Josiah heard the kerfuffle from the driveway.
Oh God. God damn.
JD was crying.
It wasn't just Vin-isn't-sharing crying either. There was utter, unmitigated misery in the sound floating out of the house and it pressed Josiah's protective buttons so hard he nearly fell up the step in his haste to get in the front door.
Striding through the house he threw open the door to the living room and left it juddering on its hinges. He felt every one of his forty-something years as the whole scene burst before him.
JD was crying all right - the type of crying Josiah had heard plenty of and always hoped never to hear again. The kid was backed into a corner of the sofa, resisting all attempts to pacify him by striking out with his feet. To be fair, Chris and Buck were doing their best, but obviously things had gone too far, or the trigger was too serious. Vin and JD's winter coats were discarded on the floor in the doorway and Josiah had to step over them. Nathan, not able to find the best space for his burgeoning height, had tipped himself into the leather swivel-chair in defeat, and Vin was standing on the arm of the sofa, his socked toes curled over one edge for balance, his discarded sneakers lying in the middle of the carpet. Just ready for someone to trip over.
Josiah held up both hands. "What?" he said, in the most commanding voice he could summon after a really crappy day at work.
"Some damn kid!" Buck bellowed at him.
Vin bounced and slithered on the sofa arm.
"What kid?" Josiah squinted at the writhing ball of JD. "Did some kid hurt JD?"
"He ain't hurt!" Vin bubbled. "But some damn kid in my class was mean!"
Josiah took a breath. His kids didn't need mean. They'd all had enough mean.
"Mean? Mean how? And drop the damns, guys."
"Some da... some kid only went and told JD-" began Buck but Chris cut him off with a fierce chopping motion. Buck shut his mouth while Chris gesticulated wildly at the lopsided Christmas tree blinking in the corner - hell, someone had been messing with the lights again - and made a baleful cut-throat gesture.
"Right." Josiah took some calming breaths.
He'd been thinking of ordering in pizza on the way home. It had seemed like a good plan. The kitchen was stocked to the rafters with food for the holidays but who in the hell wanted to cook for six this close to Christmas? And after a day of battling half-baked plans by the faculty hierarchy to increase hours while apparently cutting teachers' pay, he'd hoped to do nothing more taxing than slump in a chair, chugging a cold beer while his foster sons entertained him with charming stories of their day.
But meltdowns always came out of nowhere. After ten crazy-mad years of this, he should know that.
"So..." Josiah cleared his throat. "First of all, JD, it was probably complete garbage, you know that, right? But tell me, son... what exactly did this kid say?"
He could guess of course. From Chris and Buck's interaction, JD's body language and Vin, troubled but curious on the sofa arm. It was the End of Innocence scenario, which, with the history of the kids he'd taken on, could turn out to be a pretty damn big deal.
JD was still too distraught to explain. He was sat well away from Buck in the corner of the sofa, suspicious now of anything anybody had to offer. His cheeks and balled-up fists were wet although now Josiah was here he wasn't actively crying anymore. He just looked ready to kick out at Buck who'd probably been applying some of his cheery nonsense - a shade too damn cheery by the looks of it.
Josiah decided maybe a swift extraction at this point might be a good plan. If they were dealing with what he suspected they were dealing with, he wasn't sure if JD would hug his dreadful new knowledge to himself forever more, or if he'd conveniently blank it out. Josiah wasn't sure about Vin, either. His small number of extra years might cushion the blow, or else magnify it beyond all hope of redress. The head of the family was fairly confident his youngest charge didn't actually have many memories of last Christmas but Vin, who'd been with them about nine months at the time, had been sufficiently charmed by the whole, unexpected experience that it had seemed to bear repeating with bells on this year. And that was what Josiah had planned.
"Ice cream?" he said, aiming the quick-fire question at Nathan who was slumped in the revolving chair, spinning it slowly from side to side.
Nathan seemed to consider his teenaged options for a second or two. Then he made one of his inarticulate noises and dumped a lapful of books on the floor. Rising to his still-startling six feet, he held out a hand to the four year-old.
JD scrubbed at his nose. Shooting a wary back-off-me look at Buck, he rolled himself sideways off the sofa with a flump and reached for Nathan. When they'd trailed from the room, Josiah rounded on Vin.
"What exactly did this kid say?"
Wobbling seriously between JD's world-view and the other, doom-laden one that had been presented to him today, Vin slid from his precarious balance on the sofa arm. Josiah knew he was probably more likely to begin riding off down some imaginary owl-hoot trail than actually sit still to submit to questioning. But then that was Vin.
"He said there ain't no Santa. That Santa's a story grown-ups tell and it's just a lie and a big fat con." Vin settled saddle-ways over the sofa-arm and dug in his knees. The trail had begun.
"Who's to say this kid is right?" Chris demanded hotly. Nathan wouldn't be too bothered about this unexpected attack on JD and Vin's belief system, but Chris and Buck, who'd been peddling Santa with all the tail-end glee of their own childhood, were clearly up in arms.
"Said the Tooth Fairy an' Easter Bunny are lies too."
"Did he now." Josiah sighed. A triple whammy.
Vin urged his mount into a trot. "An' he ain't too sure about God."
Josiah actually didn't mind that one so much. "Well do you believe what this damn kid says?"
"Nah, he's wrong." Vin was lofty and assured. "Reckon maybe he just never got no visits from Santa cuz he wasn't anywhere near good enough."
Josiah scratched his head. "So um... who is this little charmer?"
"Came this week."
"Came from where?"
Vin shrugged. "Dunno." He reined in the horse. "Nobody seems ta like him."
"Poor kid." Josiah couldn't help himself, although Vin gave him a withering look.
"He cheats," Vin said darkly. "He wears weird stuff. And he talks funny."
Josiah's shoulders heaved. "Poor kid," he said again. He cocked an ear to listen out for Nathan and JD's return. Their voices could be heard in the kitchen, and JD's still sounded hitched. Raspberry Ripple was going to be a temporary help... yeah, so it was pretty much always a temporary help with JD, but it might not be enough when his whole world had just been up-ended around his ears.
"All right, boys," Josiah said at last. "Let's calm it all down, get this show on the road. First off..." He fished his cellphone from his pocket and tossed it across the room to Buck. "Blackjack's. We all need to eat." Then he laid a quiet hand on Vin's head before the boy had a chance to rail about injustice. "And yes, son. There will be Rocky Road."
In the end, JD sat on Josiah's lap and they all ate pizza in front of the TV. JD smeared nearly as much of it on his face as he managed to swallow, which was normally a good sign, but bath-time was unusually subdued. Every so often during the evening he'd seem to come out of his shell and not be able to help himself grinning at Buck or reacting to Vin. But when it came to bed-time, laying down and facing his four year-old thoughts, it was plain that a new wave of anxiety had washed right over the child. By the time Josiah was sitting on the side of the little bed that was squashed into his room, a storybook missing several pages in one hand, JD was big-eyed and panicky once again.
And Josiah hated that. He hated it. Heaven knows he'd been through it with Chris and Buck and Nathan many times over the years. None of the five boys had known which way was up when they first arrived. They'd accrued enough nightmare visions between them to keep Josiah sleepless for what sometimes felt like most of the last decade. But they all had one thing in common - they needed some cast-iron certainties to hang on to in a topsy-turvy world. And if the certainties had to be fluffy ones for a while, well that was fine. It hurt Josiah deep in his chest that already Vin was on the cusp, just that little bit too cynical about the jaw-dropping crap he'd heard spouted by some of the adults around him. It wouldn't last much longer for him, this innocence.
But JD... Josiah knew he'd trusted Santa would bring him a Woody or a Buzz, way too much candy than was good for him, a variety of colored plastic doodads, hopefully including a water-pistol, and maybe, if he was especially good, a trumpet. The kid was dizzy with delight at the thought of the reindeer dashing through the sky at high speed towards their roof. How Santa would magically know what he, JD Dunne, most desired, just the same as he knew what all the kids in the world most desired. How he'd come down the chimney with surprises bulging from a sack and chuckle soundly to find a letter and a shot of whisky waiting for him on the hearth.
No wonder the kid was upset. The idea of it actually being his foster father creeping through the house, hellish grumpy from lack of sleep, tossing back the shot he'd poured earlier and probably discarding the letter at the first opportunity, didn't quite cut it. Hell, this kid in Vin's class, whoever he was, had done a thorough job all right. Not only did JD now fear that there really wasn't a Santa Claus, where Santa Claus once had been was now a big, black, scary hole.
"What is it, young Mr. John Dunne?" Josiah asked, swiping gently at the fat tear that tracked a forlorn path down one flushed cheek.
"I think he lied." A pause and a hiccupy breath. "Did he lie?"
"Well..." Josiah shifted his feet on the floor. "You know, people sometimes say things when they're not in full possession of all the facts." He knew it was the kind of platitude that would make Buck and Chris look at him like he was out of his mind, and wondered, not for the first time, if in fact he'd learned anything from the last ten years at all.
"I hate it," JD said in a trembly voice. "I'm sad."
"Me too, son, me too." And Josiah stroked a hand through the silky black hair.
He sat on the bed until the little boy, finally, was fast asleep, and then he got stiffly to his feet.
Time to deal with Vin.
The eight-year-old, occasionally world-weary, but coping well with his third placement in as many years, had seemed apparently sanguine about the affair earlier. Josiah wasn't entirely fooled. What he did understand was that honesty was all in all to Vin Tanner. If he knew nothing else about him, he sure knew the boy didn't like being led down the garden path - not about Santa or anything else under the sun. It wouldn't surprise Josiah one teeny little bit if young Mr. Tanner didn't come right out and call him on it. And as he padded up the hallway, he had no idea how he was going to answer.
Luckily, Josiah had Nathan. He found that his middle boy had apparently already been on patrol. Vin was tucked up sleeping soundly in the top bunk in their room. When Josiah leaned closed he could see Vin's face was unmarked by tears, his brow cool and one hand was holding tightly to Trot, the not very plush toy horse.
"Good job," Josiah said after looking at the child for a moment or two. Nathan, full-length on the lower bunk, his feet hanging over the end, glanced up quietly from his notes and grinned.
Then, at last, the house having fallen quiet around him, Josiah got his beer. He settled in the leather swivel-chair with his bottle of Coors and the newspaper, and breathed in the relative peace.
Two youngest sleeping, middle one studying, eldest ones listening to music.
A muffled but steadily thumping bass-line came drifting down the hall from their room, which made Josiah smile. His eyes strayed to the twinkling tree and its over-abundance of decorations. He really ought to get up and straighten the damn thing before it fell right over. Lord but Christmas was going to be a hard sell this year.
Ten minutes into the newspaper, the bass-line dropped out and shortly after that, Chris and Buck wandered into the room. Josiah only half looked up from the sports pages but decided they had a distinctly shifty air about them.
Damn. Now what've they done?
Nightmare visions of pregnant teenagers, or an imminent visitation from the local cops, skipped through his head.
"Y'know," said Chris. He mussed at his spiky blond hair. Damn, but he looked suddenly a lot older than eighteen and Josiah was startled. "Earlier on, we found out a bit more about that kid from Vin."
Josiah peered over his reading glasses, let the newspaper rest on his knees.
Chris folded himself into the sofa, crossed his socked ankles on the coffee table. Buck, all loose-limbed and charming, perched on the arm next to him, patted it absently as if it was still Vin's horse. Josiah shut one eye, considering his oldest boy's feet. Boots would raise his hackles but socks... well, OK, he could live with that. No need for a reprimand. This was a testosterone-heavy household after all.
Besides, Chris and Buck had decided they weren't part of the "kids" anymore, which seemed about right. Chris, in fact, was old enough not to even be here. He had his job on the Travis ranch, his horse, his car. The boy could set up his own life now if he wanted, move out, be independent. But he seemed to cherish something about the ramshackle townhouse where he'd lived since Josiah took him in ten years ago, and Buck didn't look like he was ready to fly the coop yet, either. Full-time at the auto-repair and full-time taking JD under his not inconsiderable wing. And in the meantime the two of them were busy rambling round town with Stephen Travis and three girls Josiah knew only as Mary, Sarah and Ella. Quite a posse by all accounts.
"Which kid would that be?"
"The one who ruined Christmas for JD." Buck didn't sound quite so aggressive towards the unknown youngster as he had earlier in the day and Josiah wondered why that was.
"Oh right," he said. "That damn kid."
"Yeah." Buck and Chris exchanged a look. "Well, y'know, it's kinda interesting."
Josiah felt a little ping in his brain, like something was coming that was going to stir up a good deal more trouble than the apparent demise of Santa Claus. The house, which had felt so right this morning, suddenly seemed all wrong. Strangely and illogically unbalanced.
"Tell me," he said, resigned.
"He was picked up by the cops hiding out at the railroad station a month ago, been in care ever since."
Josiah's breath caught in a familiar, life-changing way.
A little kid, a railroad station, the cops. Another triple whammy, right between the eyes.
He frowned, wanting to be skeptical, but knowing it wasn't like Vin to make up wild tales for no reason. Mind you, even if Vin was just repeating what he'd been told, maybe the source of the tale couldn't be trusted. It did sound like the kid concerned had something of a wayward relationship with the truth.
"Says who exactly?" he rumbled.
"Shit." Chris winced at himself as soon as he spoke, but Josiah let him get away with it. As long as the little ones weren't all flappy ears he'd let it pass. "Hell, Josiah, we don't know if this kid's lost or abandoned or what the heck, but Vin knows Social Services when he sees them. He says they bring him to school every day and then pick him up again."
Josiah shifted in his seat. "And what else does Vin say?"
"This kid sits next to him in class," Buck chipped in, eager now. "Vin said he's a smart-mouth and a cheat, but kinda funny with it. And apparently..." Buck smirked first down at Chris and then across at Josiah. "He's all alone."
Josiah felt the Denver Post flutter to the floor.
"No, no, no, not possible," he said firmly, giving them both a hard stare. They just looked right back at him.
His thoughts flip-flopped back and forth at alarming speed.
Meetings, phone-calls, paperwork, another damn intrusive home check.
Of course, it was true that the seventh seat in the SUV was just going to waste at the moment. And yes, it was only too plain that there was room at the table for another setting long as they didn't mind a little elbow jostling.
But... life was good right now, for all of them. Chris seemed to be getting a handle on his temper at last. Buck had lately morphed from permanently MIA into the family go-to guy for just about every problem you could think of and Nathan... Hell, Nathan was shining in a way that made Josiah about bust with pride every time he thought of it. JD might just have started to actually like school. And even Vin, although he might never go that far, had at least quit running away.
Everything was going great.
Experience told Josiah that it would be foolish to risk that. Why on earth would he want to disrupt his unpredictable band of boys by taking in some lying, cheating kid that nobody else wanted?
Some lying, cheating kid that didn't believe in Santa Claus.
Damn, it would mean an extra stocking for a start.
Josiah suddenly saw an alarmingly clear flash vision of a third bed in Vin and Nathan's room. His heart thumped in his chest.
Dear Lord, it was how it always began.