Buck Wilmington couldn't believe his luck. It was only one week before Christmas and J.D. Dunne, roommate, best friend and all around pain in the butt, still couldn't figure out what Buck had gotten him. Buck had been determined to surprise the kid this year since the past two years had met with abject failure. The first year, Buck had hidden the gifts in the closet, thinking that if he put them high enough, the little runt wouldn't find them. But he hadn't considered how resourceful J.D. could be in full search mode. A step ladder, an afternoon alone in the apartment and a ruined surprise was the result. The next year, having grown a bit wiser as to the sneaky ways of his roommate, Buck had hidden the gifts at Chris' ranch. But he had been foiled again when J.D. disappeared for a short period of time during a Sunday visit to Chris'; the rest of the boys were busy watching a particularly tense football game and no one noticed he was gone until it was too late. J.D., two, Buck, zero.
He was determined that this year would be different. No way would he let that kid outsmart him. Hence 'the plan' was devised, the details of which were known to only one other person, Chris Larabee. Buck knew he could count on Chris to keep a secret, the man personified close mouthed. The plan was simple; convince the kid that he hadn't bought a gift for him at all and then spring it on him on Christmas Eve. It would take high level strategic planning, stealth and most of all, a Christmas Eve gift pick up trip that would have to be disguised as something else.
Buck knew he could do it and by God, he was managing it. Not without a few hitches, but that was to be expected. He had already bought the gift, using one lunch hour from work to accomplish the deed, but he wasn't going to pick it up until Christmas Eve. It was a good thing the place where he bought it was understanding enough to store it for him until then, even if it meant they would have to be open on Christmas Eve in order for him to come pick it up.
Oh well, what's an extra few bucks on top of the cost of the gift? It was worth it for the sheer pleasure of shocking the pants off the kid. So what if one of the hitches was that he had become a little bit overzealous in convincing J.D. that he had bought a gift for all of the guys except him. That had to hurt. But Buck knew it would be worth it when he saw the kid's face on Christmas Eve. That is if he was still speaking to him. Little cuss has quite a temper and right now he was a bit miffed. Not only did he think that his best friend, his roommate, his 'big brother' for crying out loud, hadn't even gotten him a lousy Christmas gift and had indeed bought everyone else on the team one, his motorcycle had been stolen two weeks before Christmas and because he had forgotten to pay an insurance premium, he now couldn't afford to buy a new one. The world was full of bad luck right now and it was all being dumped on J.D. Dunne. To say he was feeling sorry for himself was an understatement. If self-pity were an Olympic event, J.D. would have brought home the gold by now.
So it was into this setting, one week before Christmas and after a week of chauffeuring a brooding J.D. to work every day, that Buck tentatively entered the apartment on Friday night after a late date. He had dropped the lovely lady at home, not wanting to subject her to J.D.'s company, given his current bad mood.
Buck stepped into the entryway, quietly deposited his keys on the counter and cocked his head to listen for telltale sounds. The living room was empty and there was no light coming from J.D.'s room. He made his way towards the stairs to his room, trying not to make any noise. He wasn't in the mood for any more complaining about the damn insurance company or the sorry state of his financial affairs. "I risk my life on this job and I don't have enough in the bank to buy a lousy motorcycle! What the hell kind of screwed up world is this?" Buck had gotten used to this particular line - it had almost become J.D.'s mantra.
Just as Buck was about to climb the stairs, he heard rustling sounds coming from his bedroom. It was unmistakable; the kid was rummaging through Buck's closet looking for gifts. Buck shook his head in silent laughter. Did he really think he would be that stupid and put J.D.'s gift in there? Sure, the other guys' gifts were all in there, just as planned, but Buck knew J.D. had already found those days ago. He was so frustrated that he was looking in there again in the hopes that Buck had lost half his brain and slipped J.D.'s gift in there also.
Oh this is going to be good, thought Buck.
Creeping into the room, Buck got as close as he dared to the closet door and stood directly behind J.D. The kid was bent over like a pretzel, moving things around, shaking boxes, and cursing under his breath.
"Hey kid, whatcha doin'?" Buck's voice was like a gunshot in the quiet room.
J.D.'s reaction was worthy of any slapstick movie. He straightened up like a shot, banging his head on the top shelf with enough force to cause a minor avalanche of junk to rain down on top of him on its way to the floor.
"Damnit Buck! Don't do that!!" J.D.'s voice was tinged with embarrassment, but the anger was winning out.
For his part, Buck felt a twinge of guilt when he heard the loud thunk of the kid's head hitting the shelf. But he forged on with 'the plan' anyway. "I'm sorry kid, but what are you looking for in my closet?"
J.D. emerged from the debris, rubbing the top of his head with his right hand.
"Well, son, you can find nothing all over the place, why do you think it's in there?"
Buck was enjoying himself now that he saw that the kid's hard head hadn't suffered any real damage; his pride was another matter though.
J.D. shoved roughly past Buck and headed for the stairs, calling over his shoulder, "Just never mind!"
Buck sighed, it was going to be a long night.
+ + + + + + +
The next few days passed, full of nothing more than boring paperwork and skillful sidestepping of one angry ATF agent by the name of J.D. Dunne. Chris was the only one who knew what the problem was and the rest of the team was losing patience with their youngest member.
"What the hell is wrong with him, Buck? He's been sniping at everyone for two weeks . I thought the kid loved Christmas, " asked Vin, leaning against the counter in the coffee room, cup in hand.
"Yeah Buck, he's acting madder than a wet hen lately, what's going on, you short sheet his bed again?" asked Nathan, joining the other two in the break room.
Buck laughed, 'Naw, Nathan, besides, he's been mad for two weeks, I can't short sheet it every night, now can I? Sort of loses its surprise factor that way."
"So what is it?" Vin asked between sips of the coffee.
"Oh it's nothing, don't pay him no mind, he's just in one of his moods," answered Buck as he headed for the door. He knew they weren't buying it, but Buck only had to keep it up for two more days and then all would be revealed.
Christmas Eve day - Sunday this year, so no work. The plan was for the guys to spend Christmas day at the ranch, but the night before was going to be at Buck and J.D.'s. A feast of Chinese food was on the menu, something J.D. didn't quite understand, but it had become a tradition with them. Most places weren't open Christmas Eve, but you could always find a Chinese restaurant open.
Three years ago, at their first Christmas as a team, J.D. had expressed surprise by the choice of the meal. 'Chinese food? On Christmas Eve?'
'Hey, it was the only place open, give me a break, kid,' Buck had answered.
'Yeah, but...why don't we make something at least?'
'Can you cook?'
'Well, not much....but still...'
'Then Chinese it is! Besides, it's good luck and all that.'
'Good luck? Where did you hear that, Buck?'
'Fortune cookies. Fortune, luck, get it?'
'You're so full of crap, Buck.'
Hence a tradition was born. Not one born from lofty ideals or heartwarming sentiment, but a tradition nonetheless.
The festivities were in full swing; all the guys were there, talking around mouthfuls of chow mein, spring rolls, mu shu pork and various other delicacies. Only one was picking at his food distractedly, not paying attention to the current subject of discussion. J.D. was deep in thought, racking his brain trying to figure out what Buck was up to. Oh he knew he was up to something, there was no way he wasn't getting J.D. something for Christmas. It had to be some kind of ruse, he knew that much. If Buck hadn't gotten him anything for the last two holidays, not to mention birthdays, then he might consider the possibility that he wasn't getting him anything. But that still couldn't be right; he had bought the rest of team gifts, he would never forget J.D. Never.
J.D. moved the fried rice around on the plate, forming it into a circle, then he placed the chow mein in the middle to make a miniature mountain. Or maybe it looked more like a volcano, he couldn't decide. Would Buck deliberately not get him a gift? Maybe he was still mad about that whole Ellen debacle. J.D. shuddered slightly, remembering that night, about two months ago, when Buck had asked J.D. if he could vacate the apartment for the night because of his 'hot date' with that 'beauty from the D.A.'s office'. It wasn't that unusual a request, but it also wasn't that common either. Usually Buck would go to the woman's place for convenience sake, after all, J.D. couldn't always be gone all night. But this time was different, Ellen's apartment was being painted and it was either Buck's place or nothing. And Buck definitely wasn't going to settle for nothing. This Ellen was special, a classy lady who Buck likened to a goddess. He had planned on taking her for a romantic dinner and bringing her home to let nature take its course. He had been trying to get a date with her for months and he had constantly reminded J.D. of this fact. But nature had other things in mind that night.
The first thing to go wrong had been J.D., suffering from the rages of perhaps the worst cold in the history of mankind, at least according to him. Coughing, congestion, headache, and fever all contributed to the young agent being in a most foul mood. So, after six hours of hacking, blowing and complaining, Chris had sent him home early. Once there, he had ensconced himself on the couch with a box of Kleenex, ginger ale, and the remote control. He was good for the night, at least that is what he thought. He had totally forgotten about the plan to be gone for Buck's date. By 10 o'clock, J.D. was firmly in the never never land of sleep, television blaring, the remote dangling from one outstretched hand. What the sleeping man didn't realize was that while he slept, the cold had morphed into the most evil form of flu, complete with nausea and other unpleasant things better left to the imagination. When the door opened, admitting an anticipating Buck and his willing companion, J.D. jerked awake with such force that the remote dropped from his hand at the same time his stomach lurched formidably. He sat up faster than was advisable under the circumstances and the room seemed to turn upside down.
Buck and Ellen advanced on the couch, one of them noticeably irritated, the other shocked. Needless to say, Buck was the irritated one. 'J.D., what the hell are you doing here?' he had exclaimed. His voice was tempered by concern since the appearance of his roommate was rather abominable, but anger and lust were winning out.
J.D.found himself struggling to stand, willing the room to stop rolling, whereupon he faced up to Buck, trying with all his might to maintain a small amount of dignity. Ellen had found her way to his side as well, expressing some concern over his appearance. J.D. remembered thinking she was a nice woman to be worried over someone she hardly knew, but that thought was quickly shoved aside when a particularly nasty bout of nausea decided at that moment to make a visit.
'J.D., are you all right?' she had asked, her voice soft and sweet as she reached out a hand to steady him.
His answer was not words and to this day, J.D. would give anything, anything, to be able to go back in time and change that moment. But since no one had invented a time machine yet, he would have to live with it. He did feel a twinge of guilt over the relief he felt once the despicable act was over. It must be true that you did feel better once you threw up. But it didn't help the guilt he felt over what had happened. Buck's face turned a color that J.D. didn't think possible in a human. Time stood still. Ellen's face would remain a mystery to him since he hadn't had the nerve to look. The next few minutes were also a mystery to him. He must have blocked them out; they say you do that with really unpleasant things. The next thing he remembered, he woke up in bed, the clock read 1:45 a.m. and he really needed to use the bathroom. What followed were a few days of misery, something everyone who has ever had he flu can identify with. J.D. did remember bits and pieces of Buck taking care of him, bringing him ginger ale, Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, and crackers. He remembered sleeping a lot and throwing up a lot, but not much else. What he did remember was that after he was feeling better, Buck was definitely pissed at him, or at least that was how he had interpreted the way the older man had acted towards him. Buck had given him the semi-silent treatment and he never mentioned Ellen again. J.D. had figured she dumped him; who wouldn't after what happened?
After another few days, Buck had slowly warmed up and things seemed to get back to normal. But J.D. was pretty nervous for awhile; he would have felt better if Buck had just yelled at him and gotten it over with. But nothing; things got back to normal and the 'incident' was never mentioned. It never occurred to J.D. to wonder how he had gotten from the couch to his bed that fateful night; he thought he must have managed it on his own somehow, but he just couldn't remember. If he hadn't been sick as a dog, he would have remembered that it was Buck who had cleaned him up and put him to bed. Ellen had gamely cleaned up and taken a cab to her friend's house. And the reason Buck had been so quiet for a few days was because J.D. was sick and Buck didn't want to disturb him. In J.D.'s hazy memory, it had seemed like Buck was giving him the cold shoulder. Of course, all of this misunderstanding could have been avoided if they had just spoken of the incident, but given the nature of what had happened, the subject was definitely off limits.
So now here they were, Christmas Eve, chowing down on Chinese food, all of them seemingly oblivious to the turmoil going on in their youngest member's mind. J.D. stole glances at his friends; there was Josiah, sipping the tea with a contented look on his face, Nathan piling another mu shu pancake full of filling, Ezra trying to eat a spring roll with a knife and fork, Vin licking his fingers after a bite of barbecued chicken wing, Chris taking a swallow of beer and Buck....good old Buck, not allowing the chow mein he was shoveling into his mouth to hinder the story he was telling about some exploit of his from the past. J.D. wasn't listening; he'd probably heard it before anyway. Instead he was concentrating on his problem; trying to figure out what Buck was up to. J.D. had a feeling Chris was in on it too. Their fearless leader had been awfully tolerant of Buck's antics lately, which usually meant that he was cooperating in some scheme, albeit reluctantly.
"Hey J.D., what's the matter, don't you like the food?" asked Vin.
J.D.'s internal musings were interrupted by the question and he destroyed the little mountain on his plate in a vain attempt to make it look normal again.
"No, it's fine," he answered, tersely.
"Seems to me that it ain't fine, looks like you haven't eaten a thing. Since you're normally a human garbage disposal, must be something wrong." Nathan added his two cents to the discussion.
J.D. took a huge bite of fried rice in answer to the observation.
"Must be all those Christmas cookies he ate today, right kid?" Buck said. "Filled himself up on goodies, now he can't eat dinner."
"Yeah, that's it Buck, too many cookies," J.D. answered, taking a sip of tea.
Dinner proceeded, the guys talked about all sorts of things, more food disappeared, along with some more beers and tea. All the while, J.D. sat quietly, observing....waiting....bracing himself for whatever the evening would bring. He knew that they would exchange gifts later. Three years ago, Christmas had come a mere four months after they started working together, so there wasn't much of a celebration. They all sort of did their own thing, except for Buck and J.D., who had spent a quiet evening at home with their Chinese food. The next year they had all found themselves at Buck and J.D.'s place, either by accident or not, and then they had exchanged gifts accompanied by many insistent declarations of 'I don't expect nothing from you, but I saw this and just couldn't resist' and 'well, it ain't nothin', but everyone should have something to open on Christmas Eve' and variations therein. Even though they all tried to act embarrassed to have bought gifts for one another, they weren't fooling anyone. But macho posturing was a sacred rite and they were certainly not going to break that solemn vow. So another tradition was born, also by accident; gathering at Buck and J.D.'s on Christmas Eve to exchange gifts. A wise man would probably say that they could all save a lot of time and energy and just admit that they enjoyed each other's company and friendship and there was nothing wrong with getting together to exchange gifts. But no one ever accused any of the team of being particularly wise - not even Josiah, who acknowledged this fact to himself but still wouldn't say it out loud.
So this year, they engaged in the ritual; each admitting that their tentative plans for the holidays had fallen through and they would have to just settle for spending them with the guys. It was an elaborate and altogether unnecessary act, but it satisfied their male pride, yet allowed th em to do what they all secretly wanted to do - spend the holidays with their makeshift 'family'. All was right with the world.
J.D. got a momentary reprieve from the teasing when the phone rang. Buck jumped up like he'd been stung and raced for the phone in the kitchen, yelling 'I'll get it' over his shoulder.
"No kidding," remarked Vin.
J.D. tried to hear what Buck was saying on the phone, but he was too far away to make out any words. He noticed that Chris was gone from the table and couldn't remember when the older man had left.
"Where'd Chris go?" J.D. asked.
"Bathroom, I think," answered Nathan.
+ + + + + + +
In the kitchen, Buck grabbed the phone and proceeded with the 'conversation'. He didn't know if J.D. could hear him, but he thought it was better to be safe than sorry.
"Oh really, that is too bad darlin', uh uh, well, don't you worry now, I'll be right there....oh no, it's no problem! You know I'd do anything for you. Okay, just wait there and I'll be there as soon as I can, darlin."
Chris Larabee pushed the button on his cell phone to end the call and stood up from his perch on the edge of the bathtub. Pausing to look in the m irror on his way out, he shook his head in disbelief. What I don't do for you Buck.....this had better be worth it.
Chris rejoined the party at roughly the same time as Buck, the latter shooting a dirty look Chris' way as if to say, 'you could have waited a few seconds so we didn't come back at exactly the same time'. Chris merely shrugged and sat back down at the table.
Buck made his grand announcement. "Well, boys, I gotta go for a bit. Seems poor Denise is stuck with a flat tire in a bad part of town, so I'm off on a rescue mission."
"Denise? Who's Denise?" asked J.D., growing even more suspicious.
"Oh you know Denise, she's that sweet lady I met at Inez's last week. We went out a few times. I'll just go on down there and change her tire and be right back - don't open no presents til I get back!" Buck was already at the door, coat on, keys in hand.
"Hey Chris, why don't you come with me? I might need a hand with the tire."
"Since when have you required assistance with changing a tire Buck?" asked Ezra as he got up from the table. "I would have thought that you would insist on performing this heroic deed by yourself, considering there is a beautiful woman involved."
Buck was staring daggers at Chris, something only J.D. seemed to notice. "Well, you don't know nothing Ez, come on Chris, I think she's sweet on you." Buck was now bobbing his head towards Chris with such ferocity that J.D. feared it would fly off and bounce across the floor. Something was up, he was sure of it, Buck couldn't act his way out of a paper bag. He must have forgotten to buy my gift and now he's coming up with some stupid story to get out of the house so he can run to the mall and buy something. Geesh, 8 pm on Christmas Eve, I can't wait to see what kind of gift he comes up with. I bet the mall ain't even open, he'll probably have to go to a 7-11 or something. I can just see it, here's your gift kid, a new Bic razor and a can of Pringles. Merry Christmas to me.
J.D. ceased his self-pitying musings long enough to notice that Buck and Chris had finally made their escape. The rest of the guys occupied themselves with cleaning up the mess from dinner. Josiah started washing dishes, while Nathan dried and Vin was putting the leftovers into the refrigerator. Only Ezra seemed content to sit at the table, sipping tea.
"Well, J.D., do you want to do the honor first?" asked Ezra, pointing at the fortune cookies in the center of the table.
J.D. glanced at the cookies. Sure, why not, he figured, things couldn't get any worse, I may as well read some stupid fortune that tells me that a fool and his money are soon parted. Opening the cookie, J.D. pulled out the slip of paper.
"Well? What does it say?" asked Ezra, uncharacteristically interested in the results.
"You bring joy to those around you," read J.D. "Yeah, right," he added, tossing the piece of paper aside and popping a piece of the cookie in his mouth.
"Mr. Dunne, you seem out of sorts this evening, are you feeling all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine Ezra, just not hungry is all," answered J.D., rolling the slip of paper up into a ball and flicking it off the table.
"And I take it you don't believe your particular fortune is true?"
J.D. looked up from the table to meet the other man's gaze. He laughed suddenly, "Come on Ezra, you don't believe these things, do you? I mean, they mass produce them in some factory and stuff them into the cookies. They don't mean nothing."
"Perhaps that's true, but don't you think it's rather surprising that the one you happened to choose turned out to be accurate?"
J.D. looked at Ezra, trying to gauge whether the other man was teasing. He was getting better at reading his friends, but sometimes they still managed to trip him up and he would have to grudgingly admit that they 'got him again'. Standish's face was as serious as he had ever seen it, no hint of deception or playfulness ready to break out any second. J.D. considered this for a moment, but then decided that he was in no mood to be the butt of a joke tonight; especially not tonight. So no matter how sincere Ezra was acting, he wasn't buying it. Besides, Ezra was the undercover specialist, didn't that mean he was the best one at lying?
+ + + + + + +
His decision made, J.D. got up from the table abruptly and headed for his room.
"Was that a no?" Ezra's voice followed the younger man out of the room. Sighing heavily, Standish got up and went into the kitchen.
"I'm afraid our efforts to cheer up our youngest member are for naught. He seems to be content to wallow in an ocean of self-pity this evening."
"J.D. still in the dumps, Ez?" Vin asked, smiling slightly.
"That would be an accurate assumption Mr. Tanner."
Josiah stood back from the sink, where he had just finished up the dishes and crossed his arms over his chest.
"Gentlemen, there is definitely something going on here tonight and I think the only ones who can help us are not here at the moment."
"What do you mean Josiah?" asked Nathan, who was now leaning against the counter next to Vin, drying his hands on a dish towel.
"I mean that Chris and Buck are behind whatever is going on and what is causing young J.D. to be so out of sorts."
"So we wait til they get home and get some answers. Sounds good to me," said Vin.
"Yep, sounds good to me," Josiah agreed.
Nathan glanced at Ezra before leaving the kitchen. "I sure am glad I ain't Buck or Chris tonight."
"Why's that?" asked Ezra, following the other man into the living room.
"Well, when Vin says 'get some answers' he means business, ain't you noticed that before? And if those two are responsible for ruinin' J.D.'s Christmas, well, they better have a good excuse or Vin'll skin 'em alive."
"Amen brother," said Josiah, joining the others in the living room.
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