Old Anne's Eyes: A New Year's Story

By LaraMee

Buck arrived a short time later, pulling his truck up into the garage next to Larabee's. Chris heard him before he entered the house. He moved quickly to intercept him before the big man turned the air blue. "Problems with the tire, pard?"

"Not with the tire but with those-"

"Little ears, Buck," the blond reminded his old friend. It had become their codeword when one of the two men, long used to giving full vent to their anger through coarse language, forgot that there were children in the house.

Flashing a dark blue glare at his old friend Wilmington continued, "Drivers. At least half a dozen of them splashed me with slush, and one got so close I-" He took a deep breath before finishing. "I thought he was going to hit me."

"You okay?"

Holding up his arms Wilmington indicated the wet clothing clinging to his lanky frame. "Just a little soaked. But I'm gonna have to clean out the inside of my truck before I go pick up Kerry."

"We still have time. How about the boys and I do that while you get a shower?"

The anger slowly melting from his handsome features, the big man said, "I owe you a big one, stud."

"I'll get back to you on that, pard. I figure you owe me quite a few for leaving me alone with the hoard tonight."

"You know me and Kerry's got a standing date for New Year's Eve. And I wasn't the one to volunteer to host this shindig." His lingering frustration had Buck's voice rising.

"Yeah? Well you started it, didn't you? You're the one that told J.D.-" Chris, on edge as well, didn't realize that his own voice was rising to match that of his friend.

"Now I just told him--"

"Well you could have just - "

"Are you guys mad?"

The two men stopped in mid-sentence turning to find their two foster sons standing in the doorway, watching them. Big eyes stared up from two small faces, and JD was standing close enough to Vin to be attached at the hip. The two men looked at one another and then the children with guilty expressions.

"No, we weren't fighting. Buck and I were just, well we just…"

"We were just havin' a real loud discussion about some bad drivers I saw on the way home while ago," Wilmington finished the excuse that Larabee had begun.

"Yeah, there were some really careless people that got Buck wet while ago, and the inside of his truck is a mess. We have time before we have to get ready for the party. Would you guys like to come help me clean it up while he gets a shower?" Chris asked the two boys.

"Sure, we gots time 'fore anybody shows up." Vin said, repeating his father's words.

The two boys ran into the mud room emerging a short time later with old boots and jackets on. Chris was waiting for them with the cleaning supplies and the trio marched out to the garage to take care of Buck's truck.

It took some time for them to clean the interior of Buck's big red truck. There was soggy crud all over the floorboards and bench seat. They grabbed up towels, drying the seat as much as possible. Not satisfied, Chris turned on the truck and then turned on the heater full blast.

Turning to the two boys and noting that they were all three damp and dirty, Larabee said, "Looks like the three of us need to get in there and get cleaned up ourselves now, as long as Buck didn't take all the hot water."

Leading the children from the garage, Chris decided to get them headed toward the bathroom and then return a little later to turn the truck off.

The hour neared, and the blond man could feel his anxiety level rising. He had found it necessary to referee three shouting matches while the boys hurried to get ready. Buck had even added to the ruckus, appearing at his bedroom door to call for quiet as well. He was trying to catch a short nap before leaving for his date, knowing that it would last well into the early morning hours at least. Then there were the phone calls. Of the seven boys coming, three of their mothers called to ask for directions, even though he had printed out maps to give them. Then Josiah called to see if there was anything he needed to pick up, that called quickly followed by one from Orrin Travis wishing them a happy New Year. The blond barely had time to get into the shower and change his clothes. Something tugged at him, but he sat it aside, knowing that he had to keep on top of the party preparations if things were to go off even moderately well.

Now the boys were camped out in front of the window watching anxiously for signs of their party guests. Larabee looked up from where he was stirring the chili on the stove at the sound of two voices squealing happily, "They're here! They're here!"

Checking to make sure the stove was on low Chris set aside the ladle and strode quickly through the house. Looking out the front window he was relieved to see that their first guest was Josiah Sanchez. The big profiler pulled up to the very end of the driveway, got out and opened the back door. Leaning inside, he reappeared seconds later. He lifted a little boy out of his vehicle, setting the snow suit and boot clad child on the ground. As soon as his feet came in contact with the earth the boy began running toward the front door of the house.

"It's Andy! Andy!" J.D. squealed as he leapt from the chair he'd been perched on and ran toward the front door. Before Chris could even react, the little brunet had the door opened and was standing at the threshold in stocking feet calling, "Hi Andy!"

"Hi JD! My mommy said I was s'posed to tell you thank you for imbitin' me to your party. Thank you for imbitin' me to your party, JD!"

"Me and Vin is gonna share you, Andy," the five year old explained as only a five year old could. "Tommy gotted sick, so he can't come. I telled Vin that since me an' him both like you the same you could be both of our guests."

"Okay." Andy said with a shrug.

Chris looked up, locking eyes with those of his co-host. He could see a mixture of amusement and bemusement in the big man's brilliant blue eyes. With a soft chuckle he said, "Nice trip?"

"Well let's just say I have whole new appreciation for how quiet JD can be." Sanchez said softly.

Adopting a pained expression, the blond said, "Ouch."

Coming to stand before his supervisor and friend the bigger man said, "Don't be surprised if I put in a PTO request come Monday morning."

Slapping the big man on the shoulder Larabee said, "You write it up and I'll sign it."

Their attention was drawn to the other side of the room by a trio of squeals. Andy had joined the other two in watching the drive, his snowsuit and boots tossed on the floor. They looked to see three little boys watching out the window, excited expressions on their faces.

"There's more… There's more!" JD cried.

The two men looked out, seeing not one but three SUV's coming up the drive.

Turning to the other man, Chris said softly, "Here we go."

All of the guests had arrived by 5:15. Backpacks and overnight bags, sleeping bags and pillows accompanied the diminutive guests. Everything but the outerwear was stored away in the boys' bedroom, coats and other cold weather gear taken to the mud room. The two chaperones listened to last minute worries and concern, instructions and food allergies, Josiah resorting to scribbling the most important information on a notepad. Finally the other parents had left for their own celebrations, while Chris and Josiah found themselves hip deep in noisy and excited little boys. Just as Larabee was entertaining thoughts of firing his gun into the ceiling to get their attention Josiah solved the noise problem. Pulling a referee's whistle from beneath his sweatshirt the big profiler blew it sharply three times. Immediately the little boys grew quiet, staring up at the big man with looks of surprise.

"Okay fellas here's the thing," Sanchez said Calmly. "Since it's not bad outside today, we're gonna go out for little bit and play in the snow. How does that sound?"

Of chorus of "yeah"s and "okay"s rang up through the house in response.

Fifteen minutes later, amazingly keeping close to Vin's "'genda", the seven little boys and two men were dressed and out the back door. Chris and Josiah watched from the deck as the children frolicked in the snow, the air filled with the sounds of happiness. Although the sun had set, the big security light made it seem like daylight in the yard. The boys even incorporated that in their play, making the darkness at the edges of their playing field 'out of bounds'. Then a chorus of barks and howls joined the festivities from the large dog pen at the far side of the yard. Both Vin and J.D. stopped in their play and looked from where Ringo and Elvis peered excitedly through the chain link barriers, to the deck where Chris and Josiah stood watching.

"Well, what do you think?" Larabee asked.

"I say we check with the boys and see if anyone's afraid of dogs," the bigger man said.

They did just that, calling the children to the deck and asking them honestly if anyone have any problems with having the dogs loose. Both adults watched the children closely making certain that answers weren't based on peer pressure rather than truth. When it appeared that all the boys would be happy to have the canine contingent of the Larabee-Wilmington household join them, Chris went to the gate and unlocked it. Soon the noise level grew even louder as the pups excited yips and barks joined in with the squeals and laughter of the little boys.

The two men were enjoying standing on the deck far enough away from the action to avoid all but the farthest thrown snowballs, when Buck exited the back door. Chris looked up, giving a low whistle in response to seeing the big man so dressed up. Wilmington was wearing his dress coat over a rather expensive looking tuxedo, complete with crisp white shirt, bow tie and cummerbund. Larabee scanned from the top of the neatly coifed black hair to the toes of the man's galoshes covered dress shoes.

"Well I've got to say you clean up pretty good, pard," the blond said with a chuckle.

Holding out his arms and affecting a slow turn Wilmington said "Well shoot son, when y' look as good as I do anyway, you can't help but look good cleaned up."

"And so modest, too," Sanchez added.

Just as Wilmington was completing his turn his mouth flew open, the color drained from his face, and he ducked low. Larabee and Sanchez were shocked to see a small white missile sail just over the brunet's head. The two men turned to find one of the little boys staring up with them in shock.

"I- I… I didn't mean to, honest, Mr. Wi'min'ton. I'm real sorry. I won't do it again."

With a small smile Chris spoke up. "No harm done, Jason."

Coming up behind his friend, Buck growled under his breath, "No harm, huh? I just about had to go back in and change my drawers. Do you know what it cost to rent this thing?"

"More than I'd like to know about, I'm sure." The blond said with a shake of his head.

Recovering his composure, the bigger man slapped his friend on the shoulder and said cheerfully, "Well you boys have a great time, hear? Don't wait up for me now, all right?"

"You've got about five seconds before I get my gun," Larabee whispered in mock anger.

Wilmington's laughter could be heard as he walked to the garage. All seven of the children stood holding snowballs, nervously watching the well dressed man walk past them. Even the two pups seemed to be holding back. As soon as the garage door closed behind him, the melee resumed. The air once more filled with the sounds of joy and more of the small white missiles.

The two men resumed watching over their little flock of exuberant grade schoolers. Barely a moment had passed however before the garage door opened once again. Caught by surprise, the children were unable to stop the play in time. One of the snowballs splattered Buck right in the jaw. All seven fell silent, coming together in a little knot as blue eyes flared angrily in their direction. Without a word to the boys the lanky agent strode across to the yard stepping up onto the deck. Eyes still blazing he said as calmly as possible, "Chris? Did you by chance leave my truck running?"

"All sh-shoot." Chris slapped his forehead with the heel of his hand, appalled that he had let something so important slip his mind. "It was still wet inside, so I left the heater on to dry out the seats and floor before you left. I'm sorry, Buck. I got busy with the boys and getting things ready and… I'm sorry. Do I need to ask?"

"Just tell me this… How much gas have you got in your truck?"

Man, was Buck mad at Chris for forgetting to turn off his truck.

Well he wouldn't have if you hadn't almost overflowed the bathtub.

It was your fault, you kept hollering at me an banging on the door.

Well you was taking so much time that I -

Gentlemen, is there a problem here?

No Uncle Ezra.

No Uncle Ezra.

We was just disgusting why Chris left Da's truck running and it run out of gas.


What are you laughing at Vin?

The computer thought you said disgusting JD.

It did? Where?

There ??? see.

Gentlemen, perhaps you could continue your narrative?

Our ???

Narrative, JD. Story.

Oh! Okay. Well, Chris got busy cause he was trying to make me an Vin be quiet and get baths and get ready for the party and he forgot to go back and turn off the truck and the truck was out of gas when Buck went to go pick up Miss Kerry for their date.

Yeah, but that wasn't as bad as what he did to Chris' truck!

He didn't mean to!

I didn't say he did!

Gentlemen! Please, continue.

They had put the dogs back in their kennel and herded the little party inside a short time later, ending the protests with the promise of continuing excitement. The two men ushered the children first into the mud room. Wet coats, mittens, hats, gloves, boots, snowsuits and snow pants were soon piled on the floor. While Josiah herded the flushed faced little boys into the other room, Chris sorted through the pile. He threw some of the things into the washer, hung the rest up to dry and lined pairs of boots along the wall.

Looking around, he decided that he had done all he could do. With no other choice, he left the quiet room and went to help the other man.

To Larabee's surprise and earning his eternal gratitude, Josiah had the boys cleaned up, changed into dry clothes, and corralled in the den. Even better than that, they were all being quiet. The big man was telling them stories, his deep voice rumbling softly through T'was the Night Before Christmas. On their part, all seven boys sat, enthralled as the gray-haired man wove his tale.

Then Chris frowned as he realized that there were eight people in the audience. Padding over to where Buck sat in one of the recliners, he whispered, "Why are you still here?"

With a sigh, Wilmington whispered back, "Kerry called a few minutes ago. Her plane was delayed, so she won't be ready for a while."

Shaking his head the blond said, "Sorry about that, pard."

Shrugging broad shoulders, the brunet replied, "Perils of dating a stew - flight attendant. The restaurant agreed to hold our reservations until nine."

With a grin the senior agent said, "So, if you're gonna be around, you want to help out with the party for a while?"

Looking at his tux, over at the boys, then at his friend, Buck said, "Don't think so, cowboy. They're all yours."

"You're all heart," Chris said. He walked from the room, the bigger man's laughter trailing behind him.

Going into the kitchen, Larabee began setting out the food for dinner. They had decided to set things up cafeteria style in the kitchen. He and Josiah would serve the boys and then send them into the dining room to eat. The dining room table was covered in a brightly colored, heavy plastic cloth that would protect the hardwood surface.

"Chris, c'n I help?"

The blond looked up from stirring the chili to see Vin standing in the doorway. The seven year old was smiling, obviously enjoying the evening. In that second the man knew there was nowhere he'd rather be. Putting that smile on the usually somber little boy's face was worth any amount of stress riding roughshod over the party-goers brought him.

Smiling back at the child, the man said, "Sure can, cowboy. Wanna tell the others that dinner is served?"

"Sure!" Little Tanner turned and sprinted back toward the den.

Within seconds the sound of several sets of light footsteps rang through the house. In their wake came a heavier, slower set as well. Seven little boys appeared in the kitchen, Josiah right behind them.

Affecting his best 'cowboy voice', Chris drawled, "Howdy boys. Welcome to the chuck wagon. Let me give y'all some rules real quick. Me and my pard, Mr. Sanchez, will help y'all dip up yer vittles. When y' get yer grub, head on into the mess hall. Find a seat and wait for yer pards to join y'. Once everyone's there, we'll start eatin'. How's that sound?"

As one, seven little boys said, "Huh?"

With a chuckle, the blond said, "Line up over there. Mr. Sanchez and I will help you get your food. When you get everything, go find a seat in the dining room. When everyone is sitting down, we'll eat."

Seven voices responded, "Oh."

During the next several minutes Chris found himself reliving a summer during high school. He had taken a job at a McDonald's in order to earn money for his first car. By the time he had served the last child, he vowed to be a lot nicer to the staff the next time the boys talked him into Happy Meals for lunch.

The two adults quickly fixed their own plates, joining the children. The noise level dropped slightly at their entrance, but continued to bounce off the walls. They were both surprised to see that the boys had actually followed directions. All seven sat at the table waiting for permission to begin.

Chris took a seat at one end of the table, Josiah at the other. As soon as the okay was given the room erupted in a feeding frenzy. The two men watched as the food was quickly devoured. Bowls of chili were emptied, hot dogs disappeared. Larabee smiled when one of the boys quietly reached out and took one of the carrot sticks he had set out despite the boys' warnings. Even though the child dipped it in his soup, at least he was eating it.

The two men were kept busy refilling bowls and fixing sandwiches, their own dinners growing cold. After the requests slowly faded, the children toying with what was left of their dinners, the blond said in feigned innocence, "Gee, it looks to me like the boys are too full for dessert. What do you think, Josiah?"

"Think you might be right, boss. What was dessert again?"

"Well, we were going to set up a brownie and sundae bar." He paused. Seven mouths popped open and seven pairs of eyes widened. Posing a frown, he said, "You boys aren't still hungry… are you?"

A chorus of 'yeahs!' rang out, causing the two men to smile.

"Okay, tell you what. Vin, JD, you bring in the wastebasket and bus the table. Josiah and I will get the bar set up. The rest of you, just sit still, okay? It will just take a couple of minutes." With that Larabee moved toward the kitchen, the bigger man right behind him.

Vin and JD followed, retrieving the kitchen trash can from beneath the counter before heading back toward the dining room. They were both chattering like magpies, for once Vin holding his own in the conversation.

Chris paused in his actions, watching the boys. His own face brightened in a smile at their excitement. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he turned to see the older man watching him. Sanchez's face was covered in a wide smile as well. No words passed between the men, but they both nodded in silent agreement. Their lives were all the better for having the two boys in them.

They quickly sat out the dessert foods. There were four kinds of ice cream, two types of brownies that Larabee had kept warm in the oven, and eight types of syrup toppings. Sprinkles, whipped cream, nuts, banana slices and cherries completed the array.

Just as he was going to call the boys, Chris heard the noise level rise in the other room. With a frown, he said, "I'd better go check."

"Good luck," Sanchez said with a wink.

Reaching the dining room door, Larabee says their two foster sons standing toe to toe. Vin was red-faced, his tone angry.

"You take that back, JD! Right now!"

"I ain't gonna, an' you can't make me!"

"Wanna bet?"

With a sharp whistle, Chris got the attention of every child in the room. "Okay, what's going on here?" When all seven of them started speaking at once, he held up a hand for silence. Turning to the oldest boy in the group he said, "Daniel, you tell me… what happened?"

"Vin an' JD was clearin' the table, an' JD said Vin was real good at it, 'cause he volunteer's t' help out Miss Lottie in th' lunch room all the time. Then Vin got mad."

Frowning down at the younger boy, Larabee said, "JD?"

"I didn't mean nothin'!"

"Yeah you did, you was - "

"Vin, calm down," the blond said gently. "Both of you come with me, okay?"

Nodding, eyes downcast, the two boys followed the man from the dining room and into the kitchen. As they entered, Josiah gave Chris a quick nod and a wink, leaving to chaperone their five guests.

Settling on one of the kitchen chairs, Larabee leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. Looking at each of the children in turn, he said, "Okay, what's up guys?"

"He said - "

"He was - "

"Hang on a minute… JD, were you teasing Vin?"

Black hair bobbing, the little cherub said softly, "Yes, sir."

"Haven't we talked about teasing before?"

"Yes, sir."

"What do you think you should do now?"

Frowning at the adult through the black fringe of bangs, the child said, "Um, not do it any more?"

"That's a start. How about saying something to Vin?"

Turning to his friend, JD said, "I didn't know I wasn't s'posed t' say nothin' to you 'bout Miz Lottie."

"JD," Larabee fought a growing sense of exasperation. "How about an apology? As in telling Vin you're sorry for making him angry?"

"Oh! I'm sorry, Vin!"

"S' okay," young Tanner said softly.

"Now," Chris turned to the older boy, "what about you, Vin? What do you think you should say to JD?"

Heaving a heavy sigh, the seven year old said, "Sorry I hollered at y', JD."

"All right, we're going to talk more about this later, but for now we'll let it go so you don't miss your own party. JD, no more teasing and Vin watch the temper. Agreed?"



Smiling, the blond said, "Okay, now, get back in there and finish your job so we can have dessert, okay?"

"Okay!" The two boys said in unison before hurrying from the room.

A minute later they returned, leading their friends toward the dessert bar. Josiah came to take his place beside Chris on one side of the table, the boys lined up on the other. Larabee said cheerfully, "Okay, gentlemen, the bar's open!"

Soon the boys were settled back in the dining room, each eating a tailor made dessert. Chris was happy to see that none of them seemed to notice that most of what they were eating had come from the 'sugar free' sections of the dairy and bakery.

Just as the boys were finishing, a loud "AH SHIT!" could be heard over the party noise. As the boys erupted into gales of laughter, Larabee leapt to his feet as Buck ran into the room.

"Little ears Buck," the smaller man admonished.

"Why the - why didn't you wake me up?"

"Maybe because I didn't know you had fallen asleep?" Chris folded his arms across his chest, leveling a look at the other man.

Heaving a sigh as he struggled to calm down, Wilmington said, "Sorry. I was supposed to leave for Kerry's about fifteen minutes ago. Where's your keys?"

"I gave them to you earlier, remember?"

Patting his pockets, Buck said, "Oh… yeah." Locating the keys, he smiled, tipping an imaginary hat. "Later!"

"Have fun, Da!" JD bounded across the room, little arms outstretched.

Chris caught the child just before little, ice cream coated hands made contact with the expensive tuxedo. "Hold on there, buddy. We don't want to mess up Buck's clothes."

Looking down at his hands, stains of chocolate and raspberry sauce smeared over his pudgy palms, the little boy's gaze lifted to meet his father's. "Ooops! Sorry, Da!"

Managing a grin, Wilmington said, "No problem, Little Bit." With that, he hurried from the room. The gathering heard him jogging through the house and out the door.

Turning to the boys, Chris said, "Okay guys. Let's get everyone cleaned up, then you can go play in the great room. How does that - "

With a chuckle as they beheld only seven little departing backs, Josiah said, "I take it that they like the idea."

Rolling his eyes, the other man said, "Flip you to see which one of us goes to take care of which clean-up detail?"

Shaking his head, the bigger man said, "No deal, boss. I'll clean this up, you chaperone the boys."

With a groan and a muttered, "Gee thanks", Chris moved from the room. His heavy footsteps rang through the house like a doomed man heading for the gallows.

Just as Larabee disappeared they all heard a rather ominous 'thump' coming from outside. Seven boys and two men were quickly at the glass doors leading outside.

"Ah… no," Sanchez groaned. "I completely forgot."

"Oh man, Dad," Vin whispered as he moved closer to the blond.

"Da! Da!" JD yelled. Looking up at Chris, he said, "Da had a wreck!"

Scooping the little boy up, Larabee said, "He's okay, kiddo. It's just a little fender bender… an accident."

As if to prove the man right, Buck appeared. Checking the two vehicles first, he then turned a baleful look toward the house.

Larabee slid the door open. "You okay?"

"Fine," Wilmington said, barely restrained anger in his voice.

"How bad?"

"Bumpers are locked, can't tell otherwise."

"I'm sorry, Buck," Josiah offered. "I knew Chris used that side of the garage and parked there to stay out of your way."

With a sigh, Wilmington said, "Not your fault. I didn't look behind me, just backed out as soon as the door got high enough. I'm gonna go change and try to get them separated."

"I'll help," the older man said. He went to retrieve his coat while Buck went to change.

Chris inwardly cringed at the thought of being the only adult with the boys for the time being. Dredging up a smile he said, "Okay guys, let's get you all cleaned up and then you can go play." He herded the little group toward the bathroom.

Fed and cleaned up, the seven boys were playing in the great room a short time later. Larabee stood off to one side where he could keep an eye on the action. He couldn't help but smile at the sound of laughter ringing through the house. Vin was involved in a tower building contest with Daniel and Jesse, all three boys trading genial taunts and challenges back and forth. JD was busy creating his own little world with Sam, plastic farm animals being corralled inside plastic fences. The last two boys, Andy and Jason were racing cars back and forth across the hardwood floor.

As Jason lost control of his vehicle, sending it end over end along the floor, all seven boys flinched, looking up at the tall blond. Taking a deep, calming breath, the agent said only, "Let's be a little more careful, okay?"

The sound of the doorbell called Chris into the foyer. Looking out onto the porch he smiled as he recognized the trio waiting there. Opening the door, he greeted the Granger family. Matthew held their young daughter, Joey, in his arms while his wife, Abby, stood beside them, holding a pair of tiny crutches. Larabee felt his heart go out to the little girl who had lost her leg several weeks earlier.

"Hi! Glad you could make it. Come on in." He stood back holding the door open for the family to enter. As she came into the brighter light of the entryway, Larabee could see the nervous pinch to Joey's face. The little girl had attended the school pageant a couple of weeks earlier, but wasn't back in school yet.

Seeing the ATF agent's eyes searching her daughter's face, Abby Granger said softly, "Josephine's a little nervous about this. Other than JD she really hasn't been around the other kids since… the accident."

Seeing that the entire family seemed nervous, Larabee said, "Well they're wound up, but everyone's in good moods. Can I take your coats?"

Nodding in response, Matthew lowered his daughter to the ground. Chris smiled to see that she was wearing her prosthetic leg, most of it hidden beneath a pair of jeans. She stood somewhat awkwardly, suffering her father's attention as he helped her take off her coat. Larabee knelt in front of her, smiling as he said softly, "JD told me that you're doing really well with your new leg."

Returning his smile with a shy one of her own, Joey said, "Still can't use it much, but I can walk on it a little if I use my crunches."

Smiling at her the blond said, "Well that's great, honey." He stood then, taking the Grangers coats and hanging them in the coat closet. Then he led the way back toward the noise. Joey followed directly behind him, moving slowly with the aid of her 'crunches', her parents close behind her.

As they entered the room, JD just happened to look up from where he was playing. His little face broke into a wide grin and he called out, "Joey!"

The other boys looked up at his call, their eyes all settling on the already self conscious little girl. Joey stopped in her tracks, leaning back against her father's leg. He dropped a hand onto her slender shoulder protectively.

Chris inwardly cringed, uncertain of just how to keep things from going badly. Before he could formulate a plan, though, his five year old foster child came bouncing across the room toward them. He skidded to a halt just short of careening into the little blond girl. His face still glowing with happiness he said, "Hi Joey I didn't know you was comin' to our party Da said we could only 'vite boys 'cause it's a sleepover an' so I didn't 'vite you so who 'vited you to come?"

Her shyness waning under her friend's excited speech, Joey giggled. "Hi JD. Mr. Larabee called my Daddy and axed him if I could come out for a little while."

"Cool c'mon let's go play!"

She hesitated, once more seeing the other boys simply staring at her. Even Vin's blue eyes were watching her every move. She leaned even harder against her father's leg. "I… I can't… I'll just watch… okay?"

The glow on the little face faded slightly, but little boy Dunne only said, "'Kay. Maybe we could just sit over here an' talk. Would that be okay?"

Smiling, Joey said, "Okay."

The tiny twosome settled on the couch, JD entertaining his surprise guest with his typical high speed chatter. The other boys watched for a little longer, then returned to their play.

Turning to the Grangers' Larabee said, "Can I get you something to drink?"

Not taking his eyes off his daughter, Matthew said, "Uh, no, thanks." He moved closer to the couch, his stance protective.

Hearing a soft sigh come from beside him Chris turned to see Abby Granger watching her husband and daughter. He took in the sad expression and knew that this wasn't an unusual occurrence since the little girl's accident. "He's scared."

Nodding, and looking up at the man with barely restrained tears in her eyes, Mrs. Granger said, "Yes. He's so worried that she's going to be teased and made fun of. He wants to keep her home all the time, home school her and…"

"And protect her against all the bad things in the world," Larabee guessed.

"Yeah. I keep telling him that he can't but… well, you know how fathers can be. They want to keep all the bad things away from their children."

"Yeah," Chris agreed in a slightly trembling voice. Even while he watched the thin seven year old across the room, he was seeing another little boy who smiled at him from his memories.

"Of all the times to -" The booming voice rang out over the childrens', causing everyone to turn their attention toward the hallway. Flinching, Larabee moved quickly down the hall to intercept his old friend.

Catching Buck near his bedroom door, Chris said, "What's wrong now?"

Holding up his left hand, which the blond belatedly realized was wrapped in a handkerchief, Wilmington said, "I cut my fu… my da… my hand!"

Grimacing, his mind immediately conjuring up a trip to the ER which was bound to be crowded tonight Larabee said, "Bad?"

Heaving a heavy sigh, the mustached agent said, "Nah, it ain't even hardly bleedin'. Just can't believe it happened. Could this night get any worse?"

Not even bothering to cover his smile, the smaller man said, "Only for you, stud. Did you get the trucks separated?"

Leaning against the door facing, Buck said, "Yeah, finally. Didn't do much damage, cover on your left taillight's gonna need replaced, it's cracked. I've gotta get my hand cleaned up, get me cleaned up…" he shook his head. "They ain't gonna hold the reservations long enough."

Seeing the defeated slump in the broad shoulders, Chris found himself feeling badly for his old friend. "Look, you go get cleaned up and I'll see if I can do something about the reservations, okay?"

A cocky grin settling on the handsome face, agent Wilmington said, "You gonna glare at 'em over the phone?"

Slapping the bigger man on the arm, Chris said, "If I have too. Where's Josiah?"

"Right here, boss," the deep voice announced its owner as he entered the hallway.

"Can you keep an eye on the boys and entertain the Grangers for me?"

"Joey and her folks made it?" Buck asked his face lighting up.

"Yeah," Larabee said simply.

Seeing the concerned expression dart across his friend's face, the brunet said, "Something wrong?"

"Just thinking maybe I should have thought this out more. All of the boys, except JD, just sat there staring at her. I thought the poor kid was gonna melt into the floor and her father's standing over her looking ready to pounce on anyone who gets near his little girl."

"You did the right thing, Chris," Josiah said softly. "She's going to be dealing with this sort of thing for the rest of her life. I'll see what I can do."

Nodding his appreciation, Larabee said, "Thanks." Then, turning to Wilmington he said, "You go get a shower and let me see what I can do about the restaurant. Then we'll get you patched up and out the door."

I was real surprised when Joey came to our party but she couldn't play. She don't know how to use her new leg too good yet. And then it made her sad cause you guys wouldn't say nothing to her but it made me kind of mad cause you guys hurt her feelings.

???? I didn't mean to hurt her feelings, JD. It's just that… it makes me feel kind of… funny when I see her.


I don't know, it just does.

May I suggest something, gentlemen?


Perhaps it is simply that, in the face of Ms. Granger's misfortune you find yourself at a loss. You aren't certain as to how you should behave around her.

Uncle Ezra…

Your pardon. What I'm saying is that Vin doesn't know how to act around Joey since she lost her leg.

Why? She's just Joey.

Exactly, my dear nephew. Exactly.