by KT and Sue M
AU: Little Britches ATF – Little Ambassadors Series
Disclaimer: Not ours, never were, ever will be.
Note: Betaed and added too by Sue M. Without giving anything way, this is a little different, but just go with us :o)
JD did his best to sit still in his seat as the plane readied for take off. He tried to look out of the window, but with his seat belt buckled tightly he couldn't see much but the distant mountains. His tummy was all squirrely, as he tried to reconcile his feeling of excitement with the anxiety of separation. Buck's large callused hand covered his; its heavy warmth was a comfort, as always.
“It’s not for long, you'll see them again very soon,” his father assured him. “In six weeks.”
“That’s 42 sleeps,” JD told him seriously, he found it easer to count time by how many times he went to sleep.
Behind them, Buck had no doubt a very similar conversation was taking place, only Vin and Chris would manage to do it without a word spoken.
They were about to leave Denver for an eleven month assignment in the UK. Buck and Chris had been offered the prestigious Federal Agency Exchange places for that year. Every year, two federal agents were given the chance to spend time working with and observing the law enforcement officers of another country. Since this often meant uprooting whole families, the ‘year' ran from August to July, to fit in with the school year. Just how Travis had managed to get them this highly sought after assignment they didn't like to ask and the decision to accept had not been taken easily. A year ago, if the same situation had arisen they would have jumped at it, then they had been two carefree bachelors, now they were parents, with two young children to think about.
Four months earlier.
“Gentlemen, come and sit down.”
Orin Travis was never that formal with Team Seven, and that just set more alarm bells ringing with Chris and Buck. They first knew something was wrong when they were both summoned to the Assistant Director's office. Usually only Chris, as team leader went to meeting in the AD's office or he came to the conference room if he wanted to address the whole team.
Inside Orin's comfortable; user friendly office sat another man. A man neither of them recognised. He wore a dark suit, plain grey and blue striped tie and had a visitor ID clipped to his lapel. Once they were all seated again. Travis made the introductions.
“Special Agent Buck Wilmington and Team Leader, Special Agent Chris Larabee, may I introduce Mr Thomas Sorenson from the DC office.”
Both agents stiffened, ‘suits' from head office were never good news.
“Mr Sorenson has the results of your team's recent psyche evaluations.” Orin began.
Their recent interviews with the ATF's official shrink had been a much debated issue among the team, who had managed to avoid this annual torture for at least three years.
“And it doesn’t make pretty reading. Thomas?” Orin invited Sorenson to take over.
“Let’s start with the easiest. Agent Jackson, basically he's fine, but like all of you tired and showing early signs of stress. Agent Sanchez is also not too bad, but his stress symptoms are more pronounced. This…” He held up a docket at least an inch thick. “Is Agent Standish's file.”
“Basically,” Travis began. “Ezra’s on the edge, without proper R and R he's risking a major mental health breakdown, from which he might never fully recover. The man lives on his nerves at the best of times, and while that's what makes him so good at his job, no one can live like that forever.”
“So, Ez needs a holiday?” Chris speculated.
“He needs more than that, he needs a year off,” Sorenson told them.
“What, a year! I can’t run this team without an under cover specialist for a year.”
“We know,” Travis admitted, keeping his voice calm. “And we haven’t even got to you two yet. What you guys have done, what you took on with those two boys is remarkable and to be applauded but it's taken its toll on both of you.”
“We’re fine,” Buck told him firmly.
“Agent Wilmington, you are far from fine,” Sorenson told him. “Like the rest of your team, you both show early symptoms of stress. The fact that you handle it better than your colleagues is probably down to the fact that you have children, but those symptoms are there and they will only get worse if you carry on as you are now.”
“Now hold on just minute here, what are you saying? I am no desk jockey!” Buck snapped.
“Agent Wilmington, you are a very fine field agent and a valuable resource to this agency, as are all your team and we want to protect that resource not harm or lose it.”
“Guys, just hear him out – okay?” Travis asked.
“Take it easy Pal,” Chris instructed Buck calmly. “Okay, we’re listening.”
“A temporary team will be brought in. You will all be given 8 weeks paid leave of absence. Standish will get a further 6 months sick leave and then be sent on some undemanding but impressive sounding courses.” Sorenson gave them a knowing smile and for the first time Chris saw him as man rather than a suit. “Jackson's medical qualifications are impressive, but he's behind with his forensics. There are several courses he needs to bring him back up to date. Most of which he can take right here in Denver. Sanchez has been a federal agent for more than 20 years, which means he's entitled to a sabbatical, which he will be encouraged to take. The agency will meet the cost of any job related course he wishes to study.”
Chris took all this in, it all sounded reasonable, so far. “What about us?” he asked.
“The agency is aware of your unique domestic arrangements and we respect them. Did you two know you are quite famous in the human resources department?”
Buck gave a ‘so what' look.
“We have endeavoured to find away for the two of you to take a complete break as a family.”
“The thing is.” Orin interjected. “Nettie spoke to Evie; she thinks the boys are feeling the stress as well.”
“She had no right!” Chris growled.
“She’s the boys' social worker and she has every right to do what she thinks is best for them.”
“They are officially adopted now, not wards of court,” Chris reminded.
“Chris, let them finish,” now it was Buck’s turn to be the voice of patience. “Orin has always been on our side.”
Chris' brooding silence was all they got, so Orin continued.
“The doctors think if you,” he looked pointedly at Larabee. “Stay in Denver, you won’t be able to keep away from work and the stress of seeing someone else in your job will be worse than staying at work.”
Chris was about to protest, but Buck was too quick. “He's right, and you know it.”
Chris gave Buck the dagger eyes, but said nothing, leaving it to Buck to ask what the plan was.
“This is it.” Sorenson held out a red folder. “But before you read it, you should know who is going to head the temporary team.
It was a big decision, and to be fair to the Bureau they had been very generous. While it would be a huge upheaval, it was also a hell of an opportunity for the whole family. Publicly none of the team would admit there were any issues, but as they gathered after the interview, all of them, even Ezra, admitted they were having problems. Much as they hated to admit defeat or even any weakness, they did need a rest.
Chris and Buck had sat up half the night on Friday and Saturday talking it over, tossing back the pros and cons over and over again. Come Sunday they would have to speak to the boys and explain it all to them. They weren't going to like it, there would be tears and anger and fear, but as their fathers, the men had to do what was best for the whole family. As much as the boys weren't going to like it, if one or both fathers' mental health began to fail, it would be so much worse. Buck had already seen Chris near-suicidal, depressed, and drunk, he for one knew how bad it could get.
Their weekend of nights talking, threw up a number of questions, and before they talked to the boys, they needed answers. As a result, they put off telling the boys of a few more days.
“Vin?” JD whispered, after Buck had closed the door, having read them the next chapter of their current bedtime story – Black Beauty.
“What’s going on?”
Vin sighed. Things hadn't been normal for ages; their fathers seemed to be tired all the time. Uncle Ezra hardly ever came over to play and when he did come over, other than riding his horse he didn't do much but sit and stare at the fire or sit on the veranda and watch. He didn't even seem to be watching anything in particular, he just watched. Uncle Nathan kept arguing with Aunty Rain and their Uncle Josiah didn't seem to be able to tell good stories anymore. Now their fathers were having long talks but not telling them anything.
“I don’t know, go to sleep,” he told JD.
“I don’t know, just ‘can't.”
Vin sighed again and hugged Cat closer. He couldn't sleep either. “Well try, don't worry, Dad and Buck will make it alright again.”
“Why did Da take the dogs to the vet yesterday?” JD asked.
“I don’t know.”
“But they're not sick.”
“JD!” Vin was getting frustrated. “I told you I don’t know, just go to sleep.”
JD sniffed loudly. In the orange glow of the night light, Vin could see his brother clutch Scooby closer and rolled over to face the wall. He debated whether or not to go over and comfort him, but he didn't know what to say, and besides right now he wanted someone to comfort him. JD would go to sleep soon anyway, he always did, Vin wished he could.
After more than a week of talking about it, and research, Buck and Chris told Travis they would accept. That night they had to tell the boys.
With Vin next to him and JD on Buck's lap, Chris explained everything he could, starting with the ATF insisting they all had a year's break.
Vin had nodded sagely. “Uncle Ezra's been sad for a very long time.”
Chris had gone on to explain what each of their uncles would be doing in their year off.
“What are you gonna do?” JD asked his father.
“Well…” Buck began. “Me and Chris have been offered a special job. It’s a big honour, only two agents a year are offered this job.”
Chris saw Vin look up expectantly. “Yes, we have been given the chance to go to England.”
While Vin was still working out how far away England was, JD had worked it out already. He was up and kneeling on Buck's lap facing him.
“I don’t what you to go to England, it's too far way, please Buck!” he grabbed hold of Wilmington's shirt. “Don't leave me!”
“Whoa there Little Britches, no one is leaving anyone, you guys are coming with us,” Buck assured.
“We’s goin' to England on holiday? Will we see the Queen?”
“I don’t know about seeing the Queen, but it's not just a holiday.” Buck looked over at Chris for help.
“We are going for a year,” Chris stated simply. “We leave in July.”
Naturally the boys had many questions; they were none too happy to be leaving all their school friends behind, but happy that all their uncles would be coming to visit at some point. They were just coming around to the idea that it was going to be a grand adventure when Vin asked the question both men had been dreading.
“What about the animals?”
“Well,” Buck began. “The dogs can come, but they won’t be able to leave with us in July, they will have to follow us a few weeks later. There are lots of rules and regulations to follow before they can join us.”
“How many weeks?” Vin demanded.
“Six weeks,” Chris told them.
“Who’s going to take care of them?”
“The same man who is going to be living here while we are away.”
One of the main factors in Buck and Chris' decision to accept this assignment was the name of the man who would be running the Denver office of the ATF in their absence. Francis Corcoran was the ATF's roving senior agent. He told them he was a gypsy at heart, never able to settle down for long, so it suited him to always be taking temporary assignments. He'd been sent to Denver when the new office was proposed to get things set up, while Travis recruited his team. He'd then stayed on until Chris had at least four agents. In that time he had become a good friend. Although he was born in Chicago, Francis had been raised in rural Ireland, not returning to the land of his birth until he was twenty. At heart he was a country man, and an excellent horseman. It seemed only logical he come and live at the ranch and take care of it while he was in Denver, thus saving them the cost of boarding out the horses and Francis the cost of renting somewhere for a year.
The boys had met ‘Mr Francis' once and liked him, so were happy to hear he would be looking after their home. Happy that was until they realised the horses were not coming with them. JD was unhappy, he loved all the horse especially Beau, but he didn't yet have his own pony. Vin was distraught at the thought of leaving his beloved Peso behind for whole year and out and out refused to go.
“I can stay here with Mrs Potter and Mr Francis,” he stated defiantly, his little jaw set and a mini version of the Larabee glare etched on his face. “And Ringo,” he added.
Chris looked over sadly at Buck, they had both known this was the likely sticking point.
“Can you guys give us a few moments?”
“Vin?” Chris began softly, putting his arm around his son.
At first Vin refused to even look at him, but Chris persisted.
“I know you’re a smart kid, and perceptive too. Do you know what that means?”
Vin shook his head, still refusing to look up.
“It means you can work out stuff about people even when no one says anything, you can tell by how people are acting what they’re feeling.”
Vin gave a little shrug, he'd learned to read adults when he lived on the streets, it was a survival skill.
“So I know you know things aren’t right around here. Buck and I have been ATF agents for five years and we were cops before that. We've never had more than two weeks off in all that time. I'm not going to pretend to be all modest here Pal, we're very good at what we do.”
Now Vin looked up, he'd never heard Chris say stuff like that.
“Mr Travis told me you’re the best tactic'l team in the whole country, not just in the ATF, he said you're the best in all the agencies, ‘cept maybe some team in Washington, but no one knows how good they are ‘cause their team leader never hands in papers.”
Chris had to smile, he really did hate paper work, but as Buck pointed out, how could he make Vin do his homework, if he didn't do his own. “He did, did he, when was this?”
“When we had the party for the adoption. Mrs Evie told me not to listen to him ‘cause he was ‘three sheets to the wind'.” Vin cocked his head to one side. “What's that mean?”
“Err… it means he’s feeling very chatty.”
“He told me to be proud of you, I said I already was.”
“Thanks. But you see, being the best means we get all the most difficult cases and that can be very stressful, especially for your Uncle Ezra.”
Vin sighed. “Uncle Ezra's been very sad for a long time, he never wants to play no more.”
“I know Buddy, and that’s why he needs a break, we all do.”
Vin finally turned to face him. “I know Dad, I do, but why do we need to go all the way to England, why can't we go some place here in America?”
That was a question that was going to be much more difficult to answer.
“I’m gonna try and explain it, but to be honest, some of it might be hard for you to understand. It's complicated adult stuff, okay?”
“You said I was p‘septive, I can understand it,” Vin insisted.
“Yeah I did, okay, here goes. We can’t be field agents forever, none of us, the agency has rules about when we have to retire from the field. When that happens, they find you a new job.”
“A desk job?”
“Yeah, and you know how I feel about desk work.”
“Desk work is p’gatory', that's what you told Uncle Nathan when you hurt your foot, Buck calls it ‘a load of cra…”
“Right!” Chris interrupted; he really was going to have to talk to Buck about watching what he said around little ears. “But some jobs are better than others. The trouble is, there aren’t many of those good jobs and if you want one, you need to make sure the guys in Washington notice you. Being offered this trip to England, means someone noticed us, if we turn it down then…” Chris never had been much good at internal politics, trying to explain it to Vin, was darn near impossible.
“If you turn it down, they might think you don’t want the good jobs?” Vin asked.
“Yeah, and remember those good jobs get the good money, and we'll be retiring from the field just as you and JD are gonna to be going to college and wanting your own car.”
“I can get a job, buy my own car and I ain’t going to college,” Vin pointed out.
Chris frowned. “What makes you think you're not going to college?”
Young Tanner gave Chris a look that clearly showed he thought his father was being particularly dense. “Well ‘cause I ain't smart enough of course.”
Chris pulled his son closer. “Oh Vin, you are more than smart enough, as this conversation has just proved, so I don't want to hear talk like that again, okay?”
Vin shrugged. “Okay.”
“So are we good?” Chris asked?
Vin leaned into his father's embrace. “I don't want to leave Peso.”
“But I know we gotta go.” He sniffed back fresh tears.
Chris just held him close and let him cry it out. “I had an idea,” he began once Vin had stopped crying. “What if, while you are in school in England, Peso goes to school too, here in Denver.”
Vin was still back handing the last tears way. “Horses can't go to school,” he protested.
“Sure they can, because I was thinking, by the time we get home, I bet you’ll have grown another three inches. So how would you like to have a go at junior rodeo; pole bending, maybe barrel racing?”
Now Vin was taking notice. “Me?”
“Well there is a lady here in Denver who will come over twice a week and give Peso rodeo lessons.” Chris didn't mention that the horse would also get some basic schooling. Vin was getting more ambitious as a rider and Peso's rather eccentric ways, which while they could be amusing, even charming, wouldn't serve him well competing against better schooled horses.
One of the first things they had to do once they knew their year in the UK was going ahead was get the boys' passports. As minors applying for their first passport they would all have to appear in person. Having downloaded the application forms it became clear there might be some problems, especially with JD.
He might have an adoption certificate, which was as good as a birth certificate, but that was really his only proof of American citizenship. Vin had found JD in a car with a dead woman. Her driving licence identified her as Rachel Dunne. When shown the picture from the licence JD called her Mom. The trouble was DNA tests told a different story, there was no blood relationship between them. JD's finger prints, foot prints and DNA did not fit the records of any missing child. Medical tests confirmed JD's age, so they had accepted the date he gave as his birthday, but there was no documented proof to back this up. The Boston address given on the driving licence matched the car's registration, but the building had been demolished three years ago. Every lead regarding Rachel Dunne led to a dead end. She was the only child of a single mother, who died when Rachel was seventeen. She left high school at fifteen and she didn't appear to have ever been assigned a social security number. Whose child JD really was, how he came to be in her care and why she was thousands of miles from home, apparently living out of her car, would almost certainly remain a mystery. The trouble was bureaucrats disliked mysteries.
Because of this, they were advised to go to their closest passport agency, which was in Aurora, rather then the post office or court house. Before they could apply for passports however, the boys needed passport photos.
Mr Hooker, at the Federal building, was responsible for issuing all the official IDs and he agreed to take their picture. Vin thought it was cool that he was going to get his picture taken at the same place as all the federal agents. He sat still and looked blankly into the camera, just as Chris had told him to. Getting JD to so the same proved more problematic, he just naturally smiled at cameras.
“JD, son you remember what we said, no smiling,” Buck reminded.
JD did his best, but this just resulted in a smile with no teeth showing.
“You’re still smiling,” Vin pointed out.
“Boys,” Chris warned.
“JD,” Buck knelt below the camera, facing his son. “You have to do what Vin did, just look bored.”
“But this ain’t borin' Da, it's interesting.”
“I know, but pretend it’s boring.”
Unfortunately while he was mastering pretending to look bored, his nose began to run, forcing Buck to step forward and pull out a tissue. With all evidence of snot removed they began again. The first possibly usable picture was ruined when JD chose that moment to pick his nose, but eventually the picture was taken.
Mr Hooker's camera was the kind that took a lot of picture one after another. Once the JD's was taken they all gathered around the computer to look at the various pictures and choose the two that best fitted the strict passport criteria. As they were preparing to leave Chris gave Vin a little nudge on the shoulder.
“Oh yeah, Mr Hooker?”
“Thanks for taking our pictures.”
“Oh you are more than welcome guys.” Barry Hooker, a father and grandfather, looked up at Chris. “I mean that, any time the little guys need any ID I’m happy to take their pictures.”
Their appointment at the passport agency was for noon, but the instructions were very clear, you had to arrive no more than fifteen minutes before your appointment and were not to be late. The building was large, new and anonymous, standing among a lot of other large, new, anonymous buildings. As they approached Chris felt Vin shrink back a little. He gave the small hand in his a little squeeze.
“It’ll be okay, promise,” he whispered.
Their first hurdle was security. The guards were clearly bored and were taking out their tedium by being as intimidating and officious as possible. This had not gone unnoticed by two federal agents waiting in line.
“Place all bags and any metal in the tray,” the first of the two guards by the metal detector ordered gruffly.
If he had said it to Buck, he'd have got a sarcastic comment, if it he had said it to Chris, he would have got glared at, Vin would have given him the ‘mini glare' then looked to Chris for support, but he said it to JD.
“You’re supposed to say ‘please',” JD told him innocently.
“What?” the guard asked.
“When you want someone to do something, you’re meant to say ‘please' and then when they do it, you say ‘thank you'.”
The man just stared down at the little boy. “Kid just empty your pockets into the tray.”
“You said put metal in the tray, I don’ts have any metal, all I got is…” JD began to pull things out of his pocket. “Some tissues.” He pulled out some scrunched up used tissues and the remains of his pocket pack. “An' a Gummy Bear, it's a bit furry.” He made a face that showed no matter how much he liked Gummy Bears, he didn't fancy a furry one. “And a yo-yo.” He looked up holding the yo-yo. “Do yo-yos have metal in them?”
“Just put the da…” the guard demanded angrily
“Tell you what,” Buck began, his voice soft and low, a sure sign he was now very mad. “How about I put some metal in your tray.” With that he placed his ID wallet, with the gold badge uppermost in the tray.
The guard stared at it for a moment then seemed to realise what it was and what that meant.
“Look, I’m sorry, it's just that…” he spluttered.
“Can it!” Buck silenced him, and held out his hand, palm up toward Chris. Instantly a note book and pen was in his hand. “Name and badge number?”
“I said I’m sorry mister.”
“That’s Special Agent and don't worry I can read.” Buck noted down the number on the man's lapel and his name from the badge on his chest. “Your boss will be hearing from my boss, that's him.” Buck pointed to Chris, who looked ready to kill the man with his bare hands. “And if you ever talk to anyone, much less a little kid, especially my son, like that again, the only number you'll have will be in the unemployment line – got it?!”
The man nodded.
“Good, so let’s start this again, shall we?”
Behind them, the other people in the line applauded.
“Sir,” the man addressed JD. “Would you be so kind as to place any bags or metal objects you may have in the tray please?”
JD held out his yo-yo and placed it next to Buck's badge.
As they had expected Vin's application was relatively simple, the only query had been who to enter where it asked for parents' name and details – should he enter his and Buck's details or Vin's birth parents? The lady behind the counter explained that since Vin was adopted legally Chris and Buck were his parents now. When they were alone Chris would have to explain to Vin that this didn't change anything, he was still a Tanner. JD's application was more complicated. They had brought with them as much paperwork as they could muster, including his school registration, school reports for the last year and his ATF dependent registration and medical insurance. In the end though it was Nettie Wells who came to the rescue. It was her who encouraged them to get both boys assigned a social security number as soon as possible. That and his adoption certificate were all that was needed to secure his passport.
“We might be able to issue the passports today, but not until 3pm, but we have to give preference to those who need to travel in the next few days and it will cost a bit extra. Or you can come back next week to collect it?”
Chris glanced at Buck who shrugged. “We'll come back later today,” he announced, knowing the boys wouldn't want to wait a minute longer than necessary.
She handed them a receipt to collect the passports and they left.
With four hours to kill, but plenty of things on their ‘to do' list, the little family hit the town, and moved from store to store in an attempt to get through as much of the clothes purchasing as possible. It was decided, especially for the boys, that new clothes would be the best way to go, for now. With no experience of British attire as regards to style, sizing, availability, and cost, they would at least have the basics for the interim, and the knowledge that their little ones would happily wear them.
It was all going smoothly, despite JD asking if it was time to pick up their ‘pastpores' about every five minutes, when JD spotted a cowboy hat, chaps and gunbelt.
“Li’l Bit, you have some.”
“I have jeans and shirts too, Da, but you says I have to have new ones.”
Chris raised his eyebrows and gave Buck a ‘fair point', glance. He looked down at Vin “What about you, Cowboy?”
Vin chewed his lip. He had wondered what would become of his beloved cowboy outfit while they were away. While very aware he was getting to be a big boy now, he and JD did so love to dress up at least once a week. If they had new ones, it would be like taking a little bit of home with them, while knowing their favourite ones were safe in their room. Vin's returned gaze gave his father his answer. Chris smiled.
“You know, it might be fun to show those English folk what a real cowboy looks like.”
With squeals and cheers from the boys, Buck chuckled and raised both hands in defeat. “Alright, but that's it, okay? We can only take so much with us.” Watching them making their choices, the tiniest fluttering of nerves caught the brunet out. A glance to Chris told him his best friend was no less apprehensive, but their mild uneasiness was easily overtaken with the excitement of the adventures to come. Their boys were on the cusp of a unique experience, and if a couple of cowboy outfits helped the transition, it was a small sacrifice to make. JD's voice snapped Buck from his reverie.
“Is it time to get our pastpores yet?”
Buck grinned. A whole ten minutes since the last time JD asked – things were looking up. “Not long, now.”
Home, and it had been so quiet leading up to dinner that Chris left setting the table to check in on the boys. Peeking around their bedroom door, his misty-eyed green gaze watched the little ones in silent wonder. Lying on his bed on his stomach, Vin's chin rested on folded hands while he gazed at his propped up passport. The boy barely blinked as bright blue orbs examined every square inch of the open pages. He looked as proud as a peacock.
JD was sitting cross-legged on his bed, his stuffed pony under one arm. While one hand held his passport, a finger of the other pointed to the open pages. “See? This is my picture that nice Mister Hooker tooked.” His finger stroked it. “It's all smooth an' shiny.” He turned the pages. “An' see? These pages is for where they put a stamp when you visits a new place. Da says there'll be one for Enguland soon. He frowned. “You and Cat don't have to have a pastpore. Only big boys and girls, ma's and da's and uncles need one.”
Despite barely moving, something Chris did had both boys look up and grin. “Uh...time to wash up, guys. Buck says dinner's almost ready.” Hastily he returned to his former task.
Both men sat down at the table, smiling at the thunder of little feet heading their way. They tried not to be surprised when the new passports plopped down onto the chequered linen cloth. Exchanging glances with Chris, Buck spoke.
“Boys, we really should put those with ours now. Wouldn’t want to lose them, or forget to pick them up when we leave.” The crushed expressions surprised him.
“Can we show Unca ‘Siah, Unca Nafan and Unca Ezra first, Da?” JD pleaded.
With another quick look, a subtle means of communication the men had down pat these days, Buck nodded. “Sure, but then they go with ours, okay?”
Both boys smiled and nodded. “We promise,” Vin assured.
As dinner was consumed and chatter about their day remained light, the two dads embraced the fact that their final legal hurdle had been cleared. With only a few items left on their check-list, all that remained was the farewells and the journey itself. However, both men knew these would be the biggest and toughest obstacles of all, the first of which would be soon.
Standing at the stable doors, Chris's eyes filled as Vin approached his adored black. He couldn't hear the words uttered, but the soft blow from the horse's nostrils stirred the boy's curls and Vin looped his arms around Peso's neck and clung as if his life depended on it.
The emotion evoked, cast Chris's mind back to Vin's goodbye to his uncles; opting to do the deed earlier rather than later to give time for the boys to recover.
>> Josiah's hug was warm and long. “I'll be waiting on your email once you're settled.” His baritone rumble was raspy in quality and as Vin nodded against his large chest, a huge tear rolled down the big man's cheek.
Vin sat on Ezra's knee and allowed the southerner to wipe away his tears. “You already know how much I will miss you all, so I will simply remind you that despite the distance between us, my love will travel right along with you. Use it to keep me close until I visit, and you have my promise that it will be as soon as you, JD and your fathers are ready to have me.”
Nathan hugged his little pal close. “You and JD, and Chris, Buck and the guys are mine and Rain's family, and no amount of distance will change that, okay?”
Vin sniffed and nodded.
“We love you all, and not a minute will pass that we won’t think of you. Before you know it, Rain and me'll be right there in merry ol' England and banging on your door.”<<
Snapping back to the here and now as Vin walked toward him, Chris swiped at a tear. He rarely hugged anyone, except the boys, but he had clung to each one of the three men he considered brothers before watching them drive away until Lord knows when they would meet again. The team needed a break, of that there was no doubt, but it was turning out to be one of the most difficult things he'd ever experienced.
Sitting in his recliner with JD curled up in his arms was something Buck cherished, but today, the sob-racked body he clung to caused his own tears to flow.
Buck expected saying farewell to Gloria would be emotional, but the sheer heartbreak from both boys and her overwhelmed him. He had needed to prise JD away from the distraught woman, and that in itself had been draining, but then seeing JD with each of his uncles set off a roller-coaster of emotions that, quite frankly, had Buck momentarily wishing they weren't leaving. While he gently rocked and rubbed the trembling body in his arms, Buck reflected on a tough few days.
>> “Master Dunne, I have to say, I’m more than a little envious of you.” Ezra smiled at the tearful five year old, his own emotions raw and teetering on the very brink. “You are soon to become a man of the World. A true adventurer and I will look forward to your tales from across the pond. You, Vin and your fathers are ambassadors in every sense of the word. Have fun, little man, and never forget how much I love you all.”
Josiah's large hand enveloped the head and dark tresses of the sobbing boy buried in his shoulder. He was spent. No more words remained to be said, so he held JD close and savoured a moment the likes of which he would sorely miss. With a soft kiss to JD's forehead, Josiah allowed his own tears to fall. While happy for them all, his heart was breaking, and he was not ashamed to show it.
Nathan could see JD was a wreck. Torn between his excitement for his new adventure, and his distress of such heart-wrenching goodbyes, the little one was sitting on his lap and sucking his thumb in familiar comfort. Despite assuring the little one he and Rain would visit as soon as possible, Nathan's dread for the moment he would drive away was eating at the inside of his gut like a loose chainsaw. When he passed JD to Buck, the gregarious brunet had pulled him into a three-man embrace, and they had remained that way for a very long time. <<
Another deep sob from JD caused Buck to adjust his hold and pull the boy in closer. Embracing Nathan, Ezra and Josiah before their final departures had been oddly cathartic. Yeah, it had been rough too, and he was sure it was far from completely over, but they could move forward now. It was time – their adventure was officially about to begin.
The men deliberately chose a red eye flight, hoping the boys would sleep through most of it. True to form, after a meal and watching just one cartoon, Buck reclined JD's seat, covered him with a blanket and began to read a story; the little five year old was asleep within twenty minutes. After watching a movie, Buck soon followed him. Vin lasted to the end of his film before falling asleep. Chris, who was never able to fully relax on planes, dozed on an off in the small hours, waking the others in time for breakfast, before they began to make their approach into London.
The boys, with JD now sitting on a folded blanket, watched the scenery pass below them in rapt silence. Finally JD looked over his shoulder at Buck.
“It kinda looks like America.”
Buck smiled and ruffled his hair. “Kinda.”
“’Cept the roads are more wiggly,” Vin observed.
“Yeah, that’s what I remember,” Chris agreed.
Chris had visited Britain once. While he and Sarah were dating they toured Europe. Buck had never been further afield than Mexico, which he didn't like much and Canada, which he thought was okay, if cold.
Having waited for the crowds to clear the aisles they were almost last off the plane. The boys had their own carry on bags, of which they were very proud. JD had a Trunki, a rigid blue plastic case with four green wheels and two white supports that made it look somewhat like an animal. It was designed so that its young owner could pull it along on a lead or ride on it while it was pulled by a grown up. JD loved it, especially when he discovered it had secret compartments inside. For reasons no one understood and JD could not explain, he had called it ‘Cleverdom'. Buck made do with his old army knapsack.
“This old thing has been serving me well for twenty years, don’t see any reason to change it now,” he told them. “Besides I get the feeling travelling with Little Bit it might be an idea to have both hands free!”
Vin did like JD's case but decided it was for little kids, not big boys like him. What he really wanted was a case just like his Dad's. Chris' case was plain black. While a duplicate of Chris' would have been too big and heavy for the slight eight year old – his protests that he was a big boy and could handle it – he was delighted with the four wheeled laptop and over night bag his Uncle Ezra gave him. It looked like Chris', but was smaller, lighter, it rolled like JD's and it had lots of neat compartments and pockets, and the one at the back, where a lap top was meant to go, was just the right size for Cat, his beloved stuffed toy.
Before joining the cue for passport control, they made a pit stop at the rest room. JD took the opportunity to explain that WC meant water closet and that was the real name for a toilet. A year ago Buck would have been stunned, even worried by this and wondered where a five year old got such knowledge, now he took it all in his stride.
The boys stood, sat and rode – on JD's case – in line patiently enough as they progressed toward passport control, finally it was their turn. Chris and Vin went first. Vin watched as his father showed his passport, his work permit, his ATF ID and his letter of accreditation from the ministry of justice, finally his father placed his thumb and forefinger on a special glass pad and had his picture taken.
“That’s all fine, Sir, welcome to Britain.” The immigration officer behind the desk told him, then he turned to Vin. “And who is this?”
“Vin Tanner Sir,” Vin told him confidently, holding up his own passport.
The officer took the passport, scanned it, checked Vin's visa and then looked over at Chris.
“Sir, we need…”
“Don’t worry, I have what you need here.” Chris then handed over all the paperwork to prove Vin was his son and he was permitted to take him out of the USA.
“There is no permission here from the listed co-parent?” the official pointed out.
“That would be him,” Chris pointed to Buck standing next in line.
“Ah.” Buck and JD were beckoned forward and their paperwork checked.
“Well you guys are all done, so welcome, I hope you have a great time.”
They turned to go, only to realise JD was still standing there.
“Come on Little Bit, time to go find our luggage,” Buck encouraged.
JD just stood and stared up at the man holding up his right hand. “I didn't put my fingers on the thing.”
Buck came and knelt beside his son. “What's that son?”
“The finger thing, I didn’t do it yet,” JD explained seriously.
Buck lifted his son up on to his hip and turned to face the official. The man was checking something on his screen. “According to this you're five, is that right?” he asked. JD nodded. “I'm sorry son, we don't collect fingerprints from children under six.”
Buck knew that was the wrong thing to say, even as he watched JD's bottom lip begin to quiver. Apparently the immigration official had seen this too.
“But you know what, you’ll be six by the time you go home, so I guess we should take your prints, just in case.”
JD beamed and held out his hand just the way Chris, Vin and his Da had done it.
With luggage and boys piled high on two trolleys they made their way out of arrivals and toward their biggest adventure yet.
Continues in Settling In
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