"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
Chris had assumed that Vin would perk up as he settled in to home. The young boy seemed to be unusually tired from his ordeal. Vin was still shuffling around, barely responding to any of them. It was almost dinner time and Chris was beginning to worry that Vin may be sick. He laughed to himself when he heard the doorbell rang. JD threw open the door and there was Nathan as if on cue.
"Hi, Mr. Nathan!" said JD boisterously. Seeing the bags in Nathan's hands, JD bounced up and down. "McDonalds! Hey Vin! Mr. Nathan brought us Happy Meals!"
Chris relieved Nathan of some of the bags. "I suppose you were just in the neighborhood?" said Chris jokingly. His house was a forty-five minute drive from the office in good traffic.
Nathan chuckled as he carried his treasure to the kitchen table. "Nope, Josiah and Ezra are right behind me with more food. You know Ezra. He can't eat McDonalds. That's beneath his fine tastes."
Chris glanced out front as he heard the rumble of Josiah's vehicle. He grinned as the southerner climbed out of the passenger side complaining loudly about the food selection. Life was definitely getting back to normal. Chris welcomed them and steered them to the kitchen.
"Come on, Junior," said Buck, "dinner is here."
Vin shuffled into the kitchen and flopped in his chair. He cringed at every hug or ruffle of his hair, but he endured the touches in silence. While everyone else chattered and ate, he picked at his food. He wasn't hungry, he was just tired.
"Vin? Eat," said Chris.
Vin looked at him and blinked a few times, like the words didn't quite register. He looked back to his plate and picked up a french fry and ate it before sighing loudly.
Nathan, observing the scene, noted Chris' concern and Vin's lack of appetite. "Are you feeling all right, Vin?" he asked.
Vin nodded sluggishly.
"Chris?" quizzed Nathan.
Chris shook his head. "He's been like this all afternoon. I thought he was just worn out, but now I'm thinking he might be sick."
As the adults talked quietly amongst themselves, JD picked up Vin's Happy Meal toy to compare it to his. He yelped in surprise, dropping the toy on the table, as Vin smacked his hand hard.
"It's mine!" snapped Vin.
"Vin!" scolded Chris. "You don't hit."
"Sorry," Vin muttered and left the table, heading for his room.
"You all right, JD?" asked Buck.
"Vin hitted me!" said JD.
"Yes, he did," said Buck. Chris stood and looked at Nathan, nodding his head toward Vin's room. Nathan walked with him down the hall, leaving Buck, Josiah and Ezra to sort things out with JD.
Vin was sitting on the edge of his bed, arms wrapped around his backpack waiting. He looked up as Chris sat down beside him. "What's going on, Vin?" asked Chris.
"You're supposed to give me the pill now," said Vin flatly. He hated the medicine, but it was what happened every time he got mad.
"What pill?" asked Chris with a scowl.
"They always give me a pill when I'm bad," Vin's shoulders slumped lower.
"You're not bad, Vin, and I'm not going to give you a pill," said Chris. He closed his eyes trying to shut out the truth.
Nathan knelt in front of Vin. "Vin, I want to take a look at you, okay?" Vin nodded and Nathan pulled out his penlight and looked at Vin's eyes. He took a minute to look at his bruised eye and healing lip. "You hurt anywhere else, Vin?"
Vin nodded stiffly. He slowly set the backpack on the bed, pushing it behind him protectively before rolling up his sleeve. Nathan gently examined the livid bruising on Vin's forearm, biting back his gut reaction to pummel whoever injured Vin. The bruising was in the shape of finger marks that could only have come from someone gripping the seven-year-old tightly. "I bet that smarts," said Nathan with a reassuring smile.
"Any other hurts?"
Again, no words, just a shake of the head.
Nathan patted him on the knee and stood up.
"Well?" asked Chris tightly.
"He's definitely medicated, Chris," reported Nathan. The EMT waved Chris toward the door and stepped into the hallway with him. "Did they tell you what they were giving him?"
"No," the blonde said quickly with a frown. He stopped mid-stride and quickly checked his shirt pockets. "Hang on. They did give me a prescription to fill," said Chris quietly. He fished the paper out of his pocket and handed it to Nathan. "I forgot all about it."
Nathan read the prescription. "Well, no wonder."
"What?" asked Chris.
"They put him on Thorazine, Chris. That's why he's so sluggish."
"What's it for?" Chris took the slip of paper as Nathan handed it back to him.
Nathan hesitated. "Well...it's used to manage psychosis. I'm guessing they're using it to control Vin's anger."
"Psychosis?" said Chris angrily. "Vin's not crazy and he doesn't need drugs to control him."
Nathan tried to shush Chris as he got louder and angrier.
"Damn it, Nathan. I'm not getting this filled."
"You have to, Chris," said Nathan calmly. "You can't just stop this medication. You have to wean him off of it."
Chris looked ready to explode. Nathan laid a hand on his shoulder and shook his head slightly, his eyes darting to Vin's room. Chris got the silent message and stormed down the hall without another word.
Nathan walked back into the small room and looked at the little zombie sitting in front of him. "Vin, why don't you just lay down for a while?" Vin mechanically obeyed the suggestion and Nathan pulled the comforter over the slight body just as Chris exploded somewhere near the kitchen. Vin cringed at the sound of the expletives filtering through the house. Nathan patted his shoulder, letting the big hand stay on the tense frame a few seconds. "He's not mad at you, Vin. He's mad that they hurt you and made you take those pills." He watched as Vin's eyes slid closed. "That's it. You get some rest now."
Chris was still ranting as Nathan reached the kitchen. He caught a glimpse of JD huddled under Buck's protective arm. "Stop it!" the tall man ordered. "These walls aren't soundproof, ya know."
Chris met Nathan's eyes and Nathan nodded toward JD. Chris saw the fear on JD's face. "Damn," he said regretfully. He walked over to the kitchen counter and leaned heavily against it as he turned his focus to JD. "JD, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said all those things. I'm not mad at you, and I'm not mad at Vin. Some people hurt him and I'm really mad at them."
JD worked his magic. He slid off of Buck's lap and ran to Chris, hugging his leg. "Vin's home now. He's safe," said JD. Chris swept JD up into a hug.
"And so are you," said Chris softly.
"You're squishing me."
Chris laughed as he released JD. JD was right. Vin was home and safe. That was what was most important. Bashing of heads, while satisfying, was not the answer. He checked his watch, grabbed his coat off the hook by the door and reached for the doorknob. "I'll be back in an hour," he told Buck before he walked outside. He had to make a quick trip to the all-night pharmacy.
Ezra and Josiah tidied up the kitchen while Buck and Nathan went into the living room with JD. It was almost nine o'clock when Chris returned. He entered the living room to find Buck, Nathan, Josiah and Ezra coloring dinosaurs with JD. Chris stood there shaking his head at the sight of four big tough ATF agents coloring in color books.
Ezra looked up, flushing slightly at being caught. "You should try it, Chris. It's quite therapeutic."
"Right," scoffed Chris. "Nate, I got the prescription." He tossed the pill bottle to the EMT.
Nathan read the label and tossed it back to Chris. "He needs a dose before bed. You're seeing his doctor tomorrow, right?"
Chris nodded. "We have an appointment with Dr. Lowery at three o'clock."
"Make sure that you talk to him about weaning Vin off it. For now, all we can do is just ride it out. Vin's going to do what he's doing right now. He'll be lethargic, maybe have dry mouth. I'd let him sleep as much as possible."
"Speaking of sleep, I think it's time for someone to go to bed," said Buck.
"Are you tired, Buck?" asked JD with a teasing smile.
"You know who I mean." Buck tickled JD and they fell into a heap giggling. When JD finally came up for air, he spotted Vin in the doorway.
Vin just stood there blinking his eyes. Chris squatted down in front of him. "Did you want something, Vin?"
Vin nodded but didn't say what he wanted.
"What do you want, Vin?" asked Chris patiently.
"Thirsty," said Vin.
"Let's get you a drink and get you back in bed," said Chris, steering him toward the bathroom. After retrieving a glass of water for Vin, Chris took the pill bottle out of his pocket and opened it.
Vin saw the pills and became agitated. "I wasn't bad! I wasn't bad," he insisted.
"Shh, Vin," said Chris. "I know you weren't bad, but you need to take this pill."
"You said you wasn't gonna give me pills!" Vin accused.
Chris chewed on his lip. He hated this. How many times would he 'hurt' Vin as he tried to help him? "Vin, I didn't know what the pills were for. You have to keep taking them until we see the doctor and then he'll help us so you won't have to take them much longer." Chris saw the swing coming and grabbed Vin's arm, keeping him from knocking the pill out of his hand. He cringed at the look of shock on Vin's face, which faded quickly to remorse as the little boy sank to the floor crying silently.
Vin drew his knees up to his chin as he sat on the floor. He wrapped his arms around his legs and pressed his face against his knees, trying to make himself as small as possible. He couldn't stop the tears that soaked into the knees of his pants. Why did he do that? Why did he argue with Mr. Chris? Why did he hit JD? He hadn't meant to do any of that. Vin flinched as Chris touched the troubled boy on top of his head.
"I'm sorry," said Vin, his voice muffled by his knees.
"I know. Come on. Let's get this over with and get you back to bed." Chris offered his hand to help Vin up when the boy finally looked at him. "It'll be better after a good night's sleep," assured Chris as he pulled Vin to his feet and handed him the pill. 'I hope.'
Chris came back into the living room, rejoining the rest of the team. He dropped wearily into his recliner and laid his head back on the headrest. He was beginning to think he should have waited until Dr. Lowery had that session with Vin. The standoff in the bathroom was more than he was ready to handle. Chris knew that the shuffling from home to home to home and then to the Children's Center had been very hard on Vin. It had probably reinforced a lot of things that Vin already mistakenly believed. Chris tried to push aside the guilty feelings. While the entire situation had been beyond his control, he still felt guilty for letting Vin down. It wasn't his fault, but Vin had just shown him again that he did blame him.
It had been a small gesture really, but it spoke volumes. Chris had placed the stuff toy wildcat that he had given Vin in the hospital on the seven-year-old's bed. Vin loved that cat. When Chris tucked the lethargic boy in, pulling up his covers, Vin had reached out a weary arm and intentionally pushed the toy off of the bed. JD had retrieved it and put it back on the bed just in time for Vin to push it off again. The process repeated itself twice more before Chris had finally told JD to leave it alone. Vin was back in the house, but it was clear he was still very angry and hurt.
"I asked if they were asleep?"
"Sorry, Buck," said Chris. "Yes, I think they finally nodded off. Vin could barely keep his eyes open."
No one responded, each man thinking about the ordeal Vin had been through.
"Hey, guys. Thanks for being here tonight," said Chris. "I know it wasn't what we expected, but I'm sure it mattered to Vin that you were here."
"Where else would we be?" said Ezra, surprising everyone a little with his openness.
Nathan chuckled and slugged Ezra on the shoulder. "Right where family belongs but I think Chris was telling us it's time to go home."
Chris nodded. "I'm not going to be in for the rest of the week. I've already cleared it with Travis. Josiah, you'll be in charge. Buck will be staying home too."
Josiah, Ezra and Nathan cleaned up their crayons, beer bottles and glasses before gathering their coats and heading to their cars.
"Call us if you need anything, Chris," said Nathan as the three men walked out the door.
Chris nodded and closed the door behind them. He turned around and leaned his back on the door letting out a big sigh.
Buck chuckled. "Yep. We've got a big job ahead of us." He nodded toward his room. "I don't know about you, but I'm beat. I'm sure tomorrow's going to be a big day."
Chris nodded and turned out the lights as he made his way through the house.
Vin slept late into the morning. It was almost ten o'clock before he stumbled his way to the bathroom and started his day. He still seemed to be out of it so Buck offered his assistance while Chris was out in the barn.
"Let's get you dressed, Junior." Buck watched as Vin literally processed what he was supposed to do. Vin picked up his backpack and pulled out a pair of pants. He watched Vin methodically pull out each article of clothing that he would need. Then he tucked the backpack under his pillow as if he were hiding it. Buck frowned. Vin was not unpacked and it looked like he was staying ready to move at any time. While it made him sad to see Vin so unsettled, the big man decided not to push it yet. "Okay, let's get you dressed and get some breakfast."
Vin wasn't quite as lethargic today, in fact, he seemed to be a lot edgier. He was very quick tempered, snapping and growling frequently but so far had managed not to express it physically. For most of the day either Buck or Chris stayed close by to keep an eye on the boys but, after lunch Chris had found that he needed Buck to help him with some siding that needed to be replaced. The job was too large for one man to handle alone. Buck left the boys in the living room, giving JD instructions to show Vin the 'Wish Book'.
"Look at all this stuff, Vin," said JD excitedly as he opened the catalogue. "We's supposed to pick out things we want for Christmas and put our name next to it." JD waved the pen at Vin. "I picked lots. You's supposed to pick now."
"No," said Vin closing the catalogue.
"Why not?" said JD, a bit upset that Vin was not doing what Mr. Buck had instructed.
"'Cause it's dumb." Vin said as he roughly pushed the catalogue away.
"It' ain't dumb!"
"Yes it is. You get your hopes up and you ain't gonna get it anyway," said Vin with a scowl.
"Are so! Santa's gonna bring us presents and so is Buck and Mr. Chris." JD yelled as he stomped his foot to emphasize his point.
"Ain't no Santa Claus, JD."
JD's lower lip trembled. "Yes there is! Don't you say that!" he yelled. "And Buck is going to get me presents."
Vin just shook his head at JD's naiveté. The world wasn't that good to kids who didn't have families.
"I'll prove it! Come on." JD tugged at Vin's sleeve, making Vin reluctantly follow the little whirlwind. He hesitated outside of the door to Buck's room, knowing that they weren't supposed to go in Mr. Buck's room or Mr. Chris' room without permission. "Come on!" JD insisted as he tugged on Vin's arm again, making Vin step across the threshold.
He watched as JD searched under the bed and in the closet. As he looked behind the laundry hamper, Vin distractedly looked at the pictures on Mr. Buck's dresser.
"That's Buck's family," informed JD importantly. "He showed me. See? Here's his mama." JD pointed to a picture. "And that's Buck when he was a little boy. And that's Mr. Chris, Mr. Buck..."
"I know who it is," interrupted Vin grouchily as he looked at the picture of the ATF team.
"And there's me!" said JD pointed proudly to his picture. He scampered over to the end of the bureau, intent on finding his prize. "Oh!" JD squealed, "and here's my present!"
Vin looked at the wrapped boxes and had to agree that JD was going to get presents for Christmas.
"Let's go see if Mr. Chris has some too!" JD excitedly exclaimed before running to the next room. Vin followed slowly, still a little reluctant to go in, but, if he was being honest, he was a little curious too.
"Yahoo!" yelled JD. Mr. Chris wasn't as good at hiding things as Mr. Buck. The packages were quickly found under the bed. "Hey, Vin?" JD frowned as he watched Vin brush his fingers across one of the picture frames on Chris' dresser. "Vin, I found 'em," JD said softly. He jumped back a step as Vin swiped his arm across the dresser angrily knocking the pictures onto the floor with a crash.
"Boys!" called Buck as he heard the crash. He and Chris had just come in through the kitchen and discovered the boys missing from the living room. They hurried down the hall toward the sound. Buck and Chris stood in the doorway to Chris' room looking at the shattered mess on the floor.
"What the hell..." growled Chris.
"Vin did it!" JD spouted in fear.
"JD! No!" yelled Vin. He shoved JD hard to keep him from tattling on him. JD's feet tangled in the bottom edge of Chris' comforter and he fell face first on the hardwood floor.
Silent shock froze the room. It was broken as a small sob turned into a wail when JD touched his lip and found blood on his hand. Buck stepped past Vin and helped JD up, setting him on the edge of the bed.
Vin took a step toward JD.
"Don't move!" ordered Chris.
Vin shrank back in fear, cringing as Chris reached towards him. He was confused when Chris picked him up and sat him on the bed. He looked at the blond warily waiting for his punishment. Vin knew it was over. He hurt JD. He broke Mr. Chris' things. He knew he was going back to the Children's Center.
Chris carefully brushed off the bottoms of Vin's bare feet, making sure no glass had cut him. He then grabbed the towel that was hanging on the back of his door and used it as a make-shift mop, sweeping the shards of glass and bent frames into a pile by the dresser.
"He's got a pretty good cut inside his lip," answered Buck, picking up JD and heading toward the bathroom.
"I'll run you by the ER on our way." Chris redirected his attention to Vin and silently counted to five before speaking. "Go put your shoes and socks on," he instructed. "Get your coat and get in the van."
Vin heard the gruff words and knew for sure that he was on his way back to the Children's Center. He watched as Mr. Chris carefully pick up the broken glass and placed it in the waste basket that was sitting by his dresser. Three of the frames he set back on the dresser. He carefully pulled the picture out of the fourth frame, lingering a moment before he reverently set the frame into the wastebasket. Vin chewed his lip seeing how important that picture was to Mr. Chris.
With a sigh Vin dutifully went to his room and put on his socks and shoes. He claimed his backpack and looked at the toy cat on the floor by his bed. He knew this time it was forever. He picked up the wildcat, squeezed it hard before placing it on JD's bed. He shrugged on his coat and went to the van.
The ride to the ER was silent except for the occasional sniffle from JD. Buck was sitting between the two kids, holding some ice to the little guy's lip. Vin stared glumly at the floor, not saying a word. In the front, Chris kept rolling the events through his mind, trying to make sense out of the chaos.
Larabee was really angry about the broken pictures. The one that took the worst abuse was the little frame made from Popsicle sticks, dried macaroni, and gold spray paint. Adam had made that frame for him the last Christmas before he died. It was irreplaceable. When Chris glanced in the mirror, he caught sight of Vin huddled next to the door of the car. The seven-year-old was irreplaceable too. Chris knew that helping Vin was more important than mourning a picture frame.
Chris was worried about what to do with Vin. He hadn't intended to hurt JD, but he had done so just the same. Chris could see the guilt and fear in Vin's tense frame. He shook his head slightly, hoping Dr. Lowery could help sort out this mess.
When they arrived at the ER, Chris got out and opened Buck's door so that he didn't have to fumble with it and try to carry JD at the same time.
"I'm sorry," said Vin sadly from his corner of the back seat. "Good-bye, JD. Bye, Mr. Buck." He sighed again, knowing he would never see them again.
Chris frowned as he pushed the door shut. He understood the apology, but why the good-byes? He shrugged. They would be at Dr. Lowery's in a few minutes. Maybe the doctor could help him figure this out. Chris flipped open his cell phone and called Nathan. He asked Nate to pick up Buck and JD just in case he and Vin weren't done by the time JD was ready to go home.
He climbed back in the van and headed for Dr. Lowery's office. When he glanced in the rearview mirror, he noted the confusion on Vin's face as they drove.
Vin stared dully out the window. It took him a few minutes to realize that the way they were heading was not towards the Children's Center. Sure, he was only seven-years-old, but he had been taken to the Center a number of times so he knew this was not the right road. This was the road to Dr. Will's office. 'In fact, hey, we're pulling into his parking lot!'
"Let's go, Vin. Hurry or we'll be late," said Chris as he slipped the keys in his coat pocket.
"Late?" asked Vin.
"For your appointment with Dr. Will." Chris grinned for the first time that day at the sight of Vin's astonished expression. "Come on," he gently encouraged the boy.
Vin walked beside him into the building. His movements were sluggish, but he wasn't shuffling like an old man any more. When they walked into Dr. William Lowery's lobby, Dr. Will himself greeted them.
"Hello, Vin. It's good to see you." The doctor offered his hand and Vin hesitantly shook it. "Let's go to the playroom." He escorted Vin to the door as Chris trailed behind them. "Why don't you go ahead and pick out some toys, Vin? I'll be in shortly."
Vin went to the toy shelf as Dr. Lowery guided Chris to the observation area.
"Something happened?" asked Will. Chris nodded and explained the things he had seen since he brought Vin home. As they talked they watched Vin play. He had picked up all of the matchbox cars off of the shelf and taken them to the play table. He drove one car with one hand and another one with the other, driving them all around the table top, but eventually Vin would crash the cars into each other. Then he would start again.
After the third crash, Vin yelped. He had pinched his finger between the tiny cars. He picked up the offending object and flung it across the room hitting the wall. Realizing what he had done, Vin knocked over his chair in his haste to pick up the car. He picked up the toy and then examined the wall where it had hit. He ran his fingers across the tiny knick, turned and slid to the floor burying his face in his arms as they rested on his knees.
Will excused himself and headed for the playroom. Chris stayed in the observation area watching the session play out.
"Are you all right, Vin?" asked Will as he sat down by the play table. It had been almost two months since he had seen Vin. He hoped that the boy would still be open to him and that they wouldn't have to start from square one.
"No," came the muffled reply.
Will waited patiently and was rewarded when Vin continued. "I scratched the wall."
"I got mad and threw the car."
"What made you angry?"
Vin stood up and put the cars back on the toy shelf. He sighed.
Vin looked at Dr. Will, then walked over to the table and sat down. He picked up another car from his stash and began to drive it around the table.
"I don't want to go back to that place."
"What place, Vin?"
"The kid's home." Vin took another car and began to drive the two cars around the table. "He told me it was a bad place." The cars crashed together. "It was bad. I don't want to go back."
"Who told you it was bad, Vin?"
Vin left one car upside down and took another one from his pile and began to drive it. "The man who taked me when Mama died." Vin set the car down. "Can I get a different toy?"
Dr. Will nodded. "Who was this man, Vin?"
Vin took the cars back to the shelf and meticulously lined them up, taking his time to make sure they were perfectly straight.
Vin sighed and picked up the box of dominoes and returned to the table. He set a domino on the table and began to match up the ends making a pattern on the table.
"I don't want to go there."
"Why do you think you're going to the Children's Center?"
Dr. Will waited patiently for an answer, watching Vin carefully as he matched up some more dominoes.
"I hurt JD," he whispered. "Mr. Chris was taking me back to the kid's home."
Chris gasped in surprise. So that was Vin's confusion in the van. How could he possibly think that?
"Why would he do that?"
"I wouldn't!" protested Chris though no one could hear him.
Vin shrugged. "They all did."
Dr. Will knew that was the truth since all three families who had tried to take Vin into their homes had eventually returned Vin to the Center.
"But why would Chris take you there."
"I told you!" Vin swept some of the dominoes onto the floor angrily. "I hurt JD. I broke Mr. Chris' pictures!" Vin looked at the scattered dominoes and pounded his hand on the table. He had done it again. He laid his head on his arms, resting on the table, struggling to hold back the tears.
"Vin, did you intend to hurt JD?"
"Did you intend to break the pictures?"
Vin hesitated. He looked at Dr. Will worried what he would think if he told the truth.
In the observation room, Chris leaned closer to the window.
Vin sat up but looked away from Dr. Will.
"Mr. Chris lied to me."
Vin nodded. "He said we was family."
Vin sighed. "There weren't no pictures of me."
Will was quiet, waiting for Vin to explain. Vin got up and began picking up dominoes off of the floor and laying them on the table.
"Mr. Buck has pictures of his family. His mama. The guys. JD. His family." Vin sat down in the chair again. "Mr. Chris has pictures of his family. His mama and papa. Mrs. Chris and their boy."
"What about the guys?"
"Huh?" said Vin.
"Doesn't Chris have a picture of the guys?"
Vin scowled as he thought about the pictures. Then he shook his head no.
"Hmm. Does that mean they aren't family to him?"
Vin looked surprised. No, the guys were definitely family. He vigorously shook his head from side to side.
"So, just because your picture isn't there, does that mean you aren't family?"
Tears began to roll down Vin's face. "He said I could live with him and let them take me away."
"Do you think he wanted that?"
Vin pushed all the dominoes into a pile.
"Do you think he wanted that?" Dr. Will repeated.
Chris couldn't watch anymore. He walked to the door of the playroom and knocked.
Will smiled, expecting the response.
"Vin, would it be all right with you if Chris came in now?"
Will walked over and opened the door. He directed Chris to sit in a chair at the far table before walking back and sitting next to Vin.
"Vin, you told me that you didn't mean to hurt JD, right?" Vin nodded. "Well, Chris didn't mean to hurt you either. He couldn't prevent what happened, but it is fixed now. Do you still want to live with him?"
Without hesitation, Vin nodded. "But he doesn't want me."
"Yes, I do," said Chris softly.
"Why? I do bad things before I even know I'm doin' them."
"Vin, I'll admit I didn't like what happened today. I'm sure it's scary to you when you get mad, but with Doctor Will's help we will figure this out." As Chris walked over to the table Dr. Will vacated his seat and nodded to Chris to sit down. "I want to show you something, Vin." Chris pulled out his wallet and opened it. "Take a look."
Vin looked up cautiously and caught sight of his school picture. Chris had his school picture in his wallet!
"I carry it with me all the time."
Vin's eyes darted to Chris' face reading his expression.
"The pictures in my room," Chris hesitated, "well, they are in there for a reason Vin. They are my family, but I keep them in my room because I don't want people to ask me about them. They give me 'feel-bad' thoughts," he said, using the term Vin and Dr. Will had coined for Vin's bad memories.
"You know that big wall in the den?"
"Buck and I were making that into a photo wall. We had all kinds of pictures to put up of our family," Chris emphasized family, nodding toward Vin, "But when everything went wrong and you and JD were taken, well, we didn't finish it because we didn't want to have 'feel-bad' thoughts. Now that you're home, I think it would be great if you and JD will help us finish it." Chris smiled. Vin actually looked hopeful.
"Our time is up, gentlemen," said Dr. Will with a smile. As Vin automatically started putting away the dominoes, Dr. Will directed Chris out of the room to talk privately. It had been a very good start.
Life wasn't perfect when they went home, but it never was in the first place. Vin had offered a big apology to JD who was proudly showing off his 'Thwee' stitches inside his 'mouf'. JD, as only JD could, forgave Vin with a big hug.
When they went to bed that night, Vin found his wildcat back on his bed. He looked over at JD with a question in his eyes.
"It's your special cat, Vin. Mr. Chris gived him to you," JD explained, knowing Vin wanted to know why he had returned the toy.
When Chris came into the room to say goodnight, he tucked in JD and turned to Vin. Tucked under the edge of his blanket, held tightly in his arms was the toy cat, the symbol of how far they had come today.
"Chris?" said Vin drowsily.
"Me and JD don't got no Christmas presents for you," said Vin forcing his eyes to stay open.
"Don't have any," corrected Chris.
"Yeah," Vin yawned.
"We'll see what we can do to remedy that tomorrow," said Chris. "Goodnight, boys."
The next evening after work, Mr. Ezra was recruited to take the boys Christmas shopping. It was an odd sight, Ezra Standish in an Italian suit in the middle of a WalMart store. While Ezra detested shopping in such a pedestrian locale and after vocally stressing that WalMart was far beneath his standards, even he had to admit that the two little boys were right when they said it was the perfect place to find their special gifts for their family.
It was complicated enough when each boy wanted to go a different direction, but when they both told Ezra individually that they were getting a present for the other boy, Ezra laughed. How could they possibly hide it from each other in the same store, going through the same check out lines?
Ezra smiled at their solution. He purchased the bulk of the items at Check Stand No. Three while Vin was in line at Check Stand No. One and JD was over at Check Stand No. Five. Fortunately Ezra finished first, and stood at the end of the lanes, ready to assist if he was needed.
Vin paid for the purchases and carefully put the change in his pocket. Ezra smiled as Vin politely insisted that the cashier put another bag over the top of his present so JD couldn't see it. Ezra turned his attention to JD as Vin moved to stand by the door and wait.
In Check Stand No. Five, the cashier looked up and smiled at the blonde lady. "May I help you?" The cashier asked the woman who was in line behind JD. The woman smiled and shook her head as she pointed towards the small customer waiting in front of her.
"Hey!" said JD indignantly. He was first in line so this was his turn.
The cashier struggled not to laugh as JD stood on his tiptoes to put his prize on the counter. She rang up the purchase and grinned as a grubby hand appeared above the counter holding out the money. She leaned over the counter and gave JD his change. "Is this for your daddy?" she asked, waving toward Ezra.
JD snorted. "No! He's not my daddy. He's uh...Uncle Ezra!" JD was so proud of finding the word he wanted, he didn't see Ezra blush, moved by the simple term 'uncle'.
"Well, here you are, young man," she said, handing JD his bag. "Thank you for shopping at WalMart."
Ezra walked slowly to the car with two tired but beaming boys by his side.
After taking the boys home, Ezra was recruited to help them wrap the gifts. Buck and Chris were not allowed near the boys' room during the process. They sat in the living room listening to the voices.
"Master Tanner, if you would just let me help with the tape..."
"I can do it!"
"Mr. Ezra will you hold mine?" JD demanded. "Hold the paper so I can do the tape part."
The men heard the sounds of rustling paper, grumbles, and giggles. They choked on their beer when they heard the distinct sound of the cardboard tube from the wrapping paper as it bopped someone.
"Hey!" complained Vin. "Stop messin' around so we can finish."
Smiles circled the living room as Ezra responded, "Then let me help." Somehow it didn't quite seem Ezra's style to use the cardboard tubing as a weapon.
"Noooo! Don't look!" wailed JD. Moments later, Ezra was in the living room, joining the other men in a well-deserved break.
"Ezra?" Buck chuckled at the sight of small pieces of tape and paper that were still clinging to the southerner. Ezra was carrying a bent and crushed cardboard tube like a saber.
"I've been banished. Apparently there is a present for me and I am not supposed to see. How they managed to buy it with me there, I don't know."
Josiah laughed and handed Ezra a bottle of beer.
The men sat around and talked and joked for about fifteen minutes before the boys joined them.
"All wrapped up?" asked Buck.
JD nodded and crawled up on Buck's lap as Vin stood by Josiah.
"Good. Maybe I can go in your room again," Buck teased.
"Would I peek, Little Bit?"
Buck let his mouth fall open. "You wound me!" He tickled JD.
Vin leaned over and whispered something to Josiah making the big man smile.
"Sure, Vin," he whispered back a bit louder, "as long as it's all right with Chris."
"As long as what's all right with me?"
"Can I go to Josiah's house tomorrow?" Vin asked. "I need his help with something." Josiah nodded behind Vin.
"All right," agreed Chris, "but for now, it's time for bed."
Vin scrambled quickly to the bedroom, not wanting to jeopardize his special trip to Josiah's house.
When Vin opened the shoebox the next day, he explained what he needed Josiah's help for. Josiah took a look inside and frowned slightly.
"Can we fix it?" asked Vin hopefully.
Josiah lifted the pieces out of the box and set them carefully on the worktable. A few minutes later, a tangle of broken Popsicle sticks and gold paint laid on the rough surface as two serious faces studied their project. The ATF agent tried to remember what the frame had looked like. He had only seen it a couple of times but thought he had a good idea of what it used to look like.
"We'll do our best," said Josiah as he pulled open his tool chest and hunted for the wood glue.
It took a couple hours, including a side trip to the grocery store for Popsicles and macaroni, but they finally completed the job. With purple lips he had gotten from the grape Popsicle, Vin gave Josiah a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek.
"You're welcome, Vin. What do you say we have one more Popsicle for the road?"
Vin laughed in agreement and the two of them headed for Josiah's kitchen for their well-deserved snack.
The last day before Christmas seemed to JD to drag on forever. He didn't want to go to bed. He wanted to stay up and see Santa Claus. To Vin's credit, even though he didn't believe in Santa, he did no more to dash JD's hopes.
Vin had been steadily improving as the dosage of his medication was gradually lowered. Now that he was home, he didn't have to use his anger to protect himself against the world. He still had "feel-bad" thoughts to deal with, but he had Dr. Will and Mr. Chris to help with that. He was still pretty tired all the time, so it was no struggle for him to go to bed Christmas Eve. In fact, it seemed like he had just gone to sleep when a familiar voice woke him.
"It's Christmas!" JD squealed, jumping up and down in front of the Christmas tree.
"Hold on, Little Bit," said Buck with a smile. "No presents until everyone gets here."
"Aw, Buck," moaned JD.
"Don't you 'aw, Buck' me. Go get dressed. They'll be here soon."
It seemed like hours to JD, but Buck was right. Soon everyone was settled in the living room, savoring warm drinks and enjoying the holiday music Chris had slipped in his CD player. Vin and JD wore small red Santa hats and handed out the presents, with JD quickly learning how to recognize everyone's names. With the presents delivered, the room went into chaos with paper and ribbons flying, and many thank you's overheard as the gifts were opened.
When Chris opened his present from Buck, he had to choke back his emotion. Inside the box he found a very nice picture frame decorated with little boys' baseball gloves and toy cars. It was obviously meant to replace the one Vin had broken.
Josiah looked over at Vin who couldn't hide his reaction. He was crushed. Vin pushed his special present for Chris under the couch not wanting anyone to see it. It was just a dumb patch job. Buck's present was much better. He opened the rest of his presents with a little less joy. Mr. Chris would just have to settle for the tie Mr. Ezra helped him pick out during their shopping trip.
After all the presents were opened, Buck walked through the room with a huge garbage bag and everyone stuffed their wrapping paper in it until it began to bulge.
"Let's have it," said Buck with a grin as he stood by Vin. Vin wadded up the torn wrapping paper and deftly snatched the package from under the couch. He dropped the whole wad, including his special present for Chris into the garbage bag.
Buck moved on to JD who picked up one piece at a time and dropped them into the bag, clinging tightly to the GI Joe in his hand. Buck shook his head, thinking how much quicker it would be if JD would just put the toy down for a second and use both hands.
"Oh no!" yelled JD, diving into the sack. Buck rolled his eyes and shook his head. He had known that was going to happen. JD had dropped his beloved GI Joe in the garbage bag by accident.
The team laughed as wrapping paper came flying back out of the bag while JD hunted around for his prize.
"Hey!" said JD. "There's a present in here!" He came out of the bag with his GI Joe in one hand and a package in the other.
Vin shook his head vigorously, his eyes wide in dread.
"Who is it for, JD?" asked Josiah. He recognized the paper that Vin had spent almost an hour on at his kitchen table, painstakingly drawing horses on the plain brown paper.
JD lifted it to read the tag as Vin grabbed at the package in futility. JD jerked it away from Vin and studied the letters. "It says it's for you, Chris."
Vin slid back to the floor and buried his head on his knees in defeat and embarrassment. His gift wouldn't measure up to Buck's.
Chris was curious of Vin's reaction. Looking at the package, he was moved by the hand drawn wrapping. Chris sensed Vin's embarrassment and took great care to make sure Vin knew he appreciated his efforts. "Wow, this is really great wrapping paper," said Chris. "Look at this Nathan. Somebody must have taken a lot of time to hand draw all these horses." He looked over at Vin and saw that his face was still buried in his arms.
Josiah gently pulled Vin's hands away from his face and Ezra lifted his chin so he could watch Chris as he inspected the paper completely.
Chris opened the gift carefully, not wanting to tear the paper. As he looked inside the box, he was overcome with emotion. It was Adam's picture frame, imperfect - with cracks and dents, but it was lovingly rebuilt with new macaroni and a fresh coat of gold paint.
Chris wiped away his tears, looked into Vin's hopeful eyes and whispered, "It's perfect, Vin."
"It ain't as nice as the one Buck gave you," said Vin stubbornly.
"Come here," said Chris softly. Vin got up and walked over to where Chris sat in the recliner. Chris pulled Vin up onto his lap. "Vin, Buck's frame is very nice, but this one is even better," said Chris with his arms around Vin, holding the frame in front of both of them. "You see, this frame is better because it was a gift from my two boys. The first time I got it, it was from my son by birth. This time it's from my son by choice." He kissed Vin on top of the head and held up the frame so the others could see it. "You remember the picture wall I was telling you about? If it's all right with you, I'd like to put this frame on that wall instead of in my room. I want everyone to see it."
While dinner cooked on the stove, five men and two little boys hung pictures on the wall in the den. There was one of Buck, Chris, Vin and JD together. Then came the boy's school pictures. Next, was a picture of the entire Team. Vin grinned as the wall began to grow.
Chris had clued the rest of the men in the day before as to his intention for the wall but even he was as amazed as Vin was when Ezra hung a picture of his mother to the left of a photo of JD's mom. Josiah added one of his sister and Nathan added a recent photo of Raine. They put up a picture of Mrs. Potter and one of Ms. Nettie. Vin and JD stood back and smiled as Buck put up a picture of his mother and Chris put up the last picture he had of him with Sarah and Adam. When Chris started to put a picture of Vin in the frame Vin had lovingly rebuilt, Vin stopped him and insisted that Adam belonged in that frame.
The two of them stood back and admired the hard work. Vin looked at the wall in amazement. They had a really big family. He reached over and took hold of Chris' hand as they stood next to each other looking at the pictures. "Thank you," he said softly. He looked up at Chris with a long missing twinkle in his blue eyes. He opened his arms asking to be hugged. Chris happily lifted Vin into a hug and Vin threw his arms around Chris' neck holding tightly. He was finally home - home to stay.
Later that evening, they all sat around the dinner table with the Christmas feast spread before them. Smiles spread around the table as their heads were bowed for what seemed like an endless prayer.
"And thank you for Buck and Mr. Chris and Vin. And Mr. 'Siah and Mr. Nathan, and Mr. Ezra."
Vin looked up at the same time that Chris peeked and they both shook their heads in mock consternation. JD had volunteered to pray and the little imp was making the most of being the center of attention. JD had already thanked God for each of the horses, naming them all one by one.
And thank you for the turkey and the dressing. Thank you for the fruit salad and the cranberry sauce." JD paused for a breath. "And thank you for the pies and the cakes and the milk and the Cool Whip."
JD paused, and everyone waited--and waited. After a long silence, he looked up.
"Mr. 'Siah?" JD asked, "If I thank God for the broccoli, will he know I'm lying?"
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