This one is for Marnie, who has elevated fic-begging to an art form. ;-D
As Buck Wilmington surveyed his surroundings, he wondered what, exactly, had he been thinking, taking Vin and JD to the mall on Christmas Eve?
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Dr. Two Eagles had recommended that the boys get flu shots - although their health was steadily improving, both of them still suffered after effects of months of neglect they had endured while living on the street. Both boys were due for their DPT booster shots, too, and since Chris had to attend a briefing before getting the afternoon off, he'd been cast as the bad guy taking them to the doctor. He had attempted to mollify the injustice of having to get not one, but two shots in a single day with an early Christmas present and lunch at the food court, and maybe a chance to visit Santa.
JD was excited by the prospect of seeing the fat and jolly one, but Vin, who was still mistrustful of strangers, took one look at the ruddy-faced man in the garish red costume and refused to go near the line, let alone get in it. JD, on the other hand, was eager to take his place behind the roughly twenty thousand kids in front of him.
Buck surveyed the Santa crowd, which consisted largely of harried parents and kids who were o.d.-ed on candy or whining because they wanted something they couldn't have. When a little girl standing 5 feet away announced she was going to barf and then promptly did, Buck suggested that rather than taking up Santa's time, they just make out a list when they got home and leave it for him with a snack. He was relieved when JD thought this was a good idea. JD did wave eagerly at Santa as they walked by, though, and was gratified when he received a smile and wave in return.
The toy store was near the food court, and Buck told the boys they could each pick something under $5. JD eagerly hunted the aisle for just the right prize, but Vin lethargically gazed at a few prospects and finally settled on a miniature Rubik's Cube that had only 4 squares on each side instead of the customary 9. He then waited impatiently until JD finally came running up with his selection - a hideous thing called a Horror Ball. It looked like an rubber ball with small plastic windows, but when it was squeezed the "windows" ballooned outward revealing a swarm of gummy plastic cockroaches inside the ball.
"Wow! Cool!" Vin appreciated the toy as only a small boy could. "I wanna get one, too!"
"Can't," JD said. "There was only one left."
Refusing to believe this cruel trick of fate, Vin checked for himself and then had Buck verify it with the cashier.
"Oh, yes," the woman said, "those have been very popular. I don't think we have any more left, but I'll have the stockroom clerk check."
Vin's hopes were dashed when stock clerk returned empty-handed. Glumly, he had to settle for his original choice.
On the way out of the store, Vin spotted a dinosaur robot on display. Several kids were playing with it - or trying to, so he only gazed at it longingly as they walked past.
After waiting in line at Taco Bell for 20 minutes, they hunted the food court for another 15 minutes trying to find an empty table.
Buck noticed that Vin was just picking at his food. "What's wrong, Vin? I thought you liked tacos?"
"Nobody asked me what I wanted to eat," Vin sighed.
Buck realized he was right. He'd asked, "Where should we eat?" and JD had responded with an enthusiastic, "Taco Bell!" Vin was just kind of dragged along.
"I'm sorry, Vin," Buck apologized. "Next time, it will be your turn to pick, okay?"
Vin nodded and sighed again. "My shots hurt." Dr. Two Eagles had told him to expect the boys to have some discomfort. They'd each had a shot in the arm and another in the butt.
Vin ate half of one taco, but pushed the second one away and announced he was done.
"Aren't you hungry?" Buck asked him.
Vin shook his head.
Buck felt his forehead and found it a bit warm. Dr. Two Eagles had cautioned that one or both boys might run a fever as a reaction to the immunizations, and they might be irritable and out of sorts for a few hours. Buck had suspected something was amiss when Vin had failed to show much enthusiasm when picking out a toy.
They were just a few feet from to entrance to the toy store, and now there was only one kid playing with the remote-controlled dinosaur. Apparently, this particular toy was the Latest Thing. Vin was eager to go check it out, but JD, as usual, was taking his time with his meal. Finally, he finished his two tacos.
"Can we go see the Dinobot now?" Vin asked hopefully.
"I'm still hungry," JD announced. "Can I have Vin's taco?"
Seeing no point in wasting Vin's uneaten portion, Buck passed it over to JD.
Vin sighed. JD was taking for-e-ver.
Buck could see the display clearly from where he sat, so he told Vin, "Go ahead. I can watch you from here."
Vin smiled happily and hurried over to the toy display. Buck noticed he was limping slightly. Poor kid almost had no butt, so having a needle stuck in it had probably hurt.
The other boy was still playing with the Dinobot, and as Vin waited for his turn, Buck could see he was growing irritated. Finally, he pushed the other boy aside and took the controls away from him. Buck raised an eyebrow at that. It wasn't like Vin to behave so aggressively. The other little boy went squalling to his mother, and Buck prepared his apology for Vin's behavior, but she was busy at the counter paying for what looked like half the store, and she silenced her whiny kid with a piece of candy before dragging him towards the exit.
Vin had only had a chance to play with the toy for a minute or so when JD announced he had to go to the bathroom.
The restrooms were on the other side of the food court, and Buck thought about leaving Vin for just a few minutes, but only fleetingly. He'd probably be perfectly safe, but, all it took was for one whacko to spot him alone and... well, Buck just woudn't even think about that.
He tossed their trash into a garbage can and then walked over to the toy store with JD. "Vin, JD has to go to the bathroom, so you have to come with us."
Vin's nimble little fingers that had been happily manipulating the robot froze. "But, I just got my turn to play with it."
"I know," Buck said gently, "but I can't leave you here alone."
"I'm not alone," Vin said crossly. "There's a million people here!"
JD was jumping up and down. "Buck, I gots to pee."
"Come on, Vin," Buck said.
To his amazement, Vin, who was always so unsure of himself and eager to please, looked him square in the eye and said, "NO!" and began to play with the robot again.
"Vin, come on now," Buck coaxed. "It's time to leave."
Vin acted like he didn't hear him, and continued to play with the robot.
Buck reached down and grabbed for the joystick, which caused the robot to fall over on its back. As it lay there kicking its feet in the air, Vin clamped his little hands down on the device and refused to let it go.
Buck was amazed at how strong the little guy was. He tugged hard, which caused the dinosaur's red eyes to light up and it emitted an electronic roar as it rolled onto its side. One leg began to push it in a circle so that it looked like a reptilian break dancer.
JD started to laugh - something which Buck knew could have disastrous repercussions when a child had a full bladder.
"Come ON, VIN!" he asserted himself, and managed to get the joystick away from him.
Vin started jumping up, trying to grab it back, and Buck grabbed him by the arm to stop him.
"OW! YOU HURT MY SHOT!" he screamed.
Buck quickly released Vin's sore arm, but as soon as he set the joystick down, Vin grabbed it again.
The dinosaur, meanwhile, had somehow righted itself and had escaped the Hula-Hoop that kept it in one spot on the floor.
JD was squealing with delight as it made its way unimpeded towards the food court.
"Damn it, Vin!" Buck lost his patience.
"You said a BAD WORD!" JD laughed.
Vin hunched himself protectively over the joystick so that Buck couldn't reach it. Unfortunately, he couldn't control it very well in that position. The robot took a sudden turn and landed face-first into a half-eaten hot dog.
JD collapsed on the floor with laughter, but then, suddenly said, "Uh-oh... Buck, I gots to pee, NOW!"
Buck picked Vin up around the waist and grabbed JD by the hand. Vin still refused to let go of the joystick, but Buck figured they could bring it back in a few minutes.
Vin was screaming with rage and kicking his legs, and JD was holding himself as they passed by a number of shoppers who, Buck knew, were vowing that if they ever had kids they would never stand for that kind of behavior. He knew because he used to be one of them. The ones who already had kids, though, pretty much ignored them.
Once they got to the men's room, JD made a beeline for the urinals while Vin broke into tears as soon as Buck put him down.
Buck knew the little guy probably wasn't feeling well, so he gently told him to calm down and then had him wash off his face with a cool, wet paper towel.
By the time JD's business was finished, the crying had waned to an occasional sniffle. Everything was under control again until they walked out of the men's room and found themselves face-to-face with a security guard. Vin still clutched the Dinobot joystick, so all Buck could do was grin sheepishly and try to explain the situation. Luckily, the guard was sympathetic.
"You do have to return that right now, though, young man," he told Vin, whose face was crimson with embarrassment as he nodded that he understood.
They marched back to the toystore where the Dinobot had been returned to its Hula Hoop. Vin's eyes lit up when he saw it, and much to Buck's chagrin, instead of returning the joystick to the display, he started to play with the thing again.
Buck glanced at his watch. Chris's briefing would be over soon, and they were supposed to swing by the Federal Building and pick him up. He told Vin he could play with the toy for 5 more minutes, then they'd have to leave.
Vin acted like he didn't hear him, and he steadfastly refused to let JD have a turn. Buck didn't want to cause another scene, so he distracted JD by asking him to point to things he could see in the store that he might want Santa to bring him. JD was easily able to fill five minutes making a list that would bankrupt them if they filled it.
"Okay, Vin, time to go," Buck said, pointing at his watch.
Vin kept on playing with the Dinobot. "Vin, we have to go get Chris."
"Just five more minutes," Vin said.
"No, we have to go, now," Buck insisted.
Vin refused to budge.
Buck drew on his martial-arts training and snatched the joystick from Vin's unsuspecting little fingers. He then took a firm hold of Vin's hand and said, "Time to go!"
"No, no, no, no, nooooooooooooo!" Vin protested, trying to dig his heels into the floor tiles. Buck just kept on walking, and Vin, unable to disengage himself from Buck's firm grip, sat down on the floor.
JD was perplexed. He had never seen Vin misbehaving like this. Warily, he looked over his shoulder, and realized to his horror that Santa had a clear view of them. He wasn't looking at them right then, but that what if he had already seen?
And then, suddenly, to his absolute mortification, Santa did look at them!
Vin was sitting on the floor kicking his feet while Buck leaned over to one side and tried to drag him along. When Santa looked away again, without smiling or waving this time, JD had to blink his eyes really fast so he didn't start to cry, too.
By the time they got to the Federal Building, Vin had drifted off to sleep in his carseat. Chris eyed him curiously as he climbed in the passenger side.
"Everything okay?" he asked Buck.
"Yeah... I think Vin might have had a bit of a reaction to the DPT shot. Dr. Two Eagles said that might happen. He's a little warm, but I think he's okay."
"Chris, look what I got!" JD showed Chris the Horror Ball.
"That's nasty," Chris said, pretending to shiver when he saw the roaches.
JD squealed happily at his reaction. "I'm gonna scare Casey with it."
Chris only laughed at that - Nettie Wells' little tomboy niece would probably want one for herself.
The radio was blaring Christmas music as they cruised down the highway and JD was happily humming along even though he didn't know the words or the tunes.You better not shout, you better not cry
You better not pout, I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
JD stopped singing as the words sank in. "Buck?" he asked timidly.
"Is that true? What the song says? That you better not shout or cry or pout because Santa is coming?"
"Absolutely," Buck said cheerfully.
"And he sees everything you do?"
"Yup," Buck laughed. "He's making a list and checking it twice..."Gonna find out who's naughty and nice
Wow, JD thought, Vin was in BIG trouble.
+ + + + + + +
After some Children's Tylenol and a good three-hour nap, Vin was feeling much better. Ezra was bringing dinner and spending the night - he had plans to cook Christmas dinner and wanted to get an early start in the morning.
As they awaited his arrival, Vin checked his e-mail and was delighted to find a message from his born-dad's old friend Major Carpenter. It wished him a Merry Christmas, and contained a link to a website. Vin tried to read the name, "NORAD Tracks Santa" but, he didn't know what N-O-R-A-D spelled. He asked JD and he didn't know, either.
He went to the kitchen where Chris was cutting apart Christmas cookies with pictures on them. Some had reindeer, some had Christmas trees and some had snowmen. Vin and JD both thought it was really cool how the picture went all the way through the cookie and wasn't just painted on, but, Chris had told Buck if he told anyone he baked cookies, he'd have to shoot him. Then he said that was just a joke, but, Vin didn't get it. He was glad Chris was making cookies, though.
"Chris, what does N-O-R-A-D spell?" He had written the word on a piece of paper.
Chris frowned. "Are you sure you have that down right, Pard? Because it doesn't spell anything."
Buck took the paper from him. "Oh, that's NORAD, Vin. It's what they call an acronym - the letters stand for longer words. NORAD is the North American Air Defense Command."
Chris glared at Buck. He knew that.
"What do they do?" Vin asked suspiciously.
"Well... they are American and Canadian soldiers who watch the skies and make sure no one shoots a missile at us."
Vin's eyes grew wide. "Somebody wants to shoot a missile at us?" he asked nervously.
Buck scratched his chin, not really wanting to go into the history of the Cold War with a 7-year-old. He moved he subject in another direction. "Where did you see that word?"
"Major Carpenter sent me an e-mail link. It says 'NORAD Tracks Santa.' He said I could watch Santa when he flies down from the North Pole on that website."
NORAD's US headquarters was right there in Colorado, so Buck had heard of their Santa Tracking program. Hell, he'd even used it back when he was a kid. It wasn't a website then, just a free long-distance call, probably answered by an Air Force volunteer who had told him that yes, Santa was definitely on his way. "Well, let's go check it out!"
They called JD over to the computer and clicked on Major Carpenter's link. It took them to a page that revealed that the website was offered in 6 languages. They clicked on English and were taken to an elaborate site that explained in great detail how NORAD used satellites and the heat signature given off by Rudolph's red nose to determine when Santa had left the North Pole. From there, he was escorted by jets of the Royal Canadian Air Force, each equipped with a special Santa Cam, as he made his way across Canada and then was handed over to similarly equipped US Air Force jets who would see him safely on his journey across the United States.
"What about Mexico?" JD asked. "That's part of North America."
There was no mention of Mexico anywhere on the site, but Vin, with the wisdom of a child, replied, "Well, that's probably on the Spanish part, because they talk Spanish in Mexico."
That sounded good to Buck, who wasn't even sure Mexico had an air force. It satisfied JD, too.
There were maps to click on and so far, none showed any activity, but Buck showed Vin how to bookmark the site so that they could keep checking back.
Ezra showed up with sandwiches from Subway. Buck and Chris had suggested he not bring a heavy meal since he was planning a prime rib feast for the next day. Ezra had a knack for remembering everyone's favorite food. He had the subs Chris and Buck invariably ordered from the popular fast food chain, as well as a 12-inch meatball sub - Vin and JD's favorite - for the boys to share.
Vin and JD couldn't wait to show Ezra the website, so as soon as they had finished eating, they dragged him off to the den. "We'll get to watch Santa until he gets here, to Denver!"
"Ah... but you know that you have to be in bed asleep when he comes, right?" Ezra cautioned.
"Why?" Vin blinked. He hadn't known that. He wondered if that was why Santa had forgotten him last Christmas. He'd been staying alone at the warehouse, before he found JD, but he knew Christmas was coming because of all the decorations. He waited and waited and hoped and hoped, but, then all the decorations came down, and Santa had never come.
After that, Vin didn't believe in Santa anymore, but now, here was a whole website about him, and if the Air Force said he flew from the North Pole, then, he must be for real. Maybe he wasn't asleep when Santa came to the warehouse.
Ezra, though, was taken aback by Vin's question.
"Well, I'm not rightly sure why, Vin. That's just how it is."
"Did Santa ever skip you?"
Ezra's heart ached for the little boy, because he knew the probable reason for Vin's question, but he had to answer truthfully. "No. No he didn't." Even though Maude had left him stranded a couple of times on Christmas Eve, she had always seen to it that there was a gift waiting for him when he woke up on Christmas morning. "But, Santa isn't Superman, is he? I bet he makes mistakes, too."
"I reckon," Vin said. He knew Josiah helped the Salvation Army at Christmas. They weren't really an army like the one Major Carpenter was in, but they helped Santa by taking presents to kids Santa might have trouble finding. That's what Josiah said, anyway.
The three of them jumped as lively heavy metal music began to come from the computer's speakers. "OH LOOK!" JD pointed excitedly at the screen. Sure enough, there was a special alert from the Royal Canadian Air Force. Santa was leaving the North Pole!
After a fun and busy night of eating cookies, putting the final decorative touches on the house, watching A Christmas Story on TV, and opening a few small "pre-Christmas" gifts, JD had fallen asleep under the Christmas tree. Vin managed to stay awake long enough to check the website one more time before he, too, began to nod off at the keyboard. Chris and Buck carried their respective boys off to bed and after a goodnight from Uncle Ezra and assuring Vin that the idiot local weather guy's comment that Santa was stuck in fog over Albuquerque was just a dumb joke, both boys were tucked in, and despite the excitement of the night, they were soon fast asleep.
Chris, Buck and Ezra enjoyed the calm before the storm, popping in a DVD of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and sharing a bottle of wine. A snack of cookies and milk had been left for Santa, as well as some microwaved popcorn for the reindeer. Buck poured the milk back into the bottle and the three of them consumed the cookies and popcorn while they watched the movie.
The boy's gifts were hidden outside in the toolshed, and the original plan was to bring them in before going to bed, but the weather was unseasonably warm, and the forecasted white Christmas had materialized as pouring rain. According to the Weather Channel, the storm would pass in a couple of hours, so everyone set their alarms for 4:30 - which was too early even for Vin. Buck and Chris would bring the gifts in and put them under the tree while Ezra stood watch in the hallway just in case one of the boys woke up, and everything would be ready and waiting under the tree come Christmas morning.
+ + + + + + +
JD's eyes popped open and glanced at his Sponge Bob alarm clock. 3:00 am. He knew it wasn't time to get up yet, but, he wondered if maybe Santa had been there while he and Vin slept.
He eased off his blankets and walked on tippy-toes to the den where the tree was, careful not to make any sound. His heart was racing with excitement, but his hopes were dashed when the tree looked just like it had when he'd fallen asleep under it. No presents.
He decided to go check the website to see how close Santa was to Denver. Carefully, he pushed the "mute" button so the music wouldn't come on and computer wouldn't tell him "Welcome" and "You've got mail." He didn't want to wake everyone up.
He found the bookmark for the Santa website and clicked it. The page came up, but, it was blank. He looked in the "visited sites" place and clicked there trying to find the maps. Finally, some maps came up, but they were blank, too. Where had Santa gone? He tried several links on the website, but, now, none of them worked.
There was a phone number on the website, so JD carefully picked up the phone and dialed. He was hoping he could ask someone where Santa had gone.
Instead, he got a recorded message saying to be sure to call back next year!
He remembered the snack they had left for Santa, and with renewed hope, he went to check if it was still there.
Moments later, as he stood staring numbly at the plate of crumbs and the empty bag of popcorn, it hit him.
Santa Claus had come and gone and had left them NOTHING!
And it was ALL VIN'S FAULT!
He marched back to the bedroom and climbed the ladder to Vin's bunk. He nudged his brother sharply. "Wake up, you stupid head!" he said angrily.
Vin sat up, still half asleep.
"It's all your fault!" JD said, his voice cracking.
JD forgot to whisper. "It's all your fault!" he shouted. "Santa Claus didn't leave us NOTHING!" He started to cry and Vin got a sinking feeling in his stomach.
"What are you talking about, JD?"
JD dragged the older boy out of bed and led him to the computer, where Vin saw the harsh reality for himself. The maps tracking Santa's journey had gone blank. And there were no presents under the tree, just the empty plate on the coffee table.
"Santa didn't leave us nothing because you were BAD, Vin!" JD wailed. "The song said you better not shout or cry or pout and YOU DID ALL THREE and SANTA SAW YOU!!! It's all your fault! I HATE YOU!" He sat down on the floor and began to cry in earnest.
Vin remembered his temper tantrum at the mall. He didn't know why he had acted bad like that. He should have known better, especially with Santa right there watching...
JD was right. He'd messed up. It was his fault there were no presents.
He ran back to his bed and clutched Cat close and began to cry, too.
It didn't take long for the three adults in the house to wake up. Both Buck and Chris hurried to the boys' room, but only found Vin there. While Chris went to his son and tried to ask him what was wrong, Buck followed the sound of JD's pitiful wails to the den. JD ran into his arms as soon as he flicked on the light.
JD was talking a mile a minute and crying at the same time, but, Buck managed to glean the fact that he thought Santa had forgotten them.
Chris walked in carrying a sobbing Vin, followed by Ezra, who went directly to the computer and began trying to bring up the website.
Chris and Buck were at a loss as to what to do. They didn't want the boy's Christmas to be ruined and each of them was trying to come with a way to explain that the gifts were in the shed without ruining the surprise of Christmas morning. They decided to buy some time to figure out their dilemma by offering the boys some hot cocoa.
Ezra managed to find the 'fine print' that indicated that the NORAD website, which was manned by volunteer military personnel, had shut down at 2 am Mountain time, when it was relatively safe to assume that kids would be in bed and asleep.
Luckily, Ezra was an experienced con man. It took him only seconds to think of a way out of the present situation.
He began to pull open the drawers of Chris's desk until he found what he needed.
+ + + + + + +
When Chris and Buck returned with the hot cocoa and the two distraught little boys, Ezra was sitting forlornly in the den. "I just don't understand," he muttered. "I never thought Santa would stop and not leave anything, but just eat the cookies..."
Chris and Buck glared at him. Was he trying to make a bad situation worse?
"Vin wasn't a good boy!" JD huffed. "He throwed a tanturn at the mall and Santa was RIGHT THERE!" He sniffed and seemed on the verge of crying again. "It's all his fault."
"My, my...." Ezra shook his head. "So very unfortunate. Why, when I was a boy...." He suddenly leaned forward, staring intently at the fireplace. He then pointed at the unburned logs. "Hey, what is that?"
JD quieted in mid-sniffle and Vin lifted his head from Chris's shoulder.
There, in the fireplace, was an envelope. It was dusty with ashes, but not burned.
JD crawled off Buck's lap and hurried over to it. "It's an onvulope," he said, picking it out of the ashes. He looked at it carefully and then read the front, "To Vin and JD."
Frowning he looked at Buck. "Can I open it?"
Buck looked at Ezra, who winked at him.
"Well, it's got your name on it, so I reckon so," Buck said.
JD tore the envelope open. He was a good reader, and a tentative grin spread across his face as he read it. Vin's interest was piqued and he, too, got up and went to look at the note. JD began to read aloud.
Dear Vin and JD,
I have so many toys to deliver that I have run out of some of the things on your list. I have sent elves back to the North Pole to get some more. Don't worry, they will be here by morning. Thank you for the cookies and popcorn. You are very good boys.
JD grinned happily and hurried to Buck to show him the note. Buck studied it carefully and handed it over to Chris, who in turn showed it to Ezra. All three men pretended to study it carefully.
"Do you think the elves will come?" JD asked Buck.
"Oh, I am pretty sure if Santa says so, they will. He's their boss, after all."
"But Santa knows I was bad at the mall," Vin said uncertainly.
Buck pulled him close and gave him a hug. "I think Santa knows that you weren't feeling very well, Vin. He understands."
"Really?" Vin said.
"Yup. You just wait and see."
Once they had the boys settled in bed, Ezra offered to read them The Night Before Christmas. He put on a CD of Christmas carols in the background to give the story 'atmosphere' - although, it was really to cover up any sound Chris and Buck might make while moving the boys gifts to the den. They had decided not to take a chance on them not being there the next time the little guys woke up.
The two little boys drifted off to sleep well before they were done.
+ + + + + + +
The exhaustion of the previous night's events having taken their toll, Vin and JD slept until well after 8 am. While that was still hideously early to Ezra's way of thinking, it was two hours more sleep than he had hoped for. He was already semi-awake when Vin and JD came running into the guest room.
"UNCLE EZRA!" JD gasped. "They came! Santa's elves came! They left us presents! Come and see!"
Ezra was pulled out of bed by a small boy on each hand.
There, under the tree, was a veritable cornucopia of wrapped packages. The boys ripped them open with eager abandon, amidst a chorus of delighted oooohs and aaaaahs. They had so much stuff that Ezra felt somewhat sheepish when he went out to his Jag and brought in the gifts he had purchased for the boys. His meager offering seemed woefully inadequate.
Vin and JD, however, were more than happy to open yet another present. Custom gift wrap was torn asunder and the hand-crafted bows were tossed into the tree with the others.
"Oh WOW!" JD gasped when the gifts were revealed.
Vin's eyes grew round with surprise and his face erupted in a delighted grin. "DINOBOTS!"