It had been a grueling two weeks. What had started as a two, possibly three-day assignment had turned into first one week and now two. With Buck, Ezra, and Josiah assigned to a team out of Portland, Chris had a full team's workload. He and Nathan Jackson had corrected and filed reports, appeared in court twice, and laid the groundwork for the team's next case. All they needed was for the three remaining team members to return home and get the ball rolling.
Chris parked his truck in the drive and relaxed back into the seat. He had talked to Buck only an hour before and the trio was planning to return on Tuesday. Their case should conclude on Monday, allowing them to head home late that night. All he had to do was survive the weekend, three days, four nights. He could do that. Nodding, he reassured himself, 'yeah, I can do that. I handle criminals everyday. I can handle the weekend.'
He got out of the truck and headed for the house. Part way there, the sound of squealing had him bracing for impact.
The two boys launched themselves at the man, confident that he would catch them.
"Hey, guys. How was your day?"
"Miz Potter taked. . ."
". . .took us to the park and we played in the jungle gym." Vin chewed his lip as his fingers stroked Larabee's tie. "Dad?"
A smile tugged at the man's lips at the serious attitude of the seven-year-old boy. "What is it, Vin?"
"Do you think we could go to the swimming pool tomorrow?"
"Please. . ." JD pleaded.
"Well, I think that maybe. . .I'll think about it."
"YEA!" the two boys cheered. Wriggling to be released, they dropped to the floor and sprinted away.
Shaking his head, the leader of Team Seven headed into the house to change before beginning his evening chores. He saw Mrs. Potter off as she headed home for the weekend.
By eight that night, he and the boys were in the house and prepared for bed. JD would resist bedtime, but the five-year old would usually have crashed by eight-thirty each evening. Buck made it a point to call around eight each night and the dark haired waif would talk to him while sitting in the recliner that Wilmington usually sat in. As expected, the phone rang at eight straight up and Chris answered. After getting a report on the mission and the others, he handed the portable phone to the little boy.
"Da," JD sighed. His voice was soft and full of anxiety. The first night Chris had worried at the sound, but Wilmington had talked softly and said all the right things. By the time the call was over, the little orphan was sighing and nodding at the sound of the man's voice. Each call had ended in the same manner. When JD had found out that the man he considered as his father had told him that he would be gone longer than first anticipated, he had dissolved into tears and Buck had to talk to him for over a half hour, reassuring the boy that 'yes, he was coming home and yes, he was being careful, and yes, he was watching out for Uncle Ezra and Uncle Josiah.'
Larabee watched as the child relaxed, nodding at something the man was saying. Within the minutes, the boy was curled into a ball, asleep in the middle of the large recliner, as a smile pulled at his mouth. Gently, the blond retrieved the phone from lax fingers. Speaking softly, he told Buck that JD was asleep. As Vin spoke with the mustached agent, Chris gathered the limp body of the household's youngest close and carried him to bed.
Returning, he took the phone and spoke to each of his men in turn, assuring himself of their health and well-being. Afterwards, he and the little blond sat quietly, watching a ballgame together. By ten each evening, the house was dark and quiet.
The next two days were full of horses and pools and McDonald's meals. Sunday evening the three males had been invited to the Jackson home for dinner and a rousing game of 'Chutes and Ladders'. JD and Rain Jackson had teamed up to challenge the reigning champion team of Chris and Vin. It was late when the festivities ended and both boys had to be carried to the Ram and buckled in for the ride home. Chris was just laying Vin into the top bunk when JD roused and looked around owl-eyed.
"Yes. You want to change?"
Obediently, the boy began to remove his clothes. As Chris was pulling the boy's PJs over his head, a muffled voice asked, "Is Da gonna call tonight?"
"Well, I think it's a little late tonight. He'll be home tomorrow though."
Tears welled in the hazel eyes at the announcement. "But he said he'd call ever' night."
"I know, baby, but he knew we weren't going to be home tonight."
With a quivering lip, JD held up his arms in a gesture to be held. As Chris wrapped his arms around the slight form, the boy breathed the question, "Can I sit in Buck's chair. . .just 'til I goes to sleep?"
"Don't you think you'd be more comfortable in here?"
Dark hair flew about as the boy shook his head.
Glancing up to see the other boy was still sleeping, Chris nodded. Turning, he left the room and took the boy to the front room. JD scrambled from the man's arms and curled up in the chair with a sigh. Larabee draped a light throw over the exposed limbs as he said, "I'm going to get Vin dressed for bed and then I'll be back. You stay here, okay?"
"I will." JD yawned. Larabee watched as he snuggled deeper into the chair.
The man shook his head, positive that the boy would be sound asleep before he even reached the boys' room. Returning a few minutes later, he found he was right. Within fifteen minutes, the boys were tucked into their beds, the house was locked, and Chris was padding across the room to drop into his own bed.
The next morning brought a weather front in that drenched the sun-parched ground only to disappear by noon. The two boys had remained inside all morning. By the time the sun reappeared and began to dry the rain, it was a toss up as to who was happier, the two boys or the woman that watched over them.
The boys were outside in their treehouse when mid-afternoon found the familiar black Dodge Ram rumbling down the drive. Chris was home early and it was a welcome surprise for the two boys. They started to leave the treehouse but paused when they saw a second car trailing behind the truck. Watching from their high vantage point, they watched as Chris parked and got out. He waved to the kids but continued to the second car.
As the man exited his car, he waved also, seeing the children. Neither boy moved as the two men went into the house. They watched the house closely but nothing happened, neither Chris nor Mrs. Potter called them in.
Shrugging, the older boy turned back to the treehouse. "I guess Chris and that guy have to talk. We better stay up here 'til he leaves."
The two boys went back to their game and the time passed quickly. The sound of a door closing drew their attention a while later.
"Vin! JD! Come here please."
The boys hustled down the ramp and ran to stop in front of the housekeeper. "Mr. Larabee asked me to call you in. Mr. Thomas is almost done."
"Who's he?" JD asked.
"Ain't polite to ask questions, JD," admonished Vin, though secretly he was glad the younger boy had asked.
"Mr. Thomas is a horse breeder. Mr. Larabee and he are discussing horses." Kissing each boy on the cheek, she said. "Now, you two go and get cleaned up. I'm leaving. I have the rest of the week off so I'll see you two next week. You be good for me. Now, get inside and be polite while there is a guest in the house. Okay?"
"Yes, ma'am" they answered.
She went to her car and waited until the boys were safely inside before driving away.
Vin led JD around the front room and to the bathroom that they used. They washed their hands and faces before heading to the front room. When Chris waved them in, Vin quickly crossed the floor to stand next to the man's chair.
"Keith, this is my son, Vin."
The little blond looked at the extended hand and at Larabee's nod, took hold of it and pumped twice. "It's nice to meet you, sir."
Chris ruffled the boy's long hair at the formal greeting. Looking across the room, he saw JD still standing in the doorway and gestured him over. He frowned slightly at the hesitant approach. JD didn't take his eyes off the man as he moved to stand on the opposite side of Larabee's chair from Vin.
"And this is JD."
"Well, hello, JD." Keith once again extended his hand.
JD twisted his hands together and stated, "That's Da's chair."
Thomas looked down and then over at Chris.
Larabee dropped an arm around JD and pulled him closer. "JD, that's not polite. Buck won't mind that Mr. Thomas is sitting in his chair."
Hazel eyes looked at the man. "But it's Da's chair. Nobody but me and Da sit there."
"I need to be going anyway, Chris." The man stood and Chris rose also.
"There's no need to leave so early."
Keith Thomas laughed. "I'm under strict orders to be home before six. I promise you, there's a need."
The man started for the door and Chris followed as Vin and JD stayed next to his chair. As the door closed, Tanner turned to the younger boy.
"Why did you do that? You 'barassed Chris."
Tears pooled in the hazel eyes. "I didn't mean to 'barass Chris, but he's not meant to be in Da's chair."
"Buck don't mind if someone else sits in his chair."
"It's Da's chair!" JD responded angrily.
"You were mean to Chris' guest."
"No I wasn't."
"Yes, you were."
"NO, I wasn't"
"YES, you were."
"WAS NO. . ."
"What's all the shouting about?"
The two boys whirled around and stared up at Larabee as he stood in the doorway, his feet spread and his hands planted on his hips. Neither boy said anything, their wide eyes and burning cheeks conveying their reaction to being caught doing something wrong. . .something they had been warned about several times.
"I didn't mean to be mean."
Chris relaxed slightly. "No shouting, okay, boys?"
Both boys answered with a 'yes, sir.'
Dropping his hands, the men gestured toward the TV. "I going to grab a shower and then we'll head in to get Buck at the airport."
The blond smiled brightly at the change those few words had on the little brunette. The boy was almost, no he was, dancing with excitement. As Chris moved down the hall, he could hear the boys deciding on what to watch. He entered his bedroom, the cell phone in his pocket went off and he pulled it out even as he undressed for a shower.
"Larabee." Static greeted him.
The blond could hear the tension in the man's voice even over the static and he paused with his shirt hanging from one shoulder. "Buck? What's wrong? Why aren't you on a plane right now?"
"Damn weather. They have a huge storm rolling through and the flights are all cancelled because of lightning."
Larabee sat down hard on the edge of his bed. His first thought was at least they were safe but then he remembered JD's face and his relief faded. "How long before the storm passes?"
"They're saying that we might get out before tomorrow night."
"Yeah. How are the boys?"
Chris laughed lightly but with no humor. "They're fine now, but they won't be after I tell them this."
"Hey, you didn't do anything wrong. They'll be fine." Chris shrugged out of the shirt and stood to move across the room as he talked. "You missed your call in last night; JD was pretty disappointed."
"Well, let me talk to him now."
"Okay, hang on."
The blond moved down the hall, the sound of the television growing louder as he drew closer. Laughter rang out a he entered. He raised the phone to his ear. "Buck?"
Only static greeted him and he silently cursed his luck. The storm would probably prevent the big man from calling back leaving Larabee to explain to the boys that Wilmington would not be returning that evening.
He sat in his chair and watched the two boys as they watched a cartoon. Vin turned and glanced back. Seeing the man, the young blond rose and moved back to stand in front of the chair.
JD turned at the words and grinning, he jumped up. "Are we ready to go?"
"Come here, son."
JD obediently moved to stand next to Vin, a smile still gracing his face.
"Buck just called."
Seeing the still open phone in Chris' hand, JD bounced, asking, "Can I talk to Da?"
His little hands were folded around each other and tucked under his chin.
"Sorry, JD, he isn't there anymore."
Little hands dropped and the boy seemed to deflate.
Vin interceded by asking, "Why did Buck call? Isn't he flying?"
'Okay, cut to chase, son, thanks' Chris thought. "No, he's not flying yet, that's why he called. There's a big storm where they are and the planes can't fly. . ."
"How's Da gonna get home tonight? Is he and Unc'a Ezra and 'Siah gonna drive home?"
Chris reached out and stroked the little arms of the brunette. "No, they're not driving. JD, Buck won't be home tonight. They should be able to get a flight out tomorrow."
JD's head started to shake before Chris finished. "Da promised, he promised he would be home tonight."
Seeing the boy's tears start to fall, Chris attempted to get control of the situation before the child got totally wound up. He reached down and pulled the small boy into his lap, pulling him close and rubbing the shuddering back.
"I know, I know. And Buck wants to be here. He was very upset about not being able to come home." JD seemed to cry even harder so he decided to change tactics. "JD, you want Buck to come home safe, right?"
He waited as the little boy nodded.
"And you understand that he couldn't fly because it was too dangerous?"
Again, the boy nodded.
"So it would be better if Buck comes home tomorrow and is safe than if he tried to come home tonight but it was very, very dangerous?"
JD pushed away from Chris' chest and looked up at the man. "I don't want Buck to get hurt. I want him safe. . ." The boy's chin quivered as he admitted, "but I want him here."
Chris' hand was running slowly up and down the boy's spine as he nodded. "I want him here also, and Buck wants to be here, but he can't be. So what do you think we should do?"
JD looked at his hands as he twisted his fingers together. Finally, a tiny voice responded with, "Be patient? Cause Buck'll be home tomorrow?"
Chris sighed at the sad sound and little tears that dropped to the boy's lap. He hugged the dark haired waif close, whispering softly, "That's my boy."
Vin had stood quietly, chewing on his lip as he watched two of the most important people in his life work out the problem together. Seeing the crisis averted, the little blond moved to stand closer and placed a warm hand on his little brother's knee.
JD looked over shyly from under Chris's embrace. Grabbing the supportive hand, he pulled Vin and the blond climbed onto Larabee's lap also.
Laughing, Chris wrapped his arms around both kids and snuggled up with them. After a few moments of giggles from the boys, he sat up straight, patting each little back.
"We have some time. Why don't we go for a short ride?"
Four little fists pumped the air in excitement.
"Well, then, let's go."
Both boys were smiling and relaxed after their ride. They helped Chris with wiping down the horses and putting up the tack before turning the animals into the pasture. The trio went into the house and got cleaned up. The boys helped with supper by setting the table while Larabee heated some leftovers from the night before. They had a quiet meal and afterwards, the table was cleared, dishes washed and put away. The two boys headed to the front room. Vin selected a movie and slipped it into the DVD player. JD handed him the remote and they settled down to work on a jigsaw puzzle while the television flickered in the background.
Chris walked to the doorway and stood, leaning against the frame watching the scene in front of him. A smile pulled at his lips as the feeling of contentment washed over him. Nothing had changed in the room from the previous year. It still contained the same furniture, the same rugs and curtains, yet the room was warmer now, brighter. What had simply been a house, a place to store things and sleep had become a home, someplace to look forward to returning to, a place where he wanted to be; all because of two small boys and one big-hearted old friend.
He moved into the room and took his seat. They had fallen into the same routine each night. The TV playing in the background as the boys played and Chris worked on paperwork, either work or ranch business. Even though the boys were allowed to stay up a little longer during the summer due to the late sunset, most evenings, well before that time had arrived, JD was slumbering in the large recliner that Buck laid claim to and Vin was dozing on the floor, struggling to watch the DVD of choice for the evening.
The only difference tonight was there was no call from Buck. JD had climbed into the chair several minutes back and lain down, yet instead of curling up in the seat as usual, he sat stiffly with his hands resting on the arms of the recliner. His fingers stroked the material lovingly as tears rolled down the chubby cheeks. The boy had put his head down on the arm at first, but moments later, he sat up and flipped around. He had changed positions several times in the few minutes he was in the chair before finally sitting up as he now was. With a sigh, Chris rose and moved to squat in front of the little boy.
Reaching out a hand to brush away the tears, the man asked, "What's wrong, JD? Can't you sleep?"
Sniffing loudly, the child turned big hazel eyes to the man. In a hitching voice, he replied, "He broke it."
Chris frowned, his eyes instinctively dropping to the recliner even though he knew there was nothing wrong with it. Looking back up, he responded, "JD, the chair's fine; it's not broken."
"Yes it is," the five-year old stated. "It's broke. Buck's not here."
"Baby, I know you want Buck to be home and he will be. . .soon. . ."
"NO!!" JD wailed. His little hands slapped the material of the chair as he continued. "He's not here. . .here. The man broke it and now Buck's gone." Huge tears streamed down the boy's reddened face as he tried to make the man understand.
The frown lines deepened on Larabee's face as he looked from the distraught child to the chair and back. Deciding he had had enough, Chris stood and reached for JD as the boy continued to strike the chair. As he leaned over the dark head, an odor rose and he paused. There was a slight scent of tobacco and another fragrance, something he could not quite catch. Taking a slow, deep breath, he realized it was the cologne that Keith had been wearing, nothing strong, just a hint. Chris groaned as he realized the child's problem.
Standing up, he stroked the boy's head after bending over to kiss the dark hair. "Hang on, buddy. I know how to 'fix' it." Chris turned and looked at Vin who was sitting on the floor, close to the chair, but out of the way. "Vin, would you watch JD for a minute? I'll be right back."
That was all the invitation the little blond needed. He jumped to his feet and climbed into the chair, wrapping his arms around his little brother. As Chris left the room, he could hear the seven-year old cooing to the other boy, "It's okay, JD, Dad will make it all better. You just wait. Dad will fix it."
A couple of minutes later, Chris reappeared. JD's cries had subsided, though the tears still ran down his face. "Okay, boys, hop down for a minute."
The kids slipped out of the chair and turned to watch as Chris 'fixed' Buck's chair. First, he draped a light blanket over the entire piece of furniture. Then he proceeded to lay clothes over the arms, across the back, and ended with covering the seat cushion. He finished his transformation with a flourish by fluffing a pillow and placing it in the chair.
The boys just stared at the recliner that was now completely covered by shirts from Wilmington's room, all of them clean and removed from the closet where Mrs. Potter had placed them after doing the man's laundry last week. JD just blinked owlishly as he looked up at Larabee.
Chris reached out, inviting the boy to climb into his arms, which JD did. Patting the small back, the man spoke softly, "Let's see if this helps." He placed the boy back in the chair and leaned him over to rest his black hair on the pillow.
JD lay there, unmoving for a moment before turning his head slightly and sniffing the pillow. A smile pulled at his mouth and the little boy immediately rolled over and stuck his face in the pillow and rubbed it.
Chris grimaced as he thought about the mess of snot and tears that the boy was leaving behind, making a note to strip the case off before returning the pillow to Wilmington's room.
JD giggled as his hands stroked the shirts surrounding him. Finally, he sleepily pulled one shirt over the pillow before he curled around it. Within moments, the little face went slack as the boy dropped off to sleep.
Vin gripped Chris' hand and when the man looked down, he said, "I knew you could fix it."
Chris ruffled the pale blond hair and smiled. "I just had to figure out what was broke first."
The two blonds sat quietly, enjoying the peace of the evening as a ballgame played on the television.
+ + +
It was in the early hours of morning when Buck finally made it home. Ezra and Josiah had remained, allotting the one available seat to the tall agent with family waiting for his arrival. Nathan Jackson had been at the airport when he arrived thanks to a call from the team profiler and therefore, Buck had not had to worry about getting a taxi to drive the distance out of town to the ranch. Thanking Jackson for the lift, Buck disengaged the alarm and entered the dark house quietly. After locking the door and resetting the alarm, he started across the room but stopped when something caught his eye. Squinting in the dark, he realized that his recliner was covered in a blanket and he frowned at the thought that the fabric hid some damage.
Deciding it would wait until the next day, he continued to his room and dropped his bag. Slipping out of his shoes and jacket, emptied his pockets, deposited his tie over the back of the chair that sat under his window and tiptoed softly down the hall to peek into the boys' room. Moonlight weakly illuminated the interior and he had to move across the floor to see that both beds were unoccupied. Common sense told him that the two kids were in Larabee's room, taking up more than their fair share of the king size bed, but panic had his heart rate doubling as he quickly exited the room and returned down the hall to slip into Chris's room.
Instantly he slowed, smothering a chuckle with his hand at the sight of the blond precariously balanced on his side on the edge of the bed. Next to him lay a miniature copy stretched out full length along the man's back. The other half of the large bed was taken up by forty pounds of restless child. The mop of black hair moved from sight to disappear under the covers as the boy seemed to be rotating around, his head going to the foot of the bed. It never failed to amuse Buck that JD never moved much if he ended up in his father's bed due to weather or nightmares. The first overnight trip the tall agent had taken after taking the boy in, had found the five year nervous and agitated at bedtime, so Chris had allowed the two boys to stay in his room 'just this once'. The team leader had complained to Buck the next day on the way home from the airport about how much the boy moved around at night. The mustached agent had frowned at that news, explaining that JD didn't move much at all in his bed. The two men discovered that when in the company of his father, when the boy fell asleep, he was usually in the same position the next morning. The same applied to the boy's own bed. Only in Chris' bed did JD become active, changing positions several times during the night.
A slight movement from the adult blond drew Buck's attention and he smiled at the green-eyed glare tossed his direction.
"You're late," Larabee growled softly.
Buck merely shrugged and stepped closer. "You want me to liberate the other half of your bed for ya?"
Chris glanced over his shoulder and grinned. "That'd be nice."
Patting the bare shoulder of the prone man, Buck moved around and uncovered the five-year-old JD. Easily lifting him up, Wilmington grinned as Vin immediately rolled over and sighed, as if sensing even in slumber, that there was room to move now.
"Welcome home, Buck," Chris called softly.
Buck smiled and nodded as the blond rolled from the edge of the bed and settled in without waiting for a reply. He moved to his own room and placed the boy in the center of the mattress. Quickly shedding his suit pants and shirt, he brushed his teeth while keeping an eye on the slumbering child in case he should wake. Within two minutes, the man was fast asleep with the boy resting in the crook of one muscular arm.
+ + +
The shout had Buck bolting upward as his brain fought to clear the fogginess of sleep.
"DA! You're home!"
Glancing around, the man was finally able to focus on the source of noise at his side. Seeing the bright hazel eyes staring at him, his heart rate dropped back to normal and he grinned. Reaching out, he brushed the unruly black hair back and ruffled it slightly. "Why. . .yes I am. I missed ya so much, I ran all the way home just to see ya."
"Da," JD admonished. "You did not."
Before the argument could escalate further, Chris strolled in with Vin at his side.
"Who's ready for breakfast?"
Three voices called out, "Me"
"Okay, boys, get cleaned up and we'll start breakfast."
Jumping from the bed, JD grabbed Vin's hand and the two boys headed to their room to get dressed for the day. Buck rolled over and stretched before climbing out of bed. As he moved to the bathroom, he glanced at Larabee as he stood in the doorway.
"So what's with the recliner?"
The blond chuckled and then explained about the 'broke' chair. Buck came out wiping his face and, tossing the towel back toward the shower, he said, "I saw the chair when I came in and wondered if something was spilled on it."
"No, nothing spilled." The two men moved down the hall to the kitchen.
Wilmington stopped to uncover the recliner, taking the clothes and blanket to the laundry room before he joined Larabee and began to prepare breakfast for the household. As the two men worked, Chris asked, "What did you say to JD on the phone?"
Buck smiled, leaning one hip on the counter, "Nothing. I talked some at first, but when I ran out of words, I hummed. . ." he said wistfully, ". . .just hummed."
Chris had turned to stare at his old friend. Before he could comment, the sound of running feet drew his attention and the day began.
The day was spent leisurely around the house. By evening, both men and boys were worn out and ready to relax. Buck prepared dinner while the boys bathed, supervised by Chris. After the meal was finished and the dishes cleared away, the four males moved to the family room. The boys started playing a board game while Buck went through his mail and Chris read the paper.
As Buck finished the mail, he felt a presence at his elbow and turned to see JD standing next to the chair. Reaching over the arm, he was smiling as he pulled the slight weight into his lap. Pushing the chair back into a reclined position, he situated the boy on his chest, waited as the child wiggled into a comfortable position, and then wrapped his arms around his son.
Vin had put away the board game and approached the blond as he sat in his chair.
"Dad, you wanna go outside and watch the stars?"
"Sure, sport, sounds nice."
The two blonds moved out the front door, the last bit of warmth from the afternoon sun being driven out by the cool mountain air. They sat on the porch for an hour before the cool air forced them back inside. Typical for the two, they entered quietly, both stopped just inside the door. Vin cocked his head, looking up at Chris' chuckle.
The two brunettes were still in the chair. JD was asleep, sprawled across the broad chest of Buck. The man was stretched out, his eyes closed with one hand resting on the boy's legs as the other lightly patted the narrow back. The low sound of humming drifted around the quiet room.
Chris watched as JD stirred, his head coming up to look at the man's face. With a sigh, the boy laid his head back down and snuggled into the man's embrace. The soft refrains of an Elvis ballad had increased in volume slightly at the boy's stirrings before lowering back down. It was a scene that would soon become a new routine in the Larabee and Wilmington home. . .one that would last as long as JD needed its reassurances.