Before long Vin realized that he was swaying gently to the music and he grinned to himself when he glanced over at JD and saw that the kid was doing the same. It had been his brother's idea to come today but Chris and Buck had been unwilling to let him attend alone. When JD had protested that he wouldn't be alone, that he'd be with some of his friends, their guardians had refused even more adamantly. Somehow they had a hard time believing that three 14 year old boys could be trusted at an all-day rock concert by themselves. JD had wheedled and whined until eventually Vin agreed to chaperone, more to shut the kid up than through any real desire to attend. In the end, though, a couple of his own friends had decided to come along too, so it felt a lot less like babysitting and a whole more like plain old fun.
As he watched, one of JD's friends elbowed him in the ribs and held out a joint and his younger brother took it and sucked in deeply, blowing the smoke out in a long, full exhale. A couple of hits later JD half-turned towards him and held the joint out. He paused for a fraction of a second before taking it and puffing on it himself. He blew out a plume of smoke, watching it rise above his head, curling up and up, before disappearing. The music had been a bit hit and miss, some of the bands outstanding, some providing a really good reason to hit the head or line up for hotdogs and pop. But overall it had been a great day.
Vin smiled to himself, relaxing completely, and took another hit off the joint. He wondered briefly if Chris and Buck had enjoyed their day by themselves, then chuckled out loud. From the looks they'd exchanged when he and JD had left the house this morning, he could tell that they pretty much only had one thing planned and if they weren't back in bed the second Vin's car turned the corner at the end of the driveway then he didn't know them as well as he thought he did.
The thought of his parents pulled him up briefly. They were pretty uptight about the whole drug thing, and he knew they'd go apeshit if they saw him now. But damn it, it was only a joint. It wasn't like he and JD were popping pills or shoving needles in their arms. It was harmless, really, no more dangerous than the beer Chris and Buck drank at dinner or the occasional shot they enjoyed on the weekend.
Shaking off thoughts of his folks, he took a final drag off the joint and passed it along the line. The slow song had finished, and the band was cranking up for the big finale. After the concert they'd all drive to McDonalds for cokes and burgers, partly to satisfy hunger, partly to let the sweet smell of the grass dissipate. Chris and Buck had a sixth sense when it came to him and JD screwing up, no need to help them out by going home stinking of weed. Not that he thought there was anything so bad about the occasional drag on a joint, but he was pretty sure his law enforcement parents wouldn't see it quite that way.
"Have we not made it perfectly clear what we think about drug use?" Chris thundered.
Vin winced, but JD continued to stare at his guardians, looking almost unconcerned.
"It was nothing hard core, Chris. Just a toke or two," JD said.
"I don't give a good goddamn if all you did was sniff it!" Buck roared. Vin cringed further and even JD looked momentarily abashed.
"Were the drugs yours?" Chris persisted.
"No, Chris," Vin said honestly. Not this time anyway.
"You were supposed to be watching out for those kids, Vin," Buck growled. "That's why you were there. You are just damned lucky that Mrs. James is being cool about this whole thing, otherwise you'd be in serious shit, boy."
Fuck it, Vin thought. Why the hell was it always his damned fault whenever JD or one of his stupid little friends screwed up? After all they'd done to hide it, that idiot Matthew James had gone home and puked his Big Mac, super-sized fries and chocolate shake all over his bedroom carpet, then 'fessed up that they'd all been smoking dope at the concert. And his interfering mother had immediately called all the parents and told them what the kids had been up to. Chris and Buck had had a complete melt down, way over-reacting as far as Vin was concerned.
"Where did the drugs come from?" Chris asked, sounding a little more reasonable than before.
"We go to high school, Chris. Duh," JD muttered, and Vin could have strangled him when Chris shot him a black look and started to wind up all over again.
"If you think that smart mouth of yours is doing you any favors right now you are seriously mistaken," Chris snapped and JD had the sense to drop his head and at least try to look contrite. Chris glared at them both for a moment and Vin held his breath, wondering if his guardian's infamous temper would work itself loose. He relaxed a little when Chris pulled in a deep breath, knowing the man was trying to get himself under control.
"You two had better pray that we never hear you're mixed up with drugs again," he warned. "Now, go on up to your rooms. You can both expect to be spending a lot of time up there for the next week."
Vin sighed in relief and followed his brother upstairs. But instead of going into his own room, JD stood in the doorway of Vin's, leaning nonchalantly up against the frame.
"That went well," JD grinned, and Vin shook his head in exasperation. JD didn't take anything too seriously. But Chris and Buck were not screwing around on this one, that was for sure.
"JD, wise up," he admonished. "We've been busted. You heard them. They'll do a hell of a lot more than ground us if they catch us again."
"They won't catch me," JD said.
Vin snorted. "I'll bet that's what most of the perps they've collared said as well," he mocked. "They work law enforcement, pal. Face it. You're fucked."
JD waved him off. "You can kiss up to them if you want. But it's just a damned joint, for Chrissake, and you know I'm right. What's the big deal? Everybody at school does it."
"Everybody at school does a lot of shit, kid. But not everybody has Chris and Buck for parents."
"Relax," JD said. "I'll be extra careful and make sure they don't find out."
"Famous last words," Vin warned. "Well I'm not getting dragged into this one. You get caught again, you're on your own. Don't expect any help from me when they're kicking your butt from here to hell and back."
"Jesus, JD. They're gonna skin you alive," Vin muttered.
He was sitting in the hallway outside the principal's office, his brother slouched in a chair next to him, Chris and Buck expected at any moment. He'd been called out of his last class and grilled by Mr. Andrews about the joint that had been found tucked into JD's pencil box and although he had pleaded the kid's case as hard as he could, Mr. Andrews had insisted on calling their folks. JD was about to face their considerable wrath, and Vin knew that this time it was going to get ugly. And he hated ugly.
The door at the end of the hallway banged open and Chris and Buck strode determinedly down the corridor, grim-faced, looking as though they were about to draw their weapons and make a bust. Vin couldn't even feel thankful that it wasn't him caught in their cross hairs because he felt so awful for his brother.
He stood up, kicking JD sharply when the boy remained seated. JD glanced up and scrambled to his feet when Chris and Buck came to a halt in front of them.
"Vin, go on home," Buck ordered. "We'll be there in a little while."
Vin hesitated, wondering if it was safe to leave his brother in the hands of two such obviously pissed off adults.
"I am not going to repeat myself," Buck said sternly and Vin cringed at the cold tone.
He nodded and picked up his backpack, glancing sidelong at JD, trying to catch the boy's eye and give him a reassuring smile. But JD kept his head resolutely bent and wouldn't look at him. Sighing, Vin walked down the hallway towards the door, glancing back briefly to see JD being escorted into the principal's office, looking every inch the condemned man.
The wait at home seemed like forever. Vin wondered, not for the first time, why Chris and Buck were so totally freaked about the whole drug thing. He knew they had seen a lot of shit in their jobs and supposed that had something to do with it. More likely, though, it was something that hit a whole lot closer to home: Ann Marie Tanner. He knew his mom had done her best, and knew as well that her best wasn't good enough to keep them off the streets. He had asked about her a lot when he was a kid, until finally Buck had sat him down and told him the truth: a heroin overdose. "Don't blame her, son. Some folks just can't stay off the stuff, and she had a hard life. Trust me, I know."
He remembered her coming home acting all weird and not knowing why. Obvious, now, that she was either speeding or shooting up or strung out, and just as obvious that he and JD had gone hungry too many times because she was using. A heroin overdose: it's why Chris and Buck were so bent out of shape about him or JD using drugs, it's why he knew that there was no way he or JD would progress to the harder stuff. He remembered way too much about the misery that brought and he would never let that happen to him or to his brother. In the meantime, the occasional toke on a joint wasn't worth enough to him to defy Chris and Buck's orders. Better to get his kicks on the football field, or racing his car on the dirt roads. He just wished JD felt the same way.
It couldn't have been more than half an hour before the front door flew open and JD trudged in, looking pale and harassed, throwing his backpack onto the kitchen table and dropping heavily into a chair. Vin didn't have time to ask what had happened before Chris and Buck walked into the house, matching thunderous looks on their faces. Ah, shit! This was gonna hurt.
"What part of 'we never want you to use drugs again' didn't you understand?" Chris yelled, his temper fully unleashed, obviously picking up an argument they'd been having in the car.
"The part where that just plain sucks," JD shot back and Vin's mouth almost fell open. His younger brother simply could not walk away from an argument. After all these years he didn't know that it was a waste of time to care who was right and who was wrong in a situation like this. The kid ought to hang his head and give Chris and Buck free rein to vent their frustrations. Wasn't like it'd hurt JD any to do it, but he just couldn't keep his motor mouth shut!
"You'd better watch your mouth, boy," Chris warned, before Vin could hiss it.
"Do you know what would have happened if your principal had called the police instead of calling us?" Buck asked, dragging a hand through his hair, sounding not angry but something Vin couldn't quite place. Confused, maybe. Frustrated?
"You know we don't have official adoption papers on you two," Buck continued. "We're not considered your legitimate guardians, not in the eyes of the law. Do you really want to bring that kind of trouble down on this family?"
Anxiety. That's what he heard, Vin thought. He glanced up at his guardians and saw that they both had the same look in their eyes; the anger was clearly perceptible, but there was also something he rarely saw in these two men: fear.
JD's head reared. "That's bullshit," he jeered. "We've lived with you for years. Nobody's gonna take us away because of one lousy joint."
"You studied family law between tokes, kid?" Chris asked flatly, his temper submerged under biting sarcasm in the face of JD's stubbornness. "You two are wards of the court and Buck's right. You say the state wouldn't take you, well I say they could and if you think getting a buzz on is worth that kind of--" his teeth clicked together on whatever else he was going to say, before his anger spiralled up again. "We can't afford to take that chance and if you can't control yourself we're gonna have to."
Vin groaned inwardly wondering what JD was about to call down on himself.
He saw Chris exchange a look with Buck, who nodded slightly. Then Chris sucked in a deep breath and when he spoke he sounded a whole lot calmer, and absolutely implacable. "I've never raised a hand to either of you, but I promise you JD that if you keep on with this shit I will take my belt to you."
Vin's eyes widened in shock, knowing for certain that this was not an idle threat, that Chris would absolutely carry through with this if either of them disobeyed him again where drugs were concerned. He prayed that his brother would finally back down, but one look at the fury that tore across JD's face and he knew that the kid was not going to let it alone.
"It's only pot, for Pete's sake," JD shouted, leaping to his feet to face off against his guardians.
"It's an illegal substance," Buck corrected harshly. "It's also possession and God forbid it should be considered trafficking. Do you have any idea how much shit you'd be in if the police decided to make an example of you?"
"That's so fucking bogus," JD snarled. "Half the damned kids at school carry, and the other half supply. I had one lousy joint on me..."
"That's one too many, JD."
JD threw up his hands. "You two are just narrow-minded, uptight, fucked-up establishment Nazis," he shouted, slamming his fist on the table and striding towards the door.
"Get back here. I have not finished with you," Chris yelled.
"Fuck you!" JD snarled back, and walked out, slamming the door behind him.
For a moment there was a stunned silence, then Vin jumped up and started towards the front door.
A flash of enlightenment hit Buck, that this was a weird time to be a parent. That these kids had stresses on them that other kids didn't. That another strategy was going to be necessary. He was at the door before Chris, who had made to pass Vin on the hunt for JD. "Whoa there, guys," Buck said, holding up a hand and planting himself firmly in front of the door to cut them both off. "Vin, sit back down," Buck ordered.
Vin threw him a desperate look, but Buck only glared at him so Vin reluctantly sat back down at the table.
"Chris, I think it's best if I take it from here," Buck said quietly.
"Don't you even think about letting him off, Buck," Chris fumed. "He has stepped way over the line on this and I want him to know it."
"I'll take care of it," Buck said distinctly. Chris threw up his hands and turned his back, and the anger he was fighting to control was evident in his stiff stance. Buck sighed, not knowing which of his family members he should see to first. Vin looked totally stricken, and Buck suspected that the kid agreed with JD, and that this family was damned lucky that whatever experimenting Vin had done at 14 and 15 had slipped under everyone's radar. Chris was as scared as Buck had ever seen him, and Buck knew that he was as worried about the potential disaster this could spell for the family as he was mad at the way JD was behaving. And the kid, he was being unreasonable, pig-headed, pushing at the boundaries for all he was worth. Behaving like a typical teen.
Making a quick decision, he stepped up first to Vin, who raised wary eyes to him. "Your brother is in big trouble," he said frankly. "But we'll get through this, okay?"
Vin nodded. "'Kay," he murmured.
"Vin, can you tell me you didn't know he was still using drugs?" Buck asked.
Vin glanced away. "No sir," he mumbled. "I knew."
"Goddamn it, Vin!" Chris snapped, his anger riding him hard and finding a target. "You are supposed to watch out for him, be responsible for him when we're not around. How dare you let him continue to disobey us when you know how important this is?"
"Chris," Buck said sharply, and his lover subsided with a small snarl. Vin had paled and was now hanging his head, looking totally dejected. This was getting out of control.
"Ease off on the brother's keeper stuff, Chris," Buck said quietly, raising a hand to squeeze Vin's shoulder in a show of support. He forced a little laugh. "You remember all the stuff we got up to when we were kids? Everybody's got their stories." Buck stared at their eldest until Vin's head slowly came up, and blue eyes met his. "You're a good brother to him, best any kid could want. This kind of stuff is our responsibility, not yours," Buck continued quietly, and saw Chris' head swivel sharply, knowing he understood that his anger was being mis-directed. Well, no help for that now. Chris would have to make things right with Vin himself. "We're not asking you to tell tales on him, Vin," he explained. "But when he's breaking the law, you're gonna need to step up a little. Tell him to stop or walk away. If you act like it's okay, he'll think it's okay. Understand?"
"Yes, sir," Vin said miserably.
Buck patted his son briefly on the back then crossed the room to his lover. "We're on the same side, Chris," he said softly. "I take this just as seriously as you do."
Chris waved him off, an apology in his eyes even though he wouldn't articulate it, not here, not now. "He needs to understand that this is about as important as it gets," Chris said. "And if I have to deal with this the old-fashioned way, if I have to use a belt on him like my father did on me, I'll do it, Buck," he said unequivocally.
Chris would, of that there was no doubt. "Yeah," Buck agreed soberly. "Let me make sure he realizes what he's up against."
Chris nodded and Buck took a deep breath and went in search of the last member of the family, who needed the most help right now.
JD was in the barn, as Buck knew he would be. He looked up when Buck walked in, and he was obviously still furious, although there was also a little trepidation in his expression.
"You okay?" Buck asked.
"This fucking sucks," JD snapped out. "He treats me like I'm a baby, like I can't make any decisions for myself. He's just like Kenny's dad. Kenny can't say a damned word in his house without getting his head bitten off or getting smacked around. And now Chris wants to hit me to make me do what he wants! I thought he was different but he's like the worst of those fucking asshole parents."
His tirade fizzled out and he shook his head in frustration.
"You about done?" Buck asked. "Then listen up. You're not pushing us, JD. Not on this. We've never asked you to do anything just because we say so, we've always listened to you and your brother and tried to figure out something that would work for us all. But not this time. You are going to do exactly what we want on this with no further discussion."
JD scowled fiercely but he didn't say anything.
"This is non-negotiable," Buck continued firmly, pressing his point home. "I know it looks like it's nothing, from your point of view. Hell, plenty of folks wouldn't argue with you. But it's illegal, damn it. Chris and I are sworn to uphold the law and much as that stinks to you right now, it's the way things are. It applies just as much inside the family as out, maybe more. So I'm warning you, JD, we will not tolerate this from you again. We find out you're using more than aspirin for a headache, and if Chris doesn't give you a belting, I will."
JD's mouth fell open in shock. "You're serious?" he stammered.
"Deadly serious," Buck said implacably. He paused for a moment, watching disbelief turn to comprehension and saw that JD finally understood just how uncompromising he and Chris were over this issue. "It's the last thing in the world I'd ever want to do to you. So don't make me. Understand?"
After a silent minute, JD's head dropped. "All right," he mumbled, barely audible.
"Okay. Now go back up to the house and apologize to Chris, then maybe we can get on with our day here."
"He gonna apologize to me?" JD shot back.
Buck quirked an eyebrow. "You're pushing it again, JD," he warned.
JD swore under his breath and huffed out of the barn, and Buck could tell that although he might comply, he didn't believe most of what they'd told him or agree with any of it. But that was fine. Because all he needed right now was the kid's unquestioning obedience.
They'd been stern with JD, hoping that if the punishment was severe enough he'd take them seriously for once. He had tuned them out completely when they had tried to tell him about the harsh realities of the drug world; about the ways it destroyed people's lives, about arrest and imprisonment, about the felony conviction that possession of more than an ounce could put on his record.
By mutual consent they had stopped short of naming Vin's mother as one of the victims of drug abuse, feeling it would be needlessly cruel to the boy to drag that up at this stage. Chris had almost broken the agreement and yelled out Ann-Marie Tanner's name, frustrated by the way JD was purposefully ignoring them. In the end, though, he had sighed, grounded his son until he showed a more cooperative attitude, and walked out of the kid's bedroom feeling frustrated and hopeless. JD obviously still thought they were just out to spoil his harmless fun, and nothing they said seemed to have made an impact on the kid.
He had been uncharacteristically surly for days, not speaking to any of them unless he absolutely had to. Vin had tried to run interference, but JD had only scowled at him and told him to butt out, earning him yet another trip to his bedroom to cool his heels.
By the third day Chris had almost reached the end of his, admittedly short, rope. He sent JD out to the barn before dinner with his usual instructions to feed and water the animals. When Vin stood up to join him, as he had done the past few days, Chris said firmly, "Sit down, Vin."
Vin looked up, surprised. "I thought I'd go help him," he said.
"Not tonight," Chris said. "He's the one being punished, not you."
"I said no, Vin," Chris said, more harshly this time and Vin sat back down heavily, obviously fretful.
When dinner was called JD walked back into the house, glanced at Vin, sitting rigidly in his seat, and something passed wordlessly between them. He washed up in silence, and sat down at his place and tonight when Buck asked him how school had gone he answered politely, instead of the monosyllabic grunts they had almost become used to. He cleared the table by himself, washed and dried up without being asked, and sat down to his homework without a single complaint.
Chris was amazed. Vin was the key, which shouldn't have been such a surprise. JD depended on his brother, even when he thought he was mad at him. He didn't know if JD even realized what he had revealed but Chris filed that piece of information away for future reference.
JD seemed to straighten up after that, accepting whatever they told him to do without an argument, dropping the attitude that had grated on Chris so badly. His amiable, friendly self eventually re-emerged, and things settled back down and returned to normal.
"Buck, would you quit pacing, you're wearing on my nerves," Chris muttered.
Buck threw him a sheepish look and parked himself on a chair and Chris raised an eyebrow, acknowledging the look of gratitude the receptionist for their new family law attorney shot him. Tessa McKinley must have seen dozens of cases like theirs, yet she seemed genuinely concerned by their plight. Maybe she was just a kind-hearted soul, maybe it had something to do with the mild flirtation Buck had been conducting with her over the past few weeks.
"What do you think Norah will say?" Buck asked, for what must have been the hundredth time since they'd started this inquiry.
Chris sighed and offered up the same answer he'd given 99 times before. "I don't know, Buck."
Buck slumped down into his seat and scrubbed a hand through his hair, messing it up, and Chris resisted the urge to reach out and smooth it down for him. At least Buck had settled down some. Tessa gave him a sympathetic look before returning her attention to her computer screen.
This was turning out to be tougher than he'd expected. He and Buck had both been rattled enough by JD's drug use that looking into their legal rights and the potential for adoption at this late date had seemed like the only sane move. JD was right; it wasn't the joint in itself. It was everything else: him and Buck being now and forever unmarried... law enforcement... JD and Vin still technically wards of the court, teenage boys living with two gay men--or near enough that the system wouldn't see the difference... Chris had seen plenty of horror stories and he knew what the court of public opinion would say.
They understood why JD had done it; they had both wandered a little into that territory when they'd been the kid's age. Buck more than him, his partner's upbringing making it a whole lot easier to stray than his own more straight-laced situation. But JD wasn't just somebody's legal offspring smoking a joint, and their status as the boys' guardians had suddenly seemed so tenuous. What if the police had become involved? There was just so much to lose and he and Buck had come to the same conclusion: that they needed to find out where they stood in the eyes of the law as far as their kids were concerned.
"We should have done this years ago," Buck mumbled, mostly to himself, and Chris didn't bother to remind his lover that years ago they'd had other problems to navigate. The boys had come to them unsanctioned by some in authority who hadn't deemed it appropriate for two single men to take on the care of a couple of emotionally troubled young boys. Their custody was supposed to be a temporary measure, a stop-gap until something more suitable was found, and for years afterward they'd kept a low profile in case anybody was reminded of that and tried to take the boys away from them. Back then they had kept their personal relationship far more secret, not wanting to draw the wrong kind of attention to their new and fragile family and he and Buck had been afraid to pursue permanent adoption, anxious about what too much digging into their lives would reveal.
Chris glanced over at his lover, hunkered down low in the seat, his foot tapping unceasingly on the carpeted floor. He reached out and laid a hand on Buck's knee, stopping the nervous twitch. Buck cut him an apologetic look and whispered, "Sorry," and Chris patted his leg reassuringly, turning his hand over and gripping hard when Buck threaded their fingers together briefly.
Eight years was a long time, and things changed. They no longer hid who they were; not at work, not in their social lives, never in front of the kids. Sure, they had taken things very slowly when the boys had first come to live with them, and they were still extremely circumspect, but they'd always figured that the kids could only benefit from growing up in a loving, respectful household. And whatever adjusting the boys might have done when they'd figured out that he and Buck were lovers, they'd never been anything but positive.
"Did the school reports arrive, Tessa?" Buck asked.
She turned her head and smiled kindly. "Yes, Mr. Wilmington."
"Buck," he corrected absently. "And all their medical information?"
"Mr. Wilm... Buck. We received everything. Try not to worry. Norah will be with you in a moment."
Buck smiled weakly and it was a measure of how distracted he was that he didn't turn on the charm and try to get more information out of her.
When they had decided to find out where they stood legally as far as the boys were concerned, they had turned to their friend, Orin Travis, a retired judge who maintained close contacts in the judicial system. He had suggested that they consult Norah Jordan, an expert in family law, and they had already met with her several times over the past weeks to provide information on the boys' history and to sign over permission for Norah to access the kids' school and medical records, as well as their own annual psychological and performance assessments from the ATF and a detailed breakdown of their finances. They were meeting today to hear what options they had for safeguarding their guardianship of Vin and JD.
The phone on Tessa's desk rang and she picked up the receiver and listened for a minute. "Norah's ready for you now, gentlemen," she said, and Chris and Buck rose and pushed open the door. Norah waved them in and they re-settled on the couch in her office.
Norah was a handsome woman who appeared to be in her early sixties and her straightforward, no-nonsense approach appealed to Chris and Buck. Something about her style brought out the sober, thoughtful traits in Buck's nature and the respectful courtesy with which he treated all women seemed somehow heightened in Norah's presence. Chris loved this sweet, solicitous side of his partner and realized with a proud smile that both Vin and JD had adopted something of Buck's old-fashioned courtliness.
"I've examined all the records I received," Norah said briskly, getting straight to the point, for which both men were grateful. "On the plus side, the boys are obviously very well looked after and getting along nicely at school. Nothing outside of the usual childhood illnesses reported from their family doctor, and only the most minor transgressions as far as their school principal is concerned."
She pulled a thick file off her desk and rifled through it, stopping to read for a moment before continuing. "You both checked out fine," she smiled. "A few comments on your ATF assessments that I don't think will come as a surprise. Mr. Larabee, a touch of temper was noted. Several times. Perhaps a little over-confrontational?"
Chris shrugged, not missing the sly smile that spread across Buck's face.
"And Mr. Wilmington," Norah said, turning her head, and Chris was amused to see Buck snap to attention. "Maybe a little reckless once upon a time, and something of a problem with authority figures. Would you agree?"
"Yes, ma'am," Buck said, glancing at Chris. "But I'm working on that," he added.
Chris snorted. He certainly hadn't noticed Buck cutting him any slack at work, even though technically he was his lover's boss, but he kept that observation to himself.
"Your finances are in good order, you can provide for the boys quite comfortably. And you own your own home. It isn't supposed to matter, but you'd be surprised how favourably that is looked upon in these cases." She paused for a second and flicked to another section in the substantial file. "Vin's birth mother is dead and I see from these notes that you made a very thorough search both for his father and for JD's birth parents at the time you rescued them."
Buck nodded. "We came up empty-handed on both. We kinda figured that after all this time without anybody coming forward, they probably don't have any other family."
Norah shrugged. "Whether that's true or not we can definitely establish due diligence in conducting the search. And after eight years with no contact it wouldn't be difficult to argue abandonment of personal and financial responsibility on the part of any relatives who might now appear. On the whole the reports were very positive. I'd say it would be easy to prove that Mr. Tanner and Mr. Dunne are being brought up in a stable, caring environment that puts their best interests first."
"So, even though our custody of the boys isn't strictly speaking legal you don't think it could be challenged?" Chris asked.
"I didn't say that, Chris," Norah clarified. "I'm saying that after eight years of excellent care on your part, at a time when child service agencies are stretched to the limit, it is unlikely that anybody would want to take the children out of your custody. However, the only way to ensure that absolutely is to pursue legal adoption."
"But?" Chris prompted, clearly hearing a qualifier in Norah's voice.
She looked him square in the eyes and smiled slightly. "There is a 'but'," she conceded. "State policy is based on case law. Colorado has quite a good record for same-sex adoption by individuals, but it has a very poor record for same-sex couples wishing to adopt, and there is practically no hope of second-parent status being granted."
Chris glanced over at Buck and saw a small frown furrowing his brow.
"Which means?" he prompted again, as confused as Buck was.
"Which means individually either of you would have a very good chance of adopting the boys, but you'd have a much smaller chance if you applied to adopt as a couple. And if you decided that one of you would be the primary adoptive parent and wanted to petition the court for co-parent status for the other, well, I'm afraid that would be most difficult of all."
"But we've been partners for nine years," Buck protested. "Our finances are in both names, we co-own the ranch. We've been equal parents to the boys..."
"I'm sorry, Buck, that wouldn't hold much sway here," Norah interrupted gently. "Most legal decisions are based on precedent, and that just isn't on your side in this instance."
"Anything else?" Chris asked. The news wasn't what they'd hoped for, but he needed to have all the facts lined up before he and Buck could make any further decisions.
Norah nodded slightly. "The boys had a traumatic start in life and they'd still be considered emotionally vulnerable. Am I right in thinking they continue to exhibit some symptoms from their early days?"
Buck cleared his throat. "I'm guessing you've read all the reports, family counsellors, their psych evaluations?" Norah nodded. "Then you know they had a lot of problems, mostly in the early years. But we've all worked very hard and that's pretty much under control now."
Norah cocked her head to one side. "No more disappearing for days on end, no more temper tantrums, mute spells, refusal to eat?"
"No ma'am," Buck said firmly.
"But they still have some residual problems?" Norah persisted.
"Yes, they do," Buck replied honestly. "But it's nothing we can't handle together."
"And this recent drug incident," she pressed. "Is there any way that could be construed as mal-adjustment?"
"Norah, that's not fair..." Buck began, a lot more heatedly.
Chris reached out and laid a restraining hand on Buck's arm and the man subsided into silence. "Come on Norah," Chris chided. "Half the kids JD's age have that particular black mark against them. It's not a sign of being mal-adjusted. It's a sign that he's a teenager."
Norah nodded thoughtfully. "I agree. I've checked with their counsellors, they tell me what you two have accomplished with the boys is quite remarkable. I think, all things considered, we have a very strong case."
Chris sighed in relief and felt the tension drain out of Buck.
"So," he asked, "Where do we go from here?"
* * *
JD jumped in surprise when he heard Vin's voice shouting his name, and his friends looked at him sharply, fear of discovery obvious in their expressions.
"Fuck! It's my brother," JD muttered.
Martin and Kenny blew out a noisy breath and relaxed visibly.
"Jesus, I just about had a fucking heart attack," Kenny said.
"Thank God it's only Vin. He's cool," Martin dismissed.
JD knew better and pressed the joint they had been sharing into Martin's hand just as Vin rounded the corner.
"Come on, JD. Christ, I've been looking everywhere for you," Vin groused. "You know Chris and Buck told us not to be home late tonight..." he trailed off when he saw Martin take a toke on the joint and JD could tell by the way Vin's mouth set into a thin, hard line that his brother was pissed.
"Don't tell me you're still doing that shit, boy," he said incredulously.
JD just shrugged. No point lying.
"Jesus Christ!" Vin exploded. "After getting caught by Andrews last time? After what Chris and Buck told you? They are gonna go fucking nuts..."
"Oh, can it, Vin," JD sneered. He didn't appreciate Vin pulling that 'big brother' shit on him in front of his friends.
"It's just a joint, Vin," Martin piped up. "You were smoking at the concert, we saw you."
"Butt out you idiot," Vin growled. "It's your fault we both got busted in the first place." Martin shrank back quickly and Vin rounded on JD, eyes flashing with anger.
"Chris said he'd belt you if he caught you again," he warned. "And he wasn't fucking around."
"Chris isn't gonna know, is he?" JD challenged. "'Less you're planning on telling him?"
Vin stiffened. "Goddamn it," he yelled, outraged. "I've always covered for you with Buck and Chris."
"Then stay the fuck out of my business now," JD yelled back furiously. "You don't get to tell me what to do."
Vin threw up his hands, obviously exasperated. "Fine," he growled. "If that's the way you want it, it's your ass. But let me tell you this," he continued, wagging a finger in JD's face, "I am not getting into trouble with them because of you. Last time Chris yelled his fucking head off at me because I didn't stop you. Well not this time." He took a step forward and jabbed a finger into JD's chest. "I don't want to hear that you're doing it, I don't want to see you light that shit up in front of me, I don't want to find any of your dope in the house. Understand? Now get yer ass into the car. Chris and Buck are expecting us home."
Vin turned on his heel and stormed off and JD swore out loud to his retreating back and flipped him off.
"What the fuck is his problem?" Kenny asked.
"He's just a goddamned suck-up, afraid of getting caught," JD sneered. "Fucker," he added, under his breath.
"You gonna let him treat you like some little kid?" Martin goaded. "Jeez, he's acting like he's your dad. If he was my brother I'd tell him to shove it."
JD suddenly snatched the joint out of Martin's hand and pinched the end, extinguishing it. "No I am not," he growled. "He doesn't tell me how to live my life." He slipped the joint into his jacket pocket, muttering darkly, "Screw him."
Buck cut a look over at his partner, sitting silent and rigid in the passenger seat of the truck. They hadn't exchanged a word since leaving their office and Buck was worried about how hard Chris was taking this.
They had scarcely walked back into the office after leaving Norah when the phone on Buck's desk rang shrilly. The call had come from the school, probably because the accident had happened so close to school property and the ambulance had been called from there. Details were sketchy, although the principal kept assuring Buck that both boys were alive and JD at least was conscious and coherent.
His face must have betrayed his shock because Josiah and Ezra had immediately crossed the room to his desk. Josiah pried the phone out of his hand and had a brief, terse conversation with Mr. Andrews before hanging up and punching a new number into the telephone. Ezra had pushed Buck into a chair and yelled out Chris' name, and he had walked out of his office and come to kneel in front of Buck demanding to know what was going on.
Bad enough as this was for Buck, he couldn't help thinking how much worse it had to be for Chris. Another phone call to tell him that people he loved had been hurt, another tense trip to the hospital not fully knowing what to expect. At least this time they knew that things were not as desperately grave as they had been before. With Sarah and Adam, the hospital administration had refused to give them any news over the phone. But they had been told clearly and calmly that both boys were fine, that JD had been treated for minor cuts and bruises and would be released to them tonight, and that Vin, while suffering a mild head wound that would keep him in the hospital overnight, would be home with them tomorrow.
Buck pulled into the parking lot and he and Chris jumped out of the truck and practically ran into the building. They followed the instructions they had been given, and moments later the elevator was opening onto the 5th floor and Buck was scooping JD up into his arms and hugging the boy close and tight.
He took a few seconds just to feel his son's chest heaving against his own, then relaxed his grip.
"You okay?" Chris asked, starting to wrap the kid in his own arms. But JD stiffened and pulled away. Chris looked confused and a flash of hurt crossed his face.
"I'm fine," JD mumbled, looking at the floor, refusing to meet Chris' gaze.
Buck turned JD around and held him at arm's length. His face was cut and there was a livid bruise across his cheek. He was as pale as a ghost, but he didn't seem hurt beyond what was obvious.
"And Vin?" Chris asked, and JD flinched so violently that Buck had to tighten his grip just to keep the boy upright.
"In there," JD whispered, gesturing with his head towards room 502.
Chris and Buck immediately began to walk towards the room, but the kid hung back, reluctant to join them.
"JD? You okay, son?" Buck called, turning back as Chris disappeared through the door.
JD swallowed hard and raised frightened eyes to him. "Is he gonna be okay?" he asked, so plaintively that Buck felt a renewed stab of fear, empathizing with the kid's palpable anxiety. "They wouldn't tell me much," JD continued, "practically nothing and they wouldn't let me see him until you got here. They said Vin has to stay in the hospital..."
Buck quickly closed the space between himself and his youngest son and pulled the kid up close. "Just for the night, JD. Just for observation," he soothed. "Come and see him with us. The doctor is coming by and will tell us more, okay?"
JD nodded against his chest, then straightened up and they walked into the room together. Vin was asleep, curled up on his side, Chris in the chair beside the bed, holding his hand gently. He looked so much worse than JD, one side of his face swollen and bruised, cuts all up his arms, and a lump the size of a golf ball on his forehead.
"He slammed his head on the steering wheel," JD murmured, reaching out and stroking a hand absently over his brother's leg. "And the windshield smashed, there was glass in his face..." he trailed off, and Buck came up behind him and wrapped him in strong arms and this time JD didn't pull away.
The door swung open and a doctor stepped into the room and introduced himself. He held out a hand and Buck and Chris shook it, and gave their names and their relationship to Vin. Doctor Philips flipped quickly through the chart that hung from the bed frame and looked up, smiling briefly.
"What you see is what you get," he said cheerfully. "Nothing more serious than the bruising and abrasions, and a very minor trauma to the head. We'll keep him in overnight for observation and to let him sleep it off. Questions?"
"When can we take him home?" Buck asked the obvious when he saw that Chris was looking a little shell-shocked.
"I fully expect to discharge him tomorrow, after my morning rounds. I'll leave instructions at the desk for you. He should stay home for a few days and you need to keep an eye on him, make sure he gets plenty of rest. You'll have to keep your brother off the video games for a while," he joked with JD, but the kid barely raised a smile. "He might need some pain pills to take the edge off for the first couple days. But he'll be good as new in a week."
Buck thanked the doctor, and Chris pulled himself out of his hawkish observation of Vin long enough to offer a handshake and his own thanks.
"You two are very lucky young men," Doctor Philips said to JD on his way out. "Oh, Mr. Wilmington," he added, turning in the doorway. "There's a police officer around somewhere. He'll want to speak to both boys eventually. Get details on what caused the accident."
JD stiffened in Buck's arms and he tightened his grip. "It's standard procedure, JD," he whispered. "Nothing to worry about."
At that moment there was a light tapping at the door and it was pushed open a few inches, Ezra's head appearing with a questioning look on his face.
"Come in," Buck said, and both Ezra and Josiah walked into the room. Chris stood up, and Buck eased JD into the chair his lover had vacated then walked over to huddle with his friends and bring them up to speed.
"You are extremely fortunate, gentlemen," Ezra said. "Do you know what happened?"
Buck turned, noting how forlorn JD looked, how young and uncharacteristically frail.
"JD?" the boy raised his head. "Come here, son," Buck said and the kid stood up and crossed the few steps to where they were standing. "Can you tell us what happened?" he asked. JD dropped his eyes but he didn't answer the question.
"Maybe Vin was speeding a little, son?" Josiah suggested quietly. "You can tell us, JD."
JD's head flew up. "No! It wasn't Vin's fault." He swallowed hard. "It was my fault," he said, voice trembling.
The men exchanged puzzled looks. "How could it be your fault, JD?" Chris asked. "We know you weren't driving."
"I distracted him," JD said. "I was arguing with him and...and..." he ground to a halt.
"And what?" Chris prompted gently.
JD looked at Chris and dragged in a deep breath. "I lit up a joint. He was trying to stop me," he said flatly. Buck saw incredulous fury flash across his partner's face and he knew JD saw it too.
"You did what?" Chris snarled, a terrible look in his eyes.
Without even realizing what he was doing, Buck pulled JD back a few paces, not sure which of the two he was protecting from the other.
Ezra stepped into the middle of the fray, ignoring Buck and Chris. "JD," he said firmly. "This is important. Did Vin take a hit off the joint?"
"No," JD whispered.
"And do you have any idea what happened to the drugs after the crash? JD! Focus," he snapped.
JD looked flustered for a moment then he shook himself. "He was yelling at me that I shouldn't keep smoking, that Chris and Buck had ordered us not to. I yelled back, told him to mind his own business and he couldn't stop me." He paused and swallowed hard. "Then I pulled the joint out and lit it up and he took a hand off the steering wheel and reached over to try to grab it. Next thing I knew we'd fishtailed and sideswiped something, a tree I think." He pulled in a deep, shuddering breath. "We were both awake, I mean, we didn't pass out or anything. But he was hurt, bleeding..." he stopped again, and Buck wanted nothing more than to pull the wounded child into his arms and comfort him. But this was too important, they had to hear the rest. "Vin told me to pick up the joint," JD said, sounding bewildered. "He told me to give it to him. I...He..." He frowned in concentration, then his face suddenly cleared. "It's in his jacket," he blurted.
Ezra exchanged a look with Josiah, who walked over to the closet and dragged out the jacket that was hanging there, turning it around to hide the dark bloodstains spotting the material. He quickly rifled the pockets, his frown deepening as each came up empty. Buck was wound so tight he thought he was going to throw up, until Josiah finally reached into the inside pocket and hissed out a pent up breath. He pulled his hand out, revealing green flakes sticking to his fingers. "Vin managed to crush it up," he said. "I don't think it was discovered."
Each man in the room let out a sigh of relief and JD seemed to crumble where he stood and Buck had to swoop in quickly to catch the boy. He manoeuvred the kid back into the chair by the bed, stopping to gently sweep a hand over Vin's long hair then gripping JD firmly by the shoulder.
"You say there's an officer somewhere on the premises?" Ezra asked.
"That's what the doctor told us. Said he'd want to speak to the kids," Buck said, and felt JD tremble under his hand.
Ezra looked thoughtful for a moment, obviously turning something over in his mind. "Alright. Give me ten minutes," he said, then turned and walked out of the room.
They waited in absolute silence. Chris had walked to the window and turned his back to the room. JD had his eyes fixed intently on his brother and kept them glued there. Josiah eventually sat on the end of the bed, resting one hand on Vin's leg. Buck remained where he was, a hand on JD's shoulder, one eye on Chris' rigid back, wondering what his lover was thinking.
Moments later the door swung open and all eyes flew to Ezra as he walked in. "That's settled," he said. "I spoke to the officer, explained that Vin is out for the count and that JD is too emotionally unstable right now to give a statement. I also explained that we all work for ATF. He has agreed that the boys can give their statements to one of us. Not Chris or Buck as the boys' parents, but to Josiah, Nathan or myself."
"God, Ezra. Thanks," Buck said fervently, loving the man for his coolness, his thoughtfulness, his calm in the face of a potential crisis.
Chris cleared his throat noisily. "Thank you, Ezra," he said formerly. "Really appreciate it. I wouldn't expect you to lie..." he stopped short and shook his head, then raised wary eyes.
"I'll conduct the interviews myself," Ezra said quietly. "And I'll ensure that only the more innocuous information is solicited," he continued, glancing at the jacket that Josiah still held in his hands.
Chris nodded, looking immensely relieved. "Thank you," he repeated. "Means a lot to us."
They drove back home in absolute silence, JD sitting motionless in the back seat, forehead pressed up against the window.
When they pulled up to the house, JD got out of the car quickly and went straight up to his bedroom and Chris and Buck dragged themselves into the house, physically and emotionally exhausted, wanting nothing more than to curl up with each other on the couch and maybe down a couple of shots of whiskey to soothe their ragged nerves.
Vin had woken up briefly before they left the hospital, trying to suppress a groan when he moved and his bruised and aching muscles protested. His first concern had been for JD and the two boys had huddled close together until it became obvious that Vin needed to go back to sleep. Buck had coaxed the reluctant younger boy out of the room while Chris settled Vin down for the night, with a promise to come back as soon as he was discharged in the morning and take him home.
JD hadn't spoken a word since.
Chris pulled open the refrigerator door, wondering what he could throw together that was quick and easy. Not that he was hungry, but he supposed they had to eat something. He was startled when Buck broke the silence.
"You need to go up there and talk to JD, he's hurting," Buck said quietly.
Chris closed the refrigerator door without taking anything out. "I know he is, but I can't. Not right now. You go."
Buck shook his head. "He doesn't need me, he needs you. You're the one who rode shotgun on this issue." Buck held up a staying hand when Chris opened his mouth to protest. "I know, we both agreed on the basics. But you're the one who laid it out for them. You're the one he thinks he disappointed most."
"I am the one he disappointed most," Chris muttered, and Buck didn't deny it. Ethically, morally, he had no problem with kids experimenting with the more innocuous drugs. They were teenagers, and he'd done the same himself when he'd been their age. It was just their particular situation, the tenuous hold they had on the boys where the eyes of the law were concerned. Chris dragged a hand through his hair. "I'm just so fucking angry with him, Buck. I'm afraid I'll really lose it if I go up there now."
Buck smiled wanly, exhaustion tightening the lines around his eyes, making them more prominent. "Come on, Chris," he chided gently. "You are way too good a father to lose control. Besides, I think he should see that you're angry about this. I don't think either of us should hide that from the kids."
Chris shrugged. He'd been scared of the absolute fury that had torn through him when JD had confessed to using drugs again and causing the accident. He was scared still.
"And anyway," Buck continued softly, "he's really beating himself up over this. You couldn't be any harder on him than he is on himself right now."
Chris wasn't convinced that that was true. But Buck was right about one thing, JD shouldn't be left alone right now.
Chris took a deep breath, steadying himself and swallowing his anger. But when he walked upstairs and approached JD's bedroom, his fury melted away.
JD was sitting on the edge of his bed, head in hands, and he was shaking as though he was going into shock.
"Buck," Chris yelled, and sprinted into the room, sliding onto the bed beside his son and pulling him into a close hug.
Buck charged in a moment later, took in the scene in a heartbeat, and grabbed up a blanket, wrapping it around the shivering boy and sitting down on the other side of JD.
Chris clung tightly as JD cried against his chest, noisy gulping sobs that shook his whole frame, and all he could do was to murmur soft words into his son's ear, words he knew the boy didn't hear right now, and exchange a frantic look with Buck over the top of JD's head.
Buck moved in closer and began to rub a soothing pattern into his son's back with one hand, while his other hand gently cupped Chris' neck and Chris didn't know which of them was comforted most by Buck's calming presence.
Eventually the tears subsided into hitching hiccups and JD loosened his grip a little, although he kept his face hidden. "God, I really, really fucked up badly this time," he murmured and Chris didn't have the heart to chastise him for swearing.
"It's over, JD," Buck soothed. "No lasting harm done."
JD raised his head sharply, eyes stormy with emotion. "But it could have. You should have seen him. He was bleeding everywhere," he dropped his head again and Chris squeezed tightly while another storm of tears racked JD's body.
"Vin's gonna be fine, kiddo," Chris murmured. "You heard the doctor, he'll be back home with us tomorrow."
JD drew in a deep breath, finally getting himself under control and raising his head again. "I'm sorry, Chris," he murmured. "I didn't mean for that to happen."
"I know," Chris said. "We need to talk about this, JD. But not right now, okay?"
JD nodded miserably.
"Go and wash your face and come have something to eat," Buck instructed gently.
JD shook his head. "Not hungry," he said.
"Impossible," Buck teased. "Come on, JD," he said, more seriously. "You have to eat. I'll make you a grilled cheese."
JD opened his mouth to argue, but Buck cut him off firmly. "This isn't a suggestion, son. I'll expect you downstairs in ten minutes. I don't want to have to tell you again. Clear?"
JD sniffed and swiped at his eyes with his shirtsleeves. "Yes, sir," he whispered.
"Good boy," Buck smiled, patting him on the back. When JD left the room, Chris let out a noisy breath. "This is gonna be rough on him," he said.
"Yep. It's a hard lesson. But at least I think he's finally learned it."
Chris and Buck had been discussing a game plan for the next day but lapsed into silence when JD walked down the stairs, looking so pale under his shock of black hair. Instead of sitting down at the kitchen counter he walked right up to Chris.
"You said you would take your belt to me if I disobeyed you again over this," he said, the resolute tone undercut by the wavering in his voice. "Can we get it over with?"
Chris recoiled sharply. "I don't want to hit you, JD," he protested. "I never wanted that. I just wanted you to realize how serious this is, how dangerous for all of us."
JD bit down on his lip and for a moment Chris thought the boy would begin to cry again, but he shook himself and turned away, sitting at his place at the kitchen table. Buck put a plate in front of him, and he nibbled at the grilled cheese, probably more because Buck stood over him and urged him on than because he was hungry. When he had eaten all he could manage he pushed the plate away, timidly glancing up to see if Buck would make him eat anymore. Buck frowned a little, but he didn't insist.
JD looked so damned fragile. Chris was reminded of the under-sized, malnourished six year old who had come into their lives 8 years ago, frightened, clinging to Vin with all his strength, panicked if they tried to separate him from his brother. They'd set up two beds in Vin's bedroom, knowing that JD would never consent to sleeping in a room alone. But night after night, when they went to check on the boys before turning in, they found that JD had crawled into Vin's bed and was crowded up against him, small hands wound tightly in his brother's pyjamas. After the first night, when they had tried to coax him back to his own bed and he had pitched an almost hysterical fit, they had simply left the boys to work it out for themselves.
The poor kids had seemed petrified by so much back then. He vividly remembered the flare of absolute panic in both boys' eyes when he and Buck had stumbled into their bedroom one night after hearing noises, and found Vin trying to make up the bed after JD had wet through it. JD had hidden behind Vin, peaking out from time to time, tears running down his small face. Vin had stood resolutely, protecting the younger boy, begging them to blame him for the mess.
He and Buck had exchanged looks, and he had stepped back a few paces, knowing the kids trusted Buck implicitly, where they were still unsure of Chris himself. They had discussed the best strategy with Vin in the morning, listened gravely while he explained that JD was just nervous and didn't mean any harm, then agreed that if it happened again, Vin was to try to wake Buck up and let him help. In the meantime, they suggested that both beds should be made up each night and that if there was an accident in one, the kids should simply transfer to the other after cleaning up. Even though JD continued to wet the bed for weeks after, Vin had never forced him to sleep alone, had simply continued to look after him as he had in that stinking flophouse, cleaning him up, helping him into dry pyjamas, changing beds with him.
It had taken several more weeks of increasingly less frequent accidents until the problem was solved, and several more months after that before JD felt comfortable enough to sleep in a separate bed.
Chris shook his head. The kids had come such a long way, but times like this reminded him of how tenuous their seemingly normal life could be.
"You don't look so good, JD. You should go to bed," he said, and the kid glanced up miserably.
"Don't want to go up there yet," he said quietly and Chris remembered that it was Friday night, that JD always slept in the spare bed in his brother's room on Friday, watching late night television, eventually crashing when they were both too tired to keep their eyes open.
"Come on then," he offered and led the way into the den. He flicked on the TV and settled JD on the couch, encouraging him to lie down and tucking a blanket tightly around him. By the time Buck walked into the room and perched on the arm of his chair, JD was already fast asleep. Chris moved over and tugged at his lover, and Buck slid down beside him, wiggling a little to get comfortable.
"You gonna wake him up? Get him into his own bed?" Buck whispered.
"Nah," Chris replied. "Let him sleep it off down here."
Buck nodded. "So, you wanna come upstairs? I could do with a little TLC tonight."
Chris hesitated and glanced over at his son, looking so small, so young, so damned vulnerable.
Buck shook his head and chuckled. "Guess at least one of us is sleeping in the armchair tonight," he smiled.
Chris felt a slight blush color his cheeks. "You should go to bed," he murmured. "Somebody needs to be alert tomorrow when Vin comes home."
"You sure?" Buck asked, yawning and stretching.
"Yeah," Chris said, a little ruefully. It felt good to be here, enveloped in Buck's arms. But he couldn't be selfish and there was no point both of them getting a lousy night's sleep.
Buck tilted his head to the side for a moment, then planted a kiss on Chris' cheek and rose, walking out of the room. Chris squirmed in the suddenly too-big chair, then turned his attention to flicking idly through the TV channels, hardly registering what he was watching. He looked up in surprise when Buck walked back into the den, arms filled with blankets and pillows and he grinned when Buck threw a blanket onto the carpet, arranged two pillows side-by-side and plopped himself down onto the makeshift bed, patting the space beside him.
Chris slid out of his chair and joined his lover, and after kicking off their boots and stripping out of their jeans, they settled down, pulling a blanket up over them. Chris sighed in deep contentment as Buck manhandled him onto his side, dragged him up against his chest and tucked him tight and close. He didn't feel the smallest sexual stirring when Buck wrapped him in a bear-hug, too wound-up by the day's events, worried still about JD and the fallout yet to come. Buck's strong hands calmed him with gentle touches and he relaxed completely.
"Hope you two aren't going to get up to anything disgusting," JD's voice carried in the quiet room.
"Go to sleep," Chris growled, feeling Buck's body shaking with silent laughter.
"I'll be on the psychiatrist's couch for sure over this," the kid mumbled.
"JD," Buck warned sternly. "Another word out of you and you're sleeping in the barn, you got me?"
Chris heard JD chuckle, a beautiful sound right now, and he turned his head and grinned at his lover. Kid's...they were just so damned resilient.
Buck groaned and opened his eyes slowly, letting them adjust to the early morning gloom. He rolled onto his back, wincing as the stiff muscles in his side protested and he rubbed at his sore hipbone. If he'd had his wits about him last night he'd have dug out the blow-up mattress that he and Chris always took on their family camping trips. The boys teased them mercilessly about it, calling them creaky old men, but they were way past sleeping on the cold, hard ground when they didn't have to, and his aching body now reminded him of that.
He glanced at his watch. Just past 6. Chris was fast asleep beside him and he decided to let his partner get a little more rest before starting what promised to be a busy day. One of the first things he needed to do was to track down Vin's damaged car and see about getting it towed to the shop and repaired. He didn't want the kid to have to see the vehicle in its present smashed up condition, and he wasn't sure he wanted Chris to see it either.
From the smell of coffee wafting in from the kitchen, Buck knew that JD was already up, so he crawled out of his makeshift bed, hunted up his jeans, and went to join his son. JD was watching the coffee dripping into the pot, seemingly mesmerized. He still looked pale and tired and Buck wondered how much sleep the kid had gotten last night.
"Morning, squirt," he said.
JD's head swivelled around and he smiled wanly. "Morning. Coffee's almost ready. Chris up?"
Buck shook his head. "Not yet. Want me to fix some breakfast for you?"
JD looked over and frowned a little. "Saturday morning, Buck. We always make breakfast for you." He poured coffee into Buck's mug and pushed it across the counter. "Sit," he ordered, and Buck saluted and sat down on one of the high stools.
"Bacon and eggs?" JD asked.
"Perfect, kid. Make sure you fix some for yourself too."
JD grimaced but he didn't argue. "When can we go get Vin?" he asked, opening the refrigerator door and pulling out ingredients.
"It's early yet, son," Buck said gently. "The doctor won't give him the all clear until at least mid-morning. As soon as he does, we'll bring your brother home."
"Can I go early?" JD asked, pulling the large frying pan down from its hook.
"Go where?" Chris asked, walking into the kitchen, scrubbing a hand through his spiked hair. He didn't look any more rested than JD, Buck thought.
"To the hospital," JD answered, pouring another mug of coffee and handing it to Chris, who nodded his thanks and sat on a stool next to Buck, leaning over to kiss his cheek and mutter, "morning."
"I just want to be with Vin until the doctor comes. Can I?"
Chris opened his mouth to answer, but closed it again and glanced at Buck quizzically when they heard the sound of a car pulling up outside their house. Buck shrugged. He certainly wasn't expecting anybody this early on a Saturday morning.
"It's Ez," JD declared.
Chris shook his head and Buck chuckled. "It can't be Ezra, son. He hasn't seen this side of 7 o'clock on a Saturday morning since he was your age."
JD shrugged. "Well, it's the Jag," he insisted, and smiled when the door opened. "Good morning, Ezra," he said, then turned to his parents. "Told ya."
Buck looked over in astonishment. Ezra was standing in the doorway, looking as dapper and business-like as ever.
"Coffee?" JD asked, and only the relieved gleam in Ezra's eyes betrayed the fact that he needed some kind of stimulation to kick-start him this early in the morning. "I'm making bacon and eggs if you want," JD offered.
"Thank you, JD," Ezra smiled. "I'll join you."
He balanced himself on a stool and nodded a greeting to Buck and Chris. "I thought it best to conduct my interview with JD as early as possible," he said. "I know you'll have your hands full today."
Buck noted how JD paled further and stopped dead in his tracks, looking suddenly much more haggard, the bruising and cuts on his face standing out in stark relief against his translucent skin.
"As he is a minor, at least one of you should be present..."
"We'll both be with him," Chris cut in firmly. "JD, you need a hand there, son?"
"Can we do this right away?" JD pleaded softly, turning huge eyes on his guardians.
Chris shook his head. "You need to eat something first, JD."
"Don't think I can," JD said unhappily.
Buck stood up quickly when JD turned a peculiar shade of gray, and settled the trembling boy onto the stool he had vacated.
"You need food," he said firmly. "I'm gonna make some breakfast, then we're all going into the den and we'll get this over with. No, JD, no arguments," he admonished when the boy's gaze turned mutinous.
"JD, you know you're safe here," Ezra said softly. "Do you trust us?"
"Yes sir," JD said fervently.
"Then put yourself into our hands and stop worrying," Ezra instructed firmly. "We'll take care of this together, understand?"
JD looked doubtful for just a moment, then his face cleared. "Yes sir. Thanks, Ez."
"So," Ezra said brightly. "Where's this breakfast I was promised?"
Vin looked tired, and a lot more fragile than Buck would have thought possible for his normally athletic, healthy son. It was a reminder of how quickly things could change. A reminder Buck didn't really need because that was a lesson he had learned more than a decade ago with Sarah and Adam.
He glanced at Chris, knowing instinctively that he was having the same thoughts. Vin hadn't been badly hurt, neither of the boys had, but the 'what ifs' were powerful and hard to avoid. Vin had elected to conduct his interview with Ezra before he left the hospital and he was sitting on the edge of his bed looking nervous but resolute. The kid really had no cause to worry, Buck thought. Ezra's interview technique was masterful.
Ezra had drawn up a list of questions he intended to ask both boys, and this morning after breakfast, while JD cleared off the table, he and Chris had carefully read through each question and discussed it in detail with Ezra, fine-tuning until they were totally satisfied.
They had moved to the den, coffee cups refilled, and JD had perched nervously on the couch between him and Chris, tense and drawn, while Ezra scrupulously asked him each question in turn. Occasionally Ezra would ask for clarification on certain points, occasionally he'd throw up his hand if JD strayed too close to divulging information he hadn't been asked to provide, and the kid would snap his mouth shut on a word or a half sentence. Afterwards Ezra had typed everything into his laptop and produced a statement and the three men had read the document word by word before signing on JD's behalf.
Great care had been taken not to force JD into a lie, and equal care had been taken so that he didn't reveal the whole truth.
They repeated the process with Vin, Ezra leading him slowly through the list of questions, stopping to allow the boy to catch his breath or take a drink when he needed it, and a little over half an hour later, Ezra closed his laptop with a loud snap.
"I'll take this back to my apartment and print it out. If you're up to it later, Vin, I'll take a run out to the ranch and have you all sign-off."
Vin glanced at his guardians for permission, and nodded his agreement.
Ezra rose to leave the room and Chris followed him out, no doubt to express the family's gratitude once more.
"So, you ready to come home?" Buck asked, and smiled at the look of profound relief on Vin's face and the way he broke into a genuine smile when JD poked his head around the door.
"Coming?' the kid asked, and Vin hurried out of the room, slinging an arm around his brother's shoulders and leading the way out.
They spent a quiet day at home, Chris insisting that both boys slow their usually hectic pace and allow themselves time to rest and recover. JD stayed at Vin's side the whole time, a reminder of when they had first come to live at the ranch and could scarcely stand to be separated from each other.
Ezra stopped by briefly late in the afternoon, when Vin was beginning to look pale and tired, and even JD's usually manic energy was starting to flag. Once again the three men huddled over the paperwork, checking every detail of the statement Vin had made, comparing his answers with JD's to ensure consistency, then finally allowing Vin to sign. Ezra declined their invitation to stay for dinner, commenting on how haggard both boys looked, how worn down Chris and Buck appeared to be. It had been an emotional couple of days for the family and they needed a little peace.
Dinner was uncharacteristically quiet and afterwards, despite the fact that it was only just past eight, Chris suggested that the boys turn in for the night and their unquestioning compliance was a testament to how exhausted they were.
JD begged to be allowed to sleep in Vin's room and although Chris was reluctant in case he disturbed his brother, both boys seemed so loathe to be parted that in the end he gave in with a stern warning that he'd turf JD back to his own bedroom if he heard them talking.
When the boys had gone to bed, Chris and Buck collapsed onto the couch with a loud sigh. "It's good to have them both tucked up safe and sound," Buck said, rubbing at his tired eyes.
Chris swung his legs up onto the couch and stretched out, head on Buck's thigh. "Don't get used to it," he warned. "Now that they're getting older they'll be out a lot more."
"And we can expect a lot more gray hairs," Buck muttered, stroking gentle fingers across Chris' cheek.
They lapsed into silence and Buck didn't realize that he had begun to doze until he felt Chris shift against his leg. His eyes flew open and he looked down to see Chris laughing quietly at him. "Come on," his lover said, sitting up. "Let's hit the sack ourselves."
"Bed at nine o'clock," Buck muttered. "Was a time that had a whole different meaning," he added, sounding a little rueful.
"I didn't say we were going to sleep," Chris teased.
Buck shook his head. "I'm so tired I don't think I'll be much use to you tonight," he protested mildly.
Chris quirked an eyebrow. "You've never disappointed so far," he said. "Anyway, I didn't say anything about sex, did I? We need to catch up on that TLC you missed yesterday."
Buck laughed. "Maybe you're right," he conceded, standing and slipping his arms around his partner's shoulders. He pulled Chris in and pressed their mouths together, kissing deeply. "Know what," he whispered after long minutes of exploration, "just might manage a little something after all." And pulling his laughing partner by the hand, he led the way upstairs.
Buck and Chris were sitting at the kitchen table when the boys came down for breakfast next morning, both looking so serious that JD's stomach clenched in anxiety. He hoped like hell that he wasn't in any more trouble with them. He couldn't think of anything else he'd done that they might disapprove of, but that didn't mean much with these two. As he'd discovered, he and his folks had very different ideas about what constituted acceptable behaviour.
He glanced at Vin, who looked equally mystified.
"Sit down, boys," Buck said. "Chris and I have something we want to discuss with you."
JD sat opposite his brother and looked expectantly from Chris to Buck.
Buck cleared his throat. "We've been making inquiries with a family law specialist for the past few weeks," he said. "And she thinks we have a good case for proceeding with an official adoption of you two."
There was silence for a moment while JD considered the implications, looking at his brother for a clue about how to take this news.
"Why do you want to do this now, Buck?" Vin asked. "We've been a family for 8 years without all of that legal stuff."
"Chris and I have been a little...well, worried, I guess," Buck said. "We don't have official status as your guardians and now that you're both getting older, spreading your wings a little, we figure it would put all our minds at ease if we did this now."
JD threw a look at Vin and shrugged. It sounded okay to him, just some legal crap. "I guess that would be fine," he said haltingly, watching Vin's face for a reaction. He grinned. "We've got two dads. It'd be kind of cool to make it official."
Chris shook his head. "We can't both adopt you, JD. Only one of us can petition the court to be the adopting parent."
JD frowned. "But you're both our parents," he protested. "You've both looked after us all these years so why can't you both adopt us?"
Chris and Buck exchanged a look. "That's just the law, kiddo," Buck explained. "If one of us applies as an individual, we'd have a really good chance of making it legal. But Colorado State doesn't look too kindly on same-sex partners adopting."
"But that sucks," JD blurted. "You two have been together for a hundred years. Why should you pretend you're not a couple?"
Chris scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Boys, Buck and I won't pretend we're not together. The court will know all about the home situation and our relationship. It's just that they won't grant us equal parental status with you. But it's just a technicality, it won't change anything for us."
"And which one of you would adopt us?" Vin asked tightly and JD could tell by the tone of his brother's voice that he wasn't happy with this either.
"We figure it should be Chris," Buck said. "He has seniority at work. And he earns the most," he added, with a small smile. "The courts would probably look more favorably on Chris' application." He paused for a moment and glanced away, swallowing noisily and JD thought with a small start, Something's really wrong here.
"Plus, Chris has been a father before," Buck continued softly. "He stands a better chance of adopting you than I do." Chris reached out and laid a hand on Buck's arm and Buck glanced up with a small, weak smile that did nothing to lessen the sorrow that JD read in his face. God, this is hurting him, JD thought, and rebelled even further.
"And you wouldn't be listed anywhere as our legal guardian, even though you're the one who found us, and you're the one who visited us for all those months when Chris wasn't around?" JD asked, his rising voice betraying his emotion. Chris opened his mouth but JD cut him off before he could protest.
"Sorry, Chris. I don't mean anything against you. You're 100% my dad just the same as Buck is. But I don't want it written anywhere that only one of you is my father, and I don't want it anywhere that you two aren't together..." he trailed off, biting his lower lip to stop it trembling. Damn it, he sure as shit wasn't about to cry. He'd already done more than enough of that these past few days. But this just sucked. What kind of fucked up law would force them to pretend they weren't a family, that they didn't depend on each other and love each other every bit as much as the "real" families he knew. No. It wasn't right and he wanted nothing to do with it.
"I don't see what adoption would do for us, except turn us into a bunch of liars," Vin said softly.
Chris shook his head and threw a pleading look at Buck and JD wondered if they actually wanted this or if they felt as crappy about it as he and Vin did.
"We don't like the technicalities any more than you do, boys," Buck said, answering JD's unspoken question. "But we don't want to risk losing you either. If Chris adopted you, our family would be safe."
Vin's head shot up and JD flinched at the look of horror on his brother's face. "Has anything happened? Because of the accident?" Vin asked and JD felt his stomach do a slow, nauseating roll and his eyes flew to his guardians for reassurance.
"No," Chris and Buck said in unison.
"We promise, boys," Buck said firmly. "No harm was done."
"But that's why you're thinking about this now," Vin persisted. "Because the police were involved."
"Yeah, Vin," Chris reluctantly confirmed. "We don't want to take any chances. We just don't know what would happen if child services found out that you two were mixed up in anything that might potentially involve the police."
"God, I swear I won't get into that kind of trouble again," JD said fervently, meaning it completely. He might not have appreciated what Chris and Buck had been trying to tell him before, but he damn well understood it now. The guys were actually afraid, something he'd never seen before, something he didn't like seeing now. And he'd do anything in his power to wipe that fear away.
"Isn't there some other way, guys?" Vin asked. "I know you say it won't make a difference to us, but it's so fucked-up."
JD held his breath while Chris and Buck looked at each other, and let it out with a slow exhale when they both shrugged.
"Plan B?" Chris asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Plan B," Buck confirmed, and this time the smile that spread across his face was warm and genuine. He turned back towards the boys. "We hated the whole goddamned idea from the beginning," he admitted. "As far as we're concerned, we're both your fathers. And not being able to adopt as a couple, well, that plain sucks. We'd have gone through with it, just to safeguard us all, but it isn't what we want for the family."
"So we can just carry on the way we are?" JD asked.
"More or less, kid," Chris smiled. "There is one thing we can do. It might not hold up in court if push comes to shove, but at least we'd have done everything we can to cover ourselves."
"What's that, Chris?" JD asked.
"We can get our lawyer to help us draft a co-parenting agreement," Chris explained. "All that means is that we put together a bunch of documents to show that Buck and I are together for the long haul and that we share equal parenting responsibility for both of you."
"We've already got most of the paperwork together," Buck continued. "And we're gonna register as domestic partners."
"Domestic partners?" JD asked. "Like getting married?"
Vin shook his head. "Dumb ass kid," he muttered.
"What's wrong with that?" JD laughed. "Both my parents are guys, and now I'm a bastard too?"
"Yeah, a stupid bastard," Vin countered.
"Alright, enough both of you," Chris frowned. "Vin, you know better than to use that language in this house," he said sternly.
JD exchanged a grin with his brother. Chris was ragging on them again, obviously things were getting back to normal.
"So, we don't have to think about this any more?" JD asked, needing to be sure.
Buck reached out and ruffled his hair. "Nothing to worry about, son. You're stuck with us, adoption papers or not. Think you can live with that?" he teased.
"I'll give it some thought," JD deadpanned. "Might depend on what you make me for breakfast."
"Smart ass." Buck stood up, looking a whole lot happier than when the boys had first seen him this morning, and he moved off into the kitchen to start making breakfast.
"The guys all want to come over this afternoon and visit with you both. Vin, you feel up to that?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, Chris. I'm fine," Vin replied.
"Okay. I'll give them a call. But if you're gonna be up and around this afternoon I want you to go back to bed for a while after breakfast. The doctor said you need to rest."
"'Kay," Vin agreed, obviously still drained.
"JD, you too," Chris added.
"What! No way, Chris," JD complained. "I'm totally, 100% fine. I don't want to go back to bed."
Chris quirked an eyebrow and put his hands on his hips and JD recognized that his guardian was not in the mood to be jerked around.
"I'm not asking what you want to do," Chris said distinctly. "I'm telling you to get yer ass up to that bedroom after breakfast and rest for a couple of hours. You can read or catch up on your homework but you WILL go back upstairs and you WILL stay put until the guys get here. Understood?"
"But Chris..." JD whined.
"JD, are you arguing again, boy?" Buck thundered ominously, turning away from the stove and frowning at his youngest son.
JD winced. "No, sir," he hurried out, backing down quickly. Pissing Buck off was not a good plan right now.
"Let me tell you something about a co-parenting agreement," Buck said, waving a wooden spoon in JD's direction. "We can include as many clauses as we want. We can even decide who gets to dole out punishments if we want. Any more attitude from you and Chris and I will stipulate that I'm always the one who takes on that responsibility. Is that what you want?"
JD looked horrified by the thought. "You wouldn't," he challenged.
"You wanna take that chance?" Buck asked and JD flinched and scowled at his brother when Vin kicked him under the table and shook his head vigorously.
"No, sir," JD finally muttered.
"So," Buck pressed his advantage. "What are you going to do after breakfast?"
JD sighed dramatically. "Go upstairs to my bedroom, sir."
"And stay put quietly until Chris tells me otherwise," JD reluctantly agreed.
"Good," Buck said and JD caught the wink he threw at Chris. "Now, set the places. Breakfast is almost ready."
JD rose obediently and started to pull out the plates. "How come you're gonna make me go back to bed but you think I'm well enough to still do chores?" he complained.
Chris snorted. "This is just a warm-up, son. You still have your disobedience to pay for."
"Ahh, shit," JD groused, easily ducking the predictable slap Buck aimed at his head. "You sure you don't want to whack me a couple times with your belt, get it over and done with?" he offered.
Buck laughed. "Nothing doing, squirt. You're under house arrest for the next little while and I can already think of so much you're gonna have to do around here to pay off that debt."
"Double shit," JD muttered. "Hey, don't throw those adoption papers away, Chris. I might change my mind. Maybe having you as sole parent wouldn't be so bad after all," he grinned.
Buck leaned over the counter. "I have a better idea," he said, grinning back. "There's nothing stopping us applying to adopt one of you boys each. What say Chris adopts Vin and I adopt you? That way I'll have complete control over you until you're 18."
JD shuddered in mock-horror. "That's harsh, man. All right, I know when I'm licked. Why don't we agree I'm grounded for a week and call it quits?"
"Nice try," Buck smiled. "But instead why don't we agree that you're grounded until further notice," he countered, "and that you'll do all of Vin's chores as well as your own, that your allowance will be stopped until the damage to Vin's car has been paid for, and that from now on you'll spend your Saturday mornings volunteering at the youth shelter with Josiah?"
JD winced but he didn't argue. Considering the harm that had been done because of his rebellion, Chris and Buck were letting him off pretty easily and he knew it.
"Yeah, okay," he sighed, and the shocked look on his guardians' faces almost made him laugh out loud. He didn't often give in without a fight and it was obvious that they hadn't expected him to cave so quickly. "But it's under protest," he added, just so Chris and Buck didn't think he was that much of a push over.
"Duly noted," Buck said, dryly. "Now sit. Eat. Then get yer butt back into bed like you were told. Something tells me you're going to be pretty busy over the next few weeks and you're gonna need your strength."
And because JD had been here so many times before, he didn't doubt that for a second.
Late that night, Buck curled around Chris, blanketing him with his body and his affection. "We lucked out," he breathed.
"Damned straight," Chris agreed emphatically. "If Ez hadn't stepped in..."
"But he did. The guys love those kids, they're lucky to have such a great family."
Chris smiled at him, warm and maybe a little wistful. "Kind of like you were with Adam," he said quietly and Buck returned the smile, feeling the brief ache, the tiny throb of grief that always accompanied thoughts of that other life they had once lived.
"You think it's a good idea, though, leaving things like they are?" he asked.
Chris wriggled a little, lining up their bodies better and pressing a light kiss to Buck's nose. "I think things are pretty damned miraculous, Buck, and the boys made it clear what they think. We're good." Then, "I ever thank you?"
"Bringing those kids into our lives. Making me see sense."
Buck sighed, feeling his chest swell a little. "More times than I can count, darlin'."
Chris' hands casually started to wander south, and his fingers began to gently stroke Buck's flaccid cock. "Just making sure."
Buck's buttocks clenched in reaction to the slow building of pleasure. "You about to thank me again?"
"That what you call it?" Chris smirked.
Buck pressed their mouths tightly together and nudged Chris' lips open with his tongue. "Works for me," he whispered.
Chris just chuckled, but his hands got busier, drawing out the pleasure and the lengthening of Buck's erection. "You got the energy for me tonight?"
Tonight and any night... "I think I can muster up a little something," he teased.
More kisses, more stroking, and Buck's hand found its way naturally to the curve of Chris' ass. The smooth, warm skin under his hand incited his arousal as much as Chris' gentle handling.
"We've got it good," Chris said quietly, meaning it.
There was no arguing that. He would never have imagined himself in a monogamous relationship, with a man, with two boys not quite their own in the eyes of the law but absolutely their family. And now he was about to get a little loving that he'd sorely missed the past few days. "I want you," he breathed into yet another kiss.
Chris rolled onto his back and pulled Buck with him, and Buck eased into the familiar position between Chris' spread thighs. He stroked a hand down one muscled leg and tugged, bringing it up to his waist and encouraging it to wrap around him, then doing the same with the other. Foreplay didn't look like it was on the agenda. Just sweet, intense lovemaking that would sweep them both away.
"You need anything?" he asked, ever solicitous.
"Just you," Chris admitted.
Same wavelength. Same needs. Buck used his fingers to spread his lover open and eased his cock in, dry, slow, gentle. The tight look on Chris' face said it all: pleasure, tension, a little pain maybe, but nothing to complain about. Soon enough Buck was buried inside Chris, and his lover's body enveloped him at every point. This was what he needed. What they both needed. This was home.
So yeah, despite the worry, the gray hairs, all the shit that came along with having teenage kids, they still had it pretty damned good.