Major Characters: Chris, Buck, Mary, Vin, JD, Billy
Buck and Chris stood side by side on the porch of the ranch house and waved.
"Do you really think this is a good idea?" Buck asked, still smiling. He tried not to move his lips too much when he spoke. He didn't want anyone sitting in the mini-van to notice.
Chris kept on smiling as well. "I think she can handle them. Don't you?"
"I sure hope so," Buck muttered.
They watched as Mary slowly backed the mini-van out of the driveway. She had invited Vin and JD to spend the night with Billy. It was to be the first sleep over for all of them. Mary was certain that they'd be fine, but Chris had been on the verge of insisting that he spend the night as well, until he realized how that might sound to Mary. The other option would have been to have the sleep over at the ranch, but, even with Buck at his side, he wasn't sure he wanted to take on the responsibility.
"Call if you need anything," Chris shouted, though he knew Mary couldn't hear him. As Mary shifted the mini-van into drive, Chris and Buck could see the boys waving behind the window for just a few moments before they rounded the curve and drove out of sight.
Chris and Buck walked back into the house. They stood for a moment in the middle of the living room. It was cluttered with toys and clothes and things that had been packed and then unpacked at the last minute. Chris never remembered the house looking like this when Sarah had been alive.
"You hear that?" Buck asked, nudging Chris in the side.
Chris froze, concentrating. His heart began to pound in anticipation, but he heard nothing. "No. What am I listening for?"
"Silence. Ain't it grand?" Buck chuckled. "Don't think this house has been silent for ... well, reckon since them boys arrived." He flopped himself down on the couch, then immediately sat back up and dug a metal racing car out from underneath him, which he then tossed aside.
"So, what's on the agenda for tonight?" Chris asked, thinking cleaning house probably ought to top the list.
"Beer," Buck said. He hadn't had a proper buzz since the boys had come into his life. "Women?" It was probably too much to hope that he and Chris could both score on such short notice. Buck had been neglecting his little black book since JD had become the focus of his life. There was a good possibility that some of his lady friends were now engaged and therefore no longer interested; there was also the possibility that they were mad at him for not calling for so long, if they even chose to remember him.
"Okay, yeah, maybe not women," Buck conceded at last.
"You been neglecting your animal magnetism for too long, Buck?" Chris asked as he began to pick up some of the clutter the boys had left.
"Reckon so. It probably needs a good polishing."
"That ain't the only thing that could use a good polishing," Chris said, frowning. He picked a candle stick up off the mantle. What had once been shining silver -- a wedding present to Sarah and him -- was now dull and tarnished; he hadn't even noticed until just this moment.
"Wonder how many other things around here we've been neglecting," he said, holding out the candlestick for Buck to see.
"You know what they say? Use it or lose it," Buck replied with a smirk.
"Who are they?" Chris asked.
"You know, 'they' -- the ones who are using it and not losing it."
"I'm guessing you're missing the bachelor life, Buck."
"Hey, I'm still a bachelor. I still love the ladies," Buck assured him.
"Yeah, but JD is taking all your free time. You know, you can go out every once in a while. I can watch the boys if you ever want to go out."
"That's okay. I don't mind staying in. Thought I might, but...." Buck's words trailed off, leaving a small, pleasant smile beneath his mustache.
"But you like being a dad?"
Buck nodded. It was true. He'd never really seen himself as a father, but JD had changed all that. Maybe someday he'd see himself as a husband, but that someday hadn't come yet.
"You ever think about it?" Buck asked.
"Going out?" Chris had, but there wasn't really anyone he was interested in. And, just picking chicks up in bars had never been his scene.
"No, getting married again," Buck clarified.
Chris thought on the topic -- it hadn't been the first time -- but he just couldn't imagine it. There was Mary, of course, and while he did find her attractive and they did share a similar background, similar philosophies, they'd realized a long time ago that they were destined for nothing more than friendship.
"No. Don't suppose I'll ever find anyone else to share my life with. Sarah was one of a kind."
"She sure was. Doubt you'll find anyone else willing to put up with you day and night."
Chris tossed a stuffed animal at Buck's head, landing a solid blow. Buck gasped at the unexpectedness of it, but then laughed.
"Just proved my point, pard. You're a hard man to live with."
"You're one to talk, Buck. I've seen you first thing in the morning and it's a wonder you've even been with the same woman more than once."
Buck opened his mouth to retort, but then realized that Chris was right. It was a rare thing that he ever spent more than one or two nights with the same woman. "Huh," he replied, pausing in the middle of the room while Chris bent to pick up some scattered clothes. "Am I that bad?" Buck finally asked.
Chris looked up at him from the floor, checking him out from head to toe. "Naw," Chris finally said, shaking his head. "Wouldn't let you live in this house if you were."
Buck clapped his friend on the shoulder as Chris stood up again. "What say we start on them dishes? The place is developing a smell."
Chris stared at Buck for a few moments. "You're not going domestic on me, are you?" Chris laughed.
"Hey, someone has to around here. House full of men, it's a wonder any of us have clean underwear and aren't eating off paper plates."
"Guess we owe that to Sarah. Remember how it was in college?"
"Beer in cans and pizza in delivery boxes. Did we even own utensils?"
"Only if a Swiss army knife counts." Now they both laughed. The good old days. Before they'd grown up, gotten jobs, really thought seriously about women; and long before they'd ever considered being fathers.
"So, you feel like reliving them days? We could order in..." Buck suggested.
Chris thought for a moment, remembering his younger days. They'd lived that way because they'd had to, because they didn't have the means to live any other way. But things were different now. Growing up did that to a man.
"I have a better idea," Chris countered. "How about we try that new restaurant downtown?"
Chris nodded. It was one of those fancy, European-cuisine places that had sprung up in the newly renovated business district. They catered to the high-end business crowd at lunch and to the theater goers in the evenings.
"Think we can get in?" Buck asked.
"Think you remember how to tie a tie?"
Buck raised an insulted eyebrow at his friend. "Reckon I can call Ezra if I have." In fact, it had been Ezra who'd first told them of this restaurant. He knew all the best places in town, which came from having enough time and money and not having the responsibility of spending either on any children.
Buck didn't envy him one bit.
"I'll make the call," Chris said. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed information -- the restaurant was so new that he knew it wouldn't be listed yet in the phone book. "Denver. Bouches -- it's a restaurant." The real operator shunted him to an automated voice that told him the number and then asked if he wanted to be connected, for a fifty-cent service charge. What the heck, he thought, and pushed the '1' button on his phone. A few moments later, the phone was ringing.
"Hello? Yes, I'd like to make reservations for two," Chris told the man who answered. "No, for tonight." The man on the line was silent for a few moments and Chris wondered what was going on. Sure, it was Saturday, but could they really be that busy? Well, yeah, he knew they could. "The name's Standish. Ezra Standish," Chris said. "Yes, that's right." That got a reaction out of the man. "Yes, 8 o'clock would be fine. Thank you."
Chris hung up the phone and then turned to Buck. "All set."
"Well, I'm looking forward to it, Ezra," Buck said, smiling, but Chris wasn't sorry for the fib. If it got them out of the house and out to dinner in a restaurant that didn't have a children's menu or a plastic jungle-gym out back, he was all for it.
"Come on. Let's get to those dishes. We might even have time to clean up the living room before we go, if we get a move on," Chris said as he headed toward the kitchen, with Buck on his six.
"Wonder if the boys are missing us yet," Buck mused as he searched for a clean dish towel.
+ + + + + + +
"How are you boys doing back there?" Mary asked as she pulled to a stop at the bottom of the off ramp.
"Fine, ma'am," Vin said. "Me, too," JD added. "Okay, Ma," Billy said. They were watching a Bugs Bunny video on a small screen that was hanging from the ceiling of the mini-van. Vin thought it was the most amazing thing.
"Think Pa will get one of these for us?" JD asked very quietly so that only Vin could hear. He didn't want Billy to think that they didn't have fun stuff, too.
Vin shrugged. He hoped JD didn't ask Buck about it. He wasn't sure if Buck and Chris would want to keep them if they asked for too many things. They already had more things than Vin had ever dreamed about, and not just clothes, but toys -- fun toys, and videos, and stuff, too.
"I miss Pa," JD said quietly.
"I miss Chris," Vin replied, but then Wile E. Coyote's rocket blasted off and the boys forgot about everything except whether the coyote would catch the road runner this time.
"Meep meep," Billy said, and JD repeated the sounds, laughing.
+ + + + + + +
"Wow," Buck said as he stepped into the living room and found Chris standing there. "Lookin' good, pard. I haven't seen you wear that suit since...."
"Since I took Sarah out for our fifth wedding anniversary and you stayed home to baby-sit Adam."
Buck nodded his head. It seemed like only yesterday, but it was more like a million years ago. So much had changed since then and, yet, there was so much that would never change.
"And what about you?" Chris asked, not wanting to dwell too long on the past. "You wear that when you're trying to impress the ladies?"
"This old thing?" Buck said, plucking at the lapel of his dark blue jacket. "Trust me. I don't need anything but my birthday suit to impress the ladies."
"Scare 'em would be more like it! No wonder you haven't had a date in ... how long's it been?"
"Since the boys came to stay with us. Eight months now?"
"Has it really been that long?"
Buck nodded. It was hard to imagine that the days had passed that quickly, that their lives had changed that dramatically in such a short span of time. "Wouldn't trade a minute of it for anything. How 'bout you?"
Chris thought for a few moments, but then shook his head. "Still worry though. After what happened to Sarah and Adam...."
"It wasn't your fault," Buck said, because he had nothing else to say. They'd said everything that needed to be said on the subject, and they'd both said it a hundred times since the day they'd lost them.
"Still happened because someone was trying to get to me. We don't live safe lives, Buck, you know that."
"I know, but it doesn't mean that we ought to stop living them."
Chris nodded. He didn't want to think that this might not be the ideal situation for young Vin or JD.
"And you know them boys are safer here than on the street," Buck reminded him. "And happier than they'd be in some juvenile facility or even some other foster home where the folks couldn't love 'em like we do."
+ + + + + + +
"Hey, Vin," Billy asked. "Do you think if our parents got married that I'd go live at the ranch, or that you'd come live here?"
Vin shrugged, but in the dark, no one could see the movement.
"I don't know." Vin didn't really want to think about it. He liked Billy -- Billy was nice to both him and JD, and he had fun toys, but Vin wasn't sure he wanted him around all the time. If Billy and his mom lived with them, then it would mean Chris would have less time for him, less love, and he knew he didn't want to share.
Just then, the door opened and, in the dim light of the hallway, Vin could see Billy's mom standing in the doorway.
"I thought you boys were going to sleep," Mary said, looking over the three sleeping bags spread out on the floor of Billy's bedroom.
"We are, Miz Travis," JD said, not sounding in the least bit sleepy.
"Ma? Are you gonna marry Chris?" Billy called Chris by his first name, and Vin wasn't sure he liked that. Billy said it was because he'd always called him Chris, because he'd known him since he was little -- Billy was six, just a year older than JD. Vin wasn't sure that he liked the fact that Billy had known Chris so much longer than he had. Billy already had a mother, so was it fair that he wanted a father, too? And Vin's foster father at that?
"Oh, Billy, you know better than to ask a question like that," Mary said, smiling indulgently.
"I know. I was just wondering."
"Well, the answer is no," Mary said, much to Vin's relief.
"How come? Don't you like Chris?" JD asked. Vin could have slugged him, but he didn't.
"Of course I do, JD honey, but Chris and I are just friends."
"Like Chris and Buck are friends?" Billy asked.
"Well, no, not quite like that, sweetheart," she replied. "Chris and Buck are best friends. They've known each other for a very, very long time. And they share a lot of memories...."
Mary thought immediately of Chris's wife and son, dead these past few years. She'd never known Sarah and she wished she had; Buck spoke so highly of her that Mary was certain they could have been friends.
There was no way that she could be a friend to Chris the same way that Buck was. Even though she'd lost her husband, that loss was different. Their losses were personal; she shared no part in Chris's loss, not like Buck did. It had taken her a while to figure that out, but she had and she was sure that it was the only reason they had made the step from acquaintance to friendship. But it was also the reason that they would never move past that to something more.
"Ma?" Billy asked, when Mary lapsed into silence. "Are you okay?"
"Yes. Just thinking, dear," Mary said with a nod. "All right then, boys. Off to dreamland with you. There will be pancakes for breakfast and then we'll talk about what you'd like to do tomorrow. Good night."
"Night, Ma," Billy said.
"Night, Miz Travis," Vin said and JD echoed him.
Mary shut the door and the darkness blanketed them again, until their eyes adjusted to the soft glow of the nightlight sitting high on Billy's dresser.
"Guess I don't get to come live at the ranch," Billy said, and he sounded a bit sad.
"You can visit," JD offered.
"Yeah, visiting's better," Vin replied. "You don't have to do any chores, but you can still play with the horses." But Vin liked doing chores; it made him feel like the horses were his, because he helped take care of them. And he was glad he wouldn't have to share the chores with anyone but JD.
"Yeah, I like playing with your horses," Billy said, no longer sad.
"Yeah, you can play with our horses," JD said, yawning.
Vin smiled to himself as he closed his eyes. Yeah, our horses, he thought.
+ + + + + + +
"Omelets? You made omelets?" Chris said as he staggered into the kitchen. "Where'd you learn to cook those?"
"Mary Ellen Klemp," he replied. "That's what comes of getting to know a woman, not just knowing her," he added with a grin. "Coffee cake?"
"Known you nearly forever and you still surprise me," Chris muttered as he poured himself a cup of freshly brewed coffee. He sat down at the dining table and pulled out the sports section of the Denver Post.
"Here," Buck said, handing Chris a tumbler.
"Thanks," Chris said, taking a sip of orange juice. "What? No mimosas?"
Buck laughed. "If you want champagne for breakfast, then you better have a sleep-over at Ezra's house."
"Hey, speaking of sleep-overs ... how do you think the boys are doing?" Chris asked.
"No phone call from Mary," Buck said as he sat down at the table, handing Chris one plate and keeping the other for himself. "That has to be a good sign."
"I haven't checked my cell phone messages this morning, have you?" Chris asked, and Buck shook his head, no. "Maybe I better...." Chris made to get up, but Buck put a hand on his arm, holding him in his chair.
"They're fine," Buck assured him, but Chris had developed an over protective nature after what had happened to Sarah and Adam, and Buck did understand. "There's no message on the answering machine and Mary has the number here. I'm sure they're fine."
Chris nodded, though Buck could tell he was still itching to check.
"All right. Go ahead. Check your cell," Buck said, knowing there was no stopping Chris when he got something into his head. "But don't blame me if your bacon is gone and your omelet is cold when you get back."
Chris stared at Buck, stared at him hard. Buck always knew which buttons to push and how to get his way. Chris was never sure if Buck had learned the skill from Sarah or if she's learned it from him, but when they had teamed up, Chris knew the battle was lost before it had begun.
Chris smiled. "You'd really steal my bacon, just to spite me?" he asked before picking up a piece and biting into the crispy goodness.
"In a heart beat, pard." Buck smiled wide, his blue eyes flashing with mischief. "It's for your own good."
Chris sighed, but he knew it was true. Buck only ever had his best interests at heart, and for that Chris would be ever grateful, even when he forgot to show it. "Thanks, Buck."
"So, what's on the agenda today," Chris asked after he was halfway through his meal.
"We missed the game last night, but we could probably catch some highlights on ESPN," Buck offered.
Chris shook his head. He'd already read about the game in the paper -- the Broncos had won and it didn't appear to be an overly exciting game.
"Video?" Buck asked. "I came across one of Sarah's old Jane Fonda workout tapes when I was putting some stuff away in the den last night."
"You actually want to do aerobics on your day off?"
Buck grinned. "Just some cardio. Maybe a few push ups. You know, just to keep in shape," he said, flexing his arm muscles. "Mostly, though, I was just thinking about the Jane Fonda part."
"How about we go out instead? We have time to make it up to the lake and back, if we don't hang around here too much longer."
"A day at the lake..." Buck pondered the idea. "No kids splashing around, screaming 'Marco Polo' at the top of their lungs. No worrying about where those two tykes are every second, if their life jackets are secure, if it's been a half hour since the last time they ate. No hauling all them inflatable toys they somehow can't manage without...."
"When you put it like that, we might actually get bored without the kids," Chris said.
"Yeah," Buck said with a nod of his head. Then he suddenly grinned wide. "So, you wanna drive or should we take the horses?"
"Horses." Chris said, grinning back. It had been a long time since he and Buck had been riding, just the two of them. He missed those days, almost as much as he missed having the boys with them now.
+ + + + + + +
There was a small pile of backpacks, sleeping bags, and duffels piled at the feet of the three adults standing in Mary's foyer. The three boys kept running back and forth between them and the television set in the family room.
"Whoa there, pard. What did you boys do today?" Chris asked before Vin could sprint away again.
"We went to the zoo," Vin said.
"You are a brave woman," Chris told Mary.
"Oh, I had some help," Mary confessed.
"Xena came with us!" JD said, running in just a few paces behind Billy. "We all had to hold hands so we didn't get lost."
"Me and Vin got to be on the outside, cuz we're the oldest," Billy piped in.
"Xena?" Buck asked, looking from JD to Mary.
"Her name's Serena. She's an old friend. Billy's always had trouble with her name...." Mary shrugged.
"Does she look like the warrior princess?" Buck asked with a hopeful look on his face.
"As much as you look like Hercules, Buck," Mary replied with a smile that made Chris laugh.
"Hey, I'm taking that as a compliment," Buck said, nudging Chris in the side. "So, is this friend of your single?"
"Buck!" Chris warned.
"Hey." Buck shrugged in response. "I was just asking."
"The answer is no," Mary said. "She's seeing someone."
"As long as someone around here has a social life," Buck said smiling. The three parents looked at each other. It was true. None of them got out much since becoming parents.
"Well, we appreciate you taking the boys for the weekend, Mary," Chris said and Buck nodded his agreement. "You just let us know when you need a free weekend and we'll be more than happy to return the favor."
"Thanks, fellas. I know I'll be taking you up on that offer. There's this spa up in Vail that I've had my eye on for a while. Jacuzzis and Swedish massages."
"Sounds like heaven," Buck agreed. "Well, you just let us know. Give us some warning, though, so we can clear our busy social calendar."
Mary smiled. "Will do."
"Okay, boys, thank Mrs. Travis and Billy."
"Thank you," Vin and JD said. Both boys said it so politely that all three adults smiled, knowing they weren't doing too bad a job at this parenting business.
"You're very welcome, boys," Mary replied.
They all headed out the door to Chris's truck that was parked in the driveway. The dads helped their sons into the back, strapping them into their safety seats. Then Chris walked back over to Mary who was standing on the porch.
"We really do appreciate you taking the boys, Mary. I'd forgotten how much this parenting stuff takes it out of you."
"And how much it gives back?"
Chris smiled. "Yeah, that too." He leaned over and gave her a small kiss on the cheek, before heading back to the truck.
As soon as he slid into the cab, both boys in the back said, "Ewww!"
"Okay, cool it, you guys!" Chris said, putting his hand up in the air for silence. "You see, this is why adults need time away from their kids, so they can do 'eww' things and not have to hear about it. Right, Buck?"
"Hey, I'm with the boys on this one," Buck replied, grinning. When he added his own "Ewww," the two small boys joined him.
"It was just a kiss," Chris said, silencing the chorus. "No big deal. It's not like I'm going to marry her."
Vin sighed to himself and thought, good. He didn't need a mother, not when he had Chris and Buck. And he didn't need another brother, not when he had JD.
"Don't make it any less ewwie," Buck said, still snickering.
"Oh, don't even get me started on some of the 'ewwie' stuff I've seen you do, Buck!" Chris warned.
"Tell us!" JD chimed in. "Tell us! Tell us!"
"Never you mind, squirt," Buck told JD. "And don't go encouraging them, Chris."
"Me? Ahem. Ewwww," Chris sang out in an imitation of Buck's earlier encouragement of the boys. The boys joined in again, until laughter won out and the cab was filled with nothing but giggles from all four occupants.
Companion story: At the Restaurant by C.V. Puerro