by JK

Little Britches ATF AU

Thanks to Ronnie, Chris, Carrie, and all the AOeLement for batting around ideas with me and helping me "find" the story in my little snippets and bunnies.

Warning: Tissues will most likely be needed somewhere in the story. This has even more angst than I usually write. :-)

Chris rubbed his hand wearily over his face. It seemed like forever since he had been home. It had been five very long, stressful days and he was glad to be going home.

"Thanks for the ride, Nathan," he said with a sigh.

Nathan glanced at the exhausted man beside him, before turning his attention back to the road. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine, Nathan. Nothin' that seeing my family and getting a good night's sleep won't cure." Chris leaned his head back against the seat, the aches and weariness tugging at his body making it almost too difficult to hold his head up.

"Buck said the boys had a pretty rough time of it," said Nathan.

"They aren't the only ones," Chris said as he yawned. "Gave me a new respect for Ezra, that's for sure. I don't know how he handles the stress of undercover work."

Nathan chuckled. "I think he thrives on it."

"It got pretty tight," Chris added. "I thought we were done for a couple of times."

The past five days had been a nightmare. Chris had gone with Ezra to meet a gun dealer. Posing as a buyer, and Ezra as the middleman, things had not gone as planned. The gun dealers were nervous and insisted that Ezra and Chris stay at the compound until the deal was completed. And in order to not blow the deal, Chris and Ezra had complied. The next four and a half days were spent on edge, trying to keep their cover intact and both of them alive. Ezra had been great. He showed very little stress even when he and Chris were alone, and the times Chris felt the stress was overwhelming, Ezra had managed to say just the right thing to pull him back and keep perspective. He really was a gifted undercover agent… and a friend.

The bust itself had gone down a little rougher than he would have liked. Buck's shout of "ATF! Freeze!" had been a welcome announcement, but the arms dealers didn't surrender without a fight.

Chris rolled his shoulders in an attempt to relieve the stiff muscles. He blew out a breath at the memory of Ezra crashing into the stack of crates and his fear for his friend's life. He had feared that Ezra had been shot, but was busy trying to fend off his own attackers who seemed to have an extensive knowledge of martial arts. Chris had been successful in his defense, but that didn't mean the opposition didn't get in a few good blows.

Rushing to Ezra's aid, he was relieved to find the agent struggling to get up, muttering curses under his breath. By then, Buck and the boys had everything well in hand. Despite his assurances that he was fine, he and Ezra had both merited a trip to the emergency room to be checked out.

Chris hated to admit it, but he was grateful for the mild pain killers that were now taking the edge off the pain of bruised ribs. Ezra had bruises and abrasions as well, but amazingly nothing serious. Chris blew out another slow breath.

"I'm glad Josiah's taking him home and making sure he's really all right."

Nathan smiled at the admission from his boss. Chris gave the impression of being a hard, no-nonsense, uncaring person. And in some senses he was, but only those closest to him felt the hidden compassion. Larabee protected his own.

He rubbed his forehead again, trying to ease the headache. The intensity of being in the middle of the gunrunner's lair had been nerve-racking enough, but even more stressful had been the fact that he had not been able to contact Buck and the boys at all. He had not been able to prepare Vin for his absence, and from the little that Nathan had been able to tell him, the boys had not handled the unplanned absence well.

Running his fingers through his short blond hair, Chris knew it was more than that. He had missed his family, missed being here with Vin's quiet smile and JD's bubbly chatter. He missed two little boys making a mess of their chores, trying to find ways to stay up later with 'just one more' story or 'just one more' drink of water. He missed Vin hiding the brussel sprouts in his napkin and JD's awful jokes. He missed Buck's hearty laugh and the impromptu tag-team wrestling matches.

When had he become such a homebody?

Chris smiled. He knew exactly when it happened. It happened the first time when a fiery Irish woman, Sarah Connelly had tamed down his wild ways and made a family with him. It had happened again when he stumbled across a filthy, barefoot five-year-old eating food from a trash bin, and begging a big band-aid for his seven-year-old friend.

"Are you okay?"

Chris shook off the sense of dread and yet overwhelming gratefulness he felt every time he remembered holding Vin's nearly lifeless body that first time.

"I'm fine," he repeated.

"You gonna stay in the truck all night?" said Nathan with a smile.

Chris grinned, shaking his head. He must be really tired if he missed stopping in front of his own house.

The porch light came on, and the front door opened. Buck walked out onto the porch.

"Thanks again, Nathan." Chris opened the door and climbed out. "Don't worry, I'll get some rest."

"You'd better. Good luck with the boys," said Nathan as Chris closed the door. Chris waved to him and Nathan drove away.

Chris walked slowly up onto the porch.

"You look like hell, Chris," said Buck. "Glad you're home."

"Been a tough few days."

"I'll say!" agreed Buck.

"I'm going to say 'goodnight' to the boys and turn in." Chris brushed past Buck into the front room.

"Chris wait!" Buck called after him, needing to talk to him before he encountered the boys, but it was too late.

"JD," Chris called softly as he saw the little dark haired boy standing in the middle of the room.

Inexplicably, JD ran straight at him and began to pummel his legs with tiny fists screaming, "I hate you! I hate you! Go away!" Tears streamed down the five year old's face as he swung with all his might.

"JD!" Buck scooped up his 'Little Bit' with great compassion, wrapping the struggling child into a tight, comforting hug, hushing him softly.

JD's body shook with sobs as he cried out his fear and anger. "Make him go away, Buck. I want Vin!"


Buck stopped Chris with a stern shake of the head, letting him know that he needed to handle JD for now.

"Make him go! I hate him!"

"No, you don't," said Buck softly.

"Yes I do! He made it so Miz Nettie taked Vin." JD looked at Chris with a five year old glare. "I hate him. I want Vin back."

"Buck, what…" said Chris in confusion. "Where's Vin? Is he all right?"

"You was gone!" accused JD, "You made him go!"

"Somebody tell me what's going on," demanded Chris.

Buck glared at him as JD cowered away from the harsh words. "Vin's safe. He's with Nettie. Why don't you get cleaned up?" It was more than a suggestion. "JD and I are going to get ready for bed."

Chris was left in confusion as his friend strode down the hallway carrying JD to his room. He eventually followed Buck's suggestion, passing Buck's room on the way to his own. He could hear JD's heartbroken sobs and Buck's soft reassurances that Vin was only staying the night with Miz Nettie. He paused at the doorway, his own heart breaking with the sounds. What had happened? Why was Vin with Nettie? JD said she took Vin. Was she reconsidering Vin's placement because of his job? Chris groaned. He wanted nothing more than to walk in and get answers to his questions, but it was obvious that would upset JD even more.

Chris reluctantly walked to the bathroom in his room, taking a quick shower. His aching ribs made him want to stay in the shower and soak in the heat, but his heart wouldn't let him. He needed to know what was going on. He towel dried his hair and went back to the den to wait for Buck, with the same concerns running continuously through his mind. 'What the hell happened?' and 'Am I going to lose Vin?'

A few minutes later, Buck joined him after grabbing a bottle of beer from the kitchen. He unscrewed the cap and took a long swallow, relaxing his tall frame into the leather recliner.

"Is JD all right?" asked Chris softly. It wasn't the first question on his heart, but he loved the little guy as much as he loved Vin, and JD's reaction to his presence had thrown him.

"No." Buck shook his head. "Nobody's all right."

"What the hell happened?" Chris demanded.

Buck took in a deep breath, reigning in his desire to blast Chris. It wasn't Chris' fault that the case had taken an unexpected turn. But four days in limbo without solid answers for the boys had taken its toll.

"Why did Nettie take Vin?"

"I called her," said Buck. "Things got a little out of hand."

"What happened?"

Buck held up a hand in an attempt to hold Chris off, so he could explain. "Look, I didn't have a whole lot of options, you know. The way things were going, I thought he might rabbit on me."

"He was going to run away?" Chris rubbed tired eyes. This was not at all what he had anticipated as a homecoming.

"Well, not exactly," said Buck.

"How exactly?"

"Better get yourself a drink and get comfortable, Pard. It's a long story."

As Chris poured himself a drink, Buck began to recount the events of the past five days…



Buck hated the look in those big blue eyes. It was the look of excitement that fell to disappointment, and then clouded with fear.

"When's he comin' home?" The seven year old's lower lip quivered with the question.

"I don't know, Vin," said Buck, pulling the boy onto the lap already occupied with a precocious five year old. "I wish I did."

Vin didn't like it. He didn't like it at all. Buck said Chris wasn't coming home tonight. He had to go with Uncle Ezra and stay with the bad guys. Last time Uncle Ezra had stayed with the bad guys he had been shot and had to stay in the hospital. The only good part was when Uncle Ezra came and stayed at the ranch with them when he came home from the hospital. But now he was with the bad guys again and so was Chris.

"Ezra's with him," Buck assured. "They'll take care of each other."

Vin looked at Buck skeptically. Why didn't adults know that he could tell when they were lying to him? Buck was trying to hide it, but Vin could see his uncertainty. Buck didn't know for sure that Chris and Uncle Ezra would be all right.

"Will Chris getted shot?" asked JD.

Buck sucked in a breath at the blunt question, wanting to shield both of the boys from dealing with such a horrible fear, but knowing they had both already seen too much trauma in their short lives.

"Chris will be fine," said Buck, desperately wanting nothing more than to still the fear.

"You don't know that!" Vin accused, pulling away from Buck and sliding off of his lap.

"Uncle Ezra getted shot," JD pointed out.

What could he say? They were both right, but he was the adult here. He was supposed to provide them with a sense of security. He was supposed to protect them from the harshness of the world.

"Yes, Little Bit, Ezra was wounded, but that was one time. It doesn't happen every time, in fact, it rarely happens." Buck looked from JD to Vin. JD seemed to accept the answer but Vin wasn't buying it.

"But it could happen," said Vin angrily, his little body was tense, betraying the anger and fear he was fighting to hide.

Buck looked at him pleadingly. He needed to assure Vin, but he also needed Vin to help assure JD. How could he ask that of a seven year old?

"I don't want Chris to stay with the bad guys," said Vin firmly. "He should come home."

"Yeah," agreed JD.

"Well boys, I want Chris to come home too, but we don't get to vote on this. He's doing his job and right now that means being with the bad guys."

Buck watched the tears building in the blue eyes in front of him. Vin was fighting the tears, but losing the battle. The seven year old rubbed his sleeve across his face.

"I'm going to feed Peso," he announced as he ran out to the barn.

"I wanna help!" said JD, squirming on Buck's lap.

"No, Little Bit. I need you to stay with me," said Buck. "Let's let Vin take care of Peso for a little while. Then we'll help."

"Is Vin crying?"

Buck smiled sadly. Nothing got by these boys. "Yes, JD. Vin is crying, but he doesn't want us to see, so we're going to give him a few minutes alone. Okay?"

JD looked up at Buck with irresistible hazel eyes. "I want Chris to come home too."

Buck smoothed JD's hair. "I know. Me too."

"You gonna cry too, Buck?"

Buck smiled and kissed the top of JD's head.


Buck had allowed Vin some private time, but he wouldn't leave him alone too long. He could just see the seven year old conjuring up all kinds of horrible things that could happen to Chris if he spent too much time thinking about it.

"Junior?" he said softly, not wanting to spook either Vin or Peso as he approached the horse's stall where Vin was brushing the animal down. He watched Vin as he finished brushing and petted Peso. Vin fed his horse a carrot before opening the gate and leaving the stall.

"You all right?" asked Buck.

Vin was far from 'all right,' but he figured Buck didn't need to know that. Vin could tell that Buck was worried about Chris and Uncle Ezra, and he hadn't missed that look in the house. Buck needed him to be grown up in order to help JD. It didn't matter if that was fair or not, it was just the way things were. Vin knew that Buck was doing his best, and that he meant well.

"Do you think he'll come home tomorrow?" asked Vin, allowing Buck to put his hand on his shoulder and gently steer him toward the house.

"I hope so, Vin."

"But you don't know," said Vin sadly.

Buck stopped and turned the boy to face him, kneeling down in front of him. "No, Junior. I don't know. But until he does, you, JD and me have to keep things going around here. Do you think you can help me do that?"

Vin frowned. He didn't want to pretend that everything was just fine even though Chris wasn't here. It wasn't fine and it made him angry, but he didn't want to be mad. He remembered too well what happened when he had acted out in anger in the past. The people at the Children's Center had made him take those pills that made him tired all the time because they were supposed to help him not be so angry. He had knocked JD down and hurt him even though he hadn't meant to. He trembled, remembering almost striking Chris when he tried to knock the pill out of his foster father's hand. He never wanted to feel that out of control and helpless again.

So what was he supposed to do? He was too big to go off bawling like a baby, like he had just done. He couldn't allow himself to act out in anger. He couldn't run away from it. JD needed him. So what was he supposed to do? He was scared, scared Chris would be hurt, scared Chris would never come home, scared that he'd lose his family… scared that he would realize again the awful pain of losing someone. And he was angry. Angry with Chris for going away without telling him and angry with the bad men because they made it so Chris was gone.


Vin looked at Buck, drawn back to his request. If he couldn't act like a baby, if he couldn't be angry, if he couldn't run away, well, he guessed he could pretend and play house like nothing was wrong. Like his whole world wasn't collapsing.

Vin heaved a sigh and nodded. He would help Buck.



"Dang it, JD! Stop it! That's the dumbest, stupidest joke I ever heard," yelled Vin in utter frustration at JD's seemingly millionth joke of the day.

"It is not!" countered JD.

"Is too!"

"Is not!"

"Is too!"

"Is not!"

"It's stupid…Stupid…STUPID!" Vin yelled, "And so are YOU!"

"Vin, that's enough," commanded Buck, the force of his voice silencing both boys. "Apologize to JD…NOW!"

Vin stared at Buck, dumbfounded. Buck yelled at him! Told him to apologize, but the jokes really were dumb! All the frustrations of trying to cope with Chris's absence and the fears of losing him forever overwhelmed the seven year old.

"But it IS a stupid joke," defended Vin angrily.

"Apologize or go to your room until you can," ordered Buck.

Vin stared at Buck defiantly.

Buck stared right back at him.

JD inched closer to Buck, unnerved by his best friend and his foster father squaring off. Needing security, he wrapped his arm around Buck's leg.

But Vin didn't see JD's need for security. All he saw was that it was two against one. Feeling the loss of Chris even more, he turned and ran to the bedroom.

"Vin!" called JD.

"Hold on, JD," said Buck. "We need to let Vin sort this out."

"He didn't mean it!" cried JD, wanting to protect his friend who had so often been his protector.

"Whether he meant it or not, he owes you an apology." Buck patted JD's shoulder. "I'm going to go feed the horses, and when I come back in, we'll talk to Vin. Okay?"

JD nodded.

"Why don't you watch a video for a little while?"


While JD was watching a video and Buck was taking care of the animals, Vin sat in his safe place, tucked between the bed and the dresser in his room. He was angry and scared, and felt all knotted up inside. He hadn't meant to yell at JD. It just blurted out. And then Buck yelled at him. That really scared him. Buck sometimes raised his voice if they got too loud, but he had never ever 'yelled' at Vin. And Buck was short-tempered all the time since Chris was gone.


The knot seemed to get tighter and tighter, almost making him feel like he couldn't breathe. Vin rocked back and forth slightly with his arms wrapped around his knees, which were tucked up to his chin.

He couldn't pretend anymore that everything was okay, playing like Chris was here or he'd be back soon. Chris wasn't here and he might never come back. He might die.

Vin groaned, overwhelmed with fear of losing Chris and the grief he was already feeling from their separation. It hurt just like it did when his Mama went to dream of angels.

Vin bolted from the room, unable to cope on his own. Chris was gone, Buck was mad, Uncle Ezra was gone, and Uncle Nathan and Uncle Josiah were working… He ran into Chris's bedroom and grabbed the phone, dialing the only other number he knew. The only other person he trusted with his heart.

"Hello, Miz Nettie?"


Buck took his time tending the horses. He had lost it with the boys, and no matter how stressed out he was, or how much they had aggravated him, he had no right to go off on them. He needed the time, space and physical activity to let off the steam and pull himself together. The boys were distressed enough without the addition of his frustration.

Buck looked up as the back screen door to the house slammed. His heart skipped a beat as he observed Vin jump off the porch and take off at a dead run. He dropped the bucket and took two quick strides to the door.

His heart slowed to a normal pace when he realized Vin didn't have his backpack or any of his favorite belongings. He wasn't running away, he was just running. Letting out the breath he didn't realize he was holding, Buck picked up the bucket he had kicked in his haste to reach the doorway.

He watched Vin run through the pasture. There was something unexpectedly graceful about the scrawny, mostly arms and legs seven year old when he ran. Vin could easily be a long distance runner when he grew up. Buck was grateful to Dr. Will for helping Vin find a physical outlet for his emotions. Whenever things got to be too much to handle, Vin would run, run, run, until he wore himself out. It gave him a constructive alternative to acting out.

Buck shook his head at the fact that they both needed the physical outlet right now. Vin was taking the long way around the pasture, indicating he was extra stressed and needed more activity.

He winced as Vin began to tire, and he tripped over something, sprawling on the unforgiving soil. Vin picked himself up and started running again. Buck ground his teeth as he watched Vin start a third lap around the large field. Once was usually plenty, and his legs were moving slower and his stride wasn't as steady. Vin stumbled again, catching his balance and continuing on.

Buck knew it was coming. He watched as Vin fell again. He was very slow to get to his feet. Though he was on the far side of the pasture, Buck could tell by the hands resting on the knees, that Vin was trying to catch his breath.

"Ah Vin…" he whispered as the boy sank to his knees and wrapped his arms around himself, obviously crying.

With only a moment of hesitation, Buck left the barn and headed across the field. When he reached the distraught boy, he gently rested his hand on Vin's head.


Tear filled blue eyes looked up at him.

"I'm sorry, Buck."

Buck nodded and scooped Vin into his arms, carrying him toward the house.

"I can walk," said Vin.

"I know you can," said Buck, "But I'd like to carry you."

Buck smiled as Vin relaxed, resting his head on Buck's chest. Moments like these were a rarity with Vin. The seven year old usually only allowed Chris to do the hugging or comforting, but in his absence, and needing comfort more than ever, Vin was allowing Buck to fill that spot.

When they reached the porch, JD was waiting for them.

"Is Vin hurted?" he asked.

Vin shook his head and squirmed for Buck to put him down.

"I saw you fall down," insisted JD.

"I just scraped my hand." Vin held out his right hand showing JD the scrape as Buck let him down.

JD took hold of Vin's wrist and looked at the scraped heel of his hand, appropriately impressed with the wound.

"Let's get that cleaned up, Vin," said Buck.

Vin shook his head. "Wait."

He turned back to JD. "JD, you ain't stupid… an' I'm real sorry I said you was."

"I know," said JD. "Does Vin get a Band-Aid, Buck?"

Buck smiled. JD and Vin had a gift for forgiving each other. They were more like brothers than most brothers he knew.

"Yep. I think that qualifies for a Band-Aid," he answered.

"Can I pick?" asked JD. He loved going through the selection of superhero Band-Aids to pick the perfect one.

Vin grinned. "Sure," he agreed and he followed his friend inside the house.


Shortly after nine the phone rang and Buck grabbed it quickly to keep it from waking the boys.


"Mr. Wilmington, it's Nettie Wells."

"Mrs. Wells, what can I do for you?"

"First of all, it's Nettie, and you know that."

"Yes, Ma'am," said Buck with a smile.

"And second, it would seem I should be askin' the question what I can do for you."

Buck sat down in the recliner with the phone. "And why's that, Ma'am?"

"Vin called me earlier."

Nettie listened to the silence at the other end of the phone. She didn't know what Buck was thinking, but she was fairly certain his initial reaction would still be fear that she would think he had done something wrong.

"He told me that you yelled at him and that he had called JD a name."

"That's true," said Buck with a sigh.

"He also asked me to find him a new home."


"Don't worry. I told him these things take time and that he should take the night to think about it and we'd talk again tomorrow."

"You're not…."

"No, Buck. I'm not going to follow through. Vin just needs a little time to sort out his feelings. He'll find that this is where he wants to be. Now, tell me what's going on with Mr. Larabee…."



Buck looked up as a movement in the hall caught his eye. He put down the newspaper and lowered the footrest of the recliner, smiling as a very sleepy little boy walked towards him.

JD's favorite blanket was slung over an arm, dragging behind him on the floor as he popped a thumb in his mouth and rubbed his eyes with his other fist. Without hesitation he crawled up in Buck's lap and leaned against him as his foster father wrapped strong arms around him.

"I thought you were asleep," said Buck softly.

"I wush," replied JD around his thumb.

Buck gently pulled the five year old's hand away from his mouth and held it in his own. JD looked up at him and sighed.

"Vin's cryin'."

Buck squeezed JD a little tighter. Though it bothered him that Vin was upset and that his tears were keeping JD awake, he was relieved that Vin was finally expressing his emotions. With the exception of Vin's outburst earlier in the day, the past three days the boy had been nearly silent with Vin unwilling or perhaps unable to express his fears, and the nights had been restless and filled with frightening dreams. When Buck had checked on the boys during the past couple of nights, more often than not, he found Vin quietly twirling his cat or fidgeting in some other way to stay awake. He seemed to think that Chris would come home if he stayed awake, or maybe that he could keep the nightmares away. It was hard to know since Vin wasn't talking about it.

"I climbed on his bed, but I could'n make 'im stop." JD blinked heavily and yawned.

Buck smiled and kissed JD on top of his head. How many times in the past few months had they found JD in Vin's bed or Vin in JD's? Sometimes it was hard to guess who was comforting whom. One boy would crawl into bed to comfort the other, or sometimes, just to ease his own distress through the closeness of his friend.

"Why don't we get you back to bed, and I'll see what I can do for Vin," said Buck. "You've got school tomorrow."

JD yawned again in agreement. He was tired.

Buck carried him back to the bedroom and tucked him into bed before turning his attention to Vin.


The seven year old didn't answer. He didn't even turn his head to look at Buck.

Buck began to rub circles on Vin's back as the boy sobbed almost silently. He continued to massage the thin frame for several minutes, hoping to calm both the tears and the fears, wishing all the while that he could just wipe away every hurt from two little hearts. He smiled briefly as JD snorted and began to snore his weary five-year-old snore.

After a few more minutes, it was obvious that Vin needed more than a backrub to calm his heart. His sobs were not stopping and were in fact, growing louder... loud enough to actually hear them. Where and why Vin had learned to cry silently, Buck really didn't want to know. The change in volume he was now hearing was a tribute to Vin's emotional exhaustion. He was too tired to try to hide his tears. Ignoring all the cautions of social workers and doctors to seek Vin's permission first, he scooped Vin off the bed into his arms. Sometimes a boy just needed to be hugged and held.

Vin wrapped his arms around Buck's neck as Buck carried him from the room, speaking soothingly to the distraught boy. He returned to the den and settled into the rocker recliner with Vin.

"Just let it go," he whispered over the sobs. Buck could feel Vin's tears soaking into his shoulder. He rocked him gently, his own tears brimming in his eyes, wishing he could wipe away the pain and fears and get Vin to voice his feelings.

The tears at long last began to subside as the physical exhaustion took hold. When the shuddering breaths gave way to even deep breathing, Buck knew that Vin was finally falling asleep. It was time to try to put him back to bed.

Buck was more than ready to go to sleep himself. The days had been long since Chris and Ezra went undercover, but the nights with the boys had been even longer. Josiah and Nathan had split the shifts with him, each of them working extra hours to insure that one of their team was with the stakeout crew keeping an eye on Chris and Ezra at all times. Josiah and Nathan had insisted on working even more hours so that Buck could be home and available to the boys. But parenting alone with two worried boys was harder than he had imagined.

During the call with Nettie Wells earlier in the evening, he sought her advice. She was an integral part of Vin and JD's support system and had been the key in getting the boys placed with Chris and Buck. She had gone above and beyond in her efforts to equip Buck with the knowledge and skills to qualify as a foster parent. But she also held the power to remove the boys from the home. And fear of that fact had made Buck hesitate, if only momentarily before he told her everything that was going on, but the knowledge that Nettie wanted the best for the boys dissipated the fear.

Nettie had reassured him about the way he was handling the situation and had reinforced that both Vin and JD would need extra comfort during their increased insecurities. Her input had made him feel a little better about the whole situation, but it did nothing to relieve the stress of parenting two boys on his own. She offered to take the boys for a couple of days to give Buck a break. Buck had told her that he would consider her offer. And with as weary as he was, the offer seemed better by the minute.

Buck lifted the sleeping boy and carried him towards the bedroom.

"No!" protested Vin softly, wrapping his arms around Buck's neck.

Buck grimaced. He was so tired, but obviously Vin still needed his comfort. "Okay, Junior. Okay. Just let me check on JD."

Vin nodded and tucked his head under Buck's chin.

Buck walked to JD's bedside, feeling Vin tightening his grip, evidencing his fear of going back to bed. Buck pulled JD's comforter up and tucked it around the boy with one hand, and then quietly left the room still carrying Vin.

"You wanna lay on my bed for a little while?" asked Buck.

Vin nodded, still clinging tightly to his second foster dad.

"Okay, we'll rest for just a little while." He carried Vin to his room. "I'm just going to put you down for a minute so I can get ready for bed, Okay?"

Vin didn't lessen his grip.

"Hey, you can even have my favorite pillow, and you got Cat right here." Buck gently pried Vin loose. "Just for a minute." He held in the sigh as Vin wrapped his arms tightly around his pillow, looking very small and very scared.

Buck snatched a pair of sweat pants and a tee shirt out of his dresser and hurried into his bathroom to change into the makeshift sleepwear. Some day he'd have to invest in an actual pair of pajamas.

When he returned to the room, Vin was in the same position, watching anxiously for his return. Buck smiled reassuringly. "I'm back. I'm just going to lie down here for a bit."

Buck laid down on the bed, opening an arm to Vin. The boy needed little encouragement. He scooted close using Buck's shoulder as a pillow. Buck gently stroked the tousled curls with his free hand trying to soothe the troubled soul next to him. He wished desperately that he could tell Vin everything would be all right, but Vin, like most children could see through such lies. He would have to settle for giving him the comfort of his presence. Before long both man and boy finally slept.


Buck woke abruptly to something hitting him in the face. He blindly reached for the offending object and found flannel. Opening his eyes, he found JD's leg on his chest. Buck chuckled wearily. JD wasn't one to be left out. Some time during the night the five year old had made his way into the room and was now sleeping soundly, albeit haphazardly between Buck and Vin. Buck looked over the footed pajamas to Vin. The older boy still had his arms wrapped tightly around both Buck's pillow and Cat, but seemed to be sleeping deeply. Buck glanced over at the bedside table and groaned.

He had overslept. It was nearly eight o'clock. The boys, even if he could rush them, would miss the bus. If he had a choice in the matter, he would just let them sleep and call in sick, but he didn't have that option. Chris and Ezra were still out there, and he had a responsibility to bring his friends home safely.

"Hey, Little Bit?" Buck shook the leg resting on his chest. "Come on, JD. Time to wake up." Buck smiled as JD snorted and rolled over. Well, he'd get himself ready first and then wake the boys. He rolled out of bed and picked up his cell phone.

"Jackson," said the weary voice on the other end of the call.

"Nate, it's Buck. Any news?"

"No change," reported Nathan. "Still no word on the meet."

"Look Nate, I hate to ask you this, but can you hang on for a couple more hours?"

"Sure," agreed Nathan, assuming that something was going on with the boys. "What's up?"

"The boys had a rough night, we're running behind," Buck sighed.

"You sound tired. Did you get any sleep?"

"Some. I'll be there as soon as I can, Nate. It's going to take me a bit to get these guys moving."

"Take your time, Buck. I'll see you when you get here."

"Thanks," said Buck. "I owe you."

"Who's on the phone, Buck?" asked JD, rubbing his eyes tiredly.

Buck sat down on the bed, allowing the little boy to climb into his lap.

"That was Nathan."

"Did Chris call?" asked JD with a yawn.

"Not yet… Hey, Little Bit, were running behind today. Do you think you could go get yourself dressed?" Buck roughed JD's wild black hair.

"Okay, Buck." JD yawned again and snuggled against Buck's chest.

Buck laughed. "Come on, Little Bit. If we don't get you movin', you'll fall back asleep."

JD yawned again and slid off Buck's lap. He grabbed his favorite blanket and popped his thumb in his mouth as he headed for the door.

Buck walked to the far side of the bed, where Vin was curled up around his pillow. He laid his hand on Vin's leg, shaking it gently. "Vin? Time to wake up."

Vin inhaled a deep breath, but didn't show any other signs of waking.

Buck sighed. Vin was normally a very light sleeper and woke with the sun. He had finally succumbed to a deep sleep and now Buck had to interrupt it. He shook Vin again and received a grumble in response.

"Come on, kiddo. Time to get up."


"No, Junior. It's Buck. Come on, time to get up and dressed."

Vin blinked and yawned, trying to process where he was. It wasn't his room.

"You with me?" asked Buck, slightly amused by the sleepy disorientation.

Vin nodded.

"Okay. Go get yourself dressed, then we'll go get some breakfast." Buck stood, grabbed a towel from the closet hook and headed for his bathroom as Vin sat up.

When Buck returned from his shower he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. There was Vin, sprawled on the bed sound asleep. He hadn't even made it off the bed. Buck finished dressing, and then scooped up the boy, carrying him to his own room.

"How ya doing there, Little Bit?" asked Buck as he entered the room. JD was sitting on his bunk, struggling with a sock that didn't seem to want to go on his foot.

"My sock won't go on," JD whined.

"I'll help you in a minute," said Buck. He pulled a change of clothes out of the dresser for Vin. They had found it was easiest for the boys to get dressed in the morning if they had a complete set of clothing all folded together. It also made it easy for the dark haired agent to pull the clothes out of the drawer with one hand.

Buck sat on one of the kiddie chairs and stood Vin in front of him, his arm around the groggy boy. Vin was of little or no help at all as Buck stripped him of his pajamas and started to dress him. By the time he got to the socks and shoes, Vin pulled them out of his hands, protesting that he could do it himself.

Buck let Vin take over and moved to help JD, who had decided that making his sock into a puppet was much more fun than fighting to get it on his foot.


After ten more minutes of disorganized scrambling, the weary threesome had made it to the truck and were on their way to pick up breakfast on the way to school. Buck turned the truck into the McDonald's parking lot and stopped.

"No! I don't want McDonalds!"

Vin's adamant declaration was a surprise to both Buck and JD. Vin always liked to go to McDonalds. And Vin rarely asserted himself so vocally.

Buck rubbed his forehead trying to ease the headache that was already forming. It wasn't even nine o'clock yet. The long days, short nights and two tired, cranky and scared boys were taking their toll on the normally jovial man.

"You're already late for school, and you need some breakfast," Buck answered more calmly than he felt.

"No McDonalds!" growled Vin.

"It's my day. I get to pick!" JD protested crossly. "I pick 'Donalds!"

Buck watched the argument progressing between two boys in the rear view mirror of the truck. Fingers pointing, scowls on faces, hands clenching into fists.

"I hate McDonalds!" said Vin, glaring at JD.

"No you don't!" countered JD.

"Yes, I do!"

The volume was rising with each comment.

"Enough!" warned Buck.

Vin crossed his arms over his chest and kicked the back of the seat.

Buck got out of the truck, slamming his door and walked around to open JD's door. He unbuckled JD, counting to ten silently. The last thing he needed was to lose his temper with the boys.

"Come on, Vin. Unbuckle," said Buck as he lifted JD from the booster seat and stood him on the pavement.

Vin continued to stare straight ahead and kick the seat.

"Now," ordered Buck.

Vin ignored him.

Buck took a slow deep breath, and blew it out. He did not need this today. He took JD by the hand and walked around the truck to Vin's door, JD's little legs running to keep up with the long strides.

Buck pulled open the door.

"Let's go, Junior," he said firmly.

"I - don't - want - McDonalds!" Vin emphasized each word just as firmly.

"I - don't - care," countered Buck as he reached over and unbuckled Vin. The two little boys weren't the only ones who were tired and cranky. Vin wrestled to stay put, tussling with Buck's arm, pushing it away.

JD cowered by the door of the truck, frightened both by Vin's reactions and Buck's tone. He peered around the door to watch his best friend and his foster father struggling.

"Vin, that's enough," said Buck, capturing Vin's swinging arm with his hand. "It's time for school, you're late, I've got to get to work and you need to eat. We're going inside. No arguments." He reached for the buckle as his cell phone rang.

"I can do it myself!" Vin said indignantly.

"Now!" ordered Buck as he turned away from Vin to answer the persistent ringing of the phone.

"Wilmington!" he growled. "Oh, hi Nate…"

Buck listened to his teammate on the other end of the phone as Vin unfastened his buckle and slid off the seat, dropping to the pavement.

JD looked at Vin with big, frightened eyes. He didn't know why Vin was so mad and it scared him to see Vin and Buck struggling.

Seconds seemed to stretch into minutes as Buck turned back to face the boys. He could see the disaster coming before it even happened. He gasped, unable to do anything to stop the progress as JD helpfully pushed the door closed…

…Vin's hand was still in the way.

Vin stared momentarily at his fingers, which were now closed in the door seemingly not connecting the pain with the fact of pinched fingers. When it connected, Vin let out a wail.

Buck abruptly cut off the call, quickly opening the truck door releasing the slender trapped fingers.

"Sorry, Vin! Sorry!" wailed JD when he realized what had happened. "I didn't mean to!"

Vin looked at his bruised fingers and cried even louder. He closed his other hand around the injured digits, elbowing JD away when the younger boy tried to comfort him.

"Let me see, Vin," said Buck.

Vin turned away from Buck, cradling his fingers protectively.

"Come on, Junior," said Buck softly. "Let me see."

"It hurts!" cried Vin.

"I know." Buck squatted down to Vin's level and held out his hand, beckoning the seven year old to trust him.

Vin warily held out his damaged fingers to the man who moments ago he was fighting, but who now would be his source of comfort.

Buck gently took Vin's hand, examining his injury, wincing at the angry red marks, scraped skin and swelling.

"Ow…ow…ow!" cried Vin, despite Buck's tender touch. Tears rolled down his face and as he took a good look at his broken skin with a hint of blood, his trauma found its voice in a renewed wail.

JD joined right in, letting his distress at hurting Vin be known as well.

Buck looked around for help, flagging down a woman headed for the entrance.

"Excuse me, Ma'am? Could you help us out here?"

The woman approached the distressed boys cautiously. "How can I help?" she asked warily.

"My son got his fingers pinched in the door," said Buck. "Could you go inside and get us some ice?"

"Oh! Sure!" she said, hurrying toward the entrance.

Buck pulled Vin into a hug, reaching out his other arm for JD.

JD hugged Buck and pressed his face into Buck's shoulder, muffling his cry.

Vin fought to control his tears, holding his injured hand away from Buck and JD so it wouldn't get bumped.

"Hush, now," said Buck softly, doing his best to calm the boys, all the while wondering what he would do now. Two little guys were having a meltdown and he needed to be at work.

Buck grimaced as his cell phone rang. He had cut Nathan off when the accident occurred. Releasing JD from his embrace, Buck answered.

"Wilmington…Hi, Nate… Yeah, we had a little accident," Buck explained. "Vin's fingers got pinched in the truck door… hang on."

Buck turned his attention to the woman who had returned with a towel and a plastic bag with ice.

"Thank you, Ma'am," said Buck.

"No problem," she replied. "Anything else I can do?"

"No, thanks. I think we've got it from here." Buck smiled warmly at the blonde, but turned his attention back to the boys. "JD, can you hold the phone for a minute?"

JD nodded and took the phone while Buck carefully wrapped the ice and towel around Vin's small hand.

"It's cold!" Vin protested.

"I know, Junior. But, it will help it feel better." Buck adjusted the towel, grimacing as Vin winced.

"Hi Uncle Nathan," said JD with a big sniff. "I pinch'did Vin's fingers, but I didn't do it purpose! He was mad and Buck was mad, and I'm hungry!"

"Give me the phone, JD," said Buck, shaking his head.

"Bye Uncle Nathan," said JD, relinquishing the phone. He turned his attention back to consoling his best friend. "Sorry, Vin."

Vin shrugged away from him.

Buck listened to Nathan for a few moments, then cursed.

"Buck said a bad word," JD whispered to Vin.

Vin scowled at the five year old who was responsible for his pain.

"All right, Nate," said Buck. "I'm on my way." He disconnected the call and swore a second time. What was he supposed to do? The meet was set up in two hours. He had to be there. He had to make sure Chris and Ezra came home safe and sound, and yet, next to him stood two little boys who hadn't eaten, were late for school and who now needed a side trip to the emergency room.

With a sigh of frustration, Buck thumbed through the stored numbers on his phone and dialed.

"Nettie Wells, please."