by LaraMee


The week went real, real, real slow. Didn't it Vin?

Yeah, it did. I didn't think it was ever going to be Thursday.

Thursday was a real long day, too. School was boring, boring, boring.

Well, we did talk bout Thanksgiving.

Yeah but it was boring otherwise.

But we got to watch a movie bout pilgrims.

Yeah but it was boring otherwise.

And what bout watching stinky Freddy and Eli Joe have to go to the principal's office?

Yeah, that was good, but the rest of the day was boring.

We got to make handprint turkeys in arts and crafts, too.

???? Okay, maybe it wasn't boring, boring, boring after all.

Thursday morning dawned to gray clouds and the threat of snow. Chris found himself wishing that it had started snowing the night before, then chastising himself as a coward.

But a nice little blizzard to keep incoming planes from landing would be nice.

"Weather Channel says overcast but no precip.," Buck announced.

Larabee glared at his friend. He really hated it when Buck did that. With a resigned sigh, he said, "Dad and Mom will be here around 1:00, so they'll have time to relax and settle in before the boys get home."

Grinning, Wilmington said, "I imagine Matt 'll be bustin' a gut waitin' to see them."

With a smile and a shake of his head, Chris said, "It'll probably be a race to see who wears out whom. Come on, let's go wake up the boys."

A short time later the four members of the family were sitting at the table, eating breakfast. The boys had been especially easy to coax out of their warm beds, the mention of Grandpa Matt bringing them instantly wake.

Chris' anxiety had spread to the children, even though he had done his best to keep it from affecting them. In turn, their concern came out in a storm of questions.

"You sure we gots everything done in the guess room?" JD questioned.

"It looks fine, Little Bit," Buck reassured him.

"Did we get 'nough flowers for the vase? Did we put 'nough water in it?" Vin worried.

"It's fine, Junior," Buck responded when he saw that Chris was only half listening.

"Are ya sure?"

"Positive," The big man said with a grin.

"What about - "

"Vin, it's fine, really," Chris looked across the tale at his son. "Stop worrying, okay?"

The seven-year-old dropped his gaze, studying the few remaining Cheerios that bobbed in his milk. As he pushed them and watched them chase one another, he said, "I just wanted to be sure. It needs ta be real nice for Gran'pa Matt and yer mama."

Reaching out, the blond took the narrow little chin in a hand and coaxed the somber gaze back in his direction. As gently as he could, he said, "Cowboy, all I meant was that you, JD, Buck and Mrs. Potter have been really great about making this whole house look wonderful. You shouldn't worry about it, because the house looks fantastic. You should - all of you - feel very proud of how wonderful it looks."

Grinning shyly, the little boy said simply, "oh. Okay."

His words garbled by a mouthful of toast, JD said, "I am proud, 'cause we used a lotta… um… arm oil."

The others were stopped dead by the youngest's comment. Then, rolling his eyes, Vin said, "Elbow grease, JD."

Unfazed by the correction, the little brunet said, "oh, yeah, e'bow grease."

The little, nondescript rental car pulled into the drive; coming to a stop near the garage. Inside, the man behind the wheel turned to regard the woman in the passenger seat. He watched the play of emotions that crossed her face as she peered through the window, toward the familiar house. He had known Claire Larabee since she had been Claire Adams, almost fifty years ago. Matt could read his wife like a book and, right now, it was taking everything she had not to run back down the driveway.

Reaching out, he placed a hand over both of hers; they were knotted into fists in her lap. "Take a breath, Calico Girl," he said softly, using his pet name for her.

Claire managed a weak smile, her pale green eyes filled with tears. "I'm fine."

"Sure you are. Well, Chris said the housekeeper would be here to let us in. Let's get our stuff and get inside, where it's warm."

Taking a deep breath, she nodded and reached for the door handle. A few minutes later, both of them were carrying their luggage toward the porch. As they climbed the steps, the front door was opened by an apologetic Gloria Potter.

"I'm so sorry! I was busy in the kitchen and didn't hear you pull up."

"Don't apologize, we're fine," Matt responded as he entered the warm house.

With Claire lagging behind, they moved down the short hallway to the guest room. She was taking in the familiar house; noting everything that she recognized from her last visit. She also noticed the things that were different. Wondering how much had just been put away and how much her son had destroyed during one of his drunken rages, she moved down the hall.

Half an hour later, the couple had settled into the guest room and freshened up. Now they were sitting at the kitchen table, sharing coffee, muffins and conversation with Gloria.

Smiling at the silver-haired man, the housekeeper said, "I've heard quite a lot about you, Mr. Larabee. The boys told me all sorts of tales about your visit when I got back here from my niece's home."

"It's Matt, please. I hope that means they enjoyed my visit as much as I did."

"Oh my, yes. I can't tell you how often I heard, 'when Grandpa Matt was here'! Both the boys were very excited when they heard that you were coming for another visit."

"Well Matt has been pretty excited as well," Claire said, joining the conversation.

Gloria flushed, realizing that she had all but ignored Chris' mother. "Well, I'm sure the boys will enjoy getting to know you as well."

Only smiling in answer, Claire changed the subject. "I see that my son has been making quite a few changes here."

Not certain what to make of the abrupt change, Mrs. Potter responded with, "You know how it is. There's always something that needs to be replaced or changed."

"Mm," Mrs. Larabee murmured through tightly pressed lips.

Matt drew a deep breath. Turning back to the housekeeper, he asked, "how are things going as far as the adoptions are concerned?"

"Well I'm not completely certain, but as far as I know everything has gone well. There shouldn't be any problems in getting the final papers by next week. Mrs. Wells has been wonderful in making certain that everything is on track. Sometimes I think she wants this adoption more than anyone else."

With a broad grin, the elder Larabee said, "That's fantastic. I know they'll all be relieved when it's official."

"I think you're right although, truth be told, I'm not sure it's going to make a lot of difference. For all intents and purposes, they're already fathers and sons."

Claire made a strange sound deep in her throat. "I never pictured Buck Wilmington stepping into the father role."

"Yes, well, it was a stretch at first. He's learned a lot, though. JD couldn't want for a better father. Buck is incredibly dedicated to JD. Just as Chris is to Vin - "

"I'm certain that they're both wonderful fathers. Chris was quite the devoted father and husband… before." Claire's eyes bore into the other woman with an icy gaze.

Gloria suddenly felt the urge to get away. Glancing down at her watch, she said, "Oh, my, look at the time! The boys will be getting out of school in a little while, I really should be going. Excuse me." She pushed away from the table and quickly left the room.

Matt frowned across the table, staring at his wife. "You could have been a little more polite."

Leveling a cool look at her husband, Claire said, "I really don't think I need one of your 'give it a chance' speeches right now, Matthew."

Shaking his head, Matt left the table and strode from the room, calling out to the housekeeper.

Heaving a quivering sigh, Claire wiped a hand across her face, whisking away a few hot tears. Staring into her coffee cup, she struggled to keep the painful memories at bay. She was unsuccessful, and she continued to hear the whispers of a child's laughter and a woman's sweet voice raised in song.

The two little boys stood at the front door of the school, waiting impatiently for someone to come pick them up. The day had seemed to be so long, every minute dragging past like an hour. Both Vin and JD had only one thing on their minds - seeing Grandpa Matt again.

The sight of the old station wagon pulling up into the turn-around brought smiles to the two little faces. JD began to clap, prancing in place in his excitement. Vin looked up at the teacher's aide, waiting for permission to go out the door. When Jackie smiled, nodded and winked, he grinned and pushed at the heavy door.

As the boys scrambled down the steps, the passenger door opened, and someone stepped out. As soon as they recognized him, both boys cried out in unison, "Gran'pa Matt!"

Laughing joyfully the silver-haired man knelt on the walk and held his arms open wide. The two boys dropped their backpacks and leapt into his embrace. Squeezing them tight, he hugged them as he said, "Hi, grandsons!"

"We been waitin' and waitin' forever for you to come Gran'pa Matt," JD said with a hint of accusation.

Trying to look serious, the older Larabee said, "You have? I'm so sorry it took so long for me to get here, then."

"That's okay, you're here now and we can have lots 'a fun an' Da said you're gonna be here when we all gets 'dopted an' you're gonna stay an' have turkey with us on Thanksgiving an' - "

"Breathe, Little Bit, breathe!" Matt chuckled.

Grinning up at the man, the child said, "I am breathin' Gran'pa Matt!"

Turning to the quiet seven-year-old, Matt Larabee said, "And how are you doing, Vin?"

"I'm okay," Vin said softly. "Is… did… is Chris' mama here, too?"

"Yes, she's here. She stayed at the house to rest up a little." He hoped it wasn't a falsehood. He hoped that, once she got used to being back here, his wife's mood would change.

"Oh." The slender boy's gaze swept the ground. He was nervous about meeting his Dad's mama for the first time. It had gone well when they met Grandpa Matt, but the way Chris was acting, he didn't think things were going to go the same way this time.


Realizing that Grandpa Matt had spoken to him, the little boy blinked and turned his attention back to the man. "Yes, sir?"

"I said, are you ready to go? I got permission from Chris and Buck to take you boys for hot cocoa and cookies on the way home. Does that sound good?"

A grin lighting up his little face, Vin nodded vigorously. "That sounds real good!"

Gloria dropped the three of them off at Maggie Moo's while she ran a few errands. The ice cream parlor was offering 'cold weather' treats, and Matt indulged the boys, allowing them to each choose two cookies apiece, along with whipped cream topped cocoa. Watching as the children giggled at one another's white cream 'mustaches', he silently vowed to deal with the aftermath. He grinned at the vision of two little boys bouncing off the walls well after their bedtime.

"Did'ja have a good trip, Gran'pa Matt?" Vin asked as he drew designs in his whipped cream with one little finger.

"Yeah, we did, it was a good flight."

"Was it a big, big plane?" JD held his arms out wide, barely missing his brother's cup.

"Pretty big," Matt reached out to keep Vin's cocoa from sailing off the table.


"So, how was school today?"

"Boring, boring, boring," JD announced.

"Oh, now I'm sure there are some good things that happened. Back when Chris was a boy, he used to tell his mom and me that nothing good happened at school, too. But I think he always enjoyed it."

"Da says that school's 'portant," the little brunet agreed.

The conversation continued moving from school to other topics… dealing with skunked dogs and touching on the near tragedy of 'Unca Ezra' while he was 'under covers'. Matt could tell that the boys were still getting over the pain of nearly losing their adopted uncle both from the injury and his subsequent move. Chris had told him a little about it earlier.

Throughout the rambling conversation, Matt grew more and more curious about his soon to be legally adopted grandson. Any time there was even the briefest mention of Claire; a look of concern crossed the little boy's face. Finally, knowing it was something that needed to be addressed before returning to the ranch, he spoke up.

"Vin, is something wrong?"

The seven-year-old shook his head, denial on his lips. Then, with a heavy sigh, he nodded. When his grandfather continued to watch him, he finally spoke, hesitantly. "I've been wonderin'… well, Dad's been… actin' real funny. I think he's been kind 'a worried 'bout… um… "

With a compassionate smile when the sensitive child hesitated, Matt said gently, "He's been worried about seeing his mom, I'll bet."

Vin nodded, staring down at the table.

"Chris and his mom… well, they had some problems after Sarah and Adam… went to sleep with the angels," Matt explained. "Your dad did some things that his mom didn't like, and she said some things that he didn't like, either. They… well; they didn't get along very well."

"Is that why they ain't seen each other for so long?"

Startled by the child's perceptiveness, the older man simply nodded at first. Then he added, "That doesn't mean that they don't love each other, because they do. But sometimes when grown ups get angry with one another, they don't spend a lot of time together."

Feeling left out of the conversation, JD said, "Sometimes me and Vin don't get along very good, so Da or Chris makes us stay 'way from each other for a real long time. Sometimes for a whole hour!"

Winking at Vin when the little blond responded by rolling his eyes, Matt said, "I'm certain you still love one another, even after a whole hour."

"Sure," JD said matter-of-factly.

"It's the same with Chris and his mom. No matter how long they stay away from one another, they still love one another." Seeing that the mood was growing far too serious, Matt said, "So, what would you boys like to do while I'm here?"

By the time Gloria came to pick the trio up, enough plans had been made to keep them busy for a month. Matt promised that they would try to do at least one of the things each day, but that they would have to fit it in around school part of the time. Vetoing JD's idea of skipping school because, 'it's a real special thing to have visitors' he policed the area around the table and threw away the trash.

The drive back to the ranch was an indication of just how nervous the seven-year-old was about meeting Claire Larabee. Despite the indications of an oncoming sugar buzz, the little boy remained somber most of the time. JD, on the other hand, was a pint-sized live wire, talking at warp speed and giggling over the smallest things.

Matt grinned feebly at the look Gloria gave him. With a shrug, he said softly, "I'm the Grandpa, I'm supposed to indulge and spoil."

Mrs. Potter tried to look stern, but then smiled and shook her head. "Just make certain you let your son know I was just the driver, okay?"

"Deal," the elder Larabee said with a wink.

By the time they pulled up into the drive, the little brunet was in full manic mode, barely able to sit still long enough for Gloria to loosen his seatbelt. As soon as he was released, he was off and running.

On the other side of the wagon, Matt was releasing Vin. The slender blond seemed to be running more on nervous energy than sugar overload. The silver-haired man gave him a quick hug before releasing the child. Vin was quickly chasing after JD.

"You boys go change into your play clothes," Gloria called after them. Chuckling softly at the twin calls of 'kay!', she turned to regard the older man. Shaking her head at his wide grin, she said, "It's not going to be a pretty sight when they crash."

"Never is," Matt replied. He helped the housekeeper gather the bags she had stored in the rear of the car and carried them into house.

Claire jumped at the sound of a slamming door. She turned from where she had been watching out the window of the guest room at the sound of several running feet. As two little boys flew past the open door, followed by two yapping dogs, she shook her head disapprovingly. No doubt Matthew had taken the boys somewhere and loaded them up on sugar. She had dealt with the aftermath a thousand times when Chris was little, and then every time they had come to visit after Adam had gotten old enough for solid food.

Her breath caught as her thoughts returned to her grandson. Adam had been the perfect combination of Sarah and Chris; had been the culmination of the best of each. She closed her eyes, Adam's face filling her inner vision. Then another memory took its place; that of her one and only son, passed out on the floor of the den, empty whiskey bottles scattered around him.

Anger flashed across her face. Matt had indulged him then, too. Her husband had made excuses for him, trying to convince her that all he needed was some time to get over the loss of his wife and son. She had watched him drag Chris to bed night after night, sometimes alone and sometimes with Buck's help. And every time he had made the same excuse. Their son needed time to work through his grief.

The sound of running feet broke into her thoughts, and Claire watched the same two children fly past in the opposite direction. They were giggling and chattering like noisy magpies and hadn't even noticed her at all. She heard them crashing through the house and back out the door. Shaking her head, she turned back toward the window.

"Hey, Calico Girl."

Turning, Claire regarded her husband with a stern expression. "I see you're back to your old tricks. They'll be up half the night, I'm sure."

Shrugging, Matt said, "So, they'll be next door and I'll take care of the fall-out."

Crossing her hands over her chest, the older woman said, "Just like you always do… Matthew Christopher Larabee, peacekeeper extraordinaire."

"I really thought you'd gotten past all that, Claire," Matt said with a sigh.

"Yes, well, you may have been able to forget your daughter-in-law and your only grandson. I have no intention of doing so, however."

Matt opened his mouth to resume his part of the argument they had had so many times over the years. He didn't get the chance, however. A siren-level wail caught his attention and sent him moving quickly from the room.

The elder Larabee entered the kitchen to find Gloria Potter wiping blood from beneath a stoically silent Vin's nose, while trying to comfort a wailing JD. Lifting the smaller boy into his arms, Matt said, "my goodness. What's wrong Little Bit?"

"I didn't m-mean to hit… Vin, Gwampa Matt!" The tiny brunet hiccupped through his explanation. "I just throwed the ball!"

"I'm sure it wasn't on purpose," Matt spoke softly, rubbing the child's back while looking over Gloria's shoulder. Vin looked up at him, tears swimming in bright blue eyes, but the older boy refused to spill them.

"It was a ax'dent," the little blond agreed. "We was playin' keep away from the dogs an' JD don't throw real good."

Smiling at the child's explanation, Grandpa Matt said, "We'll just have to work on his throwing skills, then, huh?" When the two boys nodded in agreement, he finished, "Why don't we go watch a video while you two calm down?"

"'Kay… you can pick it, Vin," JD squirmed in the tall man's arms, indicating that he wanted down.

"No, that's okay, you can pick it," Vin offered.

Standing the younger child on the floor, Chris' father lifted the older off the counter, one arm holding the child, the other the cloth Gloria handed him. Holding it against the little, bloody nose, Matt carried the little blond to the great room. He settled on the couch, Vin on his lap.

JD chose one of the Scooby Doo videos, started it and trotted over to sit beside Matt. He didn't hear Vin sigh, or see the put upon look that his brother gave their grandfather. The five-year-old would watch Scooby Doo twenty-four / seven if he was allowed.

The cartoon was almost half way over when they all heard someone coming into the room. Looking up, the boys saw a vaguely familiar woman, quickly recognizing Chris' mama from the family pictures. Matt looked up and smiled.

"Hi. We had a little accident. Claire, this is Vin and JD." He indicated each child in turn and looked at his wife expectantly.

"Hello," Claire said, offering a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.

"Hi! You're Chris' mama, aren'cha?" JD chirped. "We's watchin' Scooby Doo, do you know Scooby Doo?"

"Uh, yes… Christopher watched it when he was a boy," Claire said softly. She perched on one of the recliners, her eyes going from one boy to the other.

"Chris-fer?" JD giggled. "I didn't know his name's Chris'fer. We just call him Chris. Well, sometimes Da calls him other names, but we ain't s'posed to say some of 'em."

Claire couldn't help but smile at the little brunet's chatter. "Is that what you call Buck… Da?"

"Yeah, I calls him Da 'cause that's what my mama called her daddy… da. I used to just call him Buck, but he's gonna 'dopt me pretty soon. He said that if everything goes okay, the judge's gonna say we're 'ficially 'dopted next week. Even if he don't say it, it don't matter, 'cause Buck's still my da. And Chris is Vin's dad. Vin calls Chris dad like I calls Buck Da. Don'cha Vin?"

Claire's face froze at the child's innocent comment. She looked at the boy her husband was holding. He was thin, almost frail looking. His hair was too long, and shaggy. She didn't know why he was allowed to keep it like that. He darted a look in her direction, eyes as big as saucers glancing at her, like one of those paintings from the seventies. He looked as if he wanted to bolt from the room.

What did her son see in this sickly, skittish colt of a child?

Vin watched the woman, his heart beating faster as she stared at him. He couldn't help but remember the show they watched in school once. It was about a Queen who was cold as ice all the time. Chris' mama's face looked a lot like that. He wanted to jump off Grandpa Matt's lap and run for his room, but that wouldn't be polite. Instead, he took comfort in the man's arm around him, even snuggling a little closer into the embrace.

Oblivious to the silent exchange between the other two people, JD continued his chatter. "Vin, don'cha call Chris dad? He used to just call him Chris but now he calls him dad, least most of the time. We're gonna have a party when the 'doptions are 'ficial. Da said it's gonna be a real special thanksgiving, 'cause we're all gonna have a lot to be thank-full for. He gets a big smile when he talks 'bout it, like this," he paused, offering up a smile that threatened to split his little face in two. "Sometimes he looks like he's gonna cry, even though he says he's real happy. I don't know how come people can cry and smile at the same time. Do you know why Grandpa Matt?"

"I guess sometimes people get such a big emotion that just smiling or just crying isn't enough. So they do both at the same time."

"Oh. Well, anyway, he says it's gonna be a real special cel'bration. Our uncles is gonna come out here… Unca 'Siah an' Unca Ezra an' Unca Nathan. Unca Ezra was livin' here, but he buyed a new place so he move-did. I wish he would live here, but he says he needs his 'pace. Unca Nathan's wife, Aunt Raine, is gonna come, too. She might have to work, 'cause she's a doctor, but if she don't have to work she's gonna come. An' Miz Nettie's gonna come here an' she might bring her neice, Casey. Casey's real 'noyin' but she can be kind 'a fun, too. An' Miz Potter's gonna come, with her kids, David an' Katie. They're big kids, almost growed up. An' Da says Miz Potter's not gonna be the housekeeper that day, 'cause she's gonna be a guess. An' there might be some other peoples come, too, but we ain't sure yet. An' then you an' Grandpa Matt's gonna be here…" he paused, taking a breath. With a worried look, he asked Vin, "Do we gots 'nough chairs?"

Shrugging, still watching the woman that sort of looked like his Dad, the older boy said, "maybe. Dad… Chris… he said that Unca 'Siah can bring some extra if we need 'em."

"'Kay." Turning back to their guest, the smaller boy said, "We's gonna have lots 'a good food to eat. Me an' Vin didn't never have so much to eat when we lived in the warehouse. It wasn't 'cause Vin didn't take care of me real good, though. It was 'cause we was both too little to have jobs an' make money. So we had to eat stuff in the dumpsters and look pafetic so peoples would give us little moneys."

"Change, JD," Vin corrected automatically, his eyes still avoiding the woman's gaze, but keeping an eye on her nonetheless.

"Oh yeah, changes."

Smiling sadly at the little boy, Claire said, "I'm sorry you didn't have good food before you came here, dear."

"Oh, it was okay, but I like it lots better now. I gots food poisoned at school at Hall'ween but that was a ax'dent. We don't never have to eat old food… but we do have to eat veg'bles." He wrinkled up his little nose.

"JD, honey, you're going to talk Mrs. Larabee's ear off," Gloria scolded gently from the doorway. "You know, it's going to be too dark to play outside soon. If you feel up to it, you boys might want to go out and make the best of it."

Looking at Vin, JD said, "Does your nose feel better?"

"Yeah, let's go see what the dogs is doin'," Vin wriggled off Matt's lap, smiling up at his grandfather as he did. "Do you wanna go play outside with us, Gran'pa?"

"I'd love to," Matt replied. Turning to Claire, he asked, "Would you like to join us, dear?"

Shaking her head, the older woman said, "I think I'll just stay in here where it's warm."

A sad expression passed over Matt's face as he left the room, trailing behind the boys.

Buck looked across the cab of the truck, glancing at his old friend. He had insisted on driving home tonight, knowing that Chris would have wrapped them around a light pole before they got a mile. Larabee hadn't been able to keep his mind on work all day; he had stormed around like a thunderhead, growling at everyone for everything. There had been more than a dozen death threats made against the anxious man before lunch, and Buck wasn't certain that they weren't at least partially serious.

The blond was staring out the window, his posture rigid and his jaw tight. He hands were knotted into fists, tensely lying in his lap. They were half way home, and he hadn't said more than three words. The man had never been especially long-winded, but this was getting downright painful. The only thing breaking the silence was the soft music of the 'golden oldies' station Buck enjoyed listening to.



"You're gonna snap in half if you keep this up."

"Shut up, Buck."

He sighed and turned up the stereo.

Vin, how come Chris didn't act happy to see his mama?

???? I don't know.

But I'd be real happy to see my mama.

I know, me too. But it ain't the same.

How come.

It just is.



I wish I could see my mama.

Me, too.




"They're home! They're home!" JD bounced up and down, clapping his hands. They had retired to the porch a short time earlier, watching down the drive for signs of their fathers.

"Sheesh, JD, we can see," Vin grumbled.

With a chuckle, Matt said, "he's just enthusiastic."

Deciding that enthusiastic must be another word for annoying, Vin nodded. He was relieved to see the truck bouncing along the road, anxious to see his father. He was standing at the edge of the steps, arms wrapped around the upright, swinging back and forth from one foot to the other.

It seemed to take forever for the Ram to pull up to the end of the drive and stop. Waiting for the black truck to be turned off, the two boys leapt from the porch and ran as fast as they could toward the two men emerging from the cab.

Smiling at the shouts of greeting, the two men exchanged happy looks. There was nothing that made the cares and worries of their lives disappear like being greeted with such enthusiasm from their sons. Reaching out, the two men scooped the boys into their arms.

Giving JD a hug, Buck said, "Hey Li'l Bit, how was your day?"

"We had fun, Da, Gran'pa Matt came to get us with Miz Potter an' he taked us to Maggie Moo's an' we had hot chokit an' cookies an' then when we comed home me an' Vin played outside an' I ax'dently hit Vin in the nose with the ball but it ain't bleedin' no more an' Vin said it don't hurt too much an' then we watched Scooby 'til Vin feeled better an' we met Chris' mama an' then we played outside some more an' Gran'pa Matt played, too, an' then we was resting on the porch an' then you an' Chris comed home."

With a low whistle, Buck said, "Boy, you sure had a busy afternoon." He looked over at Chris and Vin, the two blonds grinning at the whirlwind report. "So, did you eat both cookies and drink all the hot chocolate?"

"Yep," JD grinned broadly, bouncing in his father's embrace.

"Oh… good," Wilmington sighed, already dreading bedtime.

Meanwhile, Chris was standing quietly, feeling the tension in the tiny body in his arms. Looking into the big, blue eyes, he asked, "Is your nose all right?"

Sniffing noisily to prove that he was fine, Vin said, "Yep, it don't hurt no more."

"That's good. So… you had two cookies and hot chocolate, too?" As the little blond nodded vigorously, he shook his head. "Matt Larabee Specials."


Smiling at his son, Larabee said, "That's what my Mom always called it when Dad would take me somewhere and fill me up with sugar, a Matt Larabee Special. I hope he's prepared to deal with the two of you tonight."

A chuckle rang out, and the foursome saw Matt coming to join them. The older man strode across the yard, hands shoved down in his coat pockets. Nearing the family, he grinned at his son, "I survived getting you through a lot worse."

"Yeah, but we were both a lot younger," Chris pointed out. "And, there was only one of me."

Shrugging, Matt replied, "So, I have years of experience to back me up now."

Laughing now, Chris shifted Vin a little and embraced his father. The two men included the little boy in their hug. As they parted a moment later, Larabee said, "Have a good flight?"

"Yeah, in a big, big plane," Matt swept his arms out, imitating JD.

His smile fading, the younger Larabee asked, "So, where's Mom?"

"She's inside. You know your mother; she never did like the cold."

"Is she… how is she?" Chris stumbled over the question.

His smile fading now as well, Matt repeated pointedly, "You know your mother."

Heaving a sigh, the younger man said softly, "Yeah… I do."

A short time later, everyone was cleaned up and preparing to sit down to dinner. The puzzle box had been moved to make room at the dining room table. Gloria had outdone herself for dinner, with a large roast, new potatoes, carrots, broccoli and cheese sauce, and fresh, warm rolls. There was a red velvet cake waiting on the sideboard, as well.

The five men looked around, waiting to see if Claire was going to join them. When she didn't appear Matt shook his head and left the dining room. A few minutes later he returned, his wife behind him.

Chris left his place at the head of the table, coming around to greet his mother. She had been nowhere to be seen when they'd come in, and he had been too busy helping to get the boys to the table to look for her. He pasted on a smile that he didn't feel as he came to where she stood beside his Dad.


"Christopher." She pasted on a smile as well. Neither of them seemed comfortable, and they didn't get close enough to touch. After a few awkward seconds, Chris returned to his place.

Everyone sat down, and the meal began. If anyone noticed how quiet mother and son were, no one said anything. The nightly ritual of finding out about the school day was the main topic, just as it normally was. The boys filled their fathers and visitors in on the trials and tribulations of being children. Freddy had been sent to the principal twice and Eli Joe once. Angelica had fallen on the playground and scraped her knee, Isabella had gone home ill, and they had watched a movie on pilgrims in the afternoon.

"Sounds like you had a lot going on," Buck said when there was a lull in the conversation.

"Yep, we did," JD agreed. "Can I have some cake even if I don't eat all my broc'li?"

"You know the rules, Little Bit," Wilmington replied, "And no, sad faces don't work. Besides you two have had plenty of sugar today."

"Da!" JD yelped, shocked. "You can't never have too much sugar!"

The adults laughed at the child's comment, even Claire, smiling at the little brunet. She was finding it awfully difficult not to like the little boy. Her gaze passed over the older child, who sat as close to her son as possible. He hadn't looked up from his plate unless spoken to, and barely said a word. She remembered Matt saying something about the boy having some sort of difficulties, and wondered if perhaps those difficulties were more significant than her husband had made them out to be. She was beginning to wonder if the boy was mentally retarded or something.

At the other end of the table, Chris watched his mother, seeing her gaze fall on his son. He saw her face change; the smile faded and was replaced by a hard look. Instinctively he reached out and stroked the silken tangles of Vin's hair. The seven-year-old looked up and smiled, leading him to smile in return. "How's your dinner?"

"It's real good," Vin assured him. "Miz Potter even makes broc'li taste good."

"She's a miracle worker," Larabee replied with a smile. "You're quieter than usual tonight. Is everything okay?"

Shrugging, Vin said simply, "yeah."

Chris knew better. His son was more perceptive than most adults; he had picked up on the tension between him and his mother. And, judging from the look he saw on her face, his mother wasn't being especially friendly. Stifling a sigh, he wished once again that she had decided not to join his dad on this trip.

After dinner and the clean up, the family settled in the great room. Claire started to excuse herself and retire to the guest room, but a sharp look from both her husband and her son kept her in the room. She left long enough to retrieve some of her needlework, and settled in the rocking chair that sat in the far corner.

The puzzle box had been placed on the coffee table during dinner, and the three men and two boys gathered around it. Small talk and chatter competed with the soft jazz that played on the stereo and the crackle of the fire in the hearth. They worked on the puzzle for some time, ending only when the children began to yawn every few minutes. JD was curled up in Buck's lap, holding onto the same piece for several minutes, only to put it back and pick up another. Vin leaned more and more heavily against Chris, only finding the place for a few of the pieces, himself.

"I think it's time to get ready for bed," Larabee said gently, nudging the little body beside him.

"Aw, do we… gotta?" Vin protested, a yawn stifling some of the words.

"Yeah, we gotta, Junior," Buck replied. "And I think that, in honor of him being here, Grandpa Matt should help me get you two ready.

Chris' eyes widened at the thought that he would be left alone with his mother. His voice sounding strained, he said, "Why don't you two stay here and I'll get the boys ready? After all, Dad, you've had a long day."

With a pointed look that said he understood only too well what his son was doing, Matt Larabee said, "I'm just fine, son. Besides, I promised to deal with the aftermath of one of my 'Special's'." He grinned, but his eyes said very clearly that it was time for the other two Larabees to make peace.

Buck scooped up JD and Matt held out his hand for Vin. The two men left the room with the children, chatting amicably. Behind them, the silence grew. Not even the soft strains of music seemed to make a difference now.

Heaving a sigh, Chris pushed himself up from the floor. He stood quietly, watching his mother for a minute. She sat in the rocker, her hands the only things moving. He knew she had heard every word; that she knew what was going on as well as he did. Still, she refused to look up.

Moving across the room, the blond man settled stiffly on his recliner. Leaning forward, he propped his elbows on his knees and clenched his hands together. "So… what are you working on?"

Eyes still on her handiwork, Claire said, "It's a quilt square. The Garden Club is having a Christmas sale next month… the money will go to the homeless shelters there in town."

"That's nice…" he hesitated, not certain what to say next. The only thing that came to mind was, "You know, Vin lived in a shelter for awhile, in Boulder. That's where Rebecca died."


"His mother."

"Oh," Claire said softly, her eyes darting toward her son then going back to the quilt square.

Chris heaved a deep sigh and ran his hand through his hair. He had never been one to beat around the bush, and decided that he needed to stop doing so now. "So, are you still punishing me?"

Eyes very much like her son's flashed angrily in the woman's face. In an even tone, she said, "It never seemed to do any good before; I can't see wasting my time trying it now."

"But you're not going to make any of this easy, are you? Can I ask why you even bothered to come out here?"

With only a slight tremble in her voice, Claire said, "Because your father said that, if I didn't come with him, he wasn't going to come back home."

Shaking his head, the blond said, "Sounds like something Dad would say. You know he wouldn't follow through on it, though. You two have been together far too long."

Her shoulders slumping, his mother said, "I'm not so sure about that."

Shaking his head now, Chris said softly, "I am. He loves you… I do know what that kind of love is like, you know."

Once more her eyes flashed as Claire said, "So you say."

Barely managing to control his temper, Larabee jumped from the chair and stalked across the room. In a harsh whisper, he said, "Mother, you never once tried to understand my pain, you were so busy wallowing in your own. I never denied you that and I won't make excuses for what I did… I was wrong. I was hurting, and not thinking straight, and I was wrong. But don't you ever act like I didn't love my wife and son. Got it?"

Taken aback, Claire could only stare up into her son's face. She saw the anger there and, beneath it, the pain that lingered from his loss. Before she could react, he continued.

"Now, I'm going to say this just once. If you want to be angry at me for the rest of your life, there's not a damn thing I can do about it. But next week is a very important time for us. And, Mother, I will not let you ruin our celebration."

"Is that all?"

"Yeah… for now."

Standing, Claire Larabee said, "Then I'll say good night."