AU: Little Britches ATF – Little Ambassadors Series
My thanks to Nancy for the check over, and Katy for the check and adds.
9 a.m. on a Saturday morning and a silent home.
As Chris lay there, he could hardly believe his luck. The recent hectic routine of commuting and getting the kids ready for Ieuan to make the school run...and not necessarily in that order...seemed distant now as he lay there with the grey morning light peeking through a gap in the drapes. For the four, Saturdays often started slowly, but knowing they had a whole week ahead together made this particular Saturday morning all the sweeter.
God Bless school break or 'half-term', as the Brits called it. Their current superiors were more than prepared for their request for some time away from work, and eager to support; and it was to be a paid vacation, one of several they were entitled to during their year in the UK. Plus, Halloween was nestled at the end of their eight days rest, so it gave the men an opportunity to plan a fun holiday for the boys.
A knock at the door had him slide his bare upper torso up out of the covers to sit up.
Buck peeked around the door and grinned. “'Mornin', Stud. Coffee?”
Smiling, Chris beckoned him in. “The boys up?”
Perching on the edge of the bed, Buck handed Chris a mug. “Nope, but I think there are stirrings. Thought I'd make us some French toast for breakfast.”
Chris sipped at the aromatic brew in his hands and sighed, softly. He nodded. “Sounds great.” He placed the mug down on the nightstand. “We need some activities for the week.”
Buck grinned. “Uh huh. Got me a doozie for Sunday.”
“A cheese festival.”
Chris's eyebrows rose. “Cheese?”
Buck nodded, enthusiastically. “Cheese. And they got a hog roast, venison, cheese tossing, live music, jousting, pig races...”
“Pigs. Oh, it’s all humane. Y'get to bet on a pig and then they let 'em go and...aww, you'll see.”
“They don’t use the losers for the hog roast, do they?” Chris teased.
Buck cackled. “So, what do you think? It's in the grounds of a real castle, too.”
“A castle, huh? Oh well then we’ll have to...wait! Cheese...”
“Yeah, I know...”
“JD and cheese? After what happened at Ezra’s...”
“I know Chris, but I’ll be with him.”
“You? Oh, well that’s alright then. Two cheese-aholics together. Comforting.”
Buck slapped Chris's covered knee and stood. “That's the spirit. We'll tell 'em later, yeah?”
“Yeah, I guess. Any news from Nathan and Rain?” He frowned at the furrowed brow of his best friend.
“No. You’d think they'd have an arrival time by now, wouldn't you?”
Chris nodded, absently. “I'm glad we didn't tell the boys, now. I got a bad feeling about this.”
Nathan and Rain's impending visit had gotten the men as excited as kids in a toy store, but Nathan's email to confirm their departure and arrival times had yet to arrive. Chris jumped out of bed, dropped his PJ bottoms and stepped out of them to head for the shower.
“Aw, come on, dude, I haven’t eaten, yet,” Buck joked, laughing as Chris flipped him off. “I'll go start breakfast, and check my emails, again.” With that, Buck headed downstairs.
“JD, you awake?”
“Yeah y’are. C'mon, let's get up, I'm hungry.”
The thought of eating appealed to a still sleepy JD and he sat up and rubbed at his eyes. “Mmmm, me too. Gotta pee first.”
“Ooh, me first!”
With a squeal of laughter, both boys raced for the bathroom. Just as Vin pushed the door open, JD slipped under his arm.
“JD, I got here first,” Vin pouted, but there was no anger in it.
“I wonned, I wonned...” JD climbed up onto the step placed there for him, sighed, then shook and flushed. “All done.” He washed his hands before heading back toward Vin.
“’Bout time,” Vin huffed, pushing his brother playfully before stepping inside and closing the door. Unlike JD, he liked a little more privacy these days. When Vin emerged from the bathroom, he frowned at his brother. “I think it's a little cold for shorts, JD.”
“But, I nearly al’ays wear shorts.”
“Yeah, at home in the summer. We's in long pants, now.” At the mention of home, the little one’s eyes filled up. Vin draped an arm around him.
“I miss ev’ryone,” JD said, softly.
“Me too, but it’s been fun up to now, right?”
JD nodded. “Yeah.” At a much slower pace than he dressed, he dropped out of his shorts and put on his jeans. Vin swallowed the lump of emotion in his own throat and also got dressed, and then the pair headed toward the noises downstairs.
Deep in thought as he cooked, Buck jolted when Chris touched a hand to his shoulder.
“Mmm, smells good.”
“They’re not coming.”
Buck turned to Chris. “Nathan and Rain. Rain's had to pick up extra shifts due to a stomach bug sweeping the hospital.”
“Aww, what?” Chris looked as dejected as Buck. “Man, I was so looking forward to seeing them.”
The brunet nodded. “Me too. Josiah's still in New Mexico, and Ezra's not done at the health spa, yet, so I guess we have to wait a little longer.”
Taking a seat at the table, Chris rested his elbow on the table-top and propped up his chin. “Damn. Dunno why with all that's been happening here, and all the good people we've met, but I've been missing home, lately.”
Buck nodded. “You and me both, Pard. You and me, both.”
The sudden movement of the dogs and the shuffle of slippers on flagstones drew the two men's attention to the door. They forced down their melancholy and smiled. “Hey guys.” Glances were exchanged when they realized that, despite the dogs' enthusiastic greeting, their son's dispositions were no less gloomy. “Boys?”
“Mornin’,” Vin and JD chorused, and sat at the table with Chris.
“You okay?” Chris pushed.
“Uh huh,” JD said, with little conviction.
Little Tanner looked at his father, unsure at first whether to share, but quickly remembering his and JD's promise to always be up front with their Dads, he spoke.
“We really like it here,” he started.
JD cracked and blurted it out. “We's homesicked.”
Buck took the pan off the stove and sat down. He pulled JD onto his lap. “That's okay, Li'l Bit. We like it here, but we miss home, too, sometimes.”
Chris nodded and reached out to stroke Vin's hair. “Even when we're in the States and away because of work, we get homesick. It's okay to miss home, guys. But we hope you can still have fun here, too.”
“Sure, we love the garden and the neighbours...”
Chris grinned. “There you go.”
Crisis averted, JD looked up at his father. “I's hungry. Wha's for breakfast?”
Buck smiled at the change of subject, stood, and kissed his son's head as he returned JD to his chair. “French Toast.”
“And tomorrow, we’re going to a real castle.”
“To a cheese festival.”
“Yay...” Vin paused and looked at Chris. “Cheese?”
The blond grinned. “Mostly, but there are other things, too. I'll show you the website after breakfast.”
“CHEEEEEEESE!” JD squealed. “I loves cheese.”
“And there’s me thinking you hide it so well,” Buck laughed.
Buck chuckled harder and plated up. “Here you go, boys, eat your food while it's hot.”
Sunday had started out with drizzly rain as they walked the dogs and then dropped them off with Ieuan, but now the sun was out and it was surprisingly hot for October. Driving through the vast grounds of Highclere Castle, the little family followed the yellow-jacketed marshals' directional guides to the parking lot at the rear of the property. From there, they walked toward a walled, gated entryway, with a real portcullis secured in its roof. All four were impressed by the grandeur and sense of history as, with the castle in the backdrop, they stared around the huge festival showground.
In a bandstand to one side, a group were already strumming away. Behind that was a large marked out activity arena, and all around were giant marquees sporting signs to indicate what delights were inside each one.
Piggy balloons hung off one stand-alone wagon, which JD noticed and asked if he could have one, but it quickly became clear they were there to advertise a hog roast. As they passed the stand, and at the smell of roasting pig emanating from there, Vin's nose twitched in anticipation. Chris assured him that, if he wanted a hog roast bun later, he could.
JD spelled out the sign over the largest tent. “C-h-e-e-s-e M-a-r-k-e-t. Cheese market, there, Da...cheese!”
Buck chuckled deeply, swept his son up and the pair hurried inside.
“Cheese,” Vin repeated.
“You like cheese, I know you do.”
“Sure, but not a whole tent full.”
Chris laughed, took Vin's hand and walked after Buck and JD.
Producing a handful of wooden toothpicks, Buck handed them to JD. “Here you go. You stab a piece from the tasting trays, then when you've popped it into your mouth, you put the pick into the little plastic dishes, okay?” He picked JD up so he could reach the high glass counter.
JD nodded and instantly stretched to stab his first piece. “Cheeeese.” >stab< “Mmmm. Cheeeeese.” >stab< “Mmmm. Cheeeeese...”
Buck's efforts were much steadier and more appreciative. He smiled at the pretty redhead behind the first counter. “Miss.”
She grinned. “Your son's enjoying our cheese.”
“Aww shoot, he loves the stuff...like me. We just don’t get to eat a whole lot back home.” He turned to JD. “Easy there, Squirt, this is just the first stand.”
“You both like cheese,” the redhead repeated. “Sweet. He looks like his dad, and eats like his dad.” She had no idea of the surge of pride her words evoked in Buck at that moment.
He inadvertently squeezed JD. “You think he looks like me?”
“Oh God, yes. Dark and handsome, just like his dad,” she flirted.
JD simply giggled, and continued stabbing at the cheese.
“That’s real nice of you to say so, thanks.” Buck turned to JD. “Come on, Kid, let's go try a different counter so we can decide which cheese to buy, huh?”
“To take home, Da?”
“I think they sell preserves, too.” Buck grinned at JD’s wide-eyed stare. “Okay, maybe that was too much to take on board right now.”
“I need more toofed-picks.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
By stand three Vin and Chris were all cheesed out. Chris looked at Vin. “I need meat. How about you?” The boy nodded, vigorously. “Okay, let's go see what's available.”
Outside, and dotted around an area filled with tables and chairs they spotted a wagon cooking Black Angus beef burgers, another selling venison burgers, a stand for coffee and pastries, and the hog roast wagon.
“Your call,” Chris urged.
“Uh...” Vin’s eyes tracked between the stalls. “You can have coffee if you want.”
Chris ruffled Vin's hair. “Later, meat first, yeah?”
Vin beamed. “I'd like a hog roast.”
“Good call.” They walked to the stall which held a glass fronted hotplate with a semi-shredded pig on it. “Two please.”
“Would you like stuffing, and apple sauce,” The lady serving them asked as she piled the hot meat into a giant bun.
Vin's eyes widened and he nodded. “Just stuffing for me, please,” Chris replied.
As they strolled around munching on their roasts, they noticed a longer marquee marked 'Ales and Cider'. Due to him driving, Chris decided to pass on buying anything to drink right then but, on advice, bought a few bottles of each to take home. He was told he could pick them up when he was ready to leave. They stood and watched the band play for a while, then noticed something going on in the activity arena so headed that way.
Two men were tossing a huge and heavy roll of cheese to each other. It was explained by one of the umpires, that they tossed the cheese back and forth until one of them dropped it. The pair found it both fascinating, and funny to watch. Chris was urged to try it out, and, with Vin cheering him on, he did. He won, but admitted to Vin later that the cheese was a whole lot heavier than it looked, and teased they could use one as workout weights while in the UK, which had Vin giggling, before commenting that JD would likely eat it. The image of JD sitting in a corner munching his way through a giant cheese made Chris laugh out loud.
In one corner of the arena an alley was set up. At one end was a flat, heavy wooden floor, on which sat nine large wooden pins. A man wearing a short blue apron filled with loose change and bills, beckoned to them, and with a glance of agreement, the pair joined him. He explained that there was no rolling, only hurling at the skittles, the object being to clear the board in as few moves as possible. Each person who participated would have their score entered on a large chalkboard, and once every hour, the winner would be announced and win a prize.
Chris paid the £1 fee. He studied the pins and turned to the man. “How many balls do I get?”
“Not a ball,” the attendant replied. He bent over and reached under a covered table, from which he produced a large, heavy, round cheese.
“This?” That was the closest to a squeak Chris’s voice had been since puberty.
Chalk in hand, the man stepped back. “When you're ready.”
Vin clapped his hands together. “Go Dad!”
With a grin, Chris stood behind the mark, eyed up his target, and tossed the cheese underarm, toward the pins.
“Yeah!” Vin did a little jig and hi-fived his dad as six pins scattered clear of the board.
The attendant nodded approvingly, made a line on the board under 'Larabee' and then went to retrieve the cheese. He handed it back to Chris. “Good shot, and with the remaining three pins in a line, you got a good chance of the highest score so far.”
With a wink to Vin, Chris took steady aim, inhaled, and once again, tossed. All three pins fell, and the father and son held their breaths as the last one to fall spun for several turns, before finally dropping off the board. Spectators clapped and cheered right along with Vin and the attendant crossed the board against Larabee's name with the final mark. He checked his watch.
“Well done. Listen out in about half an hour, and the winner will be announced. If it’s you, just head back here for your prize. He smiled at Vin. “Would you like to try? We have a junior cheese.”
Vin nodded. Chris paid the 50 pence children's fee and watched with pride as Vin got the pins down in four throws. He hugged his son. “Awesome, well done.” He glanced around. “I reckon we should go check on Buck and JD, huh?”
The pair headed back toward the giant marquee.
“Cheese – mmmm – cheese – mmm.”
Buck and JD had completed their tour of the array of stands and while JD happily munched away, Buck was ready to revisit his favourites and buy.
“Uncle Ezra would have loved it here, huh?” Buck asked his cheese-crumbed son.
“Uh huh. Can we sends him some?”
Buck's brow furrowed in thought. “Hmm, not sure.” He smiled at the man behind one counter. “Do you export?” When he saw the man's eyes light up, he quickly explained. “Gifts...do you export gifts?”
“No, the US.”
The man smiled and pointed. “You see that stand in the corner? They can arrange that for you. Just take your purchases there, and they'll do the rest. I have to warn you, the cost is by weight.”
Understanding, Buck nodded and smiled. “Thanks.” He turned to the little one in his arms. “We'll send them each a cheese, and address it to Uncle Ezra for him to share out, yeah?”
“Yeah! Da, can I haves more cheese?”
Buck's frown returned. “Don't you think you've had enough...?” He saw JD's hair fly as the little one shook his head. “I'm gonna buy some to take home. You can have more later, okay? How about a drink? You must be thirsty?”
JD went to say no, then paused. He was kinda dry. “Yeah.”
“Yeah...I want...a drink?” JD said, hesitantly.
Buck raised one inquisitive eyebrow and JD's little hand went to his mouth. “Sorry, Da. Yes *please*.”
Buck nodded, approvingly, then grinned. “That's my boy. Okay, let's buy us some cheese.” He set JD down and pulled out his wallet.
Once Buck had finished his business with the stalls and the nice lady at the customer service stand, he smiled down at JD who had stood patiently watching while his father purchased large amounts of cheese.
Buck raised his bulging carrier bag in triumph. “Okay, we're done; let's go get something to wash all that cheese down. Would you like a soda?”
There was a long pause. “Da?”
“Yeah, Li’l Bit?” He noted his son's puzzlement as he stared at the bag in Buck's hand.
“Tha’s a lo-tt-a soda we gots to buy.”
JD pointed at the bag. “To wash all them cheeses with.”
It took a few seconds, but then Buck laughed, scooped up his boy, and kissed JD's cheek. “No, Squirt, what I meant was...uh...you know when you ate...?” Lost for an explanation, Buck glanced around. “I wonder where Chris and Vin got to?” he quickly inserted to change the subject. But JD was not about to give up.
“Why are the cheeses dirty, Da? Why did the peoples sell dirty cheeses?”
Still scanning the crowd, Buck pointed. 'Oh thank God.' “Ha, look, there's Chris and Vin.” Relieved to see the pair heading their way, Buck set down the wriggling five year old and watched him run to Vin. Laughing, he shook his head. “Shoot, Wilmington, you do it to yourself every time. When are you gonna learn?”
Vin grinned and waved to JD before running to meet him. “You done eatin' cheese?”
JD patted his belly. “Lookit. I ate lots and lots.”
Chris lifted JD in the air and put his ear to the boy's tummy. “Oh yeah, I can hear your tummy saying 'I'm full...help.’”
JD's eyes widened and his little hands grabbed at his sweater and Tee and pulled them up to expose bare flesh. “It is? I can't hear it.”
Vin waited for the little one to reach the ground then also listened. He grinned at the gurgles and nodded. “Oh yeah.”
Unimpressed about being unable to hear, JD pouted, then brightened when he spotted something in the distance. “Da said I can have a soda, can we have a soda, Chris?”
“You thirsty, Vin?”
Little Tanner nodded.
“I could go for a coffee.” He nodded to Buck as he approached them. “Coffee?”
“Oh God, yeah. Got a mouth as dry as a desert in a sandstorm.” He looked down at an instantly curious JD. “No...it’s just a saying, I haven't been eating sand.”
JD rolled his eyes and giggled. “'Course not, silly.”
Vin took JD's hand as they walked toward the drinks stand. “We had a hog roast and we tossed cheese at wooden pins...”
JD nodded. “We gotta wash cheeses in soda...”
Buck noted Chris's puzzled look, laughed, and waved off the impending question. “Don't ask. Sounds like you guys had fun.”
“Yeah, we did.” Chris gestured toward JD. “He ate *lots and lots*? Let’s hope what me and Vin did earlier is the only cheese hurling we'll get today. Ezra's neighbours still talk about that day...” He noted Buck’s less than innocent look.
“Buck? Aw man, you let him go nuts, didn’t you?”
“There was just so much cheese...” Buck defended.
“Didn’t we talk about this?”
“Are we gonna have a long night?”
“Good chance, yeah...sorry.”
“Great. He can sleep with you.”
The pig races caused much hilarity. Buck and JD bet on the pig with a blue collar; Chris and Vin on the pig with a black one. The enclosure hatches were pulled up and while the black pig decided something on the ground was far more interesting than running, the pig with the red collar instantly smelled the treats at the end of the run and went for it. Standing at the finish line, JD animatedly urged blue pig on, and in his excitement, tossed the ice cream he was eating in the direction the pig was meant to be running. His little face creased in despair, but then brightened, and he watched in glee as the blue pig took off after it, beating red pig to the finish line by a snout. JD was just receiving a little gold-coloured trophy when a public announcement system stated the winners of the cheese skittle competitions was Chris for the adult, and Vin for the junior, adding two more nice gilt trophies shaped in a '1st' design, to their collection.
Moving to the jousting arena, the four took seats close to the front of the bleachers. They waited in anticipation as jugglers and fire breathers entertained before the main event; and left Chris and Buck trying to figure out how to explain to a fascinated JD that putting a burning stick in his mouth was bad, and would burn someone who wasn't a trained fire-eater.
The knights, resplendent in their chainmail and tunics, and riding mounts dressed similarly, rode along the arena's boundaries. Both boys got somewhat upset when the audience booed the black knight, which made Chris smile. He, Buck and the little ones then watched in awe while pairs of jousters galloped at each other from opposite sides of a wooden barrier until lances splintered, and one knight was dislodged. Once on the ground, the opponents fought with swords to the 'death' or until one knight yielded, leaving the other to take the accolades. Inevitably, before leaving the festival, a pair of plastic swords was added to the day's booty. Exhausted, the men carried their weary sons to the car, but not before picking up the ale and cider Chris had bought.
Once home, they collected the dogs, and then while the boys bathed, frozen pizzas were cooked for a late dinner. Bedtime beckoned, but before Buck could even open up 'The Secret Garden', both children were sound asleep. By the time Buck returned downstairs, Chris had cleared up and set the dishwasher going. Too tired to plan for the next day, the men agreed to call it a night, locked up, and headed to bed.
Leaving his bed in one vertical motion, Buck staggered into the dark corridor outside his room and into a bleary-eyed Vin.
Vin nodded to the question, yawned, and went to follow Buck into their room but Chris appeared next to the boy and intercepted him. Too tired to admonish Buck with an 'I told you so' glare, Chris ushered Vin into his own room before going after Buck, who was already sitting with JD and soothing the sobbing boy.
“It’s alright, Li'l Bit, it's just a bad dream.”
“Nooo...d’aliens got swords and they're killing the blue pig.”
Buck eased JD back and thumbed away his tears. “You want to sleep with me, tonight?”
Thumb in mouth, JD looked at Vin's empty bed. Chris entered his line of sight and crouched down. “It's okay, Vin can stay with me.”
Glancing up at Buck, JD nodded before snuggling back in. Buck picked JD up and carried him first to the bathroom, then into his room. Chris walked back to his to see Vin in his bed and already out for count. After using the bathroom, he noticed the water bottle on his nightstand was empty, so went downstairs. He turned on the kitchen light, and two sleepy dogs looked up from their bed by the Aga, but didn't bother to get up. Chris opened the fridge and took out a fresh bottle. Closing the door, he jolted when Buck emerged from behind it.
“Shit, don’t do that.”
“Sorry...and sorry for JD, too. Not sure if we can blame the cheese this time...” He nodded at Chris’s look of indignation. “Yeah, alright, I guess it had some effect. At least he didn't throw up.”
Larabee was about to comment about understatement when there was a soft knocking at the front door, the door they rarely used. Instinctively they went for the guns they hadn't worn for some months. Chris pulled his empty hand from his pyjama-clad hip and just shrugged at Buck, before walking into the hallway. He peered out through the door's small glass side panel.
“Jesus H Christ!” Fast fingers unlocked the door and he threw it open.
Buck stared past Chris, and his jaw dropped in shock.
“Y’all gonna leave me out here? I've been travelling best part of eighteen hours.”
Buck burst forward and pulled the black man into a fierce embrace. Chuckling, Nathan dropped his bag and returned the gesture. Finally prompted into moving, Chris joined the huddle and the three grinning men went from chuckles to full blown laughter, as now fully awake dogs danced around them, excitedly. Finally relinquishing their hold, Buck and Chris grabbed Nathan's bag, locked up, and dragged the travel-weary man into the kitchen.
“How the hell did you get here?”
“Why didn’t you tell us you were coming? We would've picked you up from the airport.”
Plopping himself down into a kitchen chair, Jackson rubbed his eyes and nodded. “I know, but I wanted to surprise you.”
“You sure as hell managed that alright,” Chris agreed.
Nathan looked at Buck. “She insisted I come. She's gonna be pretty busy, so I figured...why not? She promises to come with me next trip, no matter what.”
Now seated at the table with him, the two men couldn't stop grinning. “It's so good to see you,” Chris said, sincerely.
“You hungry?” Buck asked.
“Nah just tired. If I can get my head down now, I can see the boys when they get up later.” His eyes misted over. “Are they okay? God, I’ve missed 'em.”
“Yeah, they’re doing great. Boy howdy are they gonna go nuts when they see you,” Buck chuckled. He paused. “Ah, right. I just need to go make up the spare room...”
“A couch’ll be fine,” Nathan insisted.
“How about the boys’ room? We uh, had a little excitement at the cheese festival today, and now they're in our rooms,” Chris suggested.
“Yeah, great, thanks.” Nathan frowned at Buck. “Wait, cheese festival? You let JD go nuts with cheese? After what happened at Ezra’s?”
Buck lowered his head. “I know, I know. I already got read the riot act, thank you.” He looked up. “There was just so much cheese.”
The three laughed. “Come on,” Chris urged. “Sooner we get to bed, sooner the boys get to see you.”
Taking the drinks they had come down for, and making sure Nathan had what he needed to get through the night, they showed him to the boys' room. Buck grabbed a couple of fresh pillows and the pair bid Nathan goodnight, but not before giving him one last embrace.
“So great to see you,” they chorused.
Nathan's smile lit up the dim hallway. “Back at ya. See y'all, later.”
As the door closed, Buck and Chris looked at each other, grinned, fist-bumped, and went on to bed.
Vin snuffled softly as his father climbed in next to him. With a tender kiss to the brown tresses, Chris settled down and fell asleep smiling.
Buck grinned at the sight of his son lying face down in the centre of his bed. He nudged JD over from his spread-eagle position and slid in.
“I want a piggy b’lloon.”
Chuckling at the boy's dreamy mumbling, Buck pulled his son into his arms, kissed the warm, dark head, and with a contented sigh, fell asleep.
Next morning and not understanding why they needed to be quiet, but liking the idea of a lazy morning, and having breakfast in their PJs, like on a school day, the boys tucked in to their chosen cereals. They missed the grins and winks between their fathers, and Chris disappearing for a while, but as they finished their juices, they couldn't help noticing a breakfast tray set up.
“Hey guys, you ready to get dressed?” Chris asked.
Both nodded, climbed down off their chairs and padded off toward the stairs. Buck and Chris followed them, the latter carrying the tray. When they reached their bedroom door, JD pushed it open and walked into the dark, still-draped room. The boys stood frozen to the spot when Vin's bedside lamp snapped on.
“Breakfast in bed and my two favourite boys, can’t get better than this.”
The unexpected voice caused both boys to jolt and two pairs of eyes to widen seconds before JD screamed, turned, and almost took Vin off his feet before running behind Buck to cling to his father's legs. Unaware of Chris being right behind him, Vin simply stood and quaked. While his mind processed the shock of someone in their room, the slow recognition of the voice that spoke filtered through.
“Uncle Nathan?” the boy whispered.
Despite his terror, JD too had recognised the familiar voice, and with his father's hand resting on his head, was peeking around Buck's legs. “Unca Nathan?”
Horrified he'd scared the pair, Nathan was already out of bed and exposing his Star Trek boxers in a bid to quell their fears. “Hey guys, it's me...” Before he'd finished speaking, the two little ones were in his arms. He sat back on the bed and held them close, tears falling to match the soft cries of the two little boys clinging to him.
Standing there, Buck swiped at his own eyes, while, with trembling hands, Chris set down the tray and watched the reunion in awe. A long minute or so later, Nathan broke into the near-silence.
“Lord I’ve missed these hugs.” He smiled at his two grinning friends as two little heads nodded in agreement against his chest. “Do I get to see those smiles, too?”
His words prompted the boys to release him. Thumb in mouth, JD sniffed as his huge, moist eyes looked the man over. Vin's watery blue gaze glanced from Buck and Chris, to JD, then back to Nathan.
“Y’all wanna help me eat my breakfast?” Nathan's bright smile widened as two happy grins and nods greeted his words.
“You can stay?” JD finally said.
“Yup. I head back to the US just before you return to school.”
“You didn’t say you was comin',” Vin said with a hint of a scold.
“Well, I wanted it to be a surprise. Did I surprise you?”
“Did he s’prise you, too?” JD asked, looking toward Buck and Chris.
“He sure did,” Buck answered.
“You guys have fun. We’re gonna tidy away the breakfast dishes.” Chris's words were lost as the boys chatted and munched their way through Nathan's extra-large breakfast. “Then you can show Nathan the garden.”
“Yeah!” the boys chorused. Buck and Chris left the three to get re-acquainted.
That week, the boys took great delight in showing Nathan around. They led him all over the grounds, showed him their school, and revisited some of their favourite day trips, including watching the changing of the guard at Windsor Castle. The almost daily ceremony had quickly become a much-loved weekend outing, and they wanted to show their uncle one of their favourite activities.
Today, inside the walled garden, Nathan took a long, deep breath as he looked around. Releasing the inhaled air slowly he smiled as, from his seat on one of the rustic wooden benches, he watched his nephews playing. Somehow, he'd earlier squeezed his six foot-five inch frame into their fort, and had happily built sandcastles in the sandpit with the boys while they chattered away about their new school, their new routines, their new...everything.
God forgive him, but he had started to wonder if he, Josiah, and Ezra were more out of sight out of mind, than thought fondly of by their absence when the boys unexpectedly ran over. JD clambered up into his lap, kissed his cheek, and snuggled into his chest, quickly followed by Vin sitting next to him and leaning in. While he proceeded to answer another barrage of questions about how each uncle was doing, followed by Rain, Mrs. Potter, Gloria, Nettie, and everything involving their Denver home, Nathan's heart soared on realizing his boys...their boys, were still as wonderfully affectionate, boisterous, and inquisitive as ever.
As he watched them once again run off to play, Nathan realized that leaving for home was going to be almost as hard as the last time he left them, the day before they flew to London.
Ieuan grinned on hearing familiar energized voices in the walled garden-come playground and exited the woods to approach its large wooden door. Ordering Bear to 'stay', he peeked inside. Spotting the objects of his interest, his grin widened, and he set Bear free to seek out Ringo and Elvis, who he knew must be in there somewhere. However, as he looked more closely his smile quickly faded and he strode purposefully toward the black, male stranger watching the boys playing.
On seeing an unfamiliar person marching toward him and the boys, Nathan stood and protectively placed himself between the approaching man and his beloved charges.
“Can I help you, Mister?”
Before Ieuan could articulate the same concern, Vin and JD glanced up, squealed out 'hellos', and ran toward their daily carer.
“Eye-an!” they chorused, running around Nathan to greet him. Grasping the man’s hand, they dragged him toward a confused Nathan.
“Come meet our Nathan!” JD hollered.
Hearing JD's words brought a toothy grin to Nathan's face and he relaxed and extended his hand.
“Nathan Jackson. You must be Ieuan.”
Ieuan grasped Nathan's hand and shook vigorously. “The boys' uncle? I finally get to meet one of you. They didn't say you were coming.” He watched the boys go back to Nathan and curl themselves around the tall man's legs.
“I kinda surprised them,” Nathan confessed. “My girlfriend was meant to be coming, too, but she got tied up with work, and I almost called it off.”
His words caused Vin to glance up. “You did?”
Nathan crouched down and hugged them both. “Uh huh, but only 'cause I felt sorry for Aunty Rain; but she really wanted me to come see you...so I did.”
It occurred to JD there was a negative in there somewhere. He finally figured it out. “Is Aunty Rain gonna come soon?”
Nathan tweaked the boy's nose. “Not this trip, but soon, I promise.”
“You’re gonna come again?” Vin asked just before JD could.
“Hell yeah.” Jackson made a face. “Shoot.” He fished out some coins. “What’s the going rate for the swear jar these days?”
JD plucked a 50p from Nathan's hand. “This one for 'hell'.”
“JD!” Vin scolded.
“What?” the boy asked in his most innocent voice. “I’s just sayin' is all.”
“Yeah? Well, that’s cost you a pound from your allowance, Squirt.”
Seeing Chris and Buck approaching, JD launched himself into Buck's arms and squealed when the grinning brunet spun him around before resting him on one hip.
“Seriously, you lose a pound, Pard,” Buck endorsed.
JD nodded contritely. “Yessir.”
“I see you two have met,” Chris noted, gesturing between Ieuan and Nathan.
“Yes, we have.”
“Saved us a call,” Buck said. “We’re thinking on having a cook-out in honour of Nathan's visit. We'd like you to be there.”
The boys squealed with delight, and Nathan beamed with pleasure. Ieuan nodded.
“I’d love to. When?”
“Halloween,” Chris answered. “Fancy dress, of course.” He winked at Nathan. “We’ll fix you up, Pal.”
“Is Mister and Missus Green comin’?” Vin asked, grinning when Chris nodded.
“We’ve invited all the neighbours and asked them to reply ASAP so we have an idea how many to cater for. It's actually on the Saturday before Halloween, but the theme will be costume, and/or all things related.”
Ruffling the boys' hair, Ieuan turned to leave. “Count me in. See you later, at Jane's?”
They all nodded at the mention of the invitation extended to the six of them by Eric and Jane for that evening, and slowly exited the garden. Chris locked the gate then, taking Vin's hand, followed Buck, Nathan, and JD to the house.
“More roast potatoes, Nathan?”
The currently non-active ATF agent looked up from his meal to offer Jane a dazzling smile. “Yes ma'am. Thank you.” He accepted the serving dish and helped himself, then pointed at his roast lamb meal. “This is awesome.”
“We’s having rhoobub crum-bul for dessert,” JD announced around a mouthful of meat.
“Neat,” Nathan grinned. “Inviting me here was real nice of you folks,” he said, sincerely.
“We’ve been looking forward to the boys' uncles visiting,” Jane confessed. “It's so nice to finally meet you.”
“Military man, I hear,” Eric noted.
“Yessir. Army medic. Been a cop for ten years now.”
“Excellent. “I made colonel. Never saw much action, other than a couple of tours in Ulster, but I had a long and happy career. The army was good to me.”
Nathan nodded. “Me too, sir.”
“Most action I ever saw was battling it out on the underground every morning,” Ieuan stated. The others chuckled.
“Dude, that’s one tough daily fight,” Buck said, grinning at Chris's exaggerated nod.
“Not anymore?” Nathan asked.
“Nah, I left all that behind. I work from home, now.”
“Nice. So I guess that’s how you were able to watch the boys.”
Ieuan nodded to Nathan's question. His eyes flashed, wickedly. “I'm 'Mrs. Potter.’”
“Nu uh,” JD piped up. “She giz us hugs, and smells of flowers, and bakes us cookies.”
“And me?” Ieuan asked, curiously.
“You’re our special friend,” Vin stated, earnestly, causing a warmth to fill Ieuan like he had never experienced before, and the others to grin like loons. Jane and Eric exchanged glances, constantly amazed how two little boys and their handsome fathers had brought such joy to their small community.
Parting with assurances to being at the barbeque on Saturday, the little family said goodnight first to Jane and Eric, then to Ieuan, and went inside to settle down for the night. A rather excitable Skype conference with Josiah and Ezra saw the Stateside pair in high spirits, though, in a good way, a little envious of Nathan with the boys on his lap and clinging tightly to him. Following that, and as the boys prepared for bed, Buck asked Nathan if he would like to read them the next instalment of The Secret Garden, to which Nathan happily agreed.
After doing so, the happy visitor watched his nephews sleep. God he had missed them, and was now trying not to think of how hard it was going to be to leave.
Learning that Halloween was not such a big deal in the UK as in the States, and with promises from the residents the boys would be welcome to trick or treat around the Mews on Monday night, had prompted the men to combine a Halloween and 'getting to know Nathan' party, in full costume, on the Saturday before the 31st. It seemed the way to go to make one of the boys' most favourite holidays memorable while away from home, and to give Nathan a good send-off.
With the grill heating up nicely, Buck left Chris to it, and entered the kitchen.
The little medieval knight put his hand to his mouth and giggled. “Just one?”
“Soon,” Buck promised, looking dashing in his Sir Lancelot costume to compliment his son’s. “You and Vin have already eaten quite a few of those Freaky Fingers cookies, and Lord knows how many of the chewy maggots sweets. You'll spoil your appetites.”
“Nuh uh.” JD’s bangs shook loose from under the chainmail effect, silver-grey hood of his costume, while his little fingers waggled over the hilt of the sword strapped to his waist.
Buck's mouth twitched to fight the grin emerging. His hand rested on his own sword as he fingered its hilt. “Is that a challenge, Sir Knight?”
JD giggled again and with surprising expertise, drew his sword. “Yeah!”
The chuckling pair 'duelled' until Chris, dressed in black denim shirt and black jeans, tan cowboy boots, and wearing his black Stetson, walked in to collect the meat for cooking.
“Quit it, Pards, the grill is hot, and we got company,” he drawled.
With a whoop, JD sheathed his sword and raced outside. Buck laughed and shook his head. “Damn, he's good at that.”
Chris grinned and removed several trays of meat and ribs from the fridge. “He's a quick study alright. Grab the chicken from the oven, would you?”
“Sure.” Slipping his sword into its sheath, Buck turned off the Aga and removed the partially baked chicken from the oven to finish cooking on the grill.
Dressed as a British cop, or 'bobby' as Jane explained was their nickname, Vin waved to Ieuan who came dressed as Sherlock Holmes. He grinned on seeing his approaching father.
Both boys had been torn over what to wear this year. Understanding their dilemma about trying something very different, or honouring their heritage, Chris, who wasn't one to dress up for such occasions, decided to dress in his more western style clothes, while Nathan was the Native American this year. Once JD had seen the knight costumes, he begged his father to dress similarly to him. Buck was happy to oblige. Vin wanted to show how proud he was that his father and Buck were working alongside British 'p'licemen'.
Jane and Eric arrived looking resplendent in their 'Corpse Bride and groom' style outfits; and numerous zombies, superheroes, and 'bloody' surgeons and nurses, roamed the decorated garden, which was regaled in flashing pumpkin lanterns; a multitude of 'cobwebs'; hollowed out, lit pumpkins; dangling bats, spiders, and witches; and several full size ghosts and skeletons. Green glowing garden lights, with intermittent skull lights lit up the pathways to and into the garden, while an eerie red light emanated from the inside of the fort, courtesy of Ieuan's camping lamp and a red bulb. The neighbours had kindly loaned the little family several patio heaters to ensure no one got too cold, but people seemed to be having so much fun, no one appeared to notice the dropping temperature throughout the evening.
With this being an outdoor party, all the neighbourhood dogs were invited, too; some even came in costume. They happily ran about 'vacuuming' up any dropped food and exploring the dark undergrowth; their occasional rustlings adding to the spooky atmosphere.
Between eating, JD ran around challenging folk to a duel, and Vin attempted to arrest him at every opportunity, complete with placing plastic handcuffs on the wee one's wrists. Cheery adults drank warm punch and cider from 'cauldrons', and feasted on steak, ribs, pork chops, chicken and, of course, burgers and sausages in buns, off glowing green and bright orange paper plates and napkins.
Nathan was introduced to everyone, if not by his proud nephews, then by his equally proud brothers of the heart, all the while trying not to admonish the boys for stuffing down mountains of Freaky Fingers, Spooky Shapes, pumpkin cupcakes, Fiendish Fairy Cakes, and various other gooey, chocolaty cookie and cakey delights.
They played apple bobbing, during which JD almost drowned himself, or at least appeared to be trying, and stacks of tins set up to be knocked down by bean bag missiles showed Vin to be an expert marksman, and who gallantly shared one of the three coconuts he had won, with JD.
By midnight, the food and most of the alcohol was gone. While Chris and Buck bid their costumed and ghoulish guests goodnight, Nathan sat on one of the garden benches, at peace with the warmth of two slumbering bodies nestled against him. His tears flowed freely, maybe due to being a little tipsy, but likely at the thought that by this time tomorrow, he'd be in the air heading Stateside. While he was looking forward to seeing Rain, Josiah, and Ezra, Nathan dreaded having to say goodbye to Chris, Buck, Vin, and JD...again.
Sensing his dismay, Buck and Chris placed a hand each on his head and shoulder before relieving him of his slumbering charges. With a final check to ensure everything was locked down, extinguished, or safely put away, the three men and two little boys headed inside.
An hour after putting the sleeping boys to bed, Nathan finally left his nephews to join Chris and Buck in the kitchen for a nightcap. Sitting at the table, he looked at the already seated pair.
“I’m gonna miss y'all so much.”
A teary-eyed Buck sniffed. “Back at you, Pal. Give our best and our love to everyone. Tell them we miss them all, and think of them every day.”
Nathan swiped tears from his eyes. “You bet. Thanks for today...and for the past week. I knew you guys would make the best of this. Just make sure y'all come home safely, y' hear?”
Chris swallowed the block of emotion in his throat and felt it plummet like ice to his gut. “Deal...as long as you all stay in one piece 'til we get back.”
They sipped their cocoas in contemplative, but comfortable silence...as only close family and friends can. Tomorrow, tears would flow, and embraces offered with heartfelt ferocity, but tonight, there was no need for words, each man knew what the other was thinking, and each heart reflected the love and aching within. For different reasons, no one would ever forget this year, and everyone had come to realize that, no matter the distance...they were family.
Continues in Bangs, Bumps and Burny Things
Green Solar Lights Light Up Skull
Medieval Knight Medieval Knight
Corpse Bride Groom
Fancy Dress Dog