Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #10, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Deyna Greywolf is the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 6-2-2008. Art by Shiloh (email@example.com)
Author's Note: First, I want to thank the tremendously talented ladies who created this wonderful AU, and those who write in it. It was all of your magnificent stories that inspired me to try one of my own. And second, my heartfelt thanks to Erica Michaels for all of her help, without which there would have not been a story at all. In all actuality this story ought to be credited to the both of us, because Erica did so much to help me. And, yes, I'm working on the sequel! And I also want to say thank you to my beloved husband, John Greywolf, a Cheyenne, whose mother was only 15 when she became pregnant. And when she couldn't afford to buy her son Christmas presents when he was a child, she told him Santa knew he would understand why he couldn't give him anything, but that God would give him a special gift instead. So, every year we start our celebration by watching the sunrise, God's precious gift to each of us the blessing of a brand new day. Here's hoping we can each make the best of each one we've given the chance to celebrate
He came awake with a soft grunt, eyes blinking open sluggishly. Lying under the covers, warm and comfortable, he listened, trying to discern what had awoken him, but no unexpected noises reached his straining ears. Then a small, soft smile curled the corners of his mouth. It was still dark outside.
Tossing back the covers, he rolled out of bed and pulled a thick terry robe on over his flannel pajamas, stopping to stretch afterward, enjoying the way his back straightened and popped. A yawn broke free and he stifled the usual noises such an event might otherwise trigger. He didn't want to wake the other sleepers in the house, not yet, anyway.
Then, finding and pulling on his fleece-lined moccasins, he made his way across the room to his door. He checked the hallway, but nothing stirred.
He slipped out of his bedroom, padding silently to the next closed door. Pausing there, he could hear the muted buzz of Buck's snore, which prompted an affectionate grin.
Continuing on down the hallway a little farther, he paused again outside another closed door. No voices, no snoring He frowned slightly. With care he reached out and turned the knob, pushing the door open slightly.
He slipped into the room, eyes having adjusted well enough for him to see the situation. JD lay, curled up on his side, sleeping peacefully, his mouth slightly open. He knew there would be a small wet mark on the child's pillow beneath his mouth, and a matching one on Buck's pillow. Just one more sign that Wilmington had been destined to be the boy's surrogate father.
Another smile softened the man's features and he shook his head slightly. Life was certainly full of surprises, and these two children had to be two of the biggest, as well as one of the best.
He could think that now, although how he had come to it so quickly was still a mystery to him. Things had moved so swiftly finding the boys, the decision to care for them, getting approval from Children's Services Why, he'd gone from grieving widower to new father at what felt like warp speed. And, he admitted to himself, there were still times when he stopped and wondered if he was doing the right thing.
His gaze rose to the top bunk, a real frown forming on his face when he saw that it was already empty. He retreated silently from the room, heading for the bathroom, but the door was open, the small nightlight casting its amber glow through the room and out into the empty hallway.
Where was Vin?
It wasn't like the boy to be out of bed this early, even if he was a morning person just like Chris was. Still, he supposed there was a good reason. It was, after all, Christmas morning.
Knowing that, he continued on down the hallway, passed his home office to the family room where they had erected their tree, and under which were piles of brightly wrapped packages just waiting for the two boys to open them. He shook his head at the thought. The boys' newly acquired "uncles" had gone above and beyond read that overboard as far as he was concerned, but he had to admit that he was guilty as they were.
But hell, those two boys deserved it. It had been a while since either of them had had a good Christmas, and he wasn't at all sure that Vin had ever had one, and certainly never one like Adam had celebrated for five years.
It scared him a little, how easily the two street urchins had inserted themselves into his heart. There had been a time, not so very long ago, in fact, when he had wondered if he would ever feel anything ever again. And love Well, love was something he had most definitely given up ever feeling again.
It made him guilty sometimes, knowing that the grief, the pain of his loss was fading away. Not that he loved his wife and his son any less, but the hurt of their loss had been overshadowed by the needs of the two small boys who now lived with him, and Buck.
That thought brought the return of his smile. Buck "I'll always be a bachelor" Wilmington had given up most of his womanizing ways and had moved in with him at the ranch. And why? Because a five-year-old bundle of energy and IQ named JD Dunne had captured his heart like no woman had ever been able to. It was an amazing turn of event for anyone who knew the man, especially as well as Chris did.
It was abundantly clear that Buck loved the boy, and that JD loved him, and love can do amazing things to a man's soul, not to mention his priorities. Buck Wilmington was now a father. Not legally, perhaps, not yet, but Chris had no doubt that adoption was in Buck and JD's future.
And in his as well?
He shied away from the thought, still too uncomfortable with the idea to contemplate it for too long.
Did he really want to be a father again?
But he already knew the answer his heart was giving him: Yes. His soul, however, remembered all too well the pain of losing a child, a wife. What if he lost Vin?
And what if he lost him because he was afraid to lose him? Surely there was another family out there who would adopt the child and give him what he wanted most a family.
He forced the thoughts aside as he reached the family room. His gaze went first to the Christmas tree, expecting to see the child rummaging through the piles of presents. But while the lights twinkled in the dark room, reflecting off the wrapping paper in a riot of colors No Vin. His brow furrowed.
Then his heart began to beat faster. He really had expected to find the child at the tree, inspecting the huge jumble of presents, the pile having doubled in size after the two boys had been sent to bed the night before and "Santa's" gifts had been added to the already accumulated booty. But then he had noticed last night that Vin hadn't paid much attention to the growing number of presents under the tree.
On the verge of real worry, his gaze swept over the room. It came to rest on a small lump on the floor. It was in front of the sliding glass doors, and the curtains had been drawn back about a yard. He let out a silent sigh of relief, his hammering heart beginning to slow again.
Vin was seated on the floor, wrapped up in the afghan that usually covered the back of the sofa. One corner of the blanket covered the boy's tousled dark-blond curls and Cat was sitting in his lap.
The seven-year-old was staring past the glass, past the deck, to the wide open expanse of open land that rose up gently to meet the foothills at the base of the Rockies. It was a beautiful view, one he and Sarah had carefully chosen. The northwest exposure had given them a beautiful view of the mountains, with plenty of sun for the room across the course of the day.
Standing silently, he continued to watch the child. Vin's attention was definitely focused, and he appeared to be settled in for a long wait, but for what? Santa was supposed to have come last night and, given the number of presents, Vin couldn't think he hadn't been by their house yet could he?
Chris frowned. Had the boy been unable to sleep because of his back? Had he been in pain? Was he hurting now? He opened his mouth to ask, but then shut it. The child wasn't fidgeting like he normally did when he was hurting, so it probably wasn't that.
And how the hell had he gotten to know and understand the child's body language so quickly and so well? They hadn't been together all that long, but it was as if he had picked up on all the boy's cues right from the start.
Not an easy task when the child in question was as reserved as Vin was. Quiet and reserved, as if he were little more than a shadow. But then that was how he had managed to survive on the streets by being unnoticed, nothing more than a shadow. The frown returned, as well as a touch of righteous anger. No child deserved to live like that.
He studied the child. Vin was still too small for his age and too quiet, and most certainly too wise. He was also far too stoic about pain and disappointment. The huge blue eyes that seemed to enchant every female who came into contact with him were too deep, too old, and far too knowing.
Vin was an old soul, trapped inside a child's body.
He knew from talking with the boy, and with Mrs. Wells and Dr. Lowery, that Vin had seen and experienced some horrendous things over the course of his short life, more than they were aware of, he was certain, but there still remained a spark of innocence and wonder in the child that awed Chris. Having seen both the best and the worst that men could dish out to each other, Vin had somehow acquired an understanding of the difference, and had chosen kindness.
The fact that he wasn't excitedly examining the Christmas presents suddenly made Chris' heart ache. Any "normal" seven-year-old boy would be, but not Vin. No, he was sitting in front of the sliding glass door, staring out at what? He couldn't see anything out there, but then it was still dark, the first hints of dawn just beginning to appear.
"Y' mad at me?" came the softly asked question, wrapped in a slowly fading Texas accent.
"Mad?" he echoed. "No, I'm not mad at you," he replied, wondering how the boy had even known he had been standing there. He walked over and sat down on the floor beside the child. "If you're waiting for Santa Claus, he already came and left," he teased the boy.
Vin turned his head, the big blue eyes looking up at Chris as the boy said, with all seriousness, "Santa Claus don't come t' visit me, Mr. Chris."
Larabee had to swallow a couple of times before he asked, "And why is that?"
Vin turned his head, staring back out at the gathering dawn as he replied, "Mama said 'cause he knew I'd understand."
"Understand?" Chris asked, quite sure that he didn't.
Vin nodded, his gaze fixed on whatever it was he was watching outside. "Yeah See, Santa don't got 'nough toys fer all the kids there's a whole bunch of 'em so he has t' ask the mamas 'a some of 'em t' tell 'em he can't bring 'em anything, even though he really, really wants to."
"Oh," Chris replied, feeling his chest tighten. Vin's mother had been little more than a child herself when he'd been born. It made sense she wouldn't have been able to buy him presents for Christmas. From what he could tell, she'd had a difficult time just providing enough food to keep them both from going hungry all the time, although he knew all too well that Vin was used to going to bed hungry.
No wonder Vin hadn't paid much attention to the presents under the tree; he hadn't expected any of them to be for him. "Well, I think Santa decided he could bring you some stuff this year," Chris told the boy, hoping to cheer him up.
"Hope not," was the unexpected reply.
"No? Why is that?" Chris found himself asking.
Vin sighed softly, obviously a little frustrated that he had to explain all this obvious stuff to Chris. "'Cause when Santa cain't bring y' nothin' then God gives y' somethin' instead. Somethin' really special."
That was enough to hike Chris' eyebrows. "Oh. I see. And has, uh, God given you something before?"
Vin nodded, then said in a hushed whisper, "He's givin' t' me right now, but y' gotta be real quiet 'n' jist watch."
The frown returned and Chris peered past the glass, but he didn't see anything. "Vin, what's He giving you?" he asked the child softly.
The boy leaned forward, peering out the glass, his head cocking to one side as he said, "See watch "
Chris looked, but he still didn't see whatever it was the child was seeing. "Maybe you should tell me," he suggested.
Vin sighed again, a little louder this time.
"I'd like to share it with you," he said. "If you think God wouldn't mind."
That got the boy's attention, and Vin looked back at him. "Don't think He'd mind," he said seriously. "Reckon He must be thankin' you, too."
"Me? For what?"
"Fer takin' care 'a JD 'n' me," Vin replied. His head dipped and he looked up at Chris through his eyelashes, shy and ready for rejection.
"Come here," Chris said gently, opening his arms and inviting the boy to climb into his lap.
After a slight hesitation Vin did so, Chris' arms wrapping around him, making him warmer. The man dipped his head, whispering into the child's ear, "So, what's God giving you?"
"Watch," Vin said again.
"I don't see anything."
He heard a little gasp. "Y' don't?"
"Tell me what you see."
Vin leaned forward slightly, whispering, "See all the pretty colors God's paintin' up in the sky? See how they're changin'? He's runnin' his fingers through the colors 'n' stirrin' 'em up, just fer me "
Chris swallowed again, harder this time. He watched the sunrise, seeing it again for the first time in several years. The colors shifted and changed, fading one into another in a dance of light and color more beautiful than he remembered. "It's beautiful," he managed, his throat suddenly tight.
"Shh, here comes the best part," Vin whispered. He pointed and Chris' gaze followed.
The man felt his heart lurch and unshed tears filled his eyes. In the open space beyond the split rail fence that marked the "backyard" from the fields of naturally occurring grass was a small herd of White Tail deer. There were several does, some with older fawns following close to their flanks. They dipped their heads to graze on the grasses and plants, then lifted them again to watch for predators or other danger. The sight was nothing new to the man. He saw the deer almost every time he went out early to feed the horses before heading off to work, but he'd never really noticed them before. They were beautiful graceful and wild peaceful.
Then two of the fawns kicked up their heels, chasing after one another. Vin giggled and Chris smiled and hugged the child tighter. The deer reminded him of the boy in his arms graceful and wild, ready to bolt at the first hint of danger, but willing to stand and fight in order to protect JD
And when his mother had had nothing to give him, she had sat with him on Christmas morning, holding him, pointing out the beauty of the natural world, and telling him it was all God's gift to him And she was right, it was.
There wasn't a single thing waiting for him under that tree that would ever mean half as much to Vin as what he'd just seen. She might have been poor when it came to money, but Vin's mother had not been poor in spirit, or in heart, two gifts that she had passed along to the boy in his arms his son.
The thought startled him, scared him, but he knew it was true. Vin was his son, the son of his heart if not his loins, and there was no way he could ever let the child go.
Chris lifted his head slightly, staring up into the ever-changing morning sky. "Thank you," he mouthed silently, to God, and to Catherine Olivia Tanner.
They sat together, watching until the deer had moved out of sight, and the sky had brightened to constant pale blue, broken here and there by clouds that promised to thicken, bringing more snow to the high country and the ski resorts.
"That's some present," Chris said softly.
Instinct told him something was wrong, and Chris looked down. Tears were rolling down the boy's face. "Hey, what's wrong?"
"Wish she was here "
"I know, kiddo, I know But she is here. You know that, don't you? She'll always be right beside you, every single day."
Vin nodded. "Y' think Mama 'n' Mrs. Chris can be friends?" That caught Chris slightly off guard and he didn't have time to formulate a reply before Vin added, "They's gonna have a lot 'a time t' play. Maybe Mama c'n show" He stopped abruptly, afraid to use Adam's name in front of Chris.
"It's okay," the man said, reaching up to comb his fingers through the boy's unruly curls.
"Well, maybe Mama c'n show Adam like she showed me "
"Maybe she can," he agreed. "I think Adam would like that."
"Mrs. Chris won't get mad?"
"No," he replied, "she won't get mad." Vin relaxed back against Chris, who asked, "Did you and your mom do this every Christmas?"
"Well, maybe we can keep doing it, okay? You and me, that is. If you want to "
Vin nodded and looked up at the man. "I'd like that but "
"Won't God stop givin' me special presents if Santa's gonna bring me somethin' now? He'll have t' save the special ones fer the other kids Santa has t' skip."
Chris hunched over the small boy, hugging him tight. "No, God always has plenty of special gifts to give away As long as we know how to see them," he added thickly.
"It's Chris-muss!" came a loud proclamation from behind them.
Vin squirmed around in Chris' arms to peer over his shoulder at JD. "Merry Christmas, JD!"
"Marewee Chris-muss, Vin!"
Chris let the boy wiggle free, hurrying over to join JD, who was already at work, counting all the presents under the tree.
"You okay, stud," Buck asked, making his way over to join Chris.
"I will be," he replied, reaching up to wipe at his eyes.
"What's going on? Vin want to get started on his presents early?"
Chris looked at his friend, knowing he would have to explain the ritual to the man later, but for now he just said, "No, I was getting an early start on mine." His voice cracked on the last word.
"Chris?" Buck asked worriedly, but he could see the tears in his friend's eyes were ones of joy, not sorrow.
"I'll tell you about it later," Chris said, blowing out a breath and blinking to try and chase the extra moisture from his eyes. "Now, we better get this show on the road. The rest of the uncles will be here before you know it.
Buck nodded, reaching out to squeeze Chris' shoulder. "We've already gotten the best presents ever, haven't we?"
Chris nodded. "Yeah, we sure have. Now, go make some coffee. I'm gonna need it."
"You and me both," Buck agreed with a chuckle, glancing over at the tiny whirlwind who had stolen his heart. "Coffee, and just a teaspoon of their energy."
"Better make that a tablespoon," Chris replied when JD lost count at sixteen and had to start over again.
Buck chuckled. "I think you're right."