By Chris G

Mucho thanks to the BadAOeLement for the encouragement and to the gals at the Tombstone gathering who let me bounce ideas off them. And thank you, Joy, for creating these wonderful series and for letting me play.

 It was a good week. I was real confused at first because I didn't know what
  I should do but then I talked to Dr. Will and to Buck and they said I should
  talk to Chris. I started thinking about my dad but was afraid Chris would
  be mad or sad if I asked about him but he wasn't. Buck and Chris found out
  that my dad was in the army. I still wonder about him but I'm glad I have
  Chris. He's my dad now.

  It was a good week. We got to go to a parade and a picnic. I told lots of
  people thank you. Joey got to come home and Buck took me to visit her. Mr.
  Beidler gave me a email from his brother. I never got a email before. It's

It was a good week. I think Vin is starting to trust that he can come to
  Buck or me when he has a problem or a question or just something he wants
  to talk about. I know we'll still go back and forth but this was a good first
  step. I want him to know that he never has to be afraid to tell us anything.
  I'll talk to him about anything. I am here for him.

It was a good week. No one is hurt. No one is sick. Both boys had a good
  week. All the guys had a good week. And I had a very enjoyable conversation
  with a sweet little lady who promised me we'll get together next time she's
  in town. Yessiree, it was a very good week. Buck.

Are we ready to start?

Sure, Uncle Ezra. I sure am glad you're not under the covers anymore.

Me, too, Uncle Ezra.

Well, thank you, gentlemen. I am certainly happy to once again be in the fold.

The fold of what?

That just means I'm happy to be back with you. So, what tales are we going to tell this afternoon?

No tails, just what happened this week.

??? Precisely. Who shall begin?


Very well, JD, tell me about your week.

We went to a parade and a picnic and I talked to lots and lots of people. Hey, Uncle Ezra, did you serve the country?

Not in the sense that I was in the military, JD, but I feel that my working in the ATF does serve our country in an important way.

Does that mean I should go thank all the ATF guys now?

Well, that might be a difficult task.

But if they's serving.

It is a noble thought indeed, JD, but the Veteran's Day observance was designated as a day to recognize those that serve in the United States military. The ATF does not fall into that category.


What about you, Vin? What happened to you this week?

Got a picture.

"You going to the parade tomorrow, Vin?" Jason asked his tablemate as they headed back towards their places with their afternoon snack.

Vin looked up at the other boy, his brow scrunched up in confusion. "What parade?"

"For vet rans day," he stated as if everyone should know. "You remember we get the day off school, don't you?" he added.

"Actually, it's 'Vet-er-an's Day'," Mrs. Roquette enunciated as she approached the two boys. She motioned for the two to sit and took one of the other chairs at the table herself. "We talked about this last week, remember? Veteran's day is a day where we honor those who have served or are serving in the armed forces," she explained patiently. "They defend our country and allow us to keep the freedoms we all live with today." The teacher knew that children in the age range of her students might be a little young to understand all that the holiday stood for but felt it was important to try to educate them on it as much as she could.

Jason's head began to bob excitedly. "Yeah, my dad was at Kuwait when we was fighting them. He flew planes. He even got a medal!"

Mrs. Roquette nodded. "Yes, your dad is in the Air Force, isn't he?"

"Yeah, but he don't fly no more. He broke his leg once and now it don't work all the way right so he had to stop flying. He teaches about flying though."

Mrs. Roquette smiled. "I remember, at the Air Force Academy. Your mother was in the Air Force as well, wasn't she?"

Jason nodded vigorously. "She didn't fly planes. She was a nurse. She quit when my big brother was born."

Mrs. Roquette turned to Vin. "I know your father is an agent with the ATF now, Vin. Do you know if he served in the military?" she asked.

Jason scoffed. "He ain't Vin's dad. Vin don't know his dad. He's a orphan."

Vin turned his eyes immediately to the tabletop as the teacher's eyes grew wide. "Now, Jason, you apologize! That wasn't a nice thing to say."

"But it's true," Jason huffed, turning to the other boy. "Ain't it Vin? It ain't a lie, is it?"

After a long moment's silence, Vin shook his head once. "He ain't my real dad," he stated softly, a catch in his voice.

"See," Jason said as he turned back to the teacher.

"It was still an unkind thing to say and I think you should apologize to Vin."

Jason took a deep breath and forced it out loudly before he turned to the side. "I'm sorry you don't have a real dad, Vin."

"Jason…" The teacher's warning tone told the boy this was not satisfactory.

"I'm sorry for saying that, Vin."

Vin kept his eyes low and shrugged one shoulder. " 't's okay. Don't matter."

Mrs. Roquette watched sadly for several moments. "Jason, why don't you go join Mr. Beidler at the art table."

Even though her tone of voice was soft, Jason knew it was a command and stood up. "Yes, ma'am." He picked up his crackers and juice before he trotted off to a table on the far side of the room.

Mrs. Roquette watched Vin for a few moments before she spoke. "He didn't mean to hurt your feelings, Vin. Sometimes people say things without really thinking about what it is they're saying."

Vin bobbed his head slightly. "Buck says that about JD sometimes," he stated softly.

The teacher smiled. "Yes, sometimes that does describe JD." Her expression turned somber again. "But Jason wasn't trying to hurt you, Vin."

"He lets me call him 'dad' sometimes."

Mrs. Roquette was confused at the non sequitur statement and wrinkled her brow. "What?"

"Chris…he lets me call him dad." He slowly raised hopeful eyes to meet the teacher's, then shrugged in dismissal and added, "but I know he ain't my real dad."

Mrs. Roquette smiled and laid a gentle hand on Vin's cheek. "Real fathers aren't always the ones you are born to, Vin. From what I've seen, Mr. Larabee is your real father."

A slow smile crept up on Vin's face and his eyes glistened with moisture but he didn't say anything, only nodded once.

Mrs. Roquette patted his cheek gently then lowered her hand to the table, tapping it a few times. "Eat your crackers and drink your juice. Join us at the art table when you're ready, okay?" she softly instructed.

"Yes, ma'am," Vin agreed. He watched as his teacher stood and moved to a table at the other side of the room where most of the students in the class were congregating. Looking down in front of him, he poked feebly at the crackers but didn't pick one up. Slowly, he folded his arms on the table and lowered his chin to rest on his hands. He looked across the room at the group of children watching Mr. Beidler draw something on an easel but eventually, his gaze unfocused as what he saw was only in his head.

~~ Vin could feel the gentle swaying as the swing drifted back and forth. He could feel the thumping of the heart in the chest his cheek rested against and he could feel the tickling vibrations from her throat as his mother spoke to him.

"…and they all lived happily ever after," her soft voice concluded the story, the same way all her stories ended.

Vin twisted his small hand into her sweater as he shifted his position slightly. "He's always the hero," he told her.

"So…?" she prompted.

"Why is the hero always the daddy? Why aren't the mommies ever the heroes?"

She tightened her arms a little and smiled. "Well, there are mommies who are heroes but I wanted the daddy to be the hero."

"You're my hero, mama," Vin sighed and snuggled closer to her.

"Thank you, baby," she said softly and leaned over to kiss the top of his head. She kept the swing moving silently for several minutes before she spoke again, her voice barely a whisper. "Boy, you're a Tanner. Don't you ever forget that."

"Same as you," Vin countered.

"Same as your daddy…" ~~

Vin sat up in his chair and pulled his sight into focus on the juice box in front of him. He had never remembered that his mama had mentioned his daddy before. The man had never been a part of his life and he thought his mama was all he ever needed. But what about his daddy…his real daddy? Where was he? Did he know where Vin was? Did he know mama was gone? Did he wonder about Vin at all?

Vin shook his head sharply and looked over at Mrs. Roquette. She had said that Chris was his real father, even though he wasn't the man who had been with his mama. Would Chris be mad that he'd been wondering about the other man, even though it was only for a few minutes? Would Chris be hurt, thinking Vin didn't think of him as his real father? Vin felt his thoughts swimming around in his head, coming at the subject from all sides, and he was getting more and more confused. Silently, he once again folded his arms on the table and rested his chin on his hands, settling in to think some more.

It was nearing the end of the day when the two teachers called all the students to order. Waiting while everyone took their seats and settled down before she spoke, Mrs. Roquette cleared her throat and said, "All right class, before we let you head home for the day, I have a little assignment for you." She waited patiently for the roomful of groans to subside. "We covered a little bit about Veteran's Day last week and Mr. Beidler and I thought it would be nice for all of you to take some time while you're off school tomorrow and tell anybody you know, or meet, who has served in the United States military, or is serving now, that you appreciate their service."

Most of the children who had no direct connection with anybody serving in the military sat with confused expressions on their faces while the others seemed to understand what was being asked of them.

Mr. Beidler stepped up and addressed the class. "Defending our country is a very important and difficult job and we need to let the people who do it know that we are grateful to them for doing it."

"Like my mom and dad," Jason piped up.

"Yes," Mr. Beidler agreed. "And Katie's father, Richard's father and Nicole's mother. Anybody else have a parent in the military?" No one raised their hands but the teachers were fairly sure that some of the parents had at one time spent some time in the service. "Well, ask all the grown-ups you know if they were and if they say 'yes', tell them 'thank you'. Everybody have a fun and safe day off tomorrow, enjoy the parade if you're going, and we'll see you all back after the holiday." With that, the class was dismissed and the students began gathering belongings and moving towards the door.

Vin slipped into his jacket, grabbed his backpack and filed out into the hallway where he found JD waiting for him. As Vin started towards the exit, JD fell in beside him.

"Do you think Buck and Chris are vet-rans?" JD asked.

Vin shrugged. "Dunno."

"We should ask them. Remember to ask them when they get home, okay?"

Vin nodded absently. "I'll try. You remember too."

"Okay. What about Uncle Ezra? Or Uncle Josiah? Or Uncle Nathan? Or Aunt Raine? Or Miz Nettie? Or Mrs. Potter? Or Judge Travis? Or Dr. Will? Or Dr. Jake? Or…" JD prattled on, stopping both his movement and his speech with a gasp.

When Vin realized JD wasn't beside him anymore, he stopped and turned. "What?"

"We should have asked Mr. Beidler and Mrs. Roquette. Let's go back and ask them."

Before Vin could protest and say that Mrs. Potter was probably already out front waiting for them, JD had spun on his heels and dashed back towards their classroom. Shaking his head in defeat, Vin plodded back down the hallway, against the flow of the rest of the student body and stopped in the doorway to their classroom. JD was standing in front of his two teachers, head back, looking up with concern into their faces. Both of the teachers smiled at JD's determination but had to report that they hadn't personally been in any branch of the service but Mr. Beidler told the boy that his brother was currently in the Marines.

"Tell him I said thank you, okay?" JD asked.

Mr. Beidler squatted down to be at eye level with JD. "The very next time I talk to him, I will tell him that. And thank you, JD, for asking."

JD wrinkled his brow for a moment, wondering why his teacher was thanking him for doing what he told him to do but before he could ask about it, Vin called from the doorway, "We gotta go now, JD."

His confusion forgotten, JD darted for the door. "Okay. Bye Mr. Beidler, bye Mrs. Roquette," he called over his shoulder, a hand in the air in a wave.

"Bye, boys," both teachers called back.

Mrs. Potter was waiting beside her car in the circular drive in front of the school building. She glanced at her watch, then looked around at the dwindling number of cars in the area. Finally, she saw the boys exit the front of the building and stepped to the back door of her car.

"I was beginning to wonder if I'd missed you," she told them as JD climbed into the booster seat. Mrs. Potter fastened him in and then checked Vin's straps to make sure he was secured.

The woman was barely settled in her seat when JD asked, "Mrs. Potter, did you ever serve?"

"How do you mean, JD?"

"You know...served...a vet-ran?"

Mrs. Potter nodded as she finally understood. Starting up the car, she replied, "No, JD, I never did serve in the military but my late husband was in the army a long time ago."

JD looked perplexed. How did you thank someone who wasn't around any longer? He sat back in his seat and thought about the situation as Mrs. Potter pulled the car out into traffic and headed for home.

"Hey, the big men are home! Where are the little men?"

"Buck!" JD shouted as he rushed out of the den and into Buck's open arms. "I'm glad you're home."

"Well it sure is great to be home, Little Bit." Buck squeezed the little boy and slobbered a kiss on his cheek.

JD giggled. "Buck," he whined as he reached up and swiped a hand across his face.

Vin had followed JD at a slower pace and was standing beside Chris watching the antics of the other two.

"How was your day, Vin?" Chris asked as he squatted down beside Vin and gave him a quick, gentle hug.

Vin nodded absently, looking at Chris' face. "Okay."

Chris waited a moment to see if there was more but nothing came. "That's it, 'okay'?"

Vin stared at Chris long enough for Chris to get both concerned and uncomfortable but finally Vin shrugged his shoulders and said, "yeah, just okay."

"We don't gots school tomorrow, Buck. What're we gonna do?" JD asked, still wrapped up in Buck's arms.

"Well, gee, I don't…"

"Hey, I need to ask ya somethin'," JD interrupted then swiveled in Buck's arms to face the other boy. "You was supposed to remind me, Vin." JD turned back. "Did you serve, Buck?"

The family moved out of the entrance hall and into the living room as Buck addressed JD's question. "Well, how do you mean, JD? We haven't eaten yet, so I haven't served dinner. I wasn't arrested so I haven't served my time. I don't play tennis so I didn't serve the ball."

JD giggled. "No, Buck. That's not what I mean." He turned serious again. "Did you serve in the militree?"

"Oh," Buck exaggerated catching on to the subject then turned equally serious as he answered the question. "Yes, I did serve our country. I was in the army for two years."

"Then, thank you, Buck."

"You're very welcome, Little Bit," Buck replied with a firm hug.

"What about you, Chris?" JD asked the other man.

"Yes, JD. I was in the Navy for a little over ten years before I started working for the Denver police force."

"Then, thank you, Chris."

"You're welcome."

"Wow…ten years. That's older than me. That's older than Vin!" JD marveled.

"Yeah," Chris agreed, glancing at the other boy who had been exceptionally quiet, even for him. "It did seem like a long time at the time. Now, it doesn't seem like it was so long."

JD turned back towards Buck. "Did you fight lots of bad guys?"

"Well, no, we weren't actually fighting anyone at the time. I spent part of my time stationed in Kentucky and the rest of my time here in Colorado. I took quite a few classes while I was there."

"You went to school when you was in the army?" JD seemed stunned.

"Yeah, and I earned money while I was in the army to finish my degree once I got out."

JD nodded that he understood though the look on his face said he didn't really.

"Dinner will be ready in about ten minutes," Mrs. Potter announced from the doorway to the kitchen. "I think a couple of boys need to go wash up."

"Thanks, Gloria," Chris told her.

"Come on, boys. No eating with grubby paws." Buck herded the two boys towards the bathroom down the hall as Chris made his way into the kitchen.

"You know you don't have to make us dinner, Gloria," Chris repeated the line he had told her on countless other occasions.

She shook her head at the man. "Both my kids have plans for the night. This gives me something to do. You would take that away from me?" She mocked shock as she asked her question.

Chris grinned as he raised his hands in defeat. "Oh, no. I wouldn't dream of it." Lowering his hands, he looked seriously at the woman. "Thank you, Gloria. We really appreciate it."

Gloria grinned shyly back at him. "Anytime, Chris, anytime."

Chris moved up to the counter beside her and peeked into the bowl she was working with. He reached in and grabbed a piece of carrot off the top and popped it into his mouth. She "tsked" him but said nothing.

"Vin seem quiet to you?" Chris asked conversationally as he grabbed another vegetable from the bowl.

"Actually, he has seemed a little preoccupied since I picked him up this afternoon. I've asked him a couple of times if there was anything wrong but he said no."

Chris nodded at the information. "His teachers didn't say anything happened?" he asked, knowing that if something had happened at school that they would have informed her when she picked the boys up.

"No, I never saw them."

"Hmmm," Chris acknowledged and spent few moments reflecting but was drawn away by the noisy return of the rest of the family.

"And since there is no school tomorrow, I think we could stand a video tonight."

"With popcorn?" JD asked as he danced around Buck's legs.

"I think we could do popcorn."

"Yay!" JD skipped his way to the dinner table and scooted into his seat. The rest followed a little more slowly and smiled at the exhuberance of the small boy.

"Do you ever think about your daddy, JD?" Vin asked quietly.

"Buck? Yeah, I think about him all the time, well, except when I'm thinkin' of something else."

Vin shook his head. "No, not Buck. Your real daddy. The daddy who was with your mommy." Vin knew that JD understood the concept of conceiving a child because Chris and Buck had given both boys "the talk" several months before when one of the barn cats had kittens, but judging by JD's confused expression, the boy obviously didn't recall the explanation. Vin sighed forcefully. "'member when Buck and Chris told us that you need a mommy and a daddy to have a kid?… so there had to be a daddy with your mama or there wouldn't be a you."

JD sorted through the question in his mind; a brief look that Vin couldn't identify flitted across his face before he finally answered. "Nope. Had mama. Got Buck and Chris and you. You're my family and that's all I think of."

Vin wondered whether this was completely true or not. He didn't think about anyone but those actually in his life at the time when he was JD's age so maybe that's all JD thought about. He nodded absently that he accepted JD's answer and the younger boy finished getting into his pajamas.

Vin remained still as new questions popped into his head. Why did it suddenly matter to him? Was it because he was older now or just because of what one other boy had said? Was it the memory of his mother that he'd had that afternoon, her actually referencing his father that made him start to wonder? She sounded like she really liked him, wasn't afraid of him or anything, and that it was something Vin should be proud of, having him for a daddy. If he was such a good man, where was he? Why didn't he stay with Vin and his mama? He could have taken care of her, kept her from getting sick.

But maybe he couldn't be with them. Maybe he started dreaming of angels before mama did. Maybe he was with mama now.

Vin shook his head vigorously. Did it really matter who the man was? Chris loved him and was taking care of him now. Shouldn't he be satisfied with that? The more he thought about the subject, the more confused he got.

"Hurry up, Vin. They're waiting for us. I can smell the popcorn," JD complained as he was heading out the door. Startled, Vin finished getting into his pajamas and walked towards the den, his mind still swirling with unanswered questions.

It was chilly the next morning as the men did their chores in the barn, abbreviating some of the tasks in an effort to get back inside to the eager boys. They had all stayed in bed a little longer than on a normal weekday and the sun was already over the horizon.

"So, what are we doing today?" Buck asked as he set a plate of pancakes down in the center of the table.

"Mr. Beidler said there was a parade. Can we go see it?" JD asked.

Buck looked at Chris who shrugged and nodded. "Yeah, I guess we can go see the parade. A few of the city parks are having Veteran's Day picnics. Wanna go to one of those, too?" he asked.

"Will they play games and have lots of food and will there be lots of other kids there and can we ask Uncle Ezra and Uncle Josiah and Uncle Nathan and Aunt Raine to go, too?"

Buck had started snickering halfway through JD's question and had to duck his head to keep the boy from seeing. Now he wiped a hand across his mouth as he raised his head back up. "Well, I imagine that there will be games and food, and there will probably be other kids there, but I think Josiah, Nathan and Raine have to work today. Ezra is taking off a few days so he may be able to join us," Buck replied, trying to answer all the questions.

"Why's Uncle Josiah and Uncle Nathan and Aunt Raine gotta work? It's a holiday, isn't it?" JD asked, perplexed.

"Well, son, this is one of those holidays that not everyone gets off. The mailman gets the day off and banks are closed but a lot of people still have to work. Chris and I were actually supposed to work today but we took off because you and Vin had off."

JD frowned down at his plate and his half eaten pancake. "That's no fun," he pouted, then stuck a too large forkful of food into his mouth, a small trickle of syrup running down his chin.

"What do you think, Vin?" Chris asked, surprised that he hadn't said anything yet.

Vin nodded his head as he swallowed his latest bite of pancake. "Parade sounds fun."

"Do you want to call Uncle Ezra and see if he'll join us?"

JD perked up. "Me!"

"Now, JD, why don't you call Josiah and Nathan, see if maybe they can meet us for lunch at the picnic. Let Vin call Ezra."

"Okay," JD happily replied as he slid off his chair and dashed towards the phone at the other end of the room.

Vin sighed as he followed more slowly after the younger boy.

When he felt the two were out of earshot, Buck leaned over to Chris and in a soft voice asked, "what's up with Vin? He's been so quiet, even for him. Something weighing on him?"

Chris shook his head as he glanced over his shoulder. "I don't know. I asked him last night but he just said nothing was wrong. He's thinking about something though, that's obvious. I just don't want to press him or he'll clam up completely. And playing twenty questions with him is no way to find out what's going on."

Buck agreed. "With Vin, it's more like a hundred and twenty questions. You think he'd tell me? Want me to ask him?"

Chris thought a moment then shook his head. "Let's let him work on it a little longer. He's got an appointment with Dr. Lowery tomorrow. Maybe I'll give him a heads up and see if he can get it out of him."


JD darted back into his seat and picked up a cold piece of bacon from his plate. "Uncle Josiah said they'd meet us at one o'clock at the picnic at the park near them." He took a bite of his bacon and swung his feet happily under the table.

"I guess that'd be Civic Center Park. Sounds good."

A couple minutes later, a less happy Vin stepped up to the table. "Uncle Ezra wasn't home. I talked to his machine and told him about the picnic." Vin shrugged. "Don't know if he's comin' or not."

Chris reached out and gently rubbed a hand up and down Vin's arm. "Well, we'll have the cell phones with us and Ezra knows the numbers. He'll call us when he gets the message."

Vin nodded but his expression showed his doubts. Both boys had gained a special attachment for Ezra since the man began helping them with their memory book last summer. His undercover assignment had taken him away from them for too long and both boys wanted to spend more time with him.

"Well," Buck began, clapping his hands together. "If we're gonna get to town in time for the parade, we'd best get a move on." He shooed the boys away from the table and told them to go get dressed while he and Chris cleared away the dishes and put away any food still out. The washing of the dishes could wait until they got home.

The parade route took it down Main Street and both Chris and Buck knew the downtown area quite well. They found a parking spot reasonably close and found a great spot to watch the parade from. The sun had been shining brightly and took the worst of the chill out of the air, though it was still cool. All four had on light jackets.

The sidewalk filled quickly with hundreds of people lining the street to get a good view. Buck spent most of his time prior to the start of the parade chasing after JD who took off after every person he saw who was wearing a uniform and thanked them for 'serving in the militree'. Buck started off apologizing for the interruptions but it soon became obvious that the people JD spoke to appreciated the recognition and thought the little dark haired boy was just too cute. Grinning proudly, Buck finally took to just following JD, making sure he didn't get lost or into mischief.

Chris and Vin had stayed in the spot they had found to watch the parade. Chris squatted down beside the boy. "Getting excited, Vin?" he asked as he wrapped an arm around him to help keep him warm.

Vin shrugged. "I ain't seen one of these before. What's gonna be here?"

"Well, there will be members of different armed forces units marching, some military vehicles, bands and a few floats, I think."

"Floats like on New Year's Day?"

"Oh, I doubt they'll be that fancy. This parade is to honor our veterans so mostly the stuff in the parade will be about that. The bands will probably be from some of the nearby bases and the floats are probably made by local folks who want to share their experiences."

"How come you aren't in it?"

"I could be if I wanted to, so could Buck and Josiah and Nathan. Usually a group of people from one company will decide to march together. No one's ever asked me so I haven't." Chris shrugged, inwardly wondering if he would march if he was asked.

Vin shivered slightly and leaned into the warmth of Chris' body as he watched the local police directing people off the street and back onto the sidewalk, an indication that the parade was getting close. Within a few moments, they could hear the distant sound of a marching band.

Chris stood up, keeping his hands on Vin's shoulders and looked around for Buck and JD. They appeared beside them from the thickening crowd and Buck made sure JD was able to see, but not able to get too far away.

JD clapped his hands and stomped his feet to the music as each band passed them. He saluted each group of veterans and waved at all the people who were on floats. The only time he fell silent was in awe as a giant tank rumbled passed.

One final band and a mounted unit brought up the rear of the parade. Both boys wanted to go pat the horses but Chris and Buck held them back. They had horses at home they could spend time with.

The crowd slowly dispersed. Many had to return to work, having come out of their offices just for the parade, while others headed for their cars. Chris and Buck had parked between the parade route and the picnic site so the four started walking towards the park.

The parks participating in the picnic had different activities at each one but the food was basically the same at all; hamburgers, hot-dogs, corn-on-the-cob, various side dishes and drinks. There were tables set up at one end of the park to distribute the food and dozens of tables arranged nearby for the attendees to eat at. Children's activities had been set up at several locations, as were displays of a variety of military vehicles.

"We've got a little while before the guys are supposed to meet us. You boys want to wander around and look at things or go play some of the games?" Buck asked.

"Can't we do both?" JD asked.

"Well, yeah," Buck told him then scanned the area. He pointed to a nearby display. "We can start there and work our way around there," he described, swinging his arm to show the direction. "If we time it right, we should hit the food about the time the guys show up. How does that sound?"

"Works for me," Chris said as he reached down and grabbed one of Vin's hands, not intending on losing the boy in the growing crowd. Buck did the same with JD and the family began moving towards the first activity.

The games the boys played were ones that it would have been hard not to win a prize at and both came away with several small trinkets. The military vehicles they saw were impressive to them mostly because of their size, not for what they could do. Both boys seemed to enjoy both the activities and the displays.

It was ten minutes to one when a deep voice rumbled from behind. "We snuck out a little early. Don't tell the boss."

Chris turned around to see Josiah standing behind him, Nathan next to him. "Hey boys," he greeted.

"Uncle Josiah!" JD shouted, pulling free of Buck so he could raise his arms up to the big man and be lifted high in the air. Josiah accommodated him and soon JD was head and shoulders above the crowd.

"Seems like a good turnout," Nathan noted as he looked around the park.

"Yeah, pretty good," Chris agreed. "You boys ready to eat?"

Buck grinned and nodded. "I could eat."

The group moved to the lines at the food tables and worked their way through. Finding an empty table big enough to hold them all, they sat down and began eating. Conversation was light as the men filled up on the picnic goodies.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at a fairly leisurely pace. Nathan and Josiah had to return to the team seven office shortly after they finished their meals. Buck had to keep close tabs on JD as the boy started asking more people if they served. He seemed to gain a lot of pleasure from being able to thank folks for their service, even though Buck was pretty sure JD didn't really understand what could be involved with serving one's country. Sometimes it could be very scary.

Vin stayed close to Chris, often keeping his hand in his as they wandered, even when the crowd around them wasn't so big. He watched people in a way that he hadn't before. He saw many children with their parents and the question of his own father kept intruding in his mind. He would often look up at Chris and try to convince himself that he had the best man to be his father and shouldn't worry about the man who had been with his mama. But the thoughts kept returning.

"How are you doing, Vin?" Chris asked the boy later in the afternoon. "You 'bout ready to head home?"

"If everybody else is," Vin replied.

"Not getting tired?" Chris asked as he leaned over to look Vin in the eye.

"I'm okay. We can stay."

"Well, I'm getting tired and I'm sure Buck would appreciate a break from chasing JD around." Chris smiled as he said it and Vin knew he was teasing about JD. Chris straightened back up and called to Buck that it was time to leave.

Shortly after they had gotten home, the phone rang. Ezra had spent the day taking a long, leisurely drive through the countryside to help ease still tense nerves from his extended undercover assignment and had only just arrived home and gotten Vin's message. He spoke to both boys and each one told him about the parade and picnic, and both boys expressed their disappointment that Ezra hadn't been there to share the day. He, of course, was properly apologetic and told them that he would never again leave the city without first clearing it with them.

"How's your lip, Uncle Ezra?" JD asked, as he had practically every time the two had spoken since the incident that left Ezra with a split lip.

"Nearly back to its old self. The swelling is completely gone and there is just a tiny cut left to heal."

"I'm sorry 'bout that," JD apologized yet again.

"Think nothing of it, my boy." Ezra couldn't convince JD that there were no repercussions from the errant foot that found his mouth the previous week but the boy felt the need to continue to repent.

They talked a few more moments and then all said their good nights.

It had been a long day and both boys were obviously tired. When the adults called bath time, they got the usual groans but they were more the irritable complaints of tired children rather than any serious objection to going through the evening routine. The bath went quickly and the boys were actually in bed a little before their scheduled bedtime.

Checking on the boys later that evening, Chris silently pushed open the door to the boys' room and let the light from the hallway filter in, joining with the small amount of light from the night light. Once his eyes had adjusted to the dimmer interior, he stepped up to the side of the bed. He gazed lovingly at the boy in the top bunk, his face turned towards the wall and Cat clutched against his chest. Smiling, he reached up and tugged the covers a little higher up on the boy's shoulders.

Chris was startled as Vin gasped slightly and turned his head quickly towards him.

"Sorry, Vin. I didn't mean to scare you," Chris whispered as he patted Vin's shoulder lightly.

"I didn't hear you come in."

"What are you doing still awake?"

Vin half shrugged his shoulder. "Just thinkin'."

"Anything I can help with?" Chris asked, trying to sound casual. He'd been avoiding pressing Vin on whatever it was that was bothering him but once in a great while he was able to get Vin to open up a little if he sounded more like a friend than a parent.

Vin pressed his lips together and furrowed his brow, finally forcing out a loud breath and turning his eyes away.

Chris patted the boy's shoulder a few times. "Remember our deal?"

Vin shifted his eyes back until they met Chris' and nodded solemnly.

Chris leaned forward and asked seriously, "Is anybody gonna get hurt?"

Vin shook his head after a moment's thought.

Chris straightened up and patted Vin's shoulder again. "Then you tell me when you're ready. Okay?"

Vin nodded, shifting his position and squeezing Cat to him.

Chris watched him for a few moments. "You best try to get some sleep. Back to school tomorrow, and don't forget, you have an appointment with Dr. Lowery after school."

"Okay," Vin whispered around a yawn.

Another pat on his shoulder, a quick check on JD and Chris left the room.

Vin stared at the partially closed door for several minutes, finally letting his eyes fall shut as he fell asleep.