New Kid on the Block
#3 - School Daze

by Angie

The snowstorm held Denver in its clutches for three days before the roads were passable enough for the school buses to run. Chris and Buck had each taken a day off to stay with the boys while the schools were closed. With the announcement that the schools would open the next day, Buck began to prepare to enroll Steven in school. He was shocked to discover that the boy had only one change of clothes in the bag he had brought with him and his first destination was the local Wal-Mart to acquire a wardrobe for the child. Nettie had given him the paper that would cover a portion of the purchase as his clothing allowance for the year. After a lot of coaxing, Buck convinced the boys to stay with Gloria while he took Steven shopping. He didn’t think he was up to a shopping trip with three rambunctious boys.

Shopping with Steven was awkward. Buck had forgotten how hard it had been when he had first taken JD shopping. He knew nothing about how to tell if things were the correct size. Now, after a year of experience, he was a little more prepared. What he was not prepared for was how painfully shy Steven was about being seen without all of his clothes on. They thought Vin was shy until they spent a couple of days with Steven. The boy would not even go bare footed around the house!

Thankfully, Steven had a pretty good idea of what size he needed and picked out several pairs of sturdy jeans. After having him try on one pair, Buck was sure they would fit. Tee shirts and sweatshirts were easier because they could hold them up to his body to see if they looked right. Blushing furiously, Steven picked out underwear. Since his shoes were pretty shabby, Buck got him new tennis shoes and boots. They picked up a book bag and a few basic school necessities. With a cart full of clothes, they made their way to the front of the store. It was at the check out lines that he began to notice that the boy was behaving strangely. Steven seemed to draw into himself and stare at the floor as they stood in the line. The first thought that crossed the ATF agent’s mind was that the boy had stolen something.

“Steven, look at me,” Buck said sternly. When the boy shook his head and burrowed tighter into his coat, Buck stepped closer and reached for his chin. “Look at me, son.”

“No! Don’t do that!” Steven screamed as he wrenched away from Buck.

Every eye in the store lines was focused sharply on the man and the young boy. The checker was frozen in place, her hand hovering over the next article of clothing on the belt. She knew that the boy was in foster care because of the clothing voucher she had been handed at the beginning of the order. All conversation in her line as well as the lines on either side of her had stopped as everyone stared at the boy.

“Steven, what’s wrong?”

“They’ll see me!” the boy hissed.

“Who’ll see you?”

“They have cameras everywhere!” Steven whispered as he curled his shoulder and tucked his chin down. Buck tipped his head up to scan the ceiling tiles. Evenly spaced over the checkout lines were black half-globes that housed security cameras. How in the world had a ten-year-old known about the security cameras? His questioning was postponed by the arrival of the store security guards.

“Everything all right over here?” the sergeant called.

“We’re just fine, officer,” Buck said as he pulled his badge and his state issued foster parent ID card. The guard glanced at both forms of identification before staring curiously at the boy for a moment.

“Okay, have a nice day,” the man said before moving on.

“Go sit on that bench,” Buck said as he pointed to a bench that was normally used by the elderly when they were waiting for a cab or ride to pick them up. Steven obediently moved to sit down, keeping his head down and his shoulders hunched up.

As soon as he paid for the things not covered by the voucher, Buck hurriedly steered Steven out the doors. When they reached the truck, he put the boy on the seat and began to question him.

“Did you take something from the store?”


“Then why are you worried about the security cameras?”

“Because they’ll see me! They’ll take me away!”

The boy’s words made no sense and Buck huffed disgustedly. He put all of their purchases in the truck and headed for the ranch. They needed to get everything washed and put away for school in the morning.

While Buck and Steven were shopping, Chris, Ezra and the boys were getting the room ready. They set up the bunk beds on one wall and rearranged some of the dresser drawers so there would be room for Steven’s things. Vin chose the top bunk again, as he had slept on it before, and JD chose the bottom bunk. All three beds were made up with fresh sheets and the puppies’ blankets had already been returned to their place in the corner. When they finished with the room, the boys clamored to go out and play in the snow for a while and Chris agreed that they could. Bundled warmly, both boys and puppies were soon racing and playing in the snow.

“What are you going to do if he keeps Steven?” Ezra asked after the boys were out of earshot.

“I guess we’ll all stay right here. We’ve been talking about building another bedroom,” Chris answered. “I don’t know, Ezra. Something about this whole situation just feels wrong.”

“Imagine it from his point of view. He’s been abandoned with complete strangers. His father has a younger son that he is already bonded with. He’s bound to be scared.”

“You speaking from experience?”

“I spent my share of time in the care of Mother’s friends and relatives who were less than enthusiastic about my being there. But you went through this with Vin when he first arrived, didn’t you? I seem to recall that he thought he was only biding his time here.”

Only too well did Chris remember those early weeks with the boys. Vin was terrified that any little thing was going to send him back to the streets. It had taken a lot of love, time and convincing to persuade the wary little Texan that this was going to remain his home. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something seriously wrong about the whole situation.

After a very busy evening of washing and putting away new clothes, the three boys were bathed and getting ready for bed. JD and Vin were exhausted from having played outside and were a little slow about moving from the living room floor when Chris announced bedtime. When they reached the room, Steven had already climbed up on the top bunk and had thrown Vin’s cat on the other bed.

“Hey! That’s my bed!” Vin protested as soon as he entered the bedroom. “And you threw my cat, didn’t you?”

“I’m oldest, I should get the top bunk. Besides, me and JD belong to my dad and you belong to Chris, so you should sleep over there!” Steven challenged.

“Now son, this was Vin’s bed when he first got here and he picked it this afternoon when Chris set the beds up. Come on down here and get in your bed,” Buck urged gently.

“I knew it! I knew they would get their way! I’m always going to be in last place for everything around here! I hate it and I hate you! I wish I could go back to Baltimore!” Steven yelled as he flung the blankets off and jumped from the upper bunk.

Sighing softly, Chris scooped JD up and nudged Vin out of the room. He wasn’t going to leave the boys in there where they were clearly going to bear the brunt of Steven’s rage. Settling both boys in his room, he shook his head as he tried to figure out what they were going to do.

“Steven, son, I’m sorry you weren’t here when the beds were set up so you could have had a pick but that was Vin’s bed for several months. Maybe later, you can trade places. You aren’t always going to be last around here. It will just take some time to work things out. Please, calm down and try to rest. You’ll have a big day tomorrow,” Buck said. He sat on the side of the bed and waited until the boy’s breathing deepened before slipping out to see where JD and Vin were.

“I’ll let them sleep with me tonight, Buck. Maybe tomorrow after school, we can have a pow-wow about sleeping arrangements and whatnot,” Chris suggested.

The next morning, the boys were all excited about getting to go back to school. Even though they enjoyed the two days off with their fathers, they were looking forward to playing with their friends. Vin pleaded to be allowed to ride the bus instead of going in with Buck when he went in to enroll Steven. JD immediately begged to ride the bus, too. Only Ezra caught the hurt look on the older child’s face before he managed to cover it up. Mrs. Potter arrived just as the boys were finishing breakfast. She was introduced to Steven and quickly asked him what kind of cookies he preferred. Buck smiled when the boy said lemon-sugar cookies, they were Magdalena’s favorites. Gloria promised that she would dig out her recipe book and make them for him as a welcoming gift. A shy smile crossed Steven’s face as the woman cupped his face.

Chris and Ezra left for the office shortly after Gloria arrived. Buck was going to take Steven in and get him enrolled and come to the office later. All three boys were gathering their book bags and lunches when they heard an angry shout.

“Leave that alone! That’s mine!”

Racing into the bedroom, Buck found Steven standing over JD, who was cowering in the corner with Vin. On the single bed, the bag that Steven had brought with him lay open. Stuffed in it were several articles of clothing, several cans of soup, a jar of peanut butter and the swear jar. The jar where the adults put money when they said bad words had several dollar bills and a few larger ones in it as they had made change out of it occasionally. The money was donated to whatever charity the boys chose. Buck picked up the swear jar and looked at Steven.

“What is the meaning of this, son?”

“I didn’t put it in there! Vin was in here when I came in and JD was in my bag. Must have been one of them that put it in there!”

“We didn’t! We just came in here to get our clothes. The bag fell off of his bed and I picked it up to put it back! Buck, I’d never …” Vin stammered to a halt as he caught the venomous glare the older boy threw at him.

“I believe you, Vin. Get your things. Gloria, do you mind walking them down to the bus?” Buck asked as he looked over his shoulder. Both boys picked up their belongings and made a wide berth around Steven as they left the room. Buck waited until he heard the front door close before he spoke. “Steven, sit down.”

“I didn’t take it! Why won’t you believe me?”

“Because you don’t know what this is. Those boys would never give this away, not even to get you into trouble. This is the swear jar. When it gets full, we donate the money to a worthwhile cause. I suppose you didn’t put the food in the bag either?”

“No. I didn’t put anything in there except my clothes.”

“You know, Vin and JD used to horde food too when they first came here. We would find candy and sandwiches stashed in the drawers and the toy box. They didn’t trust that there would be enough for the next meal. You can keep the cans, if it makes you feel better. I only ask that you not keep anything that will go bad or draw bugs, okay?”

Steven looked up with wonder in his eyes. He couldn’t believe that Buck wasn’t upset about the food! Shame colored his cheeks as he glanced at the jar full of money that lay in his father’s hand. His heart was hammering loudly in his ears as he reached into his pocket and touched out the bills that he had removed from the jar.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered as he looked away from the jar of money.

“At least you gave it back. No harm, no foul,” Buck said as he took the jar. “Now, go and put this back where you found it and finish getting ready for school.”

On the bus, JD and Vin quickly filled the other kids in on the new kid. The littlest and youngest kids were immediately worried that Steven would take up with Eli Joe and Freddie. At school, they were ushered into the gym to play because the playground was covered in snow. From the tracks they could see, it was evident that the neighborhood kids had enjoyed themselves. Several snow forts were set up around the playground equipment and a couple of sorry looking snowmen graced the front lawn.

As they rode into Denver, Buck explained about the school. He hoped that they wouldn’t put Steven in the room with JD and Vin but he didn’t know exactly how they decided where a particular student was chosen for a particular room. He explained that the boys would ride the bus home and that Mrs. Potter would be there to look after them and that he was to mind her. He also explained that they were not allowed to go to the barn until the adults arrived home. Steven didn’t ask any questions as they rode. He stared out at the landscape. Buck noticed the white knuckled grip the boy had on his book bag and remembered what it was like on the first day at a new school. He reached across the cab and stroked the back of the boy’s head.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” he assured.

In the office, Buck surrendered the transcripts Magda had left with Steven. The counselor went over them and then searched through her file cabinet. Pulling out a folder, she removed a stapled group of papers and picked up a pencil from the cup on her desk.

“Steven, would you mind filling these out for me? It will give me a better idea of what you already know so I can place you in the correct classroom. You can sit in this little office. Your dad and I will get the rest of the paperwork finished,” she said with a smile. Reluctantly, Steven stood and crossed the room to take the papers. He peered into the empty office before stepping in and sitting at the desk. When he began filling in the lines on the first page, she pulled the door closed.

“I don’t know what to say,” Buck said. “I don’t know anything about him.”

“That’s all right. We’ll work with you. How long will he be staying with you?”

“I don’t know that either. I don’t have any idea where his mother went. Even if she comes back, the caseworker will want to know that she’s not going to take him and dump him on someone else before she lets him go.”

“Well, let's get started on the paperwork,” she said with a wink and a smile. Buck noticed that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring and made a note to try to get her number.

Almost an hour later, Steven was escorted to his new classroom. His test scores were high for his age in most areas and he was placed in a group where he was one of the younger students. An awkward moment happened when it was time for Buck to leave. He wanted to hug the child, to reassure him, but Steven blanched and pulled away from the well-meaning touch.

“See you at home this evening,” Buck said before Steven disappeared into the classroom.

Buck was antsy and nervous all day, worrying about how Steven was doing. He didn’t know that Chris had called the school twice to see how things were going. Each time, the counselor assured him that Vin and JD were fine and that Steven seemed to be doing well in his classroom. When Buck’s phone rang right around the time that the boys should arrive home from school, he looked around nervously before picking it up.

The call, as it turned out, was from Darcy Cunningham, inviting him to go with her to take the kids to see the new ‘Sponge Bob’ movie the next evening if they could get tickets to an early show. He told her that he would be willing to go and spent a few minutes breaking the news about Steven to her. As he hung up the phone, Chris peeked out of his office.

“Everything all right at home?”

“Oh, that was Darcy, she invited me and the boys to go to a movie with her and Laurel tomorrow night. Do you think Vin would like to go with us?”

“You can ask him,” the blond said before going back to his desk.

At home, the three boys made their way up the hill toward the house. JD and Vin stayed in the tracks left by the truck while Steven trudged in the deeper snow in between the tracks. Once inside of the house, the two younger boys stopped in the foyer and pulled off their coats and hung them up. Steven strode past them and flung his coat across the couch before kicking off his wet boots and leaving them on the hard wood floor. He dropped his book bag on the floor and headed for the warmth of the kitchen.

“Steven! Good afternoon. How was your first day of school? Did everything go all right?” Gloria asked as she tended to the pans cooking on the stove.

“It was all right. They kept us inside because of the snow. Can I have a snack?”

“Sit at the table. I’ll have something for all three of you in just a minute,” she said as she pulled the cups from the cabinet. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the other two boys slip into chairs.

“Mrs. Potter, Steven left his …” JD began before he was jabbed in the ribs. Vin glared and gave a sharp shake of his head at the younger boy.

“Vin, that wasn’t nice. He left his what, JD?”

“His boots and coat and book bag are all over the place,” the little brunet said. Gloria stepped away from the counter and glanced into the other room.

“Steven, please hang up your coat and bag and put your boots on the rug. Then get a paper towel and dry up the floor before someone slips in the water and falls.”

With a venomous glare, the older boy slipped from his chair. A balled up fist appeared on the table for a moment before Steven turned to clean up his mess.

“You shouldn’ta told on him, JD. You shoulda let Mrs. Potter find out for herself,” Vin whispered. In his mind was the threat that Steven had made in the restroom of the pizza place that first day. Gloria turned from watching the older boy and poured the warm cocoa into the cups that she had set out earlier. She put the cups on the table along with a plate of warm cookies. Immediately, both boys’ hands snaked out to snag a cup and a cookie.

“These are good, Mrs. Potter! What kind are they?” JD asked around a mouthful of cookie.

“They’re lemon-sugar cookies and you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full, JD,” she answered.

Steven came into the kitchen and stared at the plate of cookies before his gaze wandered over the other two boys. Shock and dismay contorted his face as he cried out, “You said you would make lemon-sugar cookies for me!”

Before the woman could respond, Steven turned and ran for the bedroom. She followed him and knocked gently on the door. Several soft thumps carried over the sobs she could hear before opening the door. Steven had thrown himself across the bed and was crying into his pillow as he struck the wall with his clenched fist. Gloria sat on the edge of the bed and reached for the boy. He flinched under her hand and squirmed closer to the wall.

“I made the cookies because you said they were your favorite. I’ll save them for you when you feel like eating,” she said as she stood and left the room.

“Is he crying?” JD asked as soon as she reached the kitchen.

“He’s a little upset right now. Why don’t you and Vin get started on your homework?”

Both of the younger boys had finished their homework and were outside playing when Steven finally came out of the bedroom. His eyes were puffy from crying and he avoided eye contact as he sat at the table and finished the cookie that Gloria had set aside for him. She pulled his cup from the microwave after warming the cocoa and set it next to his plate.

“After you finish your homework, you can go outside and play with the others.”

“Yes ma’am,” Steven said softly. He tried hard to cover the huge tears that rolled down his face as the tart-sweet cookie registered on his taste buds. When he finished the cookies and cocoa, he left the table and pulled on his coat and boots.

By the time Buck and Chris arrived home, the boys were about finished playing outside. Rosy cheeks shone from inside of the hoods of their coats as they ran to greet the adults. Vin and JD ran right up to collect hugs while Steven hung back. Buck reached out and snagged the older child, giving him a gentle squeeze before asking about his day.

“We painted and maked pictures for …” JD began.

“Just a minute, Little Bit, I wanted to hear about Steven’s first day,” Buck said quickly. There was a slight hesitation before the older boy began to explain about the kids in his class.

Vin’s sharp eyes followed the trio as they headed for the house. Buck had JD on his hip and his other hand across Steven’s shoulder as he asked questions about the class and the teachers. Every time JD tried to interrupt, he was promptly reminded to wait his turn.

“Something bothering you, son?” Chris asked.

“No, ‘M fine.”

“So what did your class do today?”

Inside the house, Mrs. Potter watched as the children shed their outerwear. She gathered the coats and carried them to the dryer. She wanted to tell Buck about the incident with the cookies and apologize for upsetting Steven. She was somewhat relieved to see the man making the effort to listen to what the older child had to say but it troubled her that JD was standing and staring at the single finger that Buck held up before him to stop him from interrupting. Finally, JD sighed and wandered over to Chris to tell him what he had done that day. After pulling Buck aside and filling him in on the afternoon’s events, she collected her coat and left.

Over supper, Buck broached the subject of the movie. JD responded enthusiastically about seeing the cartoon but Steven’s expression soured.

“That’s a baby movie,” he protested.

“Sometimes we all have to do things we don’t like to do, son. Mrs. Cunningham was kind enough to extend the invitation and I accepted. Vin, would you like to go too?”

Indecision was plain on the little Texan’s face. He wanted to go but he was wary of going with Buck, Steven and JD. Casting a look at Chris, he waited to see what the blond would say.

“I could go with you or you and I could hang out here together and have some one on one time,” Chris offered.

“I’ll stay here, Buck. Thanks for asking,” Vin said as he gave an apologetic look to JD.

After a quiet evening of watching TV, the boys took baths and got ready for bed. Surprisingly, they went down without a problem and the two men settled in the living room for some more ‘adult’ programming. They were quickly engrossed in a murder mystery. Chris got up during a commercial break to get them each a beer and peeked into the bedroom to check on the boys. Vin had one arm slung through the slats of the safety bar on his bed. JD was completely buried under his covers, looking very much like Torkus. Steven was covered completely except for a swatch of his dark curly hair. Smiling, he pulled the door closed and quickly grabbed a couple of beers and hurried back to his recliner.

In the morning, there was some confusion as the boys searched for their boots amongst the pile on the rug near the door. Their coats were fluffy and dry and Chris suggested that they tumble them for a few minutes to make them warm before putting them on. Buck dished out bowls of oatmeal and put a plate of toast on the table. Vin and JD dug right into their bowls but Steven only stirred his around without even tasting it.

“Something wrong, Steven?” Buck asked as he sat down with his coffee.

“My mom always put strawberry jelly in my oatmeal,” he whispered.

“We don’t got strawberry but we gots raspberry. Do you want that?” JD offered as he pushed the jar across the table. Steven shook his head and went back to stirring his food around in the bowl. Buck thought for a moment before he got up and went to the refrigerator. He thought he remembered seeing a handful of packets of jelly from a fast food place in one of the drawers. Rummaging around in the drawer, he grinned triumphantly as he pulled out two packets of strawberry.

“Will this work?”

A broad smile lit Steven’s face as he took the packets and squirted the contents into his oatmeal. Within moments, he was happily shoveling the warm cereal into his mouth. Buck added strawberry jelly to the shopping list that Gloria kept on the refrigerator. It was a small price to pay for a smile.

Everything was fine until the boys got on the bus. Jerry and Phillip called to Steven as soon as he got on and he headed for the back of the bus. JD and Vin took their usual seats near the front.

“You mean they’re your brothers?” Phillip asked, derision dripping from every syllable.

“No, my father is adopting JD. Chris is adopting Vin,” Steven said, just loudly enough to be heard in the front of the bus.

“My uncle says he can’t believe they let gay men adopt boys. You better watch it or they’ll be trying to do things to you,” Jerry said. All of the kids around them burst out laughing except Steven. Vin turned around on his knees in the seat and glared back at the older children. They had already been through this once and he wasn’t going to get into it again.

The day was uneventful for all of them and Buck rushed home to change before the movie. JD had already finished his homework and Steven said he didn’t have any homework. After transferring JD’s booster seat to the other vehicle, the three of them left for the theater. As soon as they stepped into the lobby, Laurel called for JD. She raced across the floor to throw her arms around her friend. JD returned the hug as Darcy came up behind them. She and Buck exchanged a warm smile before he introduced her to Steven. The boy was almost painfully polite in his greeting. There was a moment of awkwardness as they tried to figure out who was going to sit next to who in the theater. JD and Laurel normally sat together on one side of Buck and Darcy. JD wanted to sit next to Buck but Steven didn’t want to sit next to Laurel and an argument ensued.

“I want to sit next to my Da! You sit over there,” JD demanded.

“He’s my dad! Why can’t you sit on the other side?” Steven countered. They settled for letting the two younger children sit between the adults and Steven on the other side of Buck. It meant that he couldn’t sneak a cuddle with the pretty divorcee but she assured him that she didn’t mind. As soon as the movie started, he stretched his arm around JD’s seat and found her hand draped over Laurel’s waiting for him.

For the rest of that week, things seemed to be rolling along well for everyone at the ranch. Buck made a special effort to spend time with each of the boys separately and to do things with them together. Chris complimented him on the way home from work on Friday.

“He’s a really good kid, Chris, he’s just having a hard time making the adjustment.”

“I’m just worried about how this is affecting Vin and JD.”

“They’re doing just fine. They’ve been playing together really well,” Buck said defensively.

“Nettie have any luck locating Magda?” Chris asked.

“So she can take him back? If you don’t want him at the ranch, why don’t you just come out and say it. Maybe it is time I started looking for a place of my own again.”

“Buck, I didn’t mean it that way. I just can’t understand how she could just go off and leave him without even checking to see how he is. You know what I’m talking about. You can’t be away from them for more than a day without checking on them. How can a person just turn their back on a child like that?”

“I don’t know but if she does come back, I’m really going to have to think about what I’ll do.”

“You mean fighting her for custody?”

“Hell yes! She dumped that kid like a hot rock. I’m not so sure I want her dragging him all over the place like that. Who knows where she’d dump him next? He’s my son, I want something better for him,” Buck said emphatically.

“But you’re still planning to go through with JD’s adoption?”

“Of course I am! I haven’t changed my mind about JD. Why would you even ask me?”

“I just want to make sure that he doesn’t get lost in the shuffle,” Chris said as he turned the truck into the driveway. “I guess we ought to start planning for that new bedroom. We can start it in the spring.”

The mention of adding on to the house brought a momentary stab of deep emotion to Buck. The house had been perfect for Chris, Sarah and Adam. It touched him that Chris was willing to add on so that he and both of his boys could continue to call it their home. Thoughts of the changes that were coming brought a feeling of warmth. Buck was so lost in thought that he didn’t notice his friend watching him over the hood.

Chris stared up the hood of the truck. Buck had not moved from the seat. He thought that perhaps the thought of having both boys permanently was daunting and he went to make sure his friend was all right. He opened the passenger side door.

“Buck? You all right?”

“Huh? Oh yeah, just lost in thought for a minute there, pard.” Buck stepped down from the truck and tossed his arm over Chris’s shoulder. “Have I told you lately how glad I am that we’re friends?”

Steven glanced out the window. His jaw ached and his stomach dropped. All week, he’d been watching Buck and Chris. Phillip and Jerry had warned him repeatedly about the two men. Even after he told them about Buck and Darcy Cunningham, they insisted that the pair were a couple. As he watched, Buck threw back his head and laughed at something Chris said. He let the corner of the curtain fall as he slumped onto his bed.

The two men were blissfully ignorant of the terror their actions had wrought on Steven. By the time Buck called him to supper, the boy had fixed his poker face firmly in place. Neither of them noticed the way the boy shrank from their touch. He volunteered to be the first to bathe that night and asked if he could go right to bed. Buck went for the electronic thermometer to check that he wasn’t running a fever. Steven insisted that he was just tired and headed for the bedroom.

“You want me to sit with you until you fall asleep, son?” Buck offered.

“No! I’m not a baby, I can go to sleep by myself,” Steven answered.

After their baths, the other two boys snuggled to their fathers to watch some TV. They were allowed to stay up an hour longer on Friday nights. Buck got up several times during the course of the evening to look in on Steven. He seemed to be sleeping soundly each time.

Some time during the night, Buck sensed that he wasn’t alone. A small, cold hand stroked his cheek as a soft voice whispered, “Da? Are you awake?”

“I am now. Is something wrong, Little Bit?”

“Steven’s crying in his sleep,” JD explained.

Bolting out of bed, Buck grabbed his robe and punched his arms into the sleeves as he raced up the hall. In the soft light of the bedroom, he could see Vin sitting with his knees tucked up under him on the top bunk as he looked worriedly down on Steven. The boy was indeed crying and thrashing in his blankets.

“Steven? Wake up son.” Buck sat on the edge of the bed and placed his hand lightly on the boy’s shoulder as he tried to rouse him. He could not have anticipated the reaction he got. Steven’s blue eyes opened and the boy began to scream hysterically as he tried to get away from under the hand on his shoulder. Thinking that the boy was in the throes of a nightmare, Buck tried to gather him into his arms.

Hearing the terrified screams, Chris tumbled out of bed and raced up the hall. Hitting the lights as he entered the room, he found Buck struggling to maintain his grasp on Steven. He caught a brief glimpse of the terror filled eyes. It was obvious that holding him was only escalating his fear.

“Buck! Let him go!”

Startled, Buck released the child and watched as he scrambled into the farthest corner of the bed, sobbing and drawing his blankets more securely around him. Neither man saw the small pocketknife the boy pulled from under the pillow. Buck waited for Chris to say something.

“Give him a minute, Buck. He’s terrified,” the blond said softly as he reached up to gather Vin from the top bunk. He sat down and held out an arm to JD who was standing frozen in place. After several minutes, Steven drew a shuddering breath.

“Steven? Are you okay, son?” Buck asked softly.

“Don’t. Don’t hurt me,” the boy pleaded.

“I wasn’t going to hurt you, Steven. JD said you were crying. I came in to wake you up, I thought you were having a bad dream or something.”

“Y-y-you didn’t c-come in here to d-d-d-do anything to me?” Steven asked.

“What would I do to you, son? Look at your pillow. You were crying and tossing and fretting, I was just trying to wake you up so you’d stop,” Buck explained. He watched as a shaking hand touched the wet spots on the pillowslip. “You want to try going back to sleep now?”

Swallowing hard, Steven made himself nod and allowed himself to be tucked into bed again. His heart continued to slam against his ribs as he watched Buck and Chris settling the other two boys into bed. Keeping his hands tightly clenched in the blankets, he tried to make a passable smile when his father cupped his cheek before Chris turned out the lights and both men left the room.

“Steven? You could sleep with my Scooby if you want,” JD offered in the silence that followed.

“No, thanks, JD,” Steven answered as he tried to go back to sleep.

On Saturday, the rest of the team came out to the ranch for their regular get together. Josiah and Nathan made a point of paying attention to whichever of the boys seemed to be the odd man out. Steven was quiet and withdrawn. When Nathan commented on it, Buck told him about the bad dream that had wakened the whole household.

“Those could be night terrors. All the upset of his momma leaving could have triggered them,” the medic explained.

Buck nodded. “That was what Chris and I figured. Adam had a couple, scared him and Sarah nearly to death. He’ll get over them.”

Neither man noticed the concerned stare of their southern friend. Ezra had been watching Steven for a couple of hours and noticed more than either of the men who shared the house with the boy. He caught the subtle flinch whenever one of the men came too near. Pushing up from the couch, he followed Steven into the kitchen.

“Might I have a word with you, Steven?” Ezra asked as the boy closed the refrigerator. Seeing the wary look that sprang into the dark eyes, he pulled out a chair and sank heavily into it. “Please?”

After looking around the room, Steven pulled out a chair across from the southerner and sat down. He folded his hands on the table to hide the frightened tremor.

“Would I be correct in stating that something has happened to make you afraid of your father and Mr. Larabee?”

“I’m not afraid!”

“Then perhaps you could explain why you cringe like a whipped dog every time one of them comes within arm's reach of you? No? How about the nightmare? Exactly what did you think your father was going to do to you when he came to your bedside in the night?” That got a rise out of him! The dark eyes flashed and Steven’s chin quivered with the effort to hold a neutral, disinterested expression.

“Nothing, I was having a bad dream is all.”

“Did one of the children at school say something to you?” Ezra watched as surprise lit the boy’s face. “They hinted that Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington were … a couple?”

“How did you know that?” Steven whispered.

“It is an unfortunate fact that any time two men or two women cohabitate that society seems to believe the very worst of the situation. They have only been living together since acquiring JD and Vin. Your father was inexperienced in raising a child and Mr. Larabee possessed the necessary skills. It was also more cost efficient for them to share the cost of a caregiver for the boys after school and the boys strongly desired to remain together,” Ezra explained.

“So, you’re saying that they aren’t gay?” Steven asked incredulously.

Rolling his eyes and laughing, Ezra sighed. “Most definitely! Mr. Wilmington was a connoisseur of the female form prior to agreeing to accept responsibility for JD. Scarcely a night passed that he didn’t have the company of a member of the fairer gender. I assure you that whatever you heard at school is patently false. Neither of those men would lay a finger on you in a harmful way.”

“Okay,” Steven whispered. “You won’t tell them, will you? That I thought they were gay?”

“You have my word as a gentleman,” Ezra assured him.

Unknown to the child, both Buck and Chris were pressed tightly against the door to the mudroom, where they had been when they heard Steven come into the kitchen. Ezra had seen the shadows in the crack under the door. He knew he would not have to break his word to the boy.

#4: Smooth Sailing