(Tuesday afternoon)

Mrs. Potter knew something wasn't right. Over time she had realized that Vin had different types of quiet and if she couldn't always read Vin, JD was usually pretty easy to read. Today Vin was angry, JD unhappy and neither was about to tell her what was going on.

Putting a CD of kids' songs in, Gloria started the car and prepared for the long silent trip home. After about ten minutes she couldn't take it. Her boys shouldn't be like this. "So how was school today?" she asked, not really expecting a response.

"Fine," Vin muttered

"Eli Joe and Freddie teased us," JD said, unable to stay silent any longer. "They said we smelled like the sewer we came from and I said we didn't come from no sewer and Eli said yes you did and Vin told him we didn't and then Eli pushed Vin and called him a little stinker and I said he wasn't it was just skunk smell and …"

"JD," Vin interrupted causing the younger boy to go silent.

"Did you get into a fight?" Gloria asked, concerned and wondering if she should call Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington at work.

"No," Vin said. "It was time to go in after that."

"But Eli and Freddie made the other kids stay away from us the rest of the afternoon until Mr. B made them stop," JD added. He wondered why Vin sighed. "Do we still smell like skunk?" he asked.

Wanting to be truthful, but not wanting to hurt their feelings, Mrs. Potter assured, "Only a very little and I'm sure after your bath tonight no one will know at all."

"Can I take a bath when I get home so I can stop smelling?" JD asked.

Shocked by the request, Mrs. Potter almost missed the turn-off she needed. "I suppose if you really want one," she replied. "But your father will still make you take another one tonight."

"Oh," came the disappointed sound from the back seat.

"You know, you boys could play outside. You won't smell that smell out there."

"After homework?" JD asked.

Though she was fairly certain she was overstepping her bounds, she soothed, "Just for today -and today only - why don't you go out and play. Then you can do your homework later." Two cheers assailed her ears. Gloria couldn't help smiling. She would explain it to their fathers, she thought as she pulled into the long driveway.

Just a short time later, two little boys slammed open the screen door after changing out of school clothes and went tearing into the yard with a call of "Remember the dogs haven't had their bath yet so leave them in the pen" floating after them.

Perhaps fifteen minutes into their games, JD and Vin found themselves heading over toward the dogs that had been barking and jumping almost the whole time the boys had been playing. JD reached out to pet Elvis when Vin grabbed his hand. "Wait JD! Remember Mrs. Potter said they haven't had their baths yet. We aren't supposed to touch them."

JD's face fell even further for several minutes until an idea struck him. "We could give them their baths!" he suggested.

Vin was about to protest, but as he thought about it, he couldn't remember Chris or Buck ever saying anything about not giving dogs their baths. They had both watched the men often enough to know how to do it. Looking at his brother, he nodded his head and said "OK. You go get the hose and bring it around. I'll get the swimming pool and dog shampoo."

"K!" JD said, racing off to find the hose while Vin found the small plastic swimming pool, which they used as a dog bath.

Within minutes the boys had most of what they needed. "We should probably wear gloves and stuff so we won't get more skunk smell on us," Vin advised.

"I'll get them!" JD called, racing for the house.

Vin walked over to the spigot and turned on the water. The hose had a nozzle at the head that allowed the person to select different types of sprays and would only spray when the handle was held down. Choosing a steady stream, he waited for JD to come back. He didn't have long to wait as a short time later JD returned with two pairs of yellow rubber gloves like those used for household cleaning and two plastic garbage bags.

"Here Vin!" he called running up and stopping. Holding out a pair of gloves, he smiled when Vin took them.

"What are the garbage bags for?" the other boy asked.

"Oh! I thought we could wear them so we'd stay dry," JD explained as he dropped one and tried to make holes for his head and arms in the other.

"Better get our scissors," Vin advised as he found the heavy-duty plastic hard to tear.

"'K!" JD called as he raced back for the house. A few minutes later he returned with their safety scissors.

The scissors weren't that sharp and not really good for cutting much other than paper, but they added just enough extra that Vin was able to make the appropriate holes in the garbage bags, even if they were a little large.

Slipping into their newly created protective garments, the boys tossed the gloves and shampoo into the pool, threw the hose over the fence and opened the gate. Struggling to get the pool into the pen while making sure the dogs didn't run out proved a daunting task, but they eventually succeeded.

Settling the pool on the ground, the boys retrieved their gloves. Slipping the gloves onto their hands, the yellow items slipped up almost to their armpits, but that didn't stop the very determined boys. Lifting the hose, Vin began filling the pool while JD kept the dogs distracted.

When Vin finally felt they had enough water in the pool, he nodded to JD who led the dogs over. Although originally reluctant to enter the pool, once in, the dogs seemed to think the boys were playing a new game.

Even with their protection, the boys were fairly well soaked by the time they finished washing the dogs. As the pups jumped out of their tub and shook themselves dry, the boys could still smell skunk, but weren't sure if it was from the water or from the dogs. Vin started moving toward Ringo to see if he still smelled, but as he approached, Ringo took off ready for a game of chase. "Ringo!" Vin called out, racing after his pup. After a few minutes of running he stopped and called, "Ringo! Here!" The obedient dog came. He didn't have to come too close before Vin could tell that the skunk smell was still on him. Turning toward his 'brother' he called, "They still smell."

JD looked disappointed, but then brightened. "Maybe we should try our soap!" he suggested, excited. "That worked for us last night."

Vin thought about it but couldn't see anything wrong with the idea. "OK," he agreed moving over to the swimming pool to empty it for fresh water as JD ran toward the house. Vin walked over to the pool and tried to tip it, but the water in it made it too heavy. Looking at the problem, he stepped on the side of the plastic pool and watched as the water flowed out of it. When it was mostly gone, Vin tried to lift the small pool again and found he could. Dumping the water, he got the hose and began adding water to the pool. It was a good thing their dogs didn't mind baths that much, though Elvis was always easier to get in the water than Ringo.

A few minutes later JD returned with the bar of soap he had been seeking as well as a brush and a comb from their bathroom. "Got it!" he called as he dropped the brush and comb on the ground and held out the soap.

"Great!" Vin said. "Let's get the dogs into the tub.

With some effort and a bit of trial and error, the boys managed to get the dogs in the pool and the soap nice and sudsy. They did learn, however, that Ringo had a taste for soap and would try to eat the bar if they left it somewhere he could get it.

"I don't think it's working," JD said, his nose wrinkled, his gloves covered in suds and dog-fur.

Vin sighed. "Let's rinse them off and brush them," he suggested. "Maybe they're going to be OK after they begin to dry."

Taking the hose, he rinsed off the dogs and coaxed them out of the pool. After the dogs were done shaking themselves, JD picked up the brush and Vin the comb. Working carefully and having to bat away the curious dogs more than once, the boys got the fur combed and brushed out before exchanging a look.

"They still smell," JD said in despair. "What else can we try?"

Vin stood in deep thought trying to figure out what else they could try. What did Chris and Buck do when they didn't want to smell? "Stay here," he told JD. Stripping off his gloves and garbage bag, he raced toward the house, removed his wet shoes and ran inside in his sopping socks.

JD waited outside with the dogs. It wasn't long before Vin returned with an arm full of products. Opening the door to the pen for Vin, JD asked, "What'd you bring?"

"All sorts of stuff," Vin said dropping his prizes on the ground. Reaching down he lifted up two items. "This is d'oderant," he informed. "Dad puts it under his arms, but it says that it keeps odor away."

JD took the offered item that he recognized as Buck's and took the top off. "How do we put it on?" he asked. When Vin shrugged, JD began reading the case for directions. "Oh! Like this!" he exclaimed after finding what they should do. Quickly he showed Vin how to apply the deodorant to the side of the dog.

Puzzled and not liking the feel of what JD was doing, Elvis kept dancing away. JD followed his pup, arm extended, deodorant held out. Vin had a little more luck with Ringo, but not much.

After feeling they'd applied enough of the product, the boys re-capped the items and tossed them onto the pile.

"Think they smell better?" JD asked.

Vin shrugged and moved closer. His nose wrinkled in disgust. "I think they smell worse!" he moaned.

"What else do you have?" JD asked, not willing to concede defeat. He didn't like the idea of Elvis having to sleep outside smelling like skunk.

Vin walked over to what he had brought out and picked up several bottles. "There's this," he offered.

JD took a look and instantly recognized the bottle. "That's what Buck puts on 'fore a date after he shaves," the brunette identified.

Vin nodded. "It smells almost as strong as skunk, so I figured if we put some of this on it would cover the skunk smell and the dogs could come inside."

"How much should we put on?" JD asked,

Vin shrugged. "I figured we'd just take the bottles and turn them upside down," he explained.

"OK," JD agreed, taking the top off of his bottle. "C'me 'ere Elvis," he coaxed. The pup approached, but as he caught a whiff of the bottle, in JD's hand, he began backing away. With some struggle, JD managed to get Elvis to sit long enough to pour about half of the mostly full bottle onto his fur.

Vin was having only slightly better success with Ringo. Finally, after the dog ran away from him the third time, shaking his fur as if to dislodge the smelly substance, Vin gave up and re-capped the now almost empty bottle. Walking over, he gave Ringo a few minutes to adjust to the new odor before trying to find out if his dog still smelled like skunk. He let out a disappointed sigh when he realized that Ringo not only still smelled like skunk, but smelled worse from all the other stuff they had put on him.

JD's disappointed face showed that he had come to the conclusion that Elvis still smelled too.

"I don't know what else to do," Vin admitted to his disappointed brother.

JD thought and thought before he got a great idea. "What if we cut the fur off? Then the dogs wouldn't smell any more!"

Vin thought about it, but couldn't find a problem with the idea. After all, it was the fur that smelled the most. Nodding his head in agreement, he sought the scissors he'd used earlier. Finding them he called Ringo over from where he and Elvis were trying to smell each other and told the dog to sit.

With JD keeping Ringo still, Vin began trying to cut the long fur. Unfortunately, his safety scissors didn't do a very good job. "It's not working," he sighed, looking up at JD.

JD had seen that the scissors weren't working and knew they couldn't get the sharp ones Buck and Chris used. He was about to give up when he remembered the electric mustache and beard trimmer Buck had bought. His face brightening he called, "Hold on!" and raced for the house.

Vin stayed with the dogs while JD raced toward the house. Just as JD ran out of the house, Buck and Chris appeared.

"Da!" JD called, racing for his father, his previous mission forgotten.

The two agents used their observation skills to try and figure out what the boys had been doing.

It didn't take much deductive reasoning to figure out that the boys had been trying to bathe the dogs. What they couldn't understand were the gloves and garbage bags they were wearing, the pile of glass and plastic, or what in the world JD was doing with Buck's beard and mustache trimmer.

Stopping short of picking up his wet and smelly son, Buck said, "Whoa, there, Little Bit. What have you been up to?"

Chris listened with half an ear as they walked toward the dog's pen. His attention was mostly on his nervous looking son. Vin looked about the same as JD: yellow gloves, garbage bag covered in water and dog fur, hair, pants and shoes wet and big eyes rising up to meet him. Had he been prepared for the 'big eyes' he might have actually stuck with his original plan to have a talk with the boys and maybe keep them from watching television for a few days; with the appearance of the 'big eyes', however, all thoughts of lecture and punishment immediately left.

"Me an Vin was trying to make it so Elvis and Ringo don't smell so they can come in with us tonight. But they still smell bad so we was going to cut their smelly fur off with this," he finished, offering up Buck's grooming tool.

Taking the item from his son's hand, Buck suppressed a shudder at the thought of what his beard and mustache trimmer might have done to the dogs. "That's a nice thought, JD," Buck agreed, "but this sort of trimmer would hurt the dogs. They need special trimmer that vets and dog groomers have."

"Oh," said the disappointed boy. "But all the smelly stuff didn't work," he said indicating the pile of glass and plastic on the ground as they stepped into the muddy pen.

Buck glanced down and whimpered softly at the sight of his aftershave and deodorant along with safety scissors, dog shampoo, the boys' bath soap and their brush and comb all laying in a pile, wet, skunk-scented dog fur still clinging to all the items.

Chris rested a hand on Vin's shoulder as he stared at the pile. He frowned slightly as the muscles beneath his hand tensed as if expecting pain, but quickly shook off those thoughts. "Pretty creative," Chris observed, seeing the humor in the situation and knowing they'd all get a good laugh over this for years to come.

Vin turned surprised eyes up at Chris. That his father wasn't mad surprised him. He had been prepared for anger and punishment when he caught sight of the men, but not for the humor he heard in his father's voice.

Crouching down next to Vin, Chris looked him in the eye and explained, "These are all good ideas, but the only thing that will get the smell out are time and this special shampoo Buck and I picked up on the way home."

"Oh," Vin said softly his eyes seeking the ground.

Walking over with JD, Buck placed his son next to Vin and also crouched down in front of the boys, having picked up on the line Chris was taking with them. "It's great that you boys love the dogs so much you would want to help them, but I think maybe next time you should ask us before trying something like this."

"And we'll be sure to tell you what we plan on doing so you don't have to worry about it, OK?" Chris added.

"OK," JD agreed enthusiastically.

Vin nodded his agreement.

"Good," Chris said. Then looking up, Chris asked, "Do you want the boys or the dogs?"

Buck thought about it for a moment before saying, "Boys."

Chris nodded and stood. "You boys go in with Buck and get a bath. I'll change and wash the dogs with the special shampoo we got." Seeing nods of approval from the boys, he stood and rested his hand on Vin's shoulder as they all headed into the house, pleased there was no tensing this time.

I sure was glad Chris wasn't mad at us.

Yeah and Da wasn't either.

We'll know to ask next time.

Yes. I didn't like finding that picture, though. That wasn't very nice.

????? No, but I got to go shopping and that was fun. I saw Uncle Ezra.

You did! You didn't tell me.

Well, I didn't know if I should since he's under covers. And I didn't get to say 'hi' or anything.

What's wrong Vin, you look sort of sad and thoughtful and stuff.

Huh? Oh. I think he was with one of the bad mens. The bad man reminded me of the trolls. I hope the trolls don't hurt Unca Ezra.

Me too.

After their baths, the boys settled in to do the small amount of homework they'd brought home. As he opened his backpack, Vin spotted a piece of paper he didn't recognize and pulled it out. It only took one glance at the paper for his face to cloud in anger. He knew exactly who had done this and it was wrong.

Crumpling up the paper he walked it to the garbage can and threw it into the receptacle. Turning, he spotted JD pulling out a similar piece of paper. Lunging across the room and snatching it from JD's hands Vin told him, "No. Don't look Freddy and Eli Joe did it and they went too far."

"We going to tell Da and Chris?" JD asked, still kind of curious about what was on the paper.

Vin thought about it a moment before a sneaky smile appeared on his face and he shook his head. "No, JD," he replied. "I got a better idea."

"What?" JD wanted to know.

Vin smiled genuinely at his brother, though his blue eyes twinkled with deviousness. "I'll tell you later," he assured before throwing out the paper that had been left in the brunette's backpack.

Settling at the table, both boys managed to finish their work before supper.

As they sat at the dinner table, the trio waited for Chris. After a few minutes, the sound of dripping water and footsteps sounded in the Mud Room. They waited patiently while they listened to the sound of wet clothes landing on the floor.

A few minutes later Chris appeared in the kitchen wearing a clean pair of jeans from the laundry room and scrubbing his hair with one of the towels they kept for washing cars, dogs, horses and just general use around the house. Setting the towel to the side as he settled into his seat, his brow furrowed at the giggles from the two boys.

"Quite the hair style, Stud," Buck offered his mustache twitching in amusement.

Chris sighed and ran his fingers through his hair a few times. "Better?" he asked. When he was met with three nods the family quickly said grace and then dug into the delicious meal.

"We're going to need to go shopping," Chris observed to Buck as they ate. "Anything you need me to pick up other than what's out there?"

Buck thought about the question. They would be doing normal shopping that weekend and he couldn't think of anything in particular. "Nothing I can think of," he offered. "Want me to go with you?" he asked.

Chris shook his head. "Probably be just as fast if I went alone." Catching sight of the disappointment in Vin's eyes, the corner of Chris' mouth twitched upward. "Or maybe if I took one small helper…"

"ME!" Vin shouted excitedly and loudly enough to startle himself as well as everyone else at the table.

Chris and Buck laughed at the enthusiasm and slight blush coloring his cheeks.

"Wow Vin! You was loud!" JD observed, staring with wide eyes at his friend.

"Sorry," Vin apologized.

"That's ok," Chris assured. "Just try to remember to use your inside voice."

"Yes, sir," Vin answered contritely, picking up his fork and playing with this food.

Conversation returned to normal and dinner was soon finished.

Bringing their plates to the sink, Chris and Vin prepared to leave for the store. One look at their soggy sneakers had Chris shaking his head. Reaching over for their boots, Chris handed the smaller pair to Vin and slid on his own. "Ready?" he asked.

"Sure thing, Cowboy!" Vin agreed with a giggle as he raced out the door ahead of his father.

"Hey!" Chris called after Vin, walking quickly out the door after his son.

The two made it to Wal-Mart with ease. Walking into the store, Chris headed toward the toiletries while Vin asked if he could head back toward the toys. Hesitating, Chris thought it over. He hated for Vin to be out of his sight, but didn't want the boy to think he didn't trust him. "How about you go to that aisle there with the pens, crayons and paper," he suggested.

"OK," Vin agreed with a shrug.

Chris smiled at the easy compliance. The aisle with pens was still within his sight, but was far enough away to allow Vin his independence. Turning back, Chris focused on replacing the items the boys had used.

Vin wandered across the big aisle and was looking at the box of 128 crayons when a familiar voice caught his attention. Glancing back to make sure Chris was still within sight, he wandered to the far end of the aisle and peered around the corner to see if his suspicions were right, even though he knew they couldn't be.

As he looked to the right he didn't see the person he sought, but as he looked to the left, he spotted the man whose voice could only be his Unca Ezra's. Vin blinked twice to make sure he was really seeing what he thought he was. Yep, the man was definitely Unca Ezra, but he sure didn't look like he normally did. Vin knew his uncle was 'under covers' and that he wasn't supposed to say anything, so he just watched to see to whom his uncle was talking.

A few minutes later, Ezra's green eyes met Vin's blue ones briefly. Vin gasped softly and pulled back into his aisle. He hadn't meant to be seen. He sure hoped he didn't cause any problems. Peeking back around the corner one last time, he saw the man his uncle was talking to begin to turn. The memories of the trolls from the warehouse came readily to mind and Vin turned and ran back to Chris as quickly as he could.

Grabbing his father's hand, Vin leaned against the man seeking comfort. His wide, scared blue eyes looked back over his shoulder, hoping the troll hadn't seen him. He was worried about Unca Ezra, though. He knew 'going under covers' meant he had to be with the bad men, but Vin hadn't realized it meant he had to be friends with the trolls.

"What is it, Vin?" Chris asked, concerned by his son's sudden appearance by his side and the boy's behavior. He looked back to where Vin was staring, but didn't see anything. Looking down at his son's face, Chris easily read the fear in the blue eyes. Going on the alert, he pulled Vin further down the aisle so they were out of sight of everyone and knelt down in front of him. Placing a hand on each shoulder, he asked quietly, "What did you see, Vin? What scared you?"

Vin looked into the green eyes he knew so well and read concern there. He felt his fear leaving him as he said quietly. "I seed Unca Ezra and a troll."

Chris stiffened slightly and glanced over Vin's shoulder. Willing himself to relax, he smiled at his son and said, "I just need to get one more thing and then we'll head out, OK?" When Vin nodded he continued. "You just stay close to me and don't worry. Your Uncle Ezra is OK." Seeing Vin relax, he could only pray he was right.

In under a minute Chris and Vin were in the check out line and soon after were on their way home. There was a little talk as Chris asked Vin about the troll with Ezra. Mentally he was able to identify the man as a mid-level person in the organization. Changing the topic, Chris began asking about school. When Vin seemed to avoid his questions about school, Chris decided they needed to have a powwow that night. It would give him a chance to talk to the boys about not washing the dogs without parental supervision.

Da and Chris didn't seem too happy about what Eli Joe and Freddy said about us.

No they didn't. But they said we did the right thing letting Mrs. R and Mr. B handle it.

Wish we'd told them about the pictures and let them handle things Wednesday.

???? Me too JD, but I just couldn't let them get away with putting those pictures in our backpacks.

They deserved it anyway. Stink for the stinkers?????

??? That is funny. I was still worried about Uncle Ezra, but Dad told me he would be OK.

You must have had a really bad dream Vin, because you woke me up.

They were scary JD.

Chris rushed into the room. The sound of his son's scream having launched him out of his bed and halfway to the boys' room before his mind was fully aware of what he had heard. Opening the door, he stepped in to find Vin in his safe place curled up and covering his mouth with his hand. He heard Buck step into the room, but ignored Wilmington as he focused in on the terrified form of his son.

Buck stepped into the room and quickly went to JD's bed. Sensing that Vin and Chris would like some privacy, he picked the boy up and went to the great room where he settled in the rocking chair.

Chris crouched in front of Vin who had his eyes clamped tightly shut. "Hey, Cowboy - Vin. Are you ok?" Chris was caught off guard as blue eyes flew open and the still form launched itself at him. Catching himself before falling backward, he settled on the floor and wrapped his arms around the suddenly sobbing boy, rubbing gentle circles on his back. "Shh. Shh. It's OK, Vin. I'm here. I've got you. You're safe," he soothed softly.

The quiet voice of his father penetrated Vin's panic and slowly the sobbing calmed. Sniffing and wiping his face with the back of his hand, he rested his cheek on his dad's shoulder and sighed.

"You want to talk about it?" Chris asked as Vin settled.

"The trolls were eating Unca Ezra," he said softly.

Chris squeezed his son slightly and continued rubbing Vin's back. "You think that would happen?" he asked, the image of Ezra on a silver platter with an apple in his mouth unwittingly popping into his head.

Vin sniffed. "'Course not. It was a dream," he chastised as if expecting Chris to know better.

Chris smiled at the tone of voice. "Doesn't make it any less scary, does it?"

"No," Vin agreed.

"Think you can go back to sleep?" Chris asked, feeling the pull of Morpheus. His question was met with silence. He knew Vin wasn't asleep, but also knew the silence was Vin debating if he should ask for something or not. "You want to sleep in my room tonight?" he asked. Normally he discouraged such things, but he knew exactly how upsetting 'trolls' were to Vin and having seen a loved one with the 'trolls' was bound to stir up some anxiety.

"'K," Vin agreed easily.

Chris chuckled softly as he struggled to stand while holding onto Vin. Making his way toward the sound of soft humming and the gentle creak of the rocking chair, Chris found Buck and a sleeping JD. "Why don't you bring yours back to his bed. Mine's coming with me," he said softly so as not to wake the sleeping brunette.

"He alright?" Buck asked nodding toward Vin as he stood.

"I dreamed the trolls ate Unca Ezra," Vin informed him solemnly.

The corner of Buck's mouth twitched as an old "Bugs Bunny" cartoon came to mind only instead of Bugs in the big black pot it was Ezra. "I don't think he'd taste very good, even to trolls," Buck assured. He won a small smile from the boy as he walked past to return JD to his own bed.

Chris headed off to his room, his precious cargo already asleep before he reached the bed.

A few hours later Chris was awakened by Vin's cry. Flicking on the bedside lamp, he reached over and gathered the shaking boy into his arms. "Hey there, Vin. You're OK. You're here with me," he soothed.

Vin heard Chris voice and blinked until he knew he was awake. "Sorry," he apologized, embarrassed by letting another dream scare him.

"Nothing to be sorry about," Chris said. "Scary dreams are scary."

"Da-ad," Vin admonished, tipping his head back to look at Chris' face. "Of course scary dreams are scary. That's why they call them scary dreams."

"Oh," Chris teased, pretending like it was a new idea to him. "Well what do you know." He smiled as Vin giggled. "You want to tell me about it?"

Vin sighed. "Unca Ezra was in Wal-Mart with the troll just like tonight, only he became a troll and was chasing you and me trying to catch us."

Chris drew Vin close into a tight hug. "Ezra would never do that to you," he assured.

"You either," Vin said back.

Chris smiled. "Want to have another go at sleep?" he asked.

Vin nodded and moved back to his side of the bed, snuggling under the covers.

Leaning over, Chris planted a kiss on Vin's forehead before returning to his side of the bed and turning off the light, hoping the nightmares were over.

The next morning as the boys were getting ready for school, JD noticed that Vin left the room for a little while. "What's that, Vin?" JD asked as his 'brother' put the folded piece of paper in his backpack.

"Revenge," Vin replied, a mischievous smile crossing his face.

"Huh?" JD asked, puzzled.

With a sigh, Vin explained, "You know how Eli Joe and Freddy put those pictures of us with skunk tails and smell lines in our backpacks?"

"Yeah! That was mean. 'Specially the part with the other kids laughing and pointing at us," JD said, his eyes narrowing in anger.

"Well I got some of the smelly dog fur from the garbage and I figure we can put it in Eli and Freddy's backpacks today at school. That way they can smell as bad as they are."

"Cool!" JD exclaimed, grabbing his own backpack and preparing to leave for school.

The drive to school saw two happy boys chattering away about nothing in particular. They said quick goodbyes and immediately headed toward the school building.

Once inside, they waited and watched. Eventually, Eli and Freddy left their backpacks alone. Taking out the folded paper he had carefully slipped into his pocket, Vin and JD made their way to their targets and quickly dropped half the pungent hair into each bag before throwing way the paper and returning to their seats, checking to make sure no one had seen them.

Class was called to order and lessons continued while a very faint odor of skunk floated in the air.

At lunchtime the children were allowed to get their lunches from their backpacks. Vin and JD tried not to stare as Eli and Freddy opened theirs.

The two boys in question opened their backpacks and let out twin groans of disgust, standing back and waving their hands in front of their faces. There hadn't been that much hair, but spending several hours in and enclosed bag had magnified the smell until it was almost overwhelming.

Seeing the odd reaction, Mr. Biedler and Mrs. Roquette made their way over to see what they problem was. They didn't have to get too close before the problem became evident. After a brief discussion between the two teachers, Mr. B assured Eli and Freddy that they would be all right and he would make sure they got a lunch before leading everyone down to the lunchroom. Everyone, that is, except for Vin and JD. While Mr. B had been speaking to the boys, Mrs. R had moved behind Vin and JD and placed a hand on each shoulder, letting them know, silently, that they were to remain behind.

After the other children were gone, she stepped in front of the boys and turned to face them. She found herself looking at the top of two heads and sighed. While a portion of her was pleased to see them getting into regular little boy trouble, she knew she couldn't let this go. "Do you want to tell me about it?" she asked softly.

Her question was met with silence and the shuffling of two sets of small feet.

"Why don't you have a seat, then," she suggested, drawing a chair up to sit in front of the two boys. Seated, the boys continued to stare downward. "I'm afraid if you don't tell me about it I'm going to have to bring you to the Principal and he's going to have to call your dads," she threatened. She would have to talk to their fathers anyway, but they didn't necessarily need to know that.

Vin's head shot up at the threat, his eyes wide and panicked. "Don't! Please!" he begged.

"Then tell me what happened," Caroline commanded, trying to suppress her initial reaction of wanting to reach out to the boy and hug him.

With a sigh, Vin's eyes focused downward once more. "Yesterday Eli and Freddy teased me and JD about smelling like skunks and saying we were from the sewer and stuff."

Mrs. R. raised an eyebrow at that. She had known about some of the teasing and the incident in the classroom, but hadn't known it was quite so bad. "Go on," she encouraged.

"Then when I got home I found that they had put a picture in my backpack," Vin continued softly.

Caroline saw Vin's cheeks color, though whether from anger or embarrassment she couldn't tell. "What sort of picture was it?" she prodded.

"It was a picture of me with a skunk tail sitting in a sewer with stink lines coming off me. All the other kids were pointing their fingers and laughing," Vin said, his head finally coming up and his eyes meeting his teacher's.

"I see," she said, understanding why the boy was upset, but not why he had chosen to seek revenge instead of telling someone. "And JD?"

"I got a picture too," he said, raising his chin stubbornly.

"And that meant that you had to make their bags smell and ruin their lunches?" She saw a look akin to pain cross Vin's face and JD's lower lip trembled.

Vin felt like he'd been hit in the stomach when Mrs. R said they'd ruined Eli and Freddy's lunches. He knew the value of food and would never deliberately take someone else's or ruin it. Food was too important. It kept you alive and could buy you safety sometimes. "I didn't know... didn't think about it," Vin whispered, rubbing his own stomach which was no longer hungry. "They can have my lunch," he offered.

"Mine too," JD offered, following Vin's lead, though he was really hungry. Still it was only fair that he share his lunch since he had ruined someone else's.

"That's OK, boys," Mrs. R assured, touched by the thoughtful answer and knowing they truly hadn't thought about all the consequences. "Eli and Freddy will get lunch. But I think you two need to stay in from recess and write twenty times 'I will not skunk other people'. OK?"

"Yes, ma'am," the duo said in unison.

"Good, now take your lunches and go. You can apologize to Eli and Freddy later." As the boys rose, she added, "And you can tell your dads tonight at home."

This time the tone was far more dejected when they replied, "Yes, ma'am."

I didn't want to tell Da.

I didn't want to tell Chris either, but we promised Mrs. R.

I don't like being grounded.

Me neither, JD. But you know what I hate more?


Feeling like I let Dad down.


Chris and Buck had discussed their approach to the issue before leaving work. They had received a call from the boys' teacher explaining the trouble they'd had at school. She had told them that she asked the boys to inform their fathers of what happened. Buck and Chris had agreed to give the boys until it was time for their baths to confess.

Walking into the house, they were greeted by Gloria who indicated the couch. Entering further into the great room, the two agents found their boys sitting perfectly still with their hands folded in their laps, staring at their tennis shoes. Exchanging slightly worried looks, Buck called, "What's this? No hello for your Da?"

"What about you, Cowboy?" Chris tried, crouching in front of Vin.

Vin and JD had made their apology to Eli and Freddy after lunch. They had stayed in and written their punishment sentences and both had been consumed the rest of the day with the thought of confessing to their fathers. As distracted as they were in class, they only grew more silent and worried as the afternoon progressed blowing the incident out of proportion in their minds until by the time they heard the cars in the driveway, they were almost afraid to talk.

"We was bad," JD blurted, tears filling his eyes as he finally looked up at Buck.

When Vin lifted his head, he had on his 'empty face', expecting Chris to reject him for ruining Eli and Freddy's food and backpacks. "It was my fault," he said. "It was my idea and JD just went along."

Exchanging another worried look at how seriously the boys were taking this, Buck and Chris decided to proceed cautiously. Sitting down next to the boys, each father turned their son to face them. "What was your idea, Cowboy?" Chris gently prodded, his voice filled with concern and love.

The love in Chris' voice almost made Vin forget his 'empty face', but he knew keeping on his mask was the only way to get through this. That and not seeing the disappointment in his father's eyes. "I took some of the skunked fur from the garbage and brought it into school. We put it in their backpacks and it ruined their lunch."

There was such devastation in Vin's voice as he said this last part that Chris was unable to restrain himself. He reached out and stroked his son's cheek wishing to take away the pain. Looking at Buck he saw the mustached agent had his weeping son in his arms. Both men knew exactly how important food still was to the boys and what it meant to them. For them to have ruined someone's lunches still counted among the worst offenses they could perform.

Reaching out, Chris put his finger under Vin's chin and lifted the elfin face until he could see all of it. "Look at me, Vin," he said, his voice devoid of emotion at the moment. When the blue eyes met his, the 'empty face' was gone and the emotions he read there nearly broke his heart. No harmless prank should be this devastating to a boy. "Did they get something to eat in the cafeteria?"

Vin nodded. He and JD had both seen that the other boys had gotten the hot lunch.

"Do you know that what you did was wrong?" he asked, still looking into the blue eyes. He received another nod. "Are you going to do it again?" Chris watched as tears filled the eyes and the child's head shook from side to side.

"How 'bout you, JD?" Buck asked the boy in his arms.

"No," JD choked out between sobs. "I'm... sor... ry..." he gasped out.

"Do you want to tell us why you did it?" Chris asked, wiping away the tears that slid down his son's cheeks.

Swallowing several times, Vin knew he wouldn't be able to say anything. He could see that Chris was disappointed that he hadn't done better, though not quite as much as Vin had feared. Standing, he walked to his room and drew the two crumpled pieces of paper from the wastebasket. Bringing them out with him, he handed the paper wads to Chris and sat back down; hands once more folded in his lap and eyes fixed on his hands.

Chris took the two wads of paper and exchanged a puzzled look with Buck. The puzzlement soon vanished, however, as Chris viewed the pictures. His jaw tightening slightly at the images, he passed them to Buck and saw his own feelings mirrored in his friend's blue eyes.

"They said we smelled like we's from the sewer and that we should go back 'cause that's where we b'long," JD informed softly, his sobs having quieted to the occasional sniffle.

"They said that, did they?" Buck asked, trying to keep anger from his voice and mostly succeeding.

"Yes," JD confirmed.

"They're wrong," Chris said firmly in that tone of voice the boys knew meant there was no chance to change Chris' mind.

Vin's head came up quickly at Chris' statement. Eyes wide with surprise, he looked at his father.

Reaching out Chris drew Vin onto his lap and hugged him close. "No child belongs in the sewer and absolutely no son of mine belongs there," Chris declared.

"No son of mine either," Buck agreed, his voice equally firm. "You boys are already better than most others your age. You're brave, you're smart, you care about people and we love you very much."

"Absolutely," Chris agreed, squeezing Vin slightly. "There aren't many people today who would admit that they did something wrong. We're proud of you that you told us."

"You are?" Vin asked, shocked that Chris could be proud of him after what he'd done.

Chris' mouth twitched upward into a smile. Leaning forward, he kissed Vin's forehead and assured, "Always."

"Me, too, Little Bit," Buck soothed. "I'm proud of you."

Both boys seemed to relax slightly and the heavy burden that had been weighing on them seemed to lighten.

Wincing inwardly, Chris knew he had no choice. The boys had already apologized and been punished at school, but he thought that a little something extra might make them think twice before doing something like this again. Meeting Buck's eyes, the other man nodded his agreement. Buck would follow Chris' lead. "Of course," he began, "That doesn't mean you won't get punished." He felt Vin's intake of air and felt the small body stiffen in his arms, evidence of the boy's fear.

JD burrowed his head deeper into Buck's shoulder. He didn't want punishment. They'd already written a million sentences at school and he wouldn't do it again.

Pulling JD back a little, Buck tipped the boy's face upward until the brown eyes met his own. "He's right, JD. You know what you did was wrong and there are consequences when you do things like that."

Heaving a sigh, JD responded, "Yes, Da."

Chris moved Vin so he could look at his son's face. "I think from now until Saturday, there's no puzzle." Chris felt like an ogre when he saw Vin's jaw tremble for a moment before being clenched tightly. He received a curt nod from his son as acknowledgment.

"And if Vin can't do the puzzle," Buck said, "you don't get any Scooby Doo videos." Buck almost winced at the sharp intake of breath. JD had come to enjoy his time alone watching Scooby Doo while Vin worked on his puzzle. "Understand?" Buck prompted, hoping Chris felt as awful as he did.

"Yes," JD responded in a very soft whisper.

"OK, then," Chris said, glad the punishments were over and wanting nothing more than to make things better with his son. "Why don't we go out and see how those cars of yours are doing for a few minutes?"

Buck quirked a smile at his old friend, glad to know that Chris really did feel as awful about the grounding as he did. "Yeah, I heard that if they sit in the garage too long their tires go flat and the battery dies."

"Yeah, I heard that too," Chris said, slightly concerned that he was only getting minimal response from the boys. Picking Vin up and setting him on the couch, Chris stood and saw Buck do the same. "Of course, if you boys don't want to," he offered, trying to sound off-hand about the whole thing, "I suppose Buck and I could always drive them."

"Yeah," Buck agreed. "I think..."

"No!" JD said, unable to stop a giggle at the thought of his Da trying to get into his car again. Last time he'd tried he got stuck. "You're too big! You'll get stuck again!" JD explained as if it was obvious.

Vin watched his dad's face trying to judge his sincerity. Seeing that Chris really did want him and love him and wanted him to have fun, he offered a small smile and pushed himself upward.

Heading for the door, the family managed to have everyone laughing before they ever got off the porch.

Driving the cars was fun.

It was, JD.

I was glad when the dogs were shampooed enough that they could sleep in with us again.

Me too. I was worried that another skunk would find them out there and stink them all up again.

It's a good thing that didn't happen.


Are you done in here boys?

Yes, Da!

Good! We're going to go get some ice cream.

Before dinner?

????? Yes, Vin. Before dinner to celebrate you being ungrounded. Now say goodbye to the computer.

Bye computer.


The End

Next up - Budget Cuts by Chris G

Index - Puzzling Out Life's Little Lessons

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