AN: As always, I want to thank my super beta, Sam. I know I always say this, but it's important to me that everybody understand. My stories would not be anywhere near as good as they are if it weren't for Sam's all-seeing eye. She insures continuity. She refuses to let me publish dreck. She just makes me an all around better writer, and if you enjoy this, or any of my other stories, it's because of her tireless work and support. So, thanks yet again, Sammie. Having said that, I want to give a second shout out to Alaina, a 'newbie' to the fandom, whose enthusiasm and encouragement has energized us all. Thanks for the reviews, and the catches on my abyssmal spelling!

Manning Up

by Boomercat

"Virgil!"

15-year-old Virgil Tracy jumped a foot. Unfortunately, the car hood that he'd been hunkered under was less than a foot above his head, and physics being what they were, he received a painful rap on his skull. Rubbing a tender spot, he bit back a curse, and instead asked respectfully, "Yes, sir?"

"The bell rang."

Surprised, Virgil Tracy looked around to see the last of his classmates disappearing through the shop door. He looked back at the engine he'd been working on. "But…"

"Come on, son," Mr. Peterson said, patting the teen on the shoulder. "Any other time, I'd let you work, but my flight's in four hours, and I have to get a move on."

Virgil sighed. He hated leaving a job undone, especially knowing that he wouldn't be able to get back to it for two weeks, but on the other hand, it wasn't as if the car wouldn't be waiting for him when he got back. "Okay. Do you think we'll be able to get her done by the end of the quarter?"

"I don't know about the 'we,' son. Your team doesn't seem to have your drive. No pun intended."

Virgil grinned at the joke. Then he shook his head. "James and Dox are both on the basketball team. The season's over now. You'll see, they'll both be better now."

"Well, I suppose we will see. Is Scott going to make it home for Christmas?"

Virgil nodded enthusiastically as he picked up his backpack and headed for the door. "Yeah. I can't wait to see him."

"Tell him I said hello. Have a good Christmas."

"You too, Mr. Peterson."

Virgil stepped out of the semi-heated auto shop classroom into a frigid gray winter day. Checking his watch, he started to jog toward the main school building. He wanted to catch the first bus, but if he didn't hurry, he'd miss it, and have to wait for the late one.

As he cut through Senior Square, he reflected that it wasn't as if Scott would be waiting when he got home. His brother wasn't expected until late in the evening. But still, Virgil wanted to be there the minute his big brother walked in the door.

"Virgil!"

Virgil stopped and looked around. Mickie Witherspoon came bouncing over. Virgil couldn't help but smile. Mickie was a year ahead of him, but she'd never had any problem talking to younger kids. Right now she was wearing her cheerleader outfit and Virgil fought to hide the instant response his body made at the sight.

"Hey Mickie, are those mouse ears?"

The girl playfully slapped Virgil on his chest. "No, you dork, they're reindeer antlers. I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas."

Virgil grinned. "Thanks. To you too."

"Well?"

Virgil raised an eyebrow. "Uh, well, what?"

Mickie pointed to some frilly growth sprouting from the antlers on her head. "That's mistletoe. Aren't you going to kiss me?"

Virgil's grin widened. Glancing at the decoration, he waggled his eyebrows, saying, "Well, I wouldn't want to be accused of not appreciating the season."

Putting his hands on Mickie's hips, he pulled her close, and leaned in for a kiss. To his surprise, she threw her arms around his neck and gave herself in to it. What Virgil had intended to be a short sweet friendship kiss turned into something much more, and he closed his eyes in pleasure.

For an endless moment, the two teens clung together, but then Mickie suddenly jerked back. Virgil gasped at the sudden interruption. He had a fleeting thought that he'd done something wrong, when a screech pierced the air.

Virgil's eyes widened as he saw his current girlfriend, Addie Barnes, let loose with a roundhouse to Mickie's jaw that dropped the older girl to the pavement. Addie turned eyes full of fury on Virgil, but she barely got a step in before Mickie was on her like a rabid wildcat.

Addie turned back to her and the fight was on. Virgil stood in dropped jaw amazement. He'd had his share of playground fights, but the sheer fury of the two girls was frightening and… fascinating. He stood rooted on the spot, unable to move as the girls raked each other with their nails and tugged at each other's hair.

Other kids had no such paralysis, and within moments, Virgil found himself on the outskirts of a growing crowd. After a moment, he was roughly pushed aside as teachers arrived on the scene.

"All right, you kids get moving. There's nothing to see here." Mr. Garman's stentorian voice carried easily over the crowd. When nobody moved, he barked, "If this area isn't cleared in thirty seconds, I will be taking down names."

The crowd melted away. Virgil looked around guiltily. He didn't know whether he should leave or not. He really didn't want to get in trouble, but his sense of responsibility wouldn't quite let him walk away. Mrs. Bruff was holding onto Addie who was still screaming at the top of her voice. Even Virgil's ears reddened at the language she was using. He'd never heard a girl use words like that.

Mickie was being held by Mrs. Krenwinkle as she cried her eyes out. Standing between the two teachers, spots of color on his cheeks the only sign of anger, was Principal Romney. Virgil jumped at a hand on his shoulder. "Didn't you hear me, Mr. Tracy? I said to clear the area."

Virgil ducked his head, "Yes, sir, I heard, but I thought I should stay."

"And why is that?"

"Uh… well, I'm… uh, kind of the… uh… cause of the fight."

"Hmmm," Mr. Garman grunted, managing to be both noncommittal and disapproving at the same time. He signaled Mr. Romney who walked over, a question on his lips. "Virgil has something to say about this affair, George."

"Does he." Virgil flinched at the hard tone. Romney looked at him. "Well?"

Virgil hung his head. "I'm sorry, sir. I was on my way to the bus when Mickie, uh, I mean, Mikayla stopped me to wish me Merry Christmas. She was wearing that thing with the mistletoe, and she asked me if I was going to kiss her, so I did. Addie's my girlfriend. When she saw us, she got the wrong idea, I guess, and she kind of grabbed Mickie and they started fighting."

Virgil's head remained down, so he didn't see Romney roll his eyes as Tom Garman fought to hide a grin. "Mr. Tracy, is your father going to be at home this evening?"

Virgil's stomach did a nosedive right down to his toes. Biting his lip, he nodded, not trusting himself to say anything. Mr. Romney nodded. "You can tell him he can expect a call from me around seven."

"Yes sir."

"All right, go ahead and catch your bus."

"Yes sir." Virgil gave one last glance at Addie and Mickie. Both girls were red-eyed and red-faced. Virgil swallowed hard. His body was betraying him again, and he hurried away, hoping no one noticed.

Damn, his life was over, no two ways about it. Addie had looked like she wanted his head on a platter. And he wasn't sure if he was proud to be worth fighting over or not. And he wondered what that said about him that he thought both girls looked so hot when they were fighting.

Running, he saw the bus was still waiting. At least he could get out of the area. He'd almost made it when he heard a familiar sharp whistle. Looking up, he laughed in surprise. His brother Scott stood across the parking lot lounging against the red sportster that his father had given him last spring at graduation.

Virgil made a beeline. Running straight to his brother, he skidded to a stop in front of him and stuck out his hand in an attempt at nonchalance. "Scott."

With his own solemnity, Scott took his brother's hand and shook it warmly. "Virgil."

Both broke into a laugh at the same time. Scott reached out to ruffle his younger brother's hair. "How you been, kiddo?"

Remembering the scene a few moments ago, Virgil said manfully, "I've been great, how about you?"

"Oh, fair to middlin'. Let's get out of here." Scott headed for the driver's side. Virgil didn't need any urging, and tossing his pack in the backseat, he wasted no time getting in the car.

As Scott started the car, Virgil asked, "When did you get in? We weren't expecting you until tonight."

"Traffic was better than I thought it would be. I was just cruising through town when I realized school would be letting out, so I thought I'd pick you and Johnny up and save you a trip on the bus."

"Oh." Virgil bit his lip. He really wanted time alone with his brother, but it wouldn't be fair to make John ride the bus when a ride was available.

Scott did a quick double take, then to Virgil's surprise, turned the wrong way, and headed toward town. "Uh, Scott, I know you've been away for a whole three months, but you've obviously forgotten the way to the junior high."

Scott snorted at the crack, then shook his head. "John can take the bus today. I'll make it up to him. We're headed over to Garden City. I'm craving a chocolate sippy."

Virgil grinned. The Garden City Café was a small but homey restaurant that was known throughout the area for their smooth blended ice cream sodas that they called sippys. "Well, I guess I wouldn't say no to a sippy."

"Good man," Scott nodded decisively. "So, do you want to wait until we get there, or do you want to tell me now?"

Virgil frowned. "Tell you what?"

"Tell me what's wrong. You look like work on a Sunday."

Virgil didn't care how his brother knew, he was just glad to have someone to talk to. "I'm in trouble, Scott. It wasn't my fault, but Mr. Romney says he's going to call Dad and have a talk with him. Dad's going to kill me, and it wasn't even my fault!"

Scott grinned and shook his head. Virgil frowned. It wasn't exactly the response he'd expected. "What?"

Glancing over, Scott continued to smile. "Nothing. It's just that Gordy said the exact same thing a couple of months ago. He called me at school and told me that Dad was going to kill him and it wasn't even his fault."

"Uh, I don't remember Gordy being in any trouble."

"Oh, you should. The frogs."

"Oh. OH! Oh, yeah. Only Gordy." Virgil chuckled, remembering the incident. His fifth-grader brother Gordon had gone to the lake with some friends and came back with a box full of green frogs that he let loose in the bathtub. Their grandmother had been displeased. "How did he figure it wasn't his fault?"

"He never took in to account the possibility that Grandma might not love frogs," Scott said with a fond smile. He turned serious after a moment. "You haven't been collecting frogs, have you?"

Virgil's smile died. "No. Nothing that easy. I was on my way to get on the bus, and Mickie Witherspoon gave me a kiss."

"Mickie Witherspoon? When did you start dating her? I thought you were still seeing Addie."

"I am… was." Virgil sighed. "It wasn't a big deal, it was just a kiss for Merry Christmas. But Addie saw us, and she went nuclear on me. She grabbed Mickie by the hair and decked her. Then Mickie tackled her, and they started fighting. It was awful, Scott, they just went at each other like… like…"

"Like two pissed off barn cats in a sack?"

Virgil nodded slowly. "Yeah, only worse."

"Don't tell me, let me guess. You stood there like a pile of manure and just watched."

Virgil pulled himself up and said with dignity, "No, I stood there like a statue of a Greek god… and just watched."

Scott chuckled, then asked, "Get a boner?"

Virgil cast a suspicious eye on his brother. "You were there, weren't you? You saw me."

"Uh, no, not exactly."

"Then how did you know?"

"Do you remember that summer music camp you went to a few years back? You got home, and you thought I was acting weird?"

"Oh my God! No! Really?"

"Oh yeah. Allie found me necking with Cathy Hinds up behind the gym. She, uh, took exception."

Virgil sat blinking, trying to get his head around the idea. "You dropped Allison Goings, one of the hottest babes in school, for Cathy Hinds?"

"It wasn't my intention, Virg. Anymore than it was your intention to drop Addie for Mickie."

"What did you do?"

"I stood there… like a Greek god. That fight was vicious, I tell you. And incredibly hot. I couldn't help the huge one I got. Then I spent the next month worrying about it. I mean what kind of guy gets that excited about people hurting each other?"

Virgil squirmed uncomfortably. "Uh… did you figure it out?"

"Not by myself. I talked to Dad about it."

"And?"

Scott looked over at his brother. "I'll tell you what, when Mr. Romney calls Dad tonight, don't do what I did. Don't just clam up and shrug your shoulders. Just tell him all about it, and hear what he has to say, okay? I promise you, he'll explain it all way better than I could."

"He's going to kill me, Scott."

"Do I look dead? He didn't kill me, and he won't kill you. Trust me on this."

Virgil fell silent. The idea of admitting this to his father was daunting, but Scott had never steered him wrong before.

For a while the brothers drove on in silence. Virgil wanted to ask a question, but he was afraid that he knew the answer. Finally, the words just burst out of him. "And you never did get back with Allie, did you?"

"No," Scott replied, real regret in his voice. "I tried, but she wouldn't listen. Thing about girls is, they have all this emotion going on. You think they're reasonable, but really they aren't."

Virgil sighed. It was the answer he hadn't wanted. Scott looked over at him. "Hey, you might have better luck with Addie, you never know. If nothing else, you need to apologize to her."

"Apologize? Scott, I didn't do anything wrong!" Virgil's voice climbed.

"You know you didn't, and I know you didn't, but you need to apologize anyway. Like I said, girls aren't reasonable, and even when you aren't wrong, you need to apologize to keep them from freaking out," Scott said firmly. Then he sighed, "And whatever you do, don't ever, ever tell Grandma I said that. If you thought Addie flipped out, believe me, that was nothing compared to how Grandma would react to anything as politically incorrect as me saying girls are different."

"Scott. Girls are different. Trust me on that one. I got to second base with Addie, so I know from personal experience."

Scott glanced at him, a slow smile forming. "Did you do what I told you?"

Virgil nodded. "Yeah. It really worked."

"And the kissing?"

"It was amazing." Virgil smiled at the memory, but melancholy struck him and he said, "I was hoping you'd give me some more pointers, but I guess I'm not going to need them now."

"Well, we'll talk about it anyway sometime. Just because Addie might be history doesn't mean you won't meet another girl. What about Mickie? Isn't she a cheerleader or something?"

"Yeah, but she's a junior."

"You know Mom was a year older than Dad, right?"

"Yeah, but…"

"But what?"

"I dunno. I like her and all, but she's kind of weird."

"Weird how?"

"I heard from a friend that she has appointments with that lady over in Jetmore that does the thing with the crystals."

"Crystals? Oh, you mean that 'new age healer,' don't you? Okay, I admit, that's weird. Well, don't worry. Someone will come along."

Virgil sat back and watched the fallow, snow-dusted fields go by. Without looking at his brother he said softly, "I've missed having you around."

"I've missed being around."

Virgil snorted. "Yeah, right. It must be murder to give up all this for Yale."

"Hey, New Haven's great, don't get me wrong, but I don't know, after awhile, it all seems… I don't know… too busy. Crowded. It's great to get back here where a guy can have some elbow room."

"Yeah, well, you can have all the elbow room you want. Hell, you can have my share. I can't wait to get somewhere nice and crowded."

Scott shrugged as he pulled into a parking space in front of the café. "We'll see what you say when you've been away from Grandma's cooking for three months."

As he got out of the car, Virgil sniffed. "Away? Oh, no, no, no. I intend to take her with me to Cambridge."

Scott barked a laugh at the outlandish suggestion. The brothers entered the restaurant, and Scott smiled at the waitress. "Hey, Emma! Long time no see! Virg and I are dying for a chocolate sippy."

The middle-aged waitress raised an eyebrow and shook her head. "I should have known. Well, go on back, they're waiting for you."

Surprised the brothers watched the waitress sashay away.

"Uh, were we meeting someone?" Virgil asked, hiding his disappointment at having to share his time with his older brother.

"Apparently. Let's go see." Scott led the way past the counter seats to the dining room. As they rounded the service station, Scott's face broke into a smile. There in the corner booth sat Wyatt Esterhaus, with a couple of kids Virgil didn't recognize.

"Wyatt!" Scott strode forward, pleasure evident in his voice. Wyatt Esterhaus had been Scott's best friend all through school, and despite the pang at losing private time with his brother, Virgil couldn't help his own smile from forming.

For his part, Wyatt looked up in surprise, then jumped up and grabbed Scott in a bear hug. "Scott! Damn, man, it's good to see you! When did you get in?"

"Couple of hours ago. Needed a sippy, first thing."

"You and me, both. How are things at Yale? You taking 'em by storm?"

"Hell, yeah. How about you? Have you brought Johnny Whales to its knees?"

"It's trembling. Oh, hey, these kids are my cousins, Sonny and Layla. Guys, this is my best bud, Scott, and his brother, Virgil."

The two kids, who looked to be about John's age, blinked and stared at Virgil. Feeling a bit self-conscious, Virgil grabbed a chair, saying, "Hi."

Emma the waitress appeared with a tray full of tall glasses. "Three chocolate, two strawberry," she said as she placed the drinks in front of the five teens. She paused to be sure everyone was happy, then turned and headed back to the kitchen.

Sonny said, "Your name is Virgil?"

Virgil took a breath. The incredulous tone indicated that he was probably in for some ridicule. It was something he'd faced on and off all of his life. His name made him stand out from the crowd, and he was proud of it. "Yup. Don't wear it out."

"But…" Layla began, "Don't the kids at school tease you? Why don't you go by a nickname?"

Scott interceded, "Our mom liked Virgil. She died when we were just kids, and we call him Virgil in her honor."

"Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. It's just that Sonny and I got stuck with these really rotten names, so we go by nicknames." Layla smiled apologetically.

Virgil's eyebrows went up. He could still almost hear his mother's sweet voice calling him Virgil against his father's attempts to nickname him Gus. Those attempts had stopped the day his mother had died. And as Scott said, it was the memory of his mother that had given Virgil the strength to put up with the occasional teasing over his name. "That's okay. So, what are your real names?"

Sonny's nose wrinkled in distaste. "Alphonse. My name is Alphonse. Hers is Eulalie. My Dad had a brain fart the day we were born."

"Wow. Rotten luck. You're twins?"

"Yeah."

"Lays, Virgil's the guy I was telling you about. Virgil, Layla plays the piano too," Wyatt said with a smile.

Virgil looked over at the girl who looked back at him with a speculative gleam in her eye. "Really? Classical?"

Layla rolled her eyes. "Of course. Who do you know that gets to play real piano?"

Virgil frowned in bemusement. "Just because the lessons are classical, doesn't mean you can't play something else on your own. Scott here has a thing about jazz, so I've been practicing to a Markus Berger tape. I let my teacher hear, and she gave me some great pointers."

"Really?" Scott smiled in real pleasure. His love of jazz was not shared in the family. "When did you start that?"

Virgil shrugged, feigning indifference to hide the thrill it gave him to please his big brother. "A couple of months ago. I'm not very good yet, but it's more interesting than yet another Beethoven Sonata."

"Doesn't your mom… I mean, your Dad get mad when you play jazz? My mom would blow a gasket," Layla asked.

"No, my dad's really cool about it. Especially when Mrs. Bialakev told him that jazz was a good way to keep from becoming too hidebound. She says if you only learn the classics, you get to a point where you can't even play Chopsticks without it sounding like Mozart."

Layla laughed at the joke, though no one else at the table got it. "I wonder if Mr. Hightower would talk to my mom. I don't want to play jazz, but I really like Ashley Cool's music, and I'd really like to play it without getting my mom all upset."

Virgil nodded. He didn't really care for the teen star's bubble gum music, but he understood the sentiment perfectly. He looked over at Sonny. "You play piano, too?"

"Naw, she got all the talent, and I got all the brains."

That statement earned Sonny a bark of laughter from Wyatt, and a sock in the arm from his sister. Wyatt turned to Scott. "I wish I'd known you'd be here today. I brought home some paperwork I wanted you to see."

"What kind of paperwork?"

"There's a new school in town. Denver Institute of Advanced Technology. They've got serious money behind them and they've poached top flight professors from all the big boys. Including Yale I heard."

"Yeah, I heard about that. Dr. Schuman is leaving after this semester. I really wanted to take classes with him."

"Well, that's the thing. Transfer to DIAT. The campus is like, five blocks from JWU. We could share an apartment."

Scott shook his head. "Actually, I was going to talk to Dad about that exchange program I told you about."

Virgil took a breath. "What exchange program?"

Scott looked over at his brother, an inscrutable look on his face. "Yale has a partnership with Oxford University. I'd be spending my sophomore year there."

Layla's eyebrows climbed. "Oxford, as in England?"

"Yup."

"But… why would you want to go there?" Virgil asked, a slight whine slipping through into his voice.

Scott shrugged. "Because I'm eligible. Because it's a great opportunity. Because I'll have the chance to travel in Europe. Because it sounds like fun."

"Yeah, but I won't be there, so how much fun could it be?" Wyatt asked, shaking his head. "Come to Denver. It's a great city, and it has real sports. The Nuggets. The Broncos. The Diamondbacks. What do they play in England? Quidditch?"

Scott laughed. "I'll tell you what, how about I come over one day, and we'll talk about it."

Virgil felt his stomach hit the floor. When Scott used that tone, he'd already made up his mind. Virgil felt like the ground had turned to quicksand under his feet. England was so far away. Sure, he'd still only be at the other end of the phone, but Great Britain might as well have been the dark side of the moon as far as Virgil was concerned.

Wyatt wrinkled his nose, then turned to Virgil. "What about you? You're looking for a good engineering school, aren't you?"

Virgil raised an eyebrow. "I've got a good engineering school. M.I.T. It's the best engineering school, and that's where I'm going to go."

Sonny shook his head. "You have to be, like, a genius to get in there."

Wyatt waved his hand. "He is. They all are. Their Dad is rich, and he bought them all extra brain modules."

"You know, if you'd bothered studying once in a while, you could have come to Yale with me," Scott said, dryly.

Wyatt sniffed, "See kids, that's what the extra brain module was for. It gave Scott the sense to actually work at high school. Don't follow my sad example. Study hard and you too can be a genius."

Virgil snorted. It was true that Scott had been at the top of his class, but Wyatt had been right behind him, even without the 'brain modules' that he swore all the Tracy sons had gotten. "You wouldn't say we were geniuses if you knew what John and Alan got into the other day."

Scott looked as if he were steeling himself to hear the worse but it was Sonny who opened his mouth and asked, "Who are they?"

"My brothers."

"You've got three brothers?" Layla asked in a tone of amazement.

"Four, actually. Besides Scott, John and Alan, there's Gordon."

"How many sisters?"

"None. Just four brothers."

"Lucky," Sonny muttered, earning himself a glare from his sister.

Virgil smiled. He'd often wondered what it would be like to have a little sister. There were times he would think he'd like to trade in one or another of his little brothers. But in truth, he couldn't imagine what his life would be without them. Wyatt said curiously, "So, what did they do, Virg?"

"What? Oh… John got it into his head that he'd design a glider," Virgil said. Then for Sonny and Layla's benefit, explained, "Scott's major is aeronautical design. Johnny decided he wanted to show Scott he could design airplanes too. So he built himself this hang glider out of wire and Mylar sheeting."

"Really?" Scott asked, interested. "What did it look like? Did it work?"

Virgil rolled his eyes. "Hard to tell. He went over to the Milstein's to try it out…"

"What? Why would he go over there?"

Virgil shook his head. "Because he had just enough brains to realize that if he tried to jump off our barn with fairy wings I would have stopped him."

The color drained from Scott's face. "It wasn't just a model?"

Meanwhile, Wyatt was laughing raucously. "Fairy wings? FAIRY wings?"

Virgil grinned, for the moment ignoring Scott's obvious consternation. "He said he was using a dragonfly as his model."

"What happened?" Scott demanded, trepidation in his voice. "The Milstein's barn has to be thirty feet tall."

Virgil smirked, "He climbed up on Mr. Milstein's chicken coop. He said it was because he figured he'd get 'lift' from the ground, whatever that means. Anyway, he jumped from the chicken coop, and landed up in the hog pond."

"Ew, gross!" Layla wrinkled her nose at the thought.

"Is he okay?" Scott ignored Layla's outburst.

"Yeah. Nothing cushions a fall quite like pig manure four feet deep. But I did notice he is taking baths every night."

Scott shook his head, "I swear to God, that kid will never make it to fifteen."

Sonny had been listening quietly, and now spoke up. "So did he figure out what went wrong? Is he going to try again?"

"No. He is never trying that again," Scott said with finality.

Virgil looked away. "Um…"

Scott froze. "Oh, you've got to be kidding."

Virgil threw up his hands. "Hey, I didn't hear about it until it was all over. You know I would have stopped him if I'd known what he was doing."

"So he tried a second time?" Sonny asked, leaning forward, his interest plain on his face.

"Don't get any ideas, Sonny. You're not trying it. In fact, I'm going to keep you as far away from John Tracy as possible," Wyatt said firmly.

"You're such a wuss, Wyatt."

"Maybe. But I'm not going to let you break your neck at Christmas time. It'd be a major buzz kill."

"Oh, I don't know." Layla put her two cents in, causing Sonny to give her a good-natured shove.

"Okay. I want to hear about this second attempt." Scott had his big brother radar locked on, and he was determined to keep on target.

Virgil sighed. "Well, he swears he could feel it working even though he fell like a rock. He decided that the problem was he weighed too much. He didn't have enough Mylar to make a bigger pair of wings, so he needed a volunteer."

"Alan," Scott said flatly. Wyatt could barely keep his snickering down, but Scott was pale.

"Oh yes. Of course, if there's anybody crazier than John, it's Alan. So they both went over to the Milstein's, but Alan wouldn't climb up on the chicken coop. Apparently, the smell of the pig manure overcame his scientific ardor."

"Wait," Layla raised a finger. "How old are these guys?"

"John's thirteen and Al is nine."

"So Alan didn't get up on the chicken coop?" Scott asked, his patience showing the strain.

"No. He decided to climb up on the corn conveyor instead."

"Oh, my God." Wyatt, who had been enjoying the story to this point swallowed hard. "You can't be serious. That thing's got to be at least forty feet high!"

"Naw, it's all retracted for the winter. Still, it had to be what, maybe ten feet up? Enough to really hurt the kid. Anyway, he climbed up to the top, but it was slippery, and he slipped. He almost fell into that big shucker Mr. Milstein has, but he caught himself. He was hanging there until John climbed up and grabbed a hold of him. The wings fell into the shucker, and you know those blades are so sharp they just ripped those wings to pieces."

"God damn it, I'm going to kill that kid." Scott was red with anger.

'Hey!" Virgil exclaimed, sharply. "I took care of it, okay? You weren't here, so I took care of it. Believe me, John's never going to try anything like that again. Although, to tell the truth, when he realized what could have happened to Alan, he practically had a heart attack."

Scott took a deep breath, his lips a thin white line. "Yeah, okay. If you took care of it, you took care of it. But I'm still going to talk to him. Make sure he understands."

"Oh, he understands all right. He's given up on airplanes. I think he's back to trying to pull the laser out of his ham radio outfit."

"Still trying for a death ray?" Wyatt asked, a crooked smile on his face.

"So he says." Virgil shrugged. He turned back to Scott. "John's done, but I think you might want to talk to Allie. He's convinced it would have worked, and he keeps bugging John to make him another pair of wings."

"He's making a death ray?" Sonny sat up straighter.

"Oh, geez. You are not meeting him, end of story." Wyatt shook his head. To Scott he said, "Believe me, those two together would be like nitro and glycerin."

Sonny smirked. "Yeah. I'm the nitro."

Layla rolled her eyes. "Wyatt, can we go now? Aunt Melly will kill us if we're late for dinner."

Scott and Virgil both checked their watches in a move more twin-like than anything Sonny and Layla had done. "Yeah, you're right. We need to get on home too. Give me a call tonight and we'll figure out when we can get together," Scott said to Wyatt.

The friends said their goodbyes and soon Virgil found himself back in the car alone with his brother. "What if something happens?"

Scott glanced at his brother. "What do you mean?"

"What if you're off having a good time in England and something happens? One of the kids gets hurt, or Dad has a heart attack or something? What do we do then?"

"Then you call me and I come home. Look, Virg, we're all growing up. That means we're going to lead separate lives. It doesn't mean I won't be there for you. I'll always be just a phone call away. But you've known all along that I intend to join the Air Force. Chances are I'll be stationed overseas for years at a time. England is just for a couple of semesters. Not even a whole year."

Virgil stared at the floorboards of the car. "Yeah, I know. You've always said you were going to be a pilot. But… that always seemed so far away. It always seemed like a dream somehow. Now you say you're going to leave me and it just doesn't seem fair. I've had to wait a whole three months for you to come home, and now you want to go to England. It's not fair."

Scott snorted. "Weren't you the one who just said they couldn't wait to get out of here? That I could have your elbow room? You think it's fair for you to leave, but not me?"

Virgil dropped his head into his hands. "I don't know… I just… I…"

Scott reached over and patted his brother's back. "I know. Things change when you grow up. Sometimes it's hard to let go of the way things were. But holding on to the past isn't the answer, Virg. You just gotta look to the future. Besides, I haven't asked Dad yet. Who knows if he'll even let me go? He might say no."

Virgil shot a disbelieving glance at his brother. "Dad say no to the Amazing Scott? I don't think so."

"You never know. Speaking of Dad, what did he say about Johnny and Al?"

"He doesn't know about it. Neither does Grandma."

Scott drove on, not saying a word. Virgil sat waiting for his brother's judgment. With their father often away for weeks at a time on business, Scott had long been the arbiter of all brotherly disputes in the Tracy household.

Virgil finally couldn't stand it any longer. "Well?"

"Hmm? Well what?" Scott started a bit, apparently having been deep in thought.

"Should I have told Dad about John and Alan?"

"Oh. Naw, let the man sleep at night. God knows he has enough on his plate without knowing his kids have death wishes."

Virgil snorted. A tension he hadn't really realized flowed out of him. His brother's approval was more important to him than he ever would admit.

He relaxed into the drive, noticing the subtle variations in the coloring of the winter deadened plants as the twilight drew in. His fingers itched to capture the scene on paper. Maybe, he thought, he could do a winter landscape as a second Christmas present for Scott. Something showing the wide open prairie that he could look at when the crowds at Yale closed in on him. Or if he did go to England, something to remind him of home.

Scott swung the car into the long gravel drive up to the house, and Virgil sighed. He hoped there would be more time over the next few weeks for him and Scott to get together on their own. But even before they'd gotten halfway up the drive, he'd seen his three younger brothers come spilling out of the house, jumping in excitement at Scott's return.

Scott for his part laughed in anticipation, honking the horn to acknowledge the scene. Scott pulled the car to a stop and barely had the door open before Alan was in his lap. "Scotty! Yay! You're here!"

"Oh my God. Alan, is that you? Geez, you've grown at least two feet!"

"Nyuh uh. He's only grown an inch and a half. Did you bring us anything?" Gordon was grinning from ear to ear, trying to tug his big brother out of the car, but having little luck as Alan had wedged himself in between Scott and the steering wheel, and was hugging his brother ferociously.

John stood back, hands in his pockets in an attempt to appear more grown up about it, but the jittering legs, huge grin and sparkling eyes spoiled the effect. Scott sat basking in the love, the smile on his face no less broad than that of any of his brothers.

Virgil had his own grin, but could feel the icy wind start to rise, and felt compelled to say, "Alan, get off. Let the man out of the car so we can get inside where it's warm."

Scott glanced in Virgil's direction and with a bit of resignation, lifted Alan off of his lap. "He's right guys. I don't want a cold for Christmas, and I'm sure you guys don't either. Besides, it's dinner time, and I have been dreaming of Grandma's cooking for three months."

"And she made lasagna just for you!" Gordon piped up.

Scott groaned in pleasure as he unfolded his long legs out of the car. As soon as he stood, Gordon jumped up in his arms. "I really missed you, Scotty. I'm super glad you're home."

Scott hugged his brother tight before letting him drop to the ground. "I'm super glad to be home, squirt. And I missed you too."

Scott stepped toward the house, gathering John under his arm as he went. "And I'm especially glad to see you, Johnny. I heard you almost bought it in a pig pond."

John flushed red, and shrugged. "All in the name of science. Welcome home, Scotty."

With Gordon and Alan on one side, and John and Virgil on the other, Scott led the way to the front porch. Climbing the steps together, the brothers made a happy group, but when they reached the top, Scott paused looking around with a frown. "Why aren't the Christmas lights up?"

Alan and Gordon started to giggle, and even John snickered. Virgil grinned as he rolled his eyes. "Deja-vu, man. That's exactly what Dad said yesterday when he got home."

"Yeah, and he had exactly that look on his face, too." Gordon's eyes shone with mirth.

Scott frowned in mock irritation. He always said he wasn't mini-Dad as his brothers had sometimes called him, but Virgil knew his brother actually delighted in the comparison. "So, what did you tell him?"

Virgil shrugged. "That Grandma wouldn't let us put them up. She said it was a family tradition and Dad needed to be there for it."

"Couldn't you have gotten them up this morning before school, then?" Scott said with a deliberate whine that had all of his brothers laughing. Putting up the Christmas lights was indeed a family tradition, but it was also cold, hard work.

"Careful. I think Dad is trying to plan an escape for tomorrow." John said, shaking his head.

Scott frowned, saying, "Oh, no. If he gets out of it, then so do we, by God. I'm getting frostbite just thinking about it. Inside, you clowns. Let's get some dinner."

Scott opened the front door, and ushered his brothers in. Just inside the door, their father stepped up, offering his hand to his eldest. "Scott. It's good to have you home, son."

Scott shook the hand, but then pulled his father into a bearhug. "It's great to be back, Dad."

Virgil watched as Jeff closed his eyes a moment in pure pleasure. Scott caught his eye and with a gesture gathered all of his brothers into a warm group hug.

As Virgil relaxed into the warmth, he realized how much he missed this. The last time they had hugged like this his dad had been more than a head taller than him, and John had been at least a head shorter. Nothing showed how they were all growing up quite as much, and Virgil felt a vague regret.

He didn't have long to contemplate that regret as Scott's nose twitched, and his head came up as he sniffed the air. Virgil took a sniff of his own and felt his stomach begin to rumble. As quickly as that, the group huddle broke apart as the smell of dinner wafted in from the dining room. No less susceptible than his sons, Jeff stated, "Men, it's dinner time."

As a group, they headed for the table. When Grandma, who was just putting the lasagna on the table, saw Scott, her face broke into a welcoming smile. "Oh, baby, you're home!"

Scott broke away from his brothers, and strode over to gather up the tiny woman in a hug. "Grandma, I've missed you so much."

Ruth Tracy held onto her grandson as if she'd never let go. Which was fine with Virgil. He sat down, and grabbed for the baking dish to get his share of the lasagna before his older brother could hog it all. Seeing Virgil's move, John, Gordon and Alan all made a show of getting their share too. Jeff joined his sons and Scott, stuck with Ruth who showed no sign of letting go, mimed a look of desperation over his grandmother's head.

Alan and Gordon started giggling, and that started John and Virgil off too. Jeff maintained his look, raising an eyebrow as he looked his eldest in the eye, and scooped the last square of lasagna out of the baking dish onto his plate.

Ruth finally let go, and smoothed her apron, a glint in her eye saying she was in on the joke too. Scott sat down, and stared at his empty plate, and the full plates of his brothers with a woebegone look that had even Jeff cracking up. Ruth had disappeared for a moment, then returned with a second dish of lasagna that she placed directly in front of her grandson. "It's gotten so a single dish isn't enough for all of the greedy people around here."

Scott looked up at her and smiled. "It's only because it's so good, Grandma."

Ruth caressed Scott's cheek, before moving to her own seat. "Thank you, baby. Gordon, you put that down. We'll say a proper grace before eating, thank you. Virgil, honey, I believe it's your turn."

"Yea, ma'am," Virgil replied, then folding his hands, said, "Thank you for this bounty and all of your blessings and especially thank you for bringing Scott home safely, amen."

"Amen!" The response was hearty, and the family tucked into their dinner.

TB TB TB TB

"No! You stay there, Gordy. You just hand stuff up to us." Scott barked with authority.

"But I want to be on the roof. I'm big enough. Dad, I want to get on the roof." Gordon said petulantly.

Jeff looked down at his redheaded son and shook his head. "Do as your brother says. We need somebody to climb up and down that ladder for us. It's an important job, son."

Virgil looked down on the scene from his place at the ridgeline. He and Scott were stapling the long string of lights to the rooftop. It was harder than it looked. You had to staple them just so, or they wouldn't stand up straight, and the line would look sloppy. And it was freezing. Being at the tallest point of the old farmhouse meant there was nothing to block the frigid Kansas wind. Despite his jacket, hat and gloves, Virgil was shivering.

He watched as his Dad and brother John worked to outline one of the dormers, Johnny safely straddling the ridge as their father took on the more dangerous task of standing on the sloping roof. Virgil could see the frustration on Gordon's face as he stood on the rungs of the ladder, forbidden from climbing the last few steps up onto the roof.

Virgil could remember not so long ago when he had stood on that very same ladder, just as frustrated as he watched his Dad and Scott do the work. His father had been adamant that none of his sons could be up on the roof until they had passed their twelth birthdays. It was a right of passage in the Tracy family, and Virgil could still remember how proud he had been the first year he had straddled a dormer.

"Hey, any time today would be good, Virg."

Virgil looked up from his woolgathering and grinned an apology to Scott. "Sorry, brain freeze."

"Oh, if only it were only my brains that were freezing," Scott muttered. "I should have donated to the sperm bank at school. They use cryogenics, but it'd have to be warmer than up here. It would be comforting to know at least some part of me was going to survive."

"Wuss." The comment floated up from John, who carefully didn't raise his eyes from his work.

Scott looked down with his laser heat vision. "What was that, runt?"

"That's good, son. Let's move to the other dormer, now," Jeff said. Being careful to stand between the blond thirteen-year-old and the edge of the roof, Jeff commented, casually, "I don't hear Virgil complaining. Actually, I don't hear John or Gordon or Alan complaining either. What do you think, fellows, has your brother gone soft?"

"Yep. He's absolutely smooshie," John said dryly as he settled himself on the other dormer.

"Like a marshmallow," Gordon grinned from the ladder.

"Ooooo, Scotty, maybe Grandma can make us a big bathtub full of hot chocolate, and we could put you in it." Alan called merrily from his place in the yard.

Virgil hid his snicker, showing solidarity with his oldest brother. Scott in the meantime was nodding his head, eyes narrowed at the treachery. "Okay, I see how it is. Dad, why don't you come on up here, and I'll do the dormers with Johnny?"

"Are you kidding? I like all my parts unfrozen, thank you. I'll just stay here."

Virgil laughed along with his brothers, when Scott said sagely, "That's what I thought."

Along with his brothers, Virgil got back to work, and in quick order the ridgeline was done and he and Scott were working their way down the opposites edges of the roof, occasionally making a trip to the ladder where Gordon obediently brought up string after string of white lights. Once the cold hard work on the roof was done, the Tracys gathered on the more sheltered front porch to string lights along the railing and around the front windows.

In all, it only took a few hours, and when they were done, Grandma rewarded them with hot chocolate and home made donuts. As they all sat around the kitchen table licking the crumbs of sugar from their fingers, Ruth asked, "And who's going to go get us a tree this afternoon?"

Both Alan and Gordon raised their hands eagerly, and even John nodded. Virgil held back, hoping for some time alone with Scott, but his brother was raising his hand too, apparently not yet tired of being surrounded by his younger brothers.

"Well, I guess we'll be needing the van. Mom, you're coming, right?" Jeff asked.

"Absolutely. I want to pick up a few things in town anyway."

Virgil cringed inwardly. He really hated shopping, and usually found any excuse to get out of it. His brother Alan sighed. "I wish we could go back to Hutchinson."

Virgil found himself nodding along with his brothers. A few years ago it was raining when they were going to get the tree, so their father had driven them halfway across the state to an indoor lot at the state fairgrounds. It had been a magical trip. Since that year, the weather had been good, and their father hadn't been willing to take the time for the day-long adventure, much to the dismay of the youngest Tracys, and the resignation of their older brothers.

Scott took a deep breath, and said, "How about this. Grandma, I'll take you shopping this afternoon, and tomorrow, the guys and I will head over to Hutchinson for the tree."

Jeff raised an eyebrow. "And what makes you think I trust you to pick out a Christmas tree without me?"

"Because the Christmas Tree King will be with us," John said, dryly.

Virgil buffed his fingernails against his shirt. "That would be me."

"Well, I don't see any reason for you boys to go all that way when there is a perfectly good tree lot in Dodge City." Ruth sniffed.

"Grandma, you have to come with us. You'll see. It's more than just Christmas trees. You'll like it, I promise." Alan had his hand on his grandmother's arm, his eyes wide with sincerity.

"So I'm going to be left out?" Jeff protested, crossing his arms.

"No, not at all. I'm sure we can find room in the trunk for you," Scott said, batting his eyes innocently.

Gordon and Alan laughed at the thought. But Ruth was shaking her head. "Now, you boys know I can't take the time for a day long trip. I've got baking to do, and church work."

"Aw, Grandma, you'd really like it. But if you want to stay home, I'll stay with you." John sighed with resignation.

"No, Grandma, you've got to come! It won't be any fun without you!" Gordon had moved to stand behind his grandmother, his arms around her in a hug.

"How about if we all help you with the baking? Then you could come with us, right?" Virgil ventured, his brothers quick to nod their agreement.

"I think I have an even better idea. Mom, we'll take the plane over. We can be there and back in less than an hour, spend a couple of hours at the Christmas Fair and still not be gone any longer than a trip to Dodge City." Jeff sat back with a nod, satisfied with his solution.

"Well now, I hate to put the kibosh on all of your plans, but I need to go to Dodge City to get baking supplies. Lord knows, I can't trust you boys to get me the right things. That will take just about all of the free time I have between now and next week. And Jeff, I know you wouldn't be so wasteful as to use who knows how much fuel for a trip that is unnecessary. No, I think we'll get the tree in Dodge City this year, thank you very much."

Virgil felt a general wave of deflated hopes go around the table. He glanced surreptitiously at his father to see if he would object, but Jeff sat with the same disappointed look as everyone else. Virgil sighed, but he loved his grandma, and knew she wouldn't shut them down without good reason.

"Well, then, I guess I'd better go warm up the van. Anybody who's coming, get coats and gloves, and make your pit stops. That means you, Gordon. Let's move, people." Jeff stood up and headed to the door with a purpose. The brothers quickly dispersed to get ready.

Virgil noticed Scott staying behind, looking at their grandma with a speculative look in his eye. Virgil decided to loiter outside the kitchen door to hear what was said. He heard Scott ask, "Okay, Grandma, what's the real reason you don't want us to go to Hutchinson? You came up with an excuse last year as I remember, and here you are, putting the kibosh on it again. So, what's up?"

There was a pause before Ruth answered. "Well, let me tell you sweetheart, when I came home that year, and you boys all told me your tales of that trip, I realized then and there that there could be no going back."

"What? Why not?"

"Oh honey, when you have an experience that is so perfect, so… enchanted, you are best left not to try again. If you boys had gone back the next year, or the next, or even now, you would have noticed that the trees are just trees. That the 'really true Santa' is just a man in a red suit. That the fairy dust is just cheap glitter. And your memory of the original trip would be tarnished."

"I don't know that's true, Grandma. I mean, I understand what you're saying, but I know I would get just as much pleasure showing it all to you as I did experiencing it myself."

There was a pause, and Virgil moved to peek around the edge of the door. He saw his grandma reaching up to caress his brother's cheek, a look of pure affection on her face. She spoke so softly that Virgil had to strain to hear. "You're a good man, Scott Tracy, and I am proud of you."

Scott for his part, rolled his eyes to cover his embarrassment, and said, "Well, we'd better get going or the bus will leave us behind."

Ruth harrumphed. "Just let your father try that and you and I will pass him by in that red roadster of yours."

"Hey, that's not a bad idea, Grandma. You and I can drive on ahead and get your shopping done, and still be there to help pick out the tree."

Virgil started, a frown forming. Scott's car could only hold two, and he didn't want to be left out. But Ruth had it well in hand. "No, dear, this is a family outing. We'll go as a family. Besides, you know how your father is. If he thinks you're trying to beat him into town, he'll run that poor old van into the ground trying to keep up."

With Scott's chuckling ringing in his ears, Virgil vacated his listening post and headed over to the closet to grab his coat. Pulling it on, he reached in and had his grandma's coat ready as she and Scott came in from the kitchen. Virgil helped his grandma put the coat on, smiling at her murmur of thanks.

The three walked out the front door, and paused at the top of the steps. Virgil heaved a rueful sigh as he looked at the van, with his three younger brothers bouncing around inside as their father tried in vain to bring them to some kind of order. Ruth slipped her hands through the arms of her two oldest grandsons. "Courage, boys."

With a laugh, the two brothers escorted their grandmother down the steps and to the van. Scott handed her into the front passenger seat, then joined Virgil in climbing into the back. As they settled in, Scott said casually, "Dad, isn't it about time for John to start driving the car in the driveway?"

Virgil couldn't see his younger brother as he was seated directly in front of the teenager, but he certainly sensed the sudden stillness behind him. Jeff for his part frowned. "Maybe later, son. We'd have to switch all around to do it now."

"Excuse me? And exactly who was it that taught you?"

Virgil started with delight at his grandmother's acerbic remark. The van grew still as everyone listened to hear Jeff's reply.

"Well, you did, but I overcame that, and now I'm a good driver."

Jeff's response was teasing, but it earned him a withering look. Ruth arched her eyebrow and said coolly, "John you come up here and change places with your father."

Nobody moved for a moment, then Jeff laughed, and opened his door. "Get a move on, son, we don't want your grandma cranky for your first trip down the driveway."

The speed with which John complied showed his desire. Jeff got in the van behind Virgil, and said softly, "Hold on tight, boys."

In the front seat, Ruth was vetting John softly on the steps. The teenager had always been an observant boy, and there was a tinge of pride in his voice as he ran down the steps for his grandma. Virgil smiled softly, remembering the first time he'd been allowed this same privilege.

With Ruth's nod of approval, John started up the van, and carefully pulled out. The van proceeded up the drive at what Virgil considered a snail's pace. Virgil noticed the death grip his younger brother had on the steering wheel, and the stiff tension in the thin shoulders.

Apparently Scott noticed too, because he remarked, "Johnny, you need to relax. At the speed you're going a lame tortoise could get out of your way and be halfway to town before you got close."

"Scott!" Ruth warned sharply. "You're doing just fine, sweetheart, don't you pay any attention to him."

John nodded once, apparently not trusting himself to drive and talk at the same time. But Virgil did notice some of the jaw cracking tension had left the 13-year-old's body. They reached the end of the drive, and John carefully pulled over, set the brake and shut down the engine.

Scott started to applaud and Virgil and their brothers were quick to join in. John made a show of relaxing back into the seat. He turned back to look over at Scott, and his eyes were shining. Virgil thought John's face could very well crack with the force of his grin.

"Well, son, you did an excellent job. But let's get on our way."

Jeff started to open his door to change places. Scott stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Dad, don't you think Virgil could use the flight hours?"

Virgil started in his seat, and looked over at his big brother who sketched a wink. Behind him, Jeff sounded querulous in reply. "What is this, a mutiny?"

"Virgil you come up here and change places with your brother," Ruth commanded. "Serves you right, Jefferson, for impugning my teaching abilities."

Virgil heard the sigh behind him and took it as permission. He jumped out of the car, and trotted around to the driver's side, delivering a high five to his elated younger brother in passing.

Behind the wheel, he carefully adjusted the mirrors, and under his grandmother's scrutiny, started the engine and pulled out onto the highway. To this point, his driving experience had been limited to driving his grandmother to town and back, with a few trips with his father giving him lessons. This was the first time he'd be driving as far as Dodge City, and also the first time he had his whole family in the car.

As he drove up the road, he caught a look in his rearview of an old pickup truck turning off the road behind them into the long gravel driveway leading up to his home. His mouth went dry when he recognized the truck as belonging to Avery Barnes, Addie's very large, very tough, extremely protective older brother.

Swallowing hard, he kept his attention on his driving. It was harder with his family in the van. There was the white noise of his youngest brothers' handheld video games, the sound turned up so high, it bled through the earbuds that both boys had firmly stuck in their ears. His dad was talking to John and Scott in a voice kept low, no doubt to lessen the distraction, but in truth, Virgil found himself straining to hear what was being said.

"Honey, would you rather let your father drive?" Ruth said softly. "You'll break your hands or the steering wheel if you don't loosen that grip."

Surprised, Virgil glanced down at his hands, and sure enough, the knuckles were white with strain. He made a conscious effort to relax. He shot his grandmother a rueful grin. "No, Grandma, I'm okay. I just realized this is the first time I've had the guys in the car with me."

"It's a special skill to drive with others. And not one that everybody can master. You probably don't remember, but your dear mother used to tell you boys you had to be absolutely quiet when she was driving."

Virgil smiled at the sudden memory. "I do remember. She used to get so mad at Scotty and me, because we'd fight over the backseat."

"Hey, if you had only stayed on your own side, I wouldn't have needed to thump on you." Scott said firmly.

"Your side was always more than half of the seat, Scott."

"I was bigger than you. I needed more room."

Virgil laughed at that statement, finally able to relax into his driving. When he reached the left hand turn onto highway 23, he executed it flawlessly, if he did say so himself. He picked up some speed as this section of the highway had only been resurfaced last spring, and was smooth and pothole free, unlike the stretch closer to the town of Cimarron. There, he'd be slowed to below the limit

He concentrated on his driving, sitting up tall in the seat, hoping that other drivers would just assume he was another competent adult flying down the highway. After about ten minutes, his grandmother reached up and put her hand on the rearview mirror. "Virgil, what color is the car behind us?"

Startled, Virgil flicked his eyes to both the rearview and side mirrors, but the car in question wasn't quite visible in the side mirror, and with his grandma's hand in the way, he couldn't see through the rearview. "Um, I don't know, Grandma, why?"

His dad piped up from behind him. "Son, one of the first rules of defensive driving is to be aware of everything going on around you. It's not enough just to drive in a straight line down a straight road. You need to know if someone is coming up behind you too fast, or if they are too close. You also need to pay attention to the side roads. You may have the right of way, but people with the right of way die every day."

Virgil's face heated up. The advice was good, but it felt as if he was being chastised in front of the entire family. He swallowed. "Yes, sir."

"Johnny, I hope you were paying attention to that. It'll be interesting to see if Dad gets some new lines between now and when he gives you this speech," Scott said dryly.

"Hey! It's a good speech. I recognized that when my dad gave it to me when I started driving." Jeff sniffed.

"It's a family heirloom?" John's smirk was clear in his voice.

"Yes, and I fully expect you boys to pass it on when your time comes."

"Sorry, Dad, there won't be much need for driving lessons when I have kids. We'll all have flying cars and home teleportation units," John replied, smugly.

Virgil joined in the chuckles of his family, more relaxed than before. He made a point of checking his rearview mirror every thirty seconds or so, and he paid attention to cars on the side roads, making sure that if they didn't stop, he wouldn't connect with them. As one car pulled onto the highway ahead of him, he realized how good his dad's advice actually was.

All too soon, Virgil was on the crowded streets of downtown Dodge City. He couldn't help tensing up again. At its busiest, Kalvesta rarely had more than five or six cars in the street at any one time. Here, he was in the middle of what seemed to be a flood of cars.

He pulled up behind a pickup truck at a stoplight and felt a mild sense of dissatisfaction. Before he could even identify why he felt that way, his grandmother spoke up. "Keep in mind that it's not a competition, baby. You don't have to be in front. The only prize to win is the safety of you and everyone around you."

Virgil nodded, his ears heating up, as he realized his grandmother had pegged it precisely. His competitive nature demanded that he be in front of the pack. "Okay, Grandma. Are we going to the tree lot first?"

"No, son, head over to Shopping Doom first," Jeff piped up from the backseat.

"Jeff, I will thank you to stop calling that store Shopping Doom. And if it's all the same to you, I'd rather go to Paradise Spices, then to the Co-op."

Virgil grinned in relief. He was glad they didn't have to go to the warehouse store that his father had dubbed Shopping Doom. Any trip there was guaranteed to last over two hours. The spice store was actually a tiny boutique kind of store that his grandmother had been introduced to by members of her church group. Virgil didn't mind shopping there because the various colors and textures of the spices fascinated the artist in him.

The Farmer's Co-op was a different proposition. All of the fresh food always made Virgil hungry. "Tell you what. Mom, why don't you take Virgil and the van and do your shopping, and I'll take the boys over to the mall for a bit, see if we can get some Christmas shopping done?"

"Well, if you're going to the mall, I'll ask you to stop at the stationers and pick up Christmas cards for me. Nothing vulgar, just something pretty with a sweet sentiment."

Virgil bit his lip to keep a straight face. He could tell by her tone that his grandmother knew perfectly well that the 'Christmas shopping' would consist of a visit to the arcade. His father's sigh told him that Jeff knew he'd been caught out too. "Well, if I need to pick out something pretty, I'll need Virgil with me."

"Hey! I can do pretty." John huffed, deeply insulted.

"Yeah, me too, Dad. I can pick out a pretty one. Remember when I found that one with the fish on it?" Gordon asked from his seat in the rear.

"What? What are you guys talking about?" Alan surfaced from his game, miffed at being left out.

"There," Ruth said with satisfied nod. "The boys can find something pretty even if you can't. I'll be needing both Virgil and Scott with me."

Virgil drove through the crowded mall parking lot, and pulled up to the entrance. Ruth speared Jeff with a look. "We'll be back here in 90 minutes. I'll expect you all to be waiting. And don't fill up on junk food. I've a mind to stop for a meal out."

Jeff and the younger boys all piled out of the van, and waving jauntily, headed into the mall. Virgil turned back to his driving. Before he could pull out, a hand was on his shoulder. "You comfortable parallel parking in traffic, Virg? It's one thing in Kalvesta with no one around, and quite another here where the traffic will back up."

Virgil paused, glancing in the rearview at his brother. As usual, when Scott said it, it didn't seem like an insult, and Virgil started to nod. Their grandmother had other ideas, though. "Now Scott, you just settle down. Virgil needs to learn, and he can't do it if you take over every time there's the least little bit of difficulty."

Put that way, Scott had no choice but to back down with a murmured, "Yes, ma'am."

Taking a deep breath, Virgil pulled out into the busy street. He felt more pressure now than he had even with his father and brothers in the car. He gripped the steering wheel tightly to keep his hands from shaking. It was one thing to screw up in front of his dad or grandma, and entirely something else to screw up in front of Scott.

The drive over to the spice shop was nerve-racking to Virgil, not because of the traffic, but because of the anticipation of parallel parking on a busy street. He had practiced the skill several times in Kalvesta, but it always seemed to take forever for him to get the car just right, not too far from the curb and exactly parallel. His mouth went dry when he realized that all of his practice had been in his grandma's car, rather than in the much larger van.

As he turned onto 11th Ave., he felt a certain consternation. The spice shop was just a few doors down from the corner, but there were no parking spaces as far as he could see. "Um…"

"Never you mind, baby. Just pull up to the Sheester's on the corner. There's always plenty of parking there. We'll just have to walk a bit."

Rather than relief, Virgil felt a bit of disappointment. He'd been worried for nothing. With a sigh, he pulled into the discount store's large parking lot, and found a space near the street. Shutting the engine down, he sat back and sighed. Ruth patted his hand, saying, "Never mind, honey, there will be plenty of time to practice your parking. And I must say, you're shaping up to be a very good driver. Much better than your father or brother."

"Hey! I'm a good driver, Grandma!" Scott responded, full of indignation.

Ruth sniffed. "You would be, if you could grasp the concept that speed limits are there for a reason. They're not the mere suggestions that you and your father seemed to think they are."

"Oh, well, just because I drive a few miles an hour above the limit doesn't mean I'm not a good driver," Scott said, frowning.

"Sweetie, I never said you weren't a good driver. You are. Virgil is just better."

Virgil caught a glimpse of the twinkle in his grandmother's eye. "Grandma, you are stirring the pot," he accused with a wry grin.

"Who, me?" Ruth batted her eyes, innocently.

Scott looked from his brother to his grandmother and finally relaxed. "You had me going, Grandma."

With a laugh, Ruth took the arms of her tall grandsons, and marched them down the street toward the spice shop. "Oh, I always feel so proud when I'm walking with you boys."

Scott and Virgil shared an eye roll over their diminutive grandma's head. Together, they escorted the tiny woman to the spice shop, then the farmer's co-op, carrying the packages, and pretending to be interested in the shopping they were doing. Later, they joined their father and brothers and picked out the perfect tree before stopping at a barbecue joint for an early dinner. When it was time to head home, Virgil reluctantly gave up the driver's seat to Jeff, but then sat back and spent the trip home talking and laughing with his brothers.

TB TB TB TB

"Hey, Virgie, whatcha doing out here?"

Virgil looked down to find his two youngest brothers both smirking up in his direction. Annoyed at the interruption, he glared from his perch in the hayloft of the family barn. "What's it to you."

Gordon nodded knowingly. "Told ya."

Alan returned the nod. "What a wuss."

"Get the hell out of here before I come down there and break your heads."

Gordon snorted. "And risk being found by Avery Barnes? I don't think so."

"You know, Virg, all you have to do is say the word, and Gordy and I will protect you."

Virgil rolled his eyes. "Number one, I am not hiding from Avery Barnes. Number two, I don't need you midgets to protect me. Now why don't you two go find someone else to bother?"

"He's in denial. It's sad, really." Gordon confided in his younger brother, shaking his head in sorrow.

Alan nodded his head in agreement, then remarked thoughtfully. "Well, look on the bright side. You can have his room when Avery kills him."

Gordon snickered, and the two boys left the barn, no doubt looking for more mischief to cause. Virgil sighed. He wasn't hiding from Avery Barnes. He wasn't. He was in the barn because he wanted some privacy to finish up the winter landscape painting he was doing for Scott. He looked at the watercolor on the makeshift easel, and applied a bit more gray.

His painting was good, if a bit sere and cold. He stood back and cocked his head. The painting was small, about 3" by 6". Virgil figured it was a good size for a dorm room. He'd already made the frame, but now, as he looked at it, his artistic sensibility said that it needed a mat to really bring out colors.

He touched a bit more paint to the surface, then stood back, lips pursed. His shoulders slumped, and he sighed. Why did he think Scott would want a picture of Kansas? Especially in winter, when everything was dead and covered in mud and snow? His brother would be more likely to stay away than come home if he had a constant reminder of what a nothing place Kalvesta was.

Still… he thought as he used a bit of cloth to soften a line… there was a certain beauty to the browns and grays of the landscape. Maybe Scott would appreciate it after all. With a final brushstroke, Virgil put down his paints. One of the hardest lessons he had had to learn as an artist was when to say enough was enough. With finality, he started cleaning his brushes, refusing to look at the still-drying artwork.

He turned his mind to the issue of a mat. He was still thinking about it when John called up from the floor of the barn. "Hey Virg? He's here again."

Virgil felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. Although he knew the answer, he couldn't stop himself from asking, "Who's here?"

"Avery. He's sitting in his truck up the road."

"He didn't come to the door?"

"No. I think he's figured out that you're avoiding him."

"I'm not avoiding him. I just don't have anything to say to him."

"Scott got back a little while ago. Maybe we should send him out to talk to him."

Irritated, Virgil snapped, "I don't need anybody to do my talking for me."

"Well somebody's got to talk to him. He's been out there for the last four days. He's gonna start putting down roots." John was nothing if not practical. "I think you should do it here, where you've got back up if you need it. If you wait until he catches you in town, it could get ugly."

"What makes you think I need back up?"

"It's Avery Barnes, Virgil. Not exactly a guy known for his brains or reason."

"I'm not going to fight him, John."

"Maybe not, but that doesn't mean he isn't going to fight you."

"Fine. I'll go talk to the man."

John glanced out the barn door. "Too late. Scott is headed for him."

"Aw, damn it!" Virgil dropped what he was doing, and headed for the ladder. He slid down to the floor, and ran out into the cold hard light.

Sure enough, his brother Scott was approaching Avery's truck. Avery had gotten out, and stood waiting for him. Virgil put on some speed to get to them before anything could happen.

As he came up, he couldn't help but notice how much bigger Avery was than Scott, his bull neck and shoulders practically bursting from the leather jacket he wore. Both Scott and Avery turned toward him as he came crunching up through the snow. "Avery, why do you keep coming over here? Your sister broke up with me, not me with her."

"She caught you two-timing her, Virgil. You hurt her, you little prick." Avery's tone was deadly, and he took a step toward Virgil.

Scott stepped in. "He wasn't two-timing her, and he sure as hell didn't hurt her on purpose. Now back off, and we'll talk about it."

Virgil moved forward, not wanting Scott to become the focus of Avery's ire. "He's right, I didn't do it on purpose. Mickie just came up and planted a kiss on me because of the holiday. I didn't ask for it. I didn't want it. She just did it. Addie just showed up at the wrong time. I've tried apologizing to her, but she won't listen."

Virgil felt bad for making Mickie out to be the bad guy, but Avery was huge, and any fight with him would be a very serious matter. Avery wasn't buying Virgil's explanation, though. "You're lying. Addie could tell you were getting into that kiss. She's not an idiot, and neither am I."

"That's a matter of opinion."

Virgil gasped and spun around. Sure enough, John, and Gordon and Alan were all right there, apparently providing the back up John had mentioned. Avery was also glaring at the blond thirteen-year-old. "Keep your snotty mouth shut, kid, or I'll come over there and shut it for you."

Scott laughed a grim little laugh. "Oh, no, no, no. You do NOT threaten my brothers, asshole."

Virgil found himself bristling at the threat to his kid brother, and he pushed his way forward. "Get the hell out of here, Avery, before something happens. What happened was between me and Addie, and it's none of your damned business."

Virgil realized a moment too late that it was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. With a bellow that could probably be heard all the way in town, Avery charged, swinging a ham-like fist at Virgil's head. Scott threw his shoulder into Avery's chest, but it wasn't quite enough to keep the blow from connecting.

Virgil dropped like a stone. He lay on the ground seeing stars for a moment. With a deep breath, he came back to a reality in which all hell had broken loose. He sat up to find Avery pinned on the ground, with Scott thumping on him, and John kicking him. Gordon and Alan had both piled onto the big man's legs, keeping him from escaping.

Despite the dizziness he felt, Virgil jumped up and ran over. "Guys, guys! Cut it out! Gordy, Alan, get off of him!" Virgil pulled Alan up bodily and pushed him away, then went after Gordon. Both of the kids were screaming in anger at the attack on their brother.

Virgil grabbed one with each arm and backed away from the fight. "John! Get your ass over here!"

With one last bruising kick, John came over, his face bright red with exertion and fear. "You okay, Virg? You okay?"

"I'm fine. Stay back, you guys."

Virgil stalked over to where Avery had managed to get up. Scott was faced off with him, his hands up in a classic fighting pose. Avery for his part was looking worse for wear, his nose dripping blood, a shocked look on his face.

Virgil didn't let the sudden pride he felt show on his face. "Okay, that's enough. You got your shot at me, Avery. You've satisfied your honor. Now go home, okay? There's no point in fighting any more. Tell Addie I'm really sorry and I never wanted to hurt her. Tell her I'm just a jerk and she can do better. Tell her you beat the crap out of me. Tell her whatever you damn well want. But don't come back here, okay?"

To Virgil's surprise, Avery wiped his nose with his sleeve, and without another word, got in his truck and left. He stood watching him go, and suddenly, Scott was in his line of sight. "Are you okay? Look me in the eye. Are you dizzy? Nauseous?"

"No, I'm fine, Scott. Are you okay? Did he hit you?"

Scott smirked. "I told you, the R.O.T.C. classes include boxing. Barnes never knew what hit him." Scott frowned, bringing his hand up to the side of Virgil's head. "Damn. It's going to leave a mark. Grandma will see it."

"You're really okay? It scared me when you fell down." Virgil looked down to where Alan had grabbed him tightly around the waist, his blue eyes wet with tears.

"Yeah, I'm okay, Allie, don't you worry about it." Virgil smiled at his little brother. "It may leave a mark, but I'll bet Avery will look worse."

"Yeah. Big bully. I hope he learned his lesson. Never mess with a Tracy." Gordon said with a fierce nod.

"Yeah, because we're tough, huh, Virgil?" Alan was now grinning.

"Damn straight we are. Now we need to figure out an excuse for Virgil's bruise or Grandma will kill us all."

Gordon and Alan both started snickering as Scott's woeful tone. Virgil frowned. "You really think it's going to be that noticeable?"

"It's already starting to get all black and blue. It's a good thing Scott knocked him down. He could have really hurt you, Virg."

Virgil turned to John. "You know it's your fault, right?"

"My fault? How do you figure?"

"He's right, John. Listen, you guys, when you're in a tight situation, never, ever, insult the other guy. Even if he's calling you every name in the book, you don't respond. He came here looking for a fight. Virgil and I were trying to keep it calm. When John called him an idiot, that raised the stakes to a point where a fight was inevitable."

"I didn't call him an idiot," John said sulkily. "I just implied it."

Scott rolled his eyes. "Well, I think he's probably agreeing with you right now. It takes some kind of dumb to face down the Tracy brothers on their home turf."

"Yeah, some kind of dumb." Gordon smirked. "Hey, how about we could say he fell from the loft in the barn? She'd buy it, because he's top heavy, and he'd land on his face."

Scott reached over and lightly cuffed Gordon. John said, "Well, how about this, then? We could say that Scott accidentally elbowed him. That way, she won't think it's all serious, and make him go to the doctor."

"Why do I have to be the culprit?" Scott asked with a frown.

"Get serious. You're the only one tall enough. It'd only work for Alan or Gordy if he had a bruised knee."

"Hey, I'm not that short! I could bruise him in the belly!" Gordon snorted.

"Yeah, and I could get him in the chest," Alan nodded.

"Heck we could bruise him all over, but for a head shot, it really takes you, Scott." John batted his eyes.

"Thanks, guys, but I have enough bruises for now. Scott, I don't want to lie to Grandma. Especially not this close to Christmas. I'll just tell her I had a fight with Avery. I won't mention the rest of you guys."

"As if she's going to believe you could take Avery." John scoffed.

"Shut up, John. Just let me handle it, okay, guys?"

"Okay. At least now you don't have to hide in the barn any more." Alan smiled, happy with the resolution.

"I wasn't hiding."

All four of his brothers hooted derision, and in a huff, Virgil stomped away, not even turning back to join in the impromptu snow fight that erupted behind him. Not wanting to put it off, he headed for the farmhouse to let his grandma know what happened.

Entering the house, he could smell the cookies baking, and he followed his nose to the kitchen. "Grandma…"

Virgil came to a halt inside the swinging kitchen door. There at the big table sat his father, enjoying a cup of coffee and a plate full of cookies. Virgil stood undecided, but Jeff looked up, and waved him over. "Virgil, just the man I wanted to see. Come sit down here and have a cookie."

Caught, Virgil looked at the cookies, and went to the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of milk. Coming over to the table, he sat down and took a cookie and started munching. His father watched for a moment, then said, "All right, let's start at the beginning."

Virgil paused in mid-chew and looked questioningly at his father. Jeff toyed with his coffee cup and said casually, "I had a call from Principal Romney the other night."

Virgil sucked in a breath, his cheeks going red. Truth was, he'd forgotten about the principal's threatened call. He waited to hear what his father would say. But Jeff just stared at him. Hanging his head, Virgil spoke quietly. "It was all a big mistake, Dad. Mickie Witherspoon came up to me at school wearing this stupid reindeer antler thing, and she pointed to it and said that it was mistletoe and that I should kiss her. I didn't really think anything about it, so I kissed her, but then Addie Barnes saw us, and she came over and she and Mickie started fighting. I didn't mean to make Addie mad, it just happened."

"I seem to recall that you and I have had a talk about respect, son."

Virgil shrugged. "It didn't seem disrespectful at the time, it was just supposed to be a friendship kiss."

"Supposed to be? Did it turn into something more?"

Virgil couldn't meet his father's eye. "I didn't mean for it to, but she just kind of made it into something more, and I just kind of let her."

"Doesn't seem very respectful, does it, son?"

"I guess not."

"Okay, so tell me about this fight. What happened?"

For a moment, Virgil was confused as to which fight his father meant. But realizing he couldn't know about Avery, he said, "Addie came up behind Mickie and grabbed her hair and threw her to the ground, then Mickie got up and started slapping Addie. They were trying to scratch each other, and pulling each other's hair, and kicking and everything."

"And what did you do?"

Virgil hung his head. "I just watched."

"You didn't try to stop them?"

"I was, like, surprised, and then the teachers were there."

Jeff nodded. "All right. So, tell me, what were you feeling?"

Virgil's head came up, eyes widened. "What? What do you mean, Dad?"

With a look of compassion, Jeff cocked his head. "Did your body react, son?"

"Uh…" Virgil was mortified, but couldn't bring himself to answer, instead, sitting there looking like a deer caught in headlights.

Jeff nodded. "Would it help if I explained what happened?"

Virgil just swallowed. His father took that as a yes, and began. "Son, one of the reasons I stress respecting your girlfriends is because you are going through puberty." Jeff held up his hand, "Yes, I know, you think that was a few years ago when you shot up like a weed. But there is more to it than just getting tall, or being able to shave. When you go through puberty, your hormones are out of balance. You know what hormones are, right?"

"Yes, sir."

"The thing about it is, everything that happened that day was because of the imbalance of your hormones. When you kissed Mikayla, your body gave you all sorts of signals to make it serious. Virgil, at your age, there is no such thing as a friendship kiss. Your body wants every encounter to end in sex, pure and simple."

Virgil was shocked that his father would say that. And even more shocked that his father would know exactly what he was going through. Jeff continued. "When those girls started fighting, your body reacted again. It was a primal reaction that goes back beyond being a caveman. Again, you were shocked at the fight, but your body wanted sex with the victor."

"I thought I was a freak, Dad. I got all, um, excited, and I thought it was because I was a pervert or something."

"Son, the difference between you and a pervert is how you handle it when your body reacts. A pervert has no inhibitions and simply gives his body free reign. A man does not allow his body to rule his mind. But there's the rub. For all that you are rapidly becoming a man, and a damn fine one too, I might add, you are still an adolescent, and those hormones of yours can still manage to take over your mind. And that, Virgil, is the point of respect. If you hadn't put yourself in a position for your body to take over, you wouldn't be without a girlfriend right now. And you wouldn't be hiding from her brother."

Virgil started at that. He hadn't realized his father knew about Avery. Jeff just nodded, saying, "I'm not blind, son, I've seen Avery Barnes' truck cruising the neighborhood. But what I was telling you here was, you need to use your head. When a girl offers to kiss you, and you already are dating another girl, just say no. You don't give into that temptation, and won't find yourself needing to fight the hormones. Because I can tell you from personal experience, those hormones don't go down easily."

Virgil nodded. What his dad said made sense, still, he had to ask, "So then, you don't think I'm a pervert?"

"Not for this, no. Now, if your grandmother were to find Playboys in your room, that would be another matter." Jeff sat back and relaxed, smiling.

Virgil raised his hand in a Boy Scout pledge. "She'll never find them, Dad."

Jeff chuckled and Virgil relaxed a bit. After a moment, he took a deep breath, and said, "About Avery Barnes, Dad. I tried to talk to him. He decked me. But now it's all over."

"I thought it was the light in here," Jeff said softly. Then his voice turned hard. "Are you all right, son?"

"Yeah, Dad, I'm fine. I'll have a bruise, though."

Jeff pulled out his cell phone, and alarmed, Virgil asked, "Who are you calling?"

"I'm calling the police. That man assaulted you, and I won't stand for it."

"Wait, Dad, listen…"

"No, son, Avery Barnes is ten years older than you. This isn't a schoolyard fight. There are consequences to actions, and his are over the line."

"Dad, please, hear me out before you call." Virgil put his hand on his father's arm.

Jeff stopped dialing, and looked at his son, the hard glint in his eye telling Virgil he'd better make it good.

Sighing, Virgil spoke, "Dad, I was in the barn when Scott decided to go over to where Avery was parked. I had to get there to keep them from fighting. Then John and the kids came up, and John mouthed off, and Avery threatened to hurt him, so Scott and I got in his face. That's when he clipped me. I fell down and by the time I'd gotten up, Scott had Avery on the ground and was hitting him, and John was kicking him, and the kids were in there too. If you call the cops, we could all land up in jail."

"Go get your brothers."

"Dad…"

"Go get your brothers, now, Virgil." Jeff's tone brooked no disobedience.

"Yes, sir."

With his head hanging, Virgil headed out the door. The snow fight was still going on in the front yard, with Gordon and Alan trying to dump a ratty old bucket on John's head. Virgil found Scott on the front porch swing, with his legs up on the railing. "Hey, why so down, Virg?"

Unable to meet his brother's eye, Virgil said, "I blew it, Scott."

"Blew what?"

"I told Dad about the fight, now he wants to see us all."

"You told him? Why the hell did you do that?"

"I tried to leave you guys out of it. I told him I tried to talk to Avery and he clocked me. But then Dad started to call the cops to have him arrested. I had to tell him the whole story. If I hadn't he'd have called the cops and Avery could have had you and even Johnny arrested for attacking him."

"It was self defense, Virg." Scott said warily.

"You know that, and I know that, but do you think Sheriff Connelly would agree? He hates Dad. He'd throw you in jail just to get back at him."

"Damn it." Scott stood up, and whistled. The younger kids looked up from their play and at Scott's gesture, came over. Looking them over, Scott reached out to brush snow from Alan's hair. "The game is up. Dad wants to see us."

Virgil felt even worse as his brothers all cried in dismay. John cast a suspicious glance Virgil's way. "How did he find out?"

"It doesn't matter. We man up. Now, come on." Scott led the way into the house.

Bringing up the rear, Virgil called out, "He's in the kitchen."

Taking a deep breath, Scott pushed his way into the warm kitchen. "You wanted to see us, Father?"

"Take a seat, boys." All five sons quietly moved to their regular places at the table, the only sounds, the scraping of the heavy wooden chairs on the stone floor. When they were all seated, and looking apprehensively at Jeff, he looked each one in the eye. "Now, I understand Virgil was knocked down. Was anybody else hurt?"

At the general shaking of heads and disclaimers of no injury, Jeff raised his hand for quiet. "The first mistake was Virgil's. He shouldn't have kissed that girl regardless of the circumstance. We've discussed that. Now, who made the second mistake?"

After a moment, although he kept his head down, John raised his hand. "I did, Father. I implied Avery was an idiot, and that led to the fight."

Jeff looked at Scott. "Do you believe that was the second mistake, Scott?"

Scott rubbed the knuckles of his right hand with his left. "No, Father. I made the second mistake. I shouldn't have gone out to confront Avery. I should have realized that Virg would try to stop me."

Virgil shook his head vehemently. "No, I should have gone out to talk to Avery the first time he showed up. Maybe he wouldn't have been so mad if I had."

"He would have decked…" John started, then shrank under his father's withering stare.

"Johnny's right, Dad. Avery Barnes was looking for a fight, and nothing was going to stop him. I went out to talk to him because I didn't want Virgil to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder." Scott said, defiantly.

"Yeah, and it was better because we all could get him." Gordon spoke up, causing both Scott and Virgil to flinch.

"He's a bully, Dad. You always told us the only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them." John waded right in.

"He hit Virgil and made him fall down. We had to get him." Alan piped up.

"Are you all finished?" Jeff asked, steel in his voice.

The youngsters subsided, and Jeff turned to his eldest son. "Perhaps you'd care to explain to your brothers?"

The back of his neck red with his embarrassment, Scott replied, "Yes, sir. Guys, the idea is to avoid fights, not cause them. It was my fault for going out there in the first place. I knew Avery wasn't sensible. What I should have done was stay in the house. He would have left eventually."

Apparently seeing something in John's look, Jeff asked, "You have something to add, here, son?"

John started to shake his head, but then lifted his chin. "Dad, like I said, Avery Barnes is a bully. Ignoring bullies doesn't make them go away. If Scotty had stayed in the house, then Avery would have just kept coming over until he found Virgil. The fight was inevitable, Dad, inevitable. Like Gordy said, it was better this way because we were all there, and we kept him from hurting Virgil any worse than he did. I know fighting is supposed to be the last resort, but sometimes it's the only resort."

Virgil had been trying to keep a low profile through it all, but he couldn't help nodding to his brother. John had always been a good debater, and in this case, his words rang true in Virgil's ears. Jeff glared at his second son, and said very carefully, "When grownups fight, it is called assault, and it leads to prison sentences. Which one of you boys would like to see Scott go to prison? A prison record means no Air Force. No college. A prison record follows you for the rest of your life, and haunts you every time you apply for a job, or want to vote, or even when you want to move to a new neighborhood. John, a juvenile record stays with you until you are twenty-five. Again, no good college will have you. NASA would be out of reach."

Alan started to sniffle, and Gordon's eyes shone with his tears. John had gone ghostly pale. Even Scott was breathing hard. Virgil felt his heart pounding in his chest.

Jeff maintained his cold demeanor for a few moments more, then relented. "Boys, I understand everything you're saying but we have to live in the real world. And in the real world, there are other ways to deal with bullies. The second mistake was mine, not Scott's or John's. I should have taken legal action when Barnes showed up here again and again. A man like that only understands power. I could have had a restraining order put on him. I could have called his father and explained a few things to him. I could have ended this without violence, and I am heartily sorry that I did not."

Virgil looked up at his father, surprised. Jeff had never been one to throw his very considerable influence around, and it had never occurred to Virgil to ask. Jeff shook his head, saying, "Now, needless to say, your grandmother doesn't need to know any of this. It'd break her heart if she knew you boys were beating people up. I'll explain the bruise, Virgil. As for the fight, I think the barn could use a good cleaning. Now get to it. I want it shining before dinnertime."

Realizing that he'd left his watercolor out where anybody could see it, Virgil hustled to be the first to reach the barn. Seeing how dirty things were, he sighed. They were going to be at it all day long.

TB TB TB TB

"You really like it?" Virgil beamed.

Nodding his head, with his eyes examining his present, Scott softly said. "Yeah. Virg, this is beautiful. It's perfect."

"Lemme see, Scotty." Still dressed in pajamas, Gordon came up and looked at the small watercolor over his brother's shoulder.

Virgil waited for the smart aleck remark and was surprised when Gordon reached out a finger to touch it and said wistfully, "You paint so good, Virg. I wish I could paint like you."

Scott handed the watercolor to his younger brother, saying, "Take this over so Grandma can see it, will you Squirt?"

As Gordon moved away, Scott reached behind his back and pulled out a plain envelope which he handed to brother. "Merry Christmas, Virg."

With a wary smile, Virgil took the envelope, and opened it up. Pulling out airline tickets, he asked, surprised, "What's this?"

"Well, I figured you could come up to New Haven for Spring Break, and we'd drive over to Boston, check out M.I.T."

Virgil's eyes grew big. "Really? Just you and me?"

"You don't have to sound so happy about it." John remarked from his corner with his Christmas presents piled around. At the moment he was perusing a book he'd been given, ignoring the fact that everyone else had finished opening their gifts and he had barely started.

Virgil for his part swallowed hard against the lump forming in his throat. "That'll be so great, Scott."

"Scotty, can you help me? I can't get these stupid batteries in right." Alan came up, his new video system in one hand and the batteries in the other.

Soon, both his eldest and youngest brothers were sitting with their heads touching as they worked to fit the batteries into the game. Virgil sat back and looked around the room. As his grandmother would say, it looked as if a tornado had hit, shreds of wrapping paper everywhere, gifts strewn about the room. It had been another great Christmas, and Spring Break promised to be even better.

Across the room, he met eyes with his father, relaxing on the couch. Casually, Virgil reached down and picked up a piece of shredded wrapping paper. Crunching it into a ball, he watched as his father did the same. They stared each other down like gunfighters of the old west. When finally they whipped their weapons forward, Jeff's paper ball hit Scott squarely on the nose, and Virgil's caught John right in the head.

For a moment, everyone froze, then with Gordon's warrior yell, the traditional Tracy wrapping paper fight began.

The End