The Ranch
VIII. Christmas

by Karin


JD bolted straight up, oblivious to the cold that had now become apart of him. What caused him to wake suddenly didn't have anything to do with the weather at all; it was the fact that it wasn't as dark as it had been when he decided he could sleep for a 'couple of hours' on the bench.

It was 'in between' night and day; the time when the moon has slipped down into the mountains, and the sun hasn't decided to wake fully as it hides just under the horizon, waiting for just the right moment to make a grand entrance.

With more agility than a half-frozen body should have, JD stood from the bench and began running from the school. He knew the spurt of energy wouldn't last long, but maybe it would stay long enough so he could get to the ranch before Chris and the others woke.

He thought of calling the ranch every time he passed a phone booth, but he hadn't thought to bring any money with him when he left Billings' apartment. He hadn't given much thought to anything but getting home, JD had to inwardly smile at the thought.

No shit, didn't plan for nothing but getting home. No heavy jacket, no money...gloves would have been nice, too, JD thought as his run became a steady jog.

Not that any of that had been available to him, what JD had on him was what he'd brought with him. Billings had promised to go shopping when Mrs. Travis was there, but nothing had ever transpired. That was the first hint that things weren't exactly the way Mrs. Travis thought they were going to be. Seth put on a good show for the social worker, but once she was gone, Seth Billings revealed himself.

The apartment was a bit bigger than the one he and his mother shared in Boston, but the condition of it was hideous. Garbage bags half full of clothes were ripped open, their contents purged and scattered in every corner of the apartment; a path was cleared to several places in the apartment, dishes were piled up in the sink and other places in the living area, and trash was piled in a corner or just left on the floor, rotting.

JD had nearly been sick, rats would deem this apartment unfit to live; how the hell was he going to? He wasn't, plain and simple. He decided then and there the first chance he got he was going to run; Chris would understand, he wouldn't send him back.

Seth Billings had obviously lived here for a while; so why had he suddenly stepped forward claiming to be JD's father?

When JD again requested a DNA test, Billings flat out refused; JD inwardly smiled...this had been his first bit of hope that Billings wasn't his father and he'd be back with Chris before Christmas...home and with his family.

The two had an impromptu, very relaxed, 'hearing' with the judge who had signed Seth's custody paper. While at that hearing, JD once again brought up the request for a paternity test. The stenographer typed up the request and the judge seemed almost apologetic to Billings as he ordered the testing to be done. Blood was drawn from both JD and Billings that afternoon.

After the lab technician labeled each sample, she shook Seth's hand and told him they'd have the results in about a month. JD's heart had dropped, it wouldn't be in time for Christmas.

The lab tech shook JD's hand before he left. Confident that Seth was out of earshot, JD had asked the tech if she could put a rush on the results; the technician looked at the paper work on her clipboard, then shook her head '...doesn't state anywhere here there's a request for a rush'. JD looked at her, she was older, old enough to be his mother, probably had a few kids of her own; he decided he needed to see if Buck and the others were right about this 'look' he had and flashed her sad, hazel eyes.

'Please, this is important to me. I need to know as soon as I can, my Dad lost a son already, I'm not sure he can survive losing another,' JD had said quietly, his eye's filling with tears as he spoke.

It worked. The technician looked toward the doors just as Seth came to the door and spoke harshly to JD about getting the lead out of his feet, and they'd wasted enough of the day on this 'blood thing'.

'Not a problem,' she'd smiled sympathetically, somehow gaining some insight as to why the young teen wanted the results as soon as they were available.

JD remembered the look on Seth's face when the letter containing the results came two weeks earlier than expected. JD never let on of his plans to run as soon as he had the proof he needed; the way things were going he figured Seth would lock him in his room or never leave him alone.

JD'd spent the weeks with Seth doing as he was told, picking up and delivering 'packages' and collecting envelopes for the man. It hadn't taken JD long to figure out that the packages he picked up and delivered were drugs, what kind he didn't know, and that the envelopes were full of money. The only concern for JD's well being Seth showed was if he had 'trouble' with a pick up or delivery. Trouble, of course, meaning if there were cops in the area. JD had successfully avoided them, knowing that his story might not fly with cops in the area.

JD knew the results were in his favor when Seth had sneered at him, then tossed the paper in the trash. JD was slightly surprised the guy hadn't burned it. He was always careful to burn any paper with 'orders' on it, why he hadn't burned the DNA test results was beyond him. He was just thankful he hadn't, that was all JD needed.

And what was Seth Billings going to do when he ran? Call the cops? Tell them what? That his courier 'son' had run away with the only piece of evidence that proved JD wasn't his son? Seth didn't want the attention. Like the cards were all in Billings' favor three weeks ago, JD now held the trump card; the Ace, as Ezra, would say, was tucked securely in a plastic bag in his inside pocket.

JD felt the pocket through his jacket as he thought of it. A sense of warmth came over him, feeling the security there in that pocket. Security that this would never happen again, that he wouldn't be ripped from the only other home he'd known, secure that he'd be home for Christmas and give his father the only gift he knew he'd want, his son back...for good.

The sun was just peeking over the horizon as JD stopped when he came to a familiar and much sought after sign... 'Four Corners'.

He looked down the long driveway, and could barely make out the house outlined in the darkness. Everything was dead silent, not a light on in the house, the barn was asleep and no horses were around to announce his arrival.

JD's tired body found new strength as he realized he was home, and he began running down the long driveway, tears wetting his face and blurring his vision. That didn't matter, he knew where he was going; he'd walked, run, shuffled down the dirt driveway long enough to know where he was going without seeing. With nothing but instinct guiding him, he finally slowed as he reached the stairs.

He swiped a wet, jean sleeve across his face, trying to disperse the tears that flowed, only to add more moisture to his face. He took a calming breath, not wanting to bust through the door and alarm anyone who may be sleeping.

As excited as he was to be home and see everyone, the last thing he wanted to do was wake the house; he figured the occupants of this house had probably had as many sleepless nights as he had; and besides, he wanted to dry off a little if at all possible.

JD was hopeful that there had been kids brought to the house while he was gone, it would've kept everyone's mind busy and off the fact that he wasn't there; just as being Billings' courier had done for him. Granted carrying drugs and drug money wasn't the smartest thing to be doing, JD had to keep on his toes from time to time to stay out of trouble; both legal and illegal, so he wasn't able, or allowed, to let his mind wander if he wanted to stay out of jail.

JD shut the door just as slowly as he had opened it; thanking God that someone had finally fixed the creaking hinge. He removed his soaked sneakers, picked them up and walked into the kitchen placing them on the mat next to the door as he always had; putting his wet hat on top of his sneakers.

He turned and walked out of the kitchen, stopping at the front door. His head turned to face the grand stairway that led upstairs to the bedrooms, where seven people slept. He was confident that the guys wouldn't allow Chris to spend Christmas alone, nor would Mrs. Potter. JD could still remember the devastation on Mrs. Potter's face as he left the ranch that day. He hoped being here when she woke up wouldn't give her a heart attack.

After much debate, JD decided not to climb the stairs, but to go to the living room. It was out of the way, would give everyone enough time to wake up without knowing he was there, and maybe give him time to warm up some more.

JD walked into the living room, the small tree in the corner caught his eye immediately. JD smiled softly as he shuffled his way cautiously to the tree. He was glad his Dad had kept the tree up, it was a good tree, no matter what Buck and the others thought. It was just like the tree on Charlie Brown, the classic show he and his mother had watched every year at Christmas time; she'd sit through it just like he'd sit through 'It's a Wonderful Life' year after year. His mother would always cry when Linus gave his St. Luke speech, just as she did when the bell on the Christmas tree rang.

There hadn't been any bells ringing when his mother died, and he hadn't heard any since she'd died, but he was sure her wings were waiting for her when she arrived. She'd paid her dues and earned her wings here on earth, JD was sure of it. At least something came good easy to her, even if it meant she had to die to earn it.

A quick chill ran down JD's spine, causing him to shiver suddenly, subtly reminding him that he was still slightly chilled. He grabbed at the collar of his jacket to warm himself as he had done several thousand times in the last two days. Realizing that he didn't need to, he opted to remove the wet dungaree jacket. As he did, he could feel the bagged letter.

He removed the precious cargo from the plastic bag, the bag falling unceremoniously to the floor. He unfolded the paper, happy to see that nothing had been smeared or stained.

JD took a relaxing, deep breath; releasing all the tension from the past three weeks as he exhaled, and for the first time in three weeks, JD smiled. He was where he had wanted to be, the reason he'd walked for nearly three days non-stop...he was finally home.

As the stress left him and the realization that he no longer had to run began to sink in, the adrenaline that had pushed him beyond normal means began to abandon him. He placed the letter very carefully on the tree, resting it on a branch just under the a message sent from God personally. He then plugged the cord into the closest outlet and stood back. The angel lit up, shining bright with a yellowish, golden hue surrounding her. The single strand of lights strung through out the small tree began to slowly blink, allowing the small bulb to shine just long enough to see the true color, and disappear as another color took it's place.

JD took several slow steps backward, never letting his eyes wander from the spectacle he saw before him. The back of his legs stooped as they hit the sofa; he automatically sat, confident that he'd be supported.

As he sat back, he became more relaxed as the lights flickered. With each blink of his eye, the motion became slower and his eyelids refusing to reopen fully. JD grabbed at the blanket that was always folded on the back of the couch. He covered himself with it as he began to lean to the left, before long JD was curled up on the couch, covered with a blanket and his head resting on the armrest of the makeshift bed.

Without even a glimmer of a fight, JD let his eyes close as a warm, safe smile crossed his young features. As his breathing slowed, he fell deeper and deeper into sleep...a slight smile still on his face.

+ + + + + + + Chris arose Christmas morning as if it was just another day. He knew today was Christmas; he just didn't want to think about it. He'd put on a good face when the guys woke up, an even better one if Esau and Travis stopped by again.

He hadn't been surprised to see them the night before; they missed JD just as much as the others did, if not more.

They were JD's friends, good friends; the best friends anyone could have. Esau and Travis were the kind of friends that would still be around in ten years, and Chris knew that as soon as JD was able to, he would contact his friends. He might not see them for two years, might not contact them for that long, but when he did...nothing would have changed between them but time.

These three teens had become as close as any brothers Chris had ever seen; that's why Esau and Travis had come by last night, to check on him...just like JD would have done for them if places were reversed. That's what good friends were for.

It had been a hard lesson for JD to learn, or accept. Chris suspected, but had never talked to JD about it, that his son hadn't had many friends if any at all back in Boston. It would've been hard to maintain a friendship after you'd dropped out of school; and Chris thought maybe the school's size had something to do with the lack of friends back East.

JD had commented on the size of the school when he'd gone to register at Wicke's, to find out that he'd be attending a school (grades 7-12) that housed 200 students collectively had stunned him; there were well over 300 students in just his grade alone back in Boston.

Chris shook his head, trying to shake away the memories, as he opened his bedroom door. He walked slowly down the hallway, towards the stairs that led to the kitchen.

He passed the bathroom door and was met by cold air as he came closer to a door that hadn't been opened for three weeks.

JD's door had remained closed since he'd been taken away, Chris had gotten as far as putting his hand on the doorknob, but had yet to turn it. Like a magnet, his hand lay flat on the wooden door. A warmth tickled his hand, running up his arm as the door itself seemed to bring him closer to the son he'd lost.

"Merry Christmas, son," he whispered, then dropped his hand from the door and continued down the hall and to the stairs.

Chris grabbed the coffee pot and took the two steps to the sink. He looked out the window over the sink as he let the water run into the glass pot unwatched. His eye's scanned the fresh layer of snow that covered the front yard and fences and tracks in the snow heading to the barn.

He bowed his head, knowing that JD would have loved waking up Christmas morning to see the fresh snow added to the 6 inches that were already there, and probably would have beat Vin out to the barn.

Chris closed his eyes, trying to ward off the memory. He needed to remain in control. He wasn't going to allow himself to fall into the same abyss that he'd spent three years in after Adam and Sarah died. As much as he hurt, other hurt as well; the men were doing well handling everything, always looking after each other and as much as he hated to admit it, they were keeping their eye on him. His real concern lay with Travis and Esau, he knew both families well enough to know that neither teen had experienced a great loss in their lives.

Esau had an Uncle that had died, but the boy had been very young at the time. Travis' family was still intact, Grandparents on both sides alive and well. Watching their best friend walk out of the house all those weeks ago, had been the worst thing that had happened to them.

He knew the others looked out for the two teens, but Chris was the one who had told them to stop by whenever they felt the need. Truth was, Chris needed them here. He felt closer to JD when the teens were at the ranch, and focusing on Esau and Travis' needs kept him busy and his mind was not preoccupied with missing JD.

Feeling the cold water run over his hands as the pot was filled to excess, Chris tipped the extra water out and walked back to the coffee machine. He finished making the coffee, then turned to sit at the table.

He sat back against the chair, his posture slouching as he looked towards the door JD used to leave during the week for school.

Images flashed before his eyes as if watching an unseen movie, of a young man helping Mrs. Potter cook a pot roast; then to three teens standing next to the counter, one proudly showing off the hat he'd bought for riding, his two friends shaking their heads and rolling their eyes; a 16 year old hopping across the floor trying to put his sock on so he could catch the bus; three friends walking through the door covered with mud, the only white showing were their teeth as they smiled; a young man slinging a back pack over his shoulder in slow motion, turning his head as he smiled and waved good-bye.

Chris shuddered at the memories, and pinched the bridge of his nose as if to dam up the memories.

"Mornin'," Vin said quietly as he entered the door, distorting the invisible movie screen.

"Morning. Coffee?"

"Yeah, it ain't as friendly out as it looks," Vin smiled as he shook his head.

Chris arose from the chair, retrieved two cups of coffee, handed one to Vin, took two more steps to the chair he'd been sitting in and stopped.

"Ya' alright, cowboy?"

"Can't shake this knot in my gut, Vin," Chris explained with a sigh. "He ran."

"Ya' think he's heading back here?" Vin asked without hesitation.

"He can't come here, how am I supposed to hand him over to Billings again if he shows up. I let it happen once, Vin, I can't do it again," Chris barely got the last part of his statement out.

"If he's takin' off, ya' know he's headin' this way, Chris," Vin said, not wanting to add more grieve to his friend, but wanting to prepare him for what might happen.

"I know, I know," Chris sighed quietly. "I ...I can't handle losing him again...I can't," Chris said shaking his head as he sat, his hand raking through his hair.

"God I miss him so much."

With that said, the unflappable, stern, and private Chris Larabee faltered, and he began to cry. His hands went to his face as his shoulders heaved with the emotion that he'd kept in check for three weeks.

Vin did the only thing he could think of, he knelt in front of the man he'd come to respect and love as a brother, offering his shoulder for support, his arm wrapping an arm of comfort and protection as Chris continued to sob.

Vin leaned his head so it touched the man who wept; he closed his eyes as if he could take some of the hurt away; knowing the only thing that was doing any good, were the tears pooling into Chris's hands.

+ + + + + + + He could hear faint, faraway voices. JD shifted, as if to see if the voices were just in his head.

The voices continued, familiar voices; one was of an unfamiliar tone.

With great effort, heavy eyelids answered the silent plea they'd been given, and struggled to open. JD sat up slowly as he heard words said in a comforting way, and muffled cries.

With a great deal of effort, JD stood from the couch, the blanket still wrapped around him. He shuffled with damp socks to the entryway of the kitchen. The scene before him tore at his heart. His chin began to seize, hot tears formed and spilled instantly as he asked his still cold and tired muscles to walk into the kitchen.

"Dad, don't cry," JD managed to say emotionally through his chattering jaw.

Vin lifted his head to where the voice had come from, and found himself shocked and suddenly sitting on the floor, pale white and trying to catch his breath.

"Dad. Please don't," JD again said his plea, taking a slow step closer. It seemed to be more painful for JD to see his father like this than it had been to leave.

"JD?" Chris whispered as he lifted his red eyes. As soon as he found the person responsible for the quiet request, Chris leapt to his feet and embraced his son.

"JD...oh God JD, you can't be here," Chris said softly.

"I'm not his," JD stated as best he could, all his reserves completely gone as he melted into his father's hug.

Vin pushed himself slowly from the floor as if moving faster would make the image in front of him disappear. He steadied himself as he heard Chris speak.

"What?" Chris asked, pushing JD from him to look at his face.

"I'm not his. He took the DNA test," JD said with his head bowed, he just didn't have the strength to lift it.

"Wh-when'd ya' find out?" Vin asked after finding his voice. He stepped cautiously to JD, but didn't dare touch him

"Three days ago," JD answered, his tired voice becoming hard to hear.

"Ya' look awful kid," Vin whispered, noticing the dark circles that shelved JD's eyes.

"Forgot my make-up," JD said with a half a smile.

Vin shook his head and let his smile and excitement go, JD was home.

"God, I missed ya' kid," Vin said as he slung an arm around JD and pulled him into an awkward hug. Vin lifted his head to Chris, he offered his hand to his friend who gladly. "Merry Christmas, pard," he added.

"Yeah, it is," Chris nodded.

"Our boys home," Vin sighed as he stepped back from JD. "OUR BOY'S HOME!" he bellowed, then turned to go up the stairs, to let everyone share in the excitement.

"You shouldn't have run, JD," Chris said as he put an arm around his son and guided him into the living room. They both jumped slightly as they heard a loud 'Woohoo' from Vin followed by the banging of a hand against wooden doors.

JD allowed his father to aide him as he sluggishly began to sit. Chris had no doubt that three days ago his son found out that Seth Billings wasn't his father and left soon after finding out. There were a lot of gaps that needed to be filled, but Chris could tell that now was not the time.

What JD needed now was exactly what he was getting, no questions, no lectures...just unconditional love from a man that he'd traveled days to come back to.

"...junior, don't go wakin' a man up in the middle of a dream like that!" "...good way to earn a first class ticket to Hell," "...more sleep in the Army," "...for one am not amused by your 'frat-boy' shenanigans!" four men mumbled, grumbled and complained as they stomped down the main stairway. Vin pounding on the doors had woken them from much needed sleeps, not being fully awake they had no idea what he was yelling about as he went from door to door.

"Stop your complaining," Gloria Potter said sternly. "No use complaining when we have no idea what we're supposed to be complaining about," she added as she made her way past the four men who'd stopped at the bottom of the stairs.

"Well, nice to see your good disposition is active 24 and 7," Buck snorted out as Gloria pushed him aside.

This of course caused Gloria to retort, her statement just happened to slander Ezra slightly, causing Ezra to defend himself by saying something negative about Josiah's snoring, who blamed Nathan for not being as skillful a doctor as he'd thought since Josiah still snored, Nathan then added something about the foods he ate, causing Gloria to take the statement offensively, and the arguing was on.

Vin looked into the kitchen; not finding his quarry he backtracked to the small, frenzied crowd. With everyone so busy arguing and defending, the cause of their discourse managed to slip by without mention and into the living room.

"Hey, how we doin'? E'ryone's gonna be glad to see ya'," Vin smiled down at JD.

"Yeah...I c-can tell," JD smiled as he spoke, chattering slightly.

"He okay?" Vin asked Chris with concern as he saw the youth shivering slightly.

"He's gonna need some warm clothes. Seems he liked the idea of walking in the rain," Chris said, giving JD a small smile.

"Sure," Vin nodded, smiled and slapped JD on his blanket knee as he stood.

Vin walked out of the living room, only to be hindered from going up the stairs where five adults still argued.

"Excuse me Nathan, JD needs lookin' after," Vin said casually, his thumb hitching over his shoulder.

"JD?" Five voices all said at once.

"Yeah...he's sittin' on the couch kinda shivering," Vin added and headed up the stairs.

Four men and one woman exchanged glances of confusion; having being woken from a dead sleep, most of them had left their brains still sleeping.

"Did Mr. Tanner just say..."

"JD!" what Vin had said sunk in simultaneously.

Five people tried to fit through the entryway all at once.

"Let me through, Vin said he was shivering!" Nathan demanded from behind Josiah's elbow.

With great effort, Nathan managed to snake his way through the group, and make it quickly to the couch.

Nathan had to admit, JD looked tired and worn. JD's skin was pale, his cheeks seemed to be sunken and gaunt; grayish streaks ran from the bridge of his nose to under his eyes.

Nathan's slender, long fingers touched the brow of the shivering teen and found the skin to be cool. Any other time, Nathan would be wearing a mixed look of concern and aggravation; all Nathan could do was smile as he bent down in front of the young boy.

"Why the smile, Doc? Figured you'd be chewing my ear off," JD wondered.

"I'll get to that in a minute," Nathan chuckled. "Right now I'm just damn glad to see you," he added softly; giving JD a brief hug, before pulling back and changing to 'doctor gear'.

JD lifted his head as he heard the mumbling of the others entering the room; still discussing whose fault it was that they'd been 'delayed' in the entryway.

"Hi everyone," JD said; the silence was instant.

"Ohh...Ohh...OHHHHHH!!" Mrs. Potter started quietly, but as she progressed closer to JD, her voice rose into a round of squealing 'ohhs' until her arms were tightly around the young man still holding the edges of the blanket he had wrapped around him.

"Look at you," Gloria sighed through happy tears after releasing her grip on JD. "My dear, your chilled. I'll go put some broth on for you," she smiled as she stepped away from the teen.

"Mrs. Potter..." JD began, only to be stopped by a hand on his arm. He turned his head to see his father standing next to him.

"Best let her be, JD. She hasn't had anyone to mother for a long time," Chris smiled. JD gave a half a smile and nodded his understanding.

JD turned back to see Ezra and Buck standing next to each other. Buck had the biggest smile on his face, his eyes brimming with tears; his hand was on Ezra's shoulder, squeezing it.

"You bring the cat with ya', boy?" Buck laughed out.


"The cat...ya' know...'look what the cat...' Ah hell," Buck said softly, he too grabbed a hold of the boy. "Glad to see ya', kid. Just wish ya'd be stayin'," Buck whispered.

"I..." JD tried to explain.

"The Lord has surely shined on us tonight!"

"What's that Josiah?" Nathan asked, walking to where Josiah was by the small tree.

"This..." Josiah choked out. "This is a gift from God."

"Do you know what this is?" Nathan asked with shock, taking the paper from Josiah and walking back to where the small group had gathered.

"It's the D..." JD tried once again to explain.

"This is DNA results!" Nathan said, waving the paper in his hand.

"Well what's it say?" Buck asked impatiently.

"That I..." JD tried one more time.

"They don't..." Chris tried this time.

"They don't match! He's not Billings' kin!" Nathan cut everyone off.

Buck looked to Chris, who nodded his head.

"Well alright!!!!" Buck yelled, then picked up the cocooned JD in a bear hug and swung them both around.

"Buck...Buck..." JD quietly pleaded; there was no look of amusement on his face. "Buck, put me down."

"Buck put him down. He's had a rough coupla' days," Chris requested; the request being ignored as the two twirled in place. "Buck, you're gonna make him sick!" Chris said a tad harsher than he wanted to, but he knew it would get Buck's attention.

"Oh, yeah. Sorry 'bout that JD," Buck apologized lightly as he put the teenager down.

"Geez," JD sighed with aggravation as he tried to steady himself.

"Got ya' some dry clothes," Vin interrupted the reunions.

"Thanks. They're not yours are they?" JD asked, putting the folded clothes between the hands that still held the blanket.

"Nope. Never got around to takin' yer stuff to the shelter," Vin shook his hanging head, knowing that none of them had even stepped into young man's room after he left.

"Hoped ya' hadn't," JD grinned shyly.

JD began to shuffle in the direction of the den. He really didn't have the energy for stairs, and Mrs. Potter was in the kitchen creating some kind of brew that he knew would taste dreadful, but would take it gratefully.

JD attempted to shut the door, but was met with resistance.

"I can get dressed by myself, Ezra. I'm not a baby, you know," JD said with aggravation.

"Indulge me," Ezra pleaded.

"Fine, just don't go using all those fancy words. My brain's too tired to keep up," JD replied as he sat in the chair behind the mahogany desk.

"We... all of us..." Ezra began, sitting on the edge of the desk his back to JD to give him some privacy.

"I know," JD said with a smile, knowing how Ezra felt.

"Do you?" Ezra asked with seriousness, simultaneously standing and turning to face the young man who stood behind the desk in boxers.

The serious and touching moment was broken as Ezra snorted out a laugh.

"What?" JD sneered out.

"I ah...well...Tigger?"

"Boxers are Boxers, no one sees them anyway," JD shrugged as he pulled on a clean pair of pants.

"And who does your laundry?" Ezra asked as JD pulled a loose knit sweater over his head.

"Geez, Ezra," JD whined as his face flushed for second with the thought of Mrs. Potter folding up his Tigger boxers.

"It's good to see you smile," Ezra said, going back to his serious tone.

"How's Dad been? Has he been okay?" JD asked. Ezra had the reputation for stretching the truth, but when it came to a certain 16 year old, he never could lie.

"He has coped very well, and what about you? Have you faired well?" Ezra asked.

"Been fine Ezra," JD smiled.

"Unlike some of the others here, you can't fool me. Behind those tired eyes is a story," Ezra voiced his concern, his hand tenderly touching JD's cheek.

"Not today Ezra," JD sighed, looking straight into the man's eyes. "Please?"

"Soon then," Ezra backed down. "It is good to see you back."

"Glad to be back," JD smiled and took a step past Ezra.

"JD..." Ezra said as he caught JD by the arm; JD stopped and turned to find Ezra with the oddest look on his face.

"I have never lost someone close to me before," Ezra began.

"You didn't lose me Ezra; I'm right here and I'm fine," JD said, trying to comfort the emotionally shaken man.

"The fact that you are alive and well does not dispute the fact that for three weeks we...I was without me, you were lost," Ezra said evenly.

"You're not going to go all mushy on me are you?" JD asked.

"Without a doubt," Ezra said, then wrapping his strong arms around JD. "I...I..." Ezra stuttered quietly.

"I know," JD responded, letting Ezra off the 'hook' so to speak.

"Good," Ezra accepted the lifeline, smiling as he pushed back from JD. "Good."

JD smiled, then turned and opened the den door and took two steps to go back to the living room.

"You coming?" JD asked, seeing Ezra wasn't following him.

"In a minute," Ezra nodded, his back to JD.

"You sure?"

Ezra nodded and waved the youth off.

JD took two steps back to the door and closed it quietly to leave the man alone.

"I love you," Ezra said softly to the door. "Thank you for bringing him home."

Ezra pinched at the bridge of his nose, then took a deep breath, releasing it slowly through his mouth and walked to join the others.

+ + + + + + + "...have a present for you," JD walked into the living room as he heard his father's voice.

"Yes, everyone's awake...even Ezra," Chris gave Ezra mischievous glance. "Ten minutes, that'll be good."

"Who was that?" JD asked as Chris hung up the phone.

"Esau. Thought you'd want to see them right off," Chris explained. "Is that okay?"

"Yeah. They stop by much?"

"They've been a saving grace on more than one occasion," Josiah said calmly, his hand shaking JD's shoulder a bit, but his eyes on Chris, who smiled and nodded slightly.

"They've stopped by at least once a week, called to check up on me too," Chris said, thanking JD for asking them to, even if it wasn't supposed to be obvious.

"Go sit down," Gloria Potter ordered as she entered the living room. "You boys stop fussing over him, let him breathe," she continued as she passed by Chris and Josiah, following JD to the couch.

"Only one fussing is you, Mrs. Potter," JD sighed as he sat on the couch.

"See you've gotten your spunk back young man," Gloria said; wanting it to seem like she was carding the young man, but the smile on her face betrayed the tone.

"Now eat," she requested, pushing back stray bangs, then kissing his forehead.

"Thanks," JD smiled before taking a spoonful of the steaming broth.

JD was about to spit out the tasteless water, but having Gloria sitting on a footstool across from him, smiling like there was no tomorrow, he swallowed the broth.

Vin, Buck and Chris all shared in a silent chuckle as JD slowly spooned in the broth. They knew what the boy was going through. Anytime Gloria heard a sniffle, a cough or a sneeze, the broth mysteriously appeared and the men were choking it down.

After a half a dozen or so spoonfuls of the soup JD sat back; leaning on the back of the couch.

+ + + + + + + "Didn't he give you any clue?"

"Just said he had a Christmas present for us, Travis," Esau shrugged.

"Shit," Travis sighed.


"This can't be good. Probably going to give us something to pay us back for all the aggravation we put him through," Travis voiced his opinion.

"Bet JD left us something. Be just like him," Esau thought differently.

"Ya' think?" Travis asked, he hadn't thought of that possibility.

"Knock on the door and we'll find out," Esau shrugged.

Travis knocked three times and waited, somewhat nervously, for the door to open.

After a few minutes, they heard what they knew to be Josiah's heavy footsteps walking toward the door.

"Merry Christmas, Esau, Travis," Josiah smiled his greeting, stepping aside and motioning his hand for the teens to enter.

"Merry Christmas," both the young men said as they entered the house.

They stood in the entryway, waiting for Josiah to close the door and escort them into the living room. Granted they'd been to the ranch a number of times since JD had left, but they still didn't feel comfortable just walking into the house and roaming the rooms.

"Travis, Esau," Chris nodded to the two as they entered the room.

Esau nodded his greeting, Travis on the other hand was still a bit nervous at what this 'present' was, and with the formidable Chris Larabee standing in front of him simply saying his name, made the teen very nervous.

"If this is about something we did..." Travis said anxiously, taking a step closer to Chris.

Chris nearly laughed at the sight of Travis 'throwing himself on the mercy of the court'; he seriously considered allowing the teen to ramble on to see if he'd discover anything new; but opted to save the young man humiliation, after all, it was Christmas and his son was home.

"Nothing you've done, either of you," Chris shook his head, a small grin forming.

"I...we...we didn't get anything for anybody," Esau said, knowing he'd come here for a Christmas present, but had nothing to give to the man.

"Esau, your being here over the last three weeks has been gift enough, same with you Travis," Chris said, placing a hand each of the teenager's shoulders. "Now, turn around and I'll get your present."

Oh God he's going to kick our asses for something we did...I just know it, Travis thought as he turned around and faced Josiah.

"The first part of your present," Josiah said, holding a piece of paper in front of the boys.

"What's this?" Esau asked.

"Read it and find out," Travis replied.

Esau began to mumble as he read the paper, after reading three lines and a confused look, Josiah pointed to a certain place on the paper near the bottom. Two sets of 16-year-old eyes, one blue, one green, scanned the last few words of the sentence. Each snapped their heads to each other, then to Josiah's.

"Does this mean Billings ..." Esau began.

"...isn't JD's father?" Travis finished the question.

"That's what it means," Chris smiled, the boys turning to look back at him, only to find he wasn't alone.

"Hey, guys," JD said, standing next to his father.

"J..." was all Travis was able to get out before his eye's rolled and he fell backwards; Josiah stopping the young man from hitting the floor.

"Jesu...Shi...JD?" Esau gasped, oblivious to what had happened to his friend who now lay sprawled out on the floor.

"Geez, Travis?" JD gasped, not acknowledging the friend that still stood stunned.

"Travis?" Esau asked, following JD's path with his eyes. "Travis!" he screeched when his eyes saw where Travis was.

"Aw Geez, Travis...I'm sorry, man. Esau I'm sorry I didn't mean to scare him like this...honest," JD shook his head; ashamed he thought hiding until the last minute would be a good joke.

Esau just stared in awe at his friend he thought he'd never see again, JD took Esau's silence another way.

"Esau, I'm sorry...really," JD sighed. Hanging his head, he moved away from the one fallen friend and his stunned friend.

"JD, Travis is just gave him a shock," Nathan smiled at the teen. He thought the whole thing to be pretty funny until JD seemed to think he'd done something wrong.

"Maaann," Travis whispered as he shut his eyes tight. "I must have had some bad eggnog Esau, thought I saw JD," he said as he sat up.

"You did," Nathan said, softly patting Travis shoulder.

"Huh?" Travis asked, looking to Esau.

Esau just pointed across from him and nodded, still too stunned to speak.

"" Travis gasped slowly.

"Travis I'm so sorry...I didn't know..."

"It is you." The smile Travis sported as he spoke instantly left as he realized what he said... 'It was JD', but how could JD be here.

"How?" Esau finally managed to say.

"Billings failed the DNA test," Chris smiled.

"Then 'Wonder Mutt' here, decided he'd take off from Billings' apartment," Buck added as he sashayed to the group.

"You ran away? JD, that was, like, really stupid!" Esau's voice came back with a vengeance.

"Glad to see you, too," JD sarcastically shot back.

"Ease up Esau. For the last three weeks all we've wanted was to have JD knock on one of our doors, telling us he hated being with Billings and he wasn't going back no matter what. Now here he is, legal and everything..." Travis stopped and turned to face JD, "You are legal right? That paper..."

"He's legal," Ezra added to JD's nod.

"Like I was saying then, legal and everything and now your telling him how stupid he is," Travis said.

"Well, he did take off from Billings' place without a whole lot of thinkin'," Vin added.

"And ran for two days in nothing but a jacket, hat and sneakers," Nathan said sternly.

"In the rain," Josiah voiced.

"Come to think of it..." Chris began.

"Okay, okay. So it was stupid...sue me. Geez, I thought you guys'd be happy to see me, take it easy on me ya' know? Guess I was wrong, just like I wasn't gone at all," JD sighed, putting his hands in the air as if to surrender.

"Still can't believe it's you," Esau said, breaking through the laughter in the room; causing the room to once again fall into a serious silence.

"Kinda feels like I never left," JD smiled sadly.

"What was it like with him? Billings, I mean?" Travis asked.

"Not home," JD answered quietly.

"You're home now," Esau said, moving a step in front of JD.

"Yeah," Travis added.

"For good," JD nodded his answer.

For the longest time, there was tense awkwardness that over came the three friends; each wanting to show the other exactly how glad they were to see each other again, but being 16 years just wasn't 'manly'. So the three boys nervously looked at each other, nodding their heads acknowledging unspoken words, and shuffling their feet while their hands occupied the pockets of their jeans.

"Thanks for the picture," Travis was the one to break the silence. The men of the house had long since left the trio alone, sensing the 'uncomfortable' air in the room.

"Yeah, thanks," Esau nodded. "We...ahh...we didn't get you anything, sorry."

"That's okay," JD shrugged with a small smile. How could they buy anything? He wasn't supposed to be here for Christmas. For all they knew he would be at Billings'; no doubt running a Christmas 'delivery' or something.

"We just..." Travis tried, but faltered at saying 'didn't think we'd see you again'.

"I know," JD nodded.

Again the room grew silent, broken only by a single ring of a telephone, a muffled voice from the kitchen letting the three now it had been answered. "So, where were you?" Travis asked the question he'd wanted to ask ever since seeing JD.

"Can we talk about it later? Maybe we can go up to the cabin sometime," JD offered.

"Sure, how about tomorrow?" Travis asked.

"Kinda want to hang out here for a bit, if it's okay. I'll call you in a couple of days, okay?"

"Yeah, that'd be cool," Esau said, the smile covering up his slight disappointment. The 'I'll call you in a couple of days' meant that JD wanted no company. Esau and Travis could both understand. JD had been gone for three weeks; he'd want to spend time with Mr. Larabee. Esau wouldn't be surprised if even the others took off to give JD and his father time to themselves.

"Esau, your Mom just called. She'd like to have you home for dinner," Vin said.

"Yeah...I guess we'd better get going," Esau nodded. "I'm glad your home, JD. Call when you're ready to do something."

"What he said," Travis grinned.

"I will," JD returned with a smile. "Hey guys, Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas," both said, then turned and headed for the door.

Chris waited for the door to close before he entered the living room. He wasn't surprised to find JD on the couch, staring blankly into the fire.

"How ya' doing?" he asked.

"Tired," JD sighed. "But I don't want to sleep."

"Afraid you'll wake up and not be here?" Chris asked with a smile, sitting down next to his son.

"No, I know I'll still be here," JD said with confidence. "It's just been so long, I want to catch up. I don't want this feeling to ever end." Chris nodded his head in agreement, understanding the feeling JD was referring to.

Chris and JD sat in virtual silence, neither one speaking, each basking in the company of the other. Chris put his arm around JD, and JD leaned into Chris' chest.

"Ezra called Mary," Chris finally spoke.

"Not today, Dad," JD requested quietly.

"Not today," Chris smiled sadly. He wanted to know what happened when he was in custody of Billings. He knew JD was unhappy with Billings, and suspected that all had not been as Mary had thought; that Billings would be taking care of the 16 year-old, that he would be provided for, that he'd be going to school.

"But it's gonna have to be soon," Chris added.

"I know." Chris could hear the emotion in JD's voice, his first hint that things were beyond unpleasant for the young man.

The room again became silent, JD's head rising ever so slightly as his fathers chest rose and fell slowly, Chris' arm doing the same.

"Merry Christmas, Dad," JD said softly, new tears forming in his eye's as he sat next to his father, the only one he ever wanted.

"Merry Christmas, son," Chris responded, resting his chin on the dark hair. "Merry Christmas," Chris smiled warmly, then kissed the top of his sons head, and tightened his grip slightly, vowing never to let go again.


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IX. Pop Tarts at Midnight