinkin' . . .." He hesitated, suddenly looking embarrassed.
Buck smiled at him, trying to duck down and catch his eye. "You've been thinking what?"
"Well, the other night, I kinda heard you and Chris talkin'."
Okay, not the first time this has happened, he thought. Buck was pretty sure Vin was embarrassed to admit he'd been eavesdropping. They'd talked about a lot over the past week, so there were a lot of conversations he could have overheard. "What'd you hear us talking about, Vin?"
"About if anything happened to one of you guys," he offered quietly.
Buck smiled. "You don't need to be worrying about things like that, Pard. Chris'll be home tomorrow, everything will be okay."
Vin licked his lips, his forehead wrinkling in a frown. He didn't like to think about something bad happening to any of them, but not thinking about bad things didn't stop them from happening.
"What is it, Son?"
In the past, it always made him feel good when Chris or Buck called him 'son'. It made him feel like he belonged to them. Uncle 'Siah, and Uncle Nate called him 'son', too and although he kinda belonged to them, he wasn't their son. So, he needed to remember that when Buck called him that he was just being nice. "I just . . . well, I wanted ya to know that it's okay if'n you don't wanna be my second dad." He knew that if something bad happened to Chris, if Buck couldn't keep him one of his uncles would probably want him. He was pretty sure Buck would try to make sure he was okay and nothing bad happened to him.
Buck swallowed hard, knowing that Vin had heard and misunderstood Buck's argument against the second father deal. "Vin . . . that's not--"
Vin cut him off. "It's okay, I ain't mad at ya, Buck," he said, sincerely. "I understand." He leaned forward, staring intensely into Buck's eyes, trying to convey some meaning that Buck didn't quite grasp.
Buck sat back in his chair, tilting his head. "You understand . . .?"
He waited for Vin to elaborate, but when nothing else came he shifted in his chair, hoping Vin's mind wasn't in the place he suspected it was. "What do you understand, Vin? What do you mean?"
Vin shrugged one shoulder, keeping his eyes on the puzzle. "I just mean that . . . if I was you. . .." his voice trailed off because he wasn't sure how to continue. Buck had JD, he reasoned to himself, and JD was a handful! JD was also lots smarter than Vin, and he was cute and happy most of the time - well, when he wasn't being mad. He didn't know how to express his meaning without sounding pitiful and he didn't want Buck to feel sorry for him. He just wanted Buck to know that they didn't need to sugar coat anything between the two of them.
Buck waited patiently, but finally decided to take a shot at what might be on Vin's mind. "Junior, listen, I'm not sure what all you heard the other night, but you have to know that I love you like a son and if anything ever happened to Chris, I'd never let anyone take you away from me and JD." He looked at Vin and could tell he'd hit the nail on the head. He could also tell that Vin wasn't quite reassured, even though the boy shrugged and nodded like he was. Somehow, he needed to figure out a better way to explain his misgivings about the subject. "Do you know what a will is?"
"Okay, well it's like a legal paper that tells what a person wants to have done with their things, when they die."
Vin's eyes widened a little, but he nodded.
"It doesn't mean they're planning for anything bad to happen, but they just want to have their wishes in writing, in case something would happen to them. You understand?"
He waited for Vin's acknowledgment.
"It's the responsible thing to do, actually. When you have a family, you should make sure they're taken care of, but some people don't like to think about death or dying, or anything bad happening. They think they're too young, or life's going too good to think about things like that, so they keep putting it off and . . ." he sighed, looking blankly at the puzzle, as a realization really hit. "Putting important things like that off is never a good idea."
Vin nodded. He knew better than most, that bad things could happen to anyone, whether they were prepared or not. In a timid voice he replied, "Puttin' them off doesn't stop bad things from happenin'."
"Exactly," he agreed then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Amazingly, he felt none of the dread he usually felt when he discussed - or even thought on this subject. "See, Vin, I didn't want to have the second parent documents made up because I was thinking of that as being like a will. I've never felt comfortable thinking about that sort of thing. Ol' Chris about had to hog tie me into having one drawn up. I never had any family to worry about so I figured why should I worry about what happens when I go? But, now, I do have a family, and I need to think about you guys first, now and in the future."
Vin felt kind of sad about Buck not having family before. He knew how that felt, because when he lived by himself - before JD -- he always figured if anything bad happened to him, nobody'd even notice he was gone.
"You must have overheard me telling Chris that we didn't need the second parent thing," Buck continued, "but it wasn't because I didn't want you, Pard. It was because I thought it would be like planning for something bad to happen, and I was wrong, Vin. You and JD mean more to me than I ever thought anyone would," he admitted, not even trying to disguise the trembling of his voice. "I want to make sure both of you are always taken care of."
Vin studied his face, still looking a little uncertain, like he wasn't sure if Buck was including him to make him feel better, or because he really meant it.
"You, me, Chris and JD . . . we might all be different and have different last names, but we're still a family. I love both of you boys and," he grinned and gave Vin a wink, "I even love ol' Chris. He's closer to me than a brother could be. I want you to know that I'll always be there for all three of you. Okay?"
Vin smiled, seeming a little more confident. "Okay. The same goes for me. I'll always be there for you guys, too," he offered solemnly, then extended his right hand for them to seal the pact.
A sudden loud snort from the couch caught their attention. They both turned to find JD sprawled out on the couch, his arms flung over his head, one leg dangling over the side and a sock dangling off his chubby foot.
"I can't believe he took a nap, all on his own. I hope he's not getting sick. He sure has been ornery, this weekend."
"I reckon he's just tired." If JD was not feeling well, Vin was sure they'd all know about it. "And maybe he's a little scared about Chris," he added quietly.
"Yeah," Buck glanced up at him. "What about you, kiddo? Are you worried about Chris?"
Vin shrugged, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. "Maybe a little."
Buck nodded, then pushed his chair back, holding out his arms. "How 'bout a hug?"
Not giving it a second thought, Vin moved over to Buck and wrapped his arms around his neck. He rested there for a few quiet moments, just relishing the security that Buck offered. Chris would be home tomorrow, he told himself again. Everything would be fine.
Finally Vin stepped away, smiling his gratitude before turning back to the puzzle. Buck had to admit that he felt much better too.
As soon as the boy sat back down in his chair, he stood up again. "Hey, look!" he said, pushing the two pieces of the horse's hoof into one of the larger finished sections.
"Well, all right! You got a good eye, Junior," Buck said with a wink.
He couldn't fit the entire section in yet, but he knew where it was supposed to go. He just needed to find the few pieces that would bridge the parts together. The two of them sat quietly for several minutes looking for the pieces that would fill in the gap.
Not for the first time, Buck wondered where Vin got his patience. He was getting antsy sitting there and not finding the pieces he was looking for. "How 'bout we get us a couple of root beers?"
"Well, hey there, Sleeping Beauty."
JD yawned then scowled at him and said, "I ain't Sleepin' Beauty!"
"You're not?" He winked at Vin.
"Sleeping Beauty's a girl, Da. I ain't a girl."
"How could I have said such a thing?"
JD rubbed his eyes and glared at Buck. The boy had obviously woken up on the wrong side of the couch.
"Sleepy of the Seven Dwarves?" Buck tried to amend.
"Looks more like Grumpy, to me," Vin drawled, not looking up from the puzzle. Buck couldn't help but laugh out loud.
JD aimed his glare at his older brother. "Viiiin!"
Buck sat in the hard plastic chair, browsing through the Sunday paper and trying to be patient with the boys. Vin was shifting constantly in the chair to his left, jiggling his leg and standing up every now and then to go look out the window. On his right side, JD was literally bouncing in his seat, climbing to his knees every few minutes to turn around and look at the people behind him.
Last night at bedtime, after both boys had said prayers for Chris' safe return, he'd thought it had been a little too easy to get them to sleep in their own beds. Sure enough, at some point during the night, both of them had snuck into his bed. He'd woken up to JD's legs flailed across his abdomen and Vin's bony shoulder pressing into his ribs. Tonight, he thought with a little satisfaction, would be Chris' turn.
Over the speaker system, a voice called out another flight arrival and almost immediately Buck felt a pair of anxious blue eyes on him. "That's not it, Pard," he said, without looking up from the newspaper. Several times, Vin had been reminded of Chris' flight number, but he still looked at Buck whenever any number was called out.
Checking his watch, he decided they could get up and walk around a little. They should hear Chris' flight called any time now. He folded the newspaper and stood up. "Well, it shouldn't be too much longer. Why don't we start walking down to the gate?" The two boys jumped up and each took hold of a hand.
When they got to the terminal Chris was scheduled to arrive at, there was already a crowd of people waiting. Another arrival was called out, and Vin gripped his hand tightly. "That's it! That's Chris' number!"
"It sure is, Junior." He couldn't help but smile. "Should we go over to the window and see if we can see the plane?"
"Yeah!" JD squealed, at the same time Vin cried, "No!"
"I thought you liked to watch the planes come in?"
"I do, but I wanna see Chris!" Like he thought staying put would make Chris get there sooner, or maybe he was afraid they'd miss Chris if they walked away from the terminal.
"Okay, we'll stay here."
It took longer than he thought, and most of the crowd had dissolved by the time Chris came walking down the ramp.
"Dad!" Vin shouted, jumping up and down and waving, like Chris couldn't see the three of them standing there a few yards away.
"Hey there, Partner." Chris set down his carryon bag, and lifted his son then hugged him tightly.
Vin wrapped his arms around Chris' neck and snuggled against him, sighing with contentment as he breathed in the familiar scent of his dad's cologne mingled with the leather from his coat. For some reason those smells had always made him feel safe. "I missed you."
"I missed you, too!" JD shouted, attaching himself to Chris' leg.
With a chuckle, Chris knelt down and took both boys into his arms. "I missed both of you guys."
"And Buck, too?" JD asked, glancing up at his Da with a beaming smile.
Chris coughed, looking like he had to think that one over, but then replied, "Of course Buck, too."
Amazingly, there were no problems tracking down and claiming his one suitcase and in little time they were headed out to the parking lot. JD chattered on, filling Chris in on everything he'd missed out over the past two days. Vin insisted on helping carry his dad's luggage, although it was a struggle for his short legs to keep up while he lugged the carryon duffle bag. Half way to the truck, he offered to let Buck help him out.
Once in the truck, JD kept rambling, his voice as loud as it had been inside the noisy airport. "Guess what we's makin' for dinner?"
"What, JD?" Chris smiled and looked over his shoulder, not seeming bothered by the decibel level.
"Pigs in a blanket!"
"JD," Buck said, his voice low. "Chris might be getting on in years, but he ain't quite deaf yet."
Chris gave Buck a smirk, but JD just looked confused. "Huh?"
"Lower your voice," Buck whispered, grinning.
"Oh, sowwy. Pigs in a blanket," he whispered, still loud.
"Really?" Chris kept his expression neutral. It was not one his favorites but he managed to force it down on occasion since the boys seemed to like it.
Before they'd even made it to the highway Vin leaned forward as much as he could, restrained in his booster seat. "Dad?"
He was so happy that Chris was home, but he didn't want to sound like a baby. "I'm glad you got home okay," he said, then settled back into his seat, wishing he was big enough that he didn't have to sit in the stupid car seat. He hated not being able to move freely.
"I'm glad, too," Chris said, warmly. He glanced at Buck and in a low voice said, "I'm not looking forward to flying again."
"Yeah," Buck turned his head, taking his eyes off the road for a minute. "About that second parent thing, I've decided we need to do whatever needs to be done, ASAP."
Chris nodded resolutely. Buck had told him over the phone what had happened at the video store. He'd known that his friend was upset over the incident. Apparently that, along with the flight problems, had been what was needed to get Buck to look at things a little differently. Maybe some good had come out of it all?
When they pulled up to the ranch, the first thing Vin noticed was that his trap appeared to be sprung. In seconds he was out of the truck and heading for the overturned cardboard box, with JD trying to keep up.
"What's up with the box?" Chris asked with bemusement. Buck just gave him a smile, knowing this was one of those things that would undoubtedly make him think of Adam. Since the boys had come to live with them, they'd had many of these sort of bittersweet moments, and Chris had handled them as well as a man could be expected. Still. Buck knew it wasn't always easy for him, and he always felt a little pang in his heart.
"That, ol' dog, is a turkey trap."
Chris snorted and Buck was thankful to see only amusement in his eyes. "A turkey trap?"
"You couldn't talk them into catching rabbits," Chris said, still grinning as they walked toward the boys.
"Great. What are they planning to name it this year?"
"Uh . . . Thanksgiving Dinner?"
"Yep, Vin says ya don't name food."
Chris' eyebrows lifted. "And JD agrees with this?"
"Okay . . .."
Vin was sitting on the ground beside the overturned box, his expression bemused. Next to him, JD appeared stunned.
"Well, I'll be," Buck said, chuckling. "How in the world did that get there?"
JD's brown eyes were wide. "I didn't know you could catch these kinda turkeys! How'd it get in there? It don't got no legs!"
"Doesn't have any," Chris corrected. He glanced at Vin to find the boy's blue eyes twinkling with humor.
Vin patted the frozen bird. "I don't know where it came from, JD, but look," he pointed at the empty paper plate, "it ate all the stuffing."
JD leaned forward to get a closer look. "But, it ain't got a mouth."
Chris raised an eyebrow at Buck. "They used stuffing?"
"Course, they used stuffing, Chris," Buck answered, trying not to laugh. "What else would ya use to bait a turkey?"
"Right," Chris agreed wryly, then squatted down and pointed at the bird. "Well, at least we don't have to worry about anyone naming this one."
"Yeah, he already gots a name."
"He does?" JD looked at Vin in astonishment.
"Yep." Vin traced a finger across the plastic packaging that surrounded the huge bird. "See, his name's Butterball."
JD stared at his brother for a long moment then rolled his eyes. Sometimes Vin could be as weird as a grown up.
While Chris was rearranging the freezer so he could fit the huge turkey inside, the other three worked on dinner. They all sat down to a delicious meal of pigs in a blanket, tater tots, and salad. Chris managed to force himself to smile as he ate one pig in a blanket along with a few tater tots, and a lot of salad.
Afterwards, the boys decided they wanted to make cocoa. Vin climbed up the step stool to get the cocoa down from the cupboard, while Buck filled the tea kettle. When the phone rang, JD rushed to answer it. "Wilmington Pweasure Plalace," he said cheerily into the phone.
Chris, after almost choking, turned to give his old friend the evil eye.
Buck shrugged, looking uncomfortable if not properly chastised.
"It's for you Chris!"
"Uh, Little Bit?" Buck winked at the boy, motioning him closer with a finger. "I don't think that's a good way to answer the phone."
"Well, I know that," Buck admitted, purposely not looking at Chris, "but I only did that once, because I knew it was Ezra calling."
"I knew it was Ezra, too, Da. See," her pointed to the caller ID, "it says so right here."
"Okay, but look . . .." He nodded toward Chris who was still glaring at him.
"Yeah. So, from now on let's just stick with the good ol' LWTD Ranch thing, okay?"
"Okay." JD handed the phone to Chris then whispered loudly, "Tell Uncle Ezra we gots a turkey!"
"Will do," Chris assured him before putting the phone to his ear. "Hey there, Ez. You wouldn't happen to know anything about the frozen turkey we found outside would you?"
"Well, I'm not sure, could you describe the turkey?"
"I think so," Chris said with a grin. "Let's see . . . it's kind of short, got no head, weighs oh . . . about 25 pounds and goes by the name Butterball."
"Oh, that turkey! Well, that just so happens to be the reason I'm calling. . .."
Later, after the hot cocoa was made and the marshmallows added, they all moved to the living room, taking up their usual spots. Buck and JD on the couch, and Chris and Vin in the big recliner.
"Was your conference like the one we had at school?" Vin asked his father.
Chris rubbed his chin. "Sort of, not really."
"What'd you do at your conference?" asked JD.
"There were a bunch of other senior agents, like me, and we all just basically talked about ATF things." Chris shrugged, already anticipating a follow up question.
"Like what?" both boys asked at the same time.
"Well, they had certain people who stood up and told us new ideas, things that have worked or haven't worked over the past year, records and statistics, any specific concerns in the bureau . . . things like that. Okay, maybe it was a little like your conferences, after all."
"I reckon conferences are a lot like pow wows," said Vin, looking thoughtful.
"Yes, they are, and speaking of pow wows . . .." Buck said, giving the boy in his lap a jiggle. "I was thinking now was a good time for one, because I'd really like to discuss some things."
The two men did their best to explain the things they'd decided on concerning the second parent status, in terms that young children would understand. To their relief, both boys accepted the declaration as if it was something that had always been - which, was mostly true. If it hadn't been for Vin overhearing their conversation earlier in the week, he would never have second-guessed it at all.
"We was already a family, right?" JD asked, looking a little puzzled.
"Yes, the papers will only mean that legally, officially we'll be a family," Buck explained, wanting the boy to understand the reason they had bothered to bring up the subject.
"Instead of being two families," Vin tried to elaborate. "All four of us would be like one family."
"Right." Buck grinned, ruffling JD's dark mop of hair. "We'll be the Fab Four."
"The Fab Four."
When the two boys glanced at each other and shrugged, Buck tried to clarify. "The Beatles, you know?"
JD's forehead creased in a frown. "After we get 'dopted we'll be bugs?"
Chris let out a burst of laughter. "Nice example, Buck."
"What about Uncle 'Siah and Uncle Ezra and Uncle Nathan?" Vin asked. Apparently he was more worried about his uncles being left out than he was about being a bug.
"Yeah, can they be bugs, too?"
"Of course they can," Chris agreed, smirking at Buck, who appeared to be a little flustered. "Right, Buck?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess so."
"So, if Unca Nate, Unca Ezra and Unca 'Siah are bugs, too, then we'll be . . ." JD silently added the numbers in his head, "the Fab Seven, right?"
The expression on Buck's face made Vin start to giggle. "What about Peso, and Ringo?"
"Yeah! And Elvis and Torkus! That makes 'leven!"
"Okay, you asked for it," Buck said and began to tickle JD.
"Vin!" the boy squealed. "Help!"
Vin, always ready to rush to his young brother's rescue, launched himself from the chair and tackled Buck. In seconds both boys had the big man down on the carpet and were trying their best to immobilize him. Chris watched in amusement; whenever one boy would gain some advantage he'd immediately find himself flipped over and being tickled, leaving the other boy momentarily free to launch his own attack, which would end up drawing Buck's attention right back to him. Neither boy seemed to realize they were fighting a losing battle until Buck surged up in a swift motion and pinned them both with a hand on each boy.
"Hey, no fair!" JD complained.
Vin paused his struggling to glance at Chris, making a silent plea, which Chris was happy to oblige. "Buck, phone," he said, reaching for the phone he'd set beside him, while winking at Vin.
"I didn't hear the phone ring," Buck said with a suspicious tone.
"Cindy," Chris said, putting the phone to his ear. "He's too busy to talk--"
Buck practically launched himself from the floor, turning around to face Chris. "Now, wait a minute--"
As soon as the two boys managed to struggle to their feet, they attacked from behind.
Chris tossed the phone aside and grinned. "Looks like you boys caught yourself a turkey after all."
Next up - Piecing Together a Family by Laramee
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