by JK

Chris ran a hand wearily through his hair. He could empathize easily with Buck's frustration over the past few days. He wished he could have been here to help Buck deal with the boys' distress, then again, if he had been here, they wouldn't have suffered the distress in the first place.

He shifted uncomfortably as aching ribs made their presence known. The bust hadn't gone too smoothly and he and Ezra had both been roughed up a bit in the process.

"I'm sorry you had to deal with all that, Buck, but you still haven't told me why Nettie has taken Vin… and why JD hates me." Chris looked Buck directly in the eye. "Time is wasting and I'm going to go get Vin."

"Hold on, now," said Buck. "I warned you it was a long story. Vin is fine at Nettie's. The boy is sleeping, and heaven knows he certainly didn't get much in the past few days. Trust me."

Buck took another sip of beer before continuing to recount the events of the week.


An hour and two lollipops later, Nettie Wells had the two boys in her sedan. She had met Buck at the Clinic and after executing a swift exchange of car seats, within a matter of minutes he had hurried off to work. He had mentioned to Nettie that Chris and Ezra's undercover case was coming to a close, but hadn't told the boys. He didn't want to set them up for more disappointment if things went awry.

After a quick stop at a Muffin shop, they pulled up in front of the school… only three hours late.

"I don't want to go to school!" Vin whined. "I want to stay with you, Miz Nettie."

Nettie looked at the seven year old in the rear-view mirror. This was abnormal behavior for Vin. He rarely whined, and he was almost never this vocal about his feelings.

"No!" said JD. "I want to go to school. It's show and tell and Jeff is bringing his pet snake! I gotta go to school. Please Miz Nettie? Please?"

"No. No school!" argued Vin.

"But… I wanna go!" JD whined.

"You can do what you want!" said Vin, angrily. "I don't want to be with you anyway!" He scowled and held up his splinted fingers.

"Boys," warned Nettie.

The back seat went silent, but there was a continued exchange of scowls and tongues sticking out at each other.

"JD, you may go to school if you wish. Mrs. Potter will pick you up at the end of the day so you don't have to ride the bus by yourself."

JD gave Vin a smirk that said, "See, I told you so!"

"And Vin, Mr. Wilmington and I talked about it. If you aren't feeling up to school today, you can stay with me." They had agreed that school was too much stress for Vin to handle today considering how much he struggled with schoolwork on a normal day.

Vin smirked back at JD.

Nettie rolled her eyes and shook her head. The boys definitely needed some sleep, and time away from each other certainly wouldn't hurt.

"All right, let's go inside and take you to your class, JD."

"I don't wanna…"

"Vin Tanner," Nettie warned.

His complaint fell silent.

"You have to come inside to drop off JD. I can't leave you in the car."

Vin sighed and unbuckled.



Nettie turned away from the sink, observing her young guest as he used the cookie cutter to cut another biscuit from the dough she had rolled out. She smiled as Vin wiped the back of his hand across his cheek, smearing flour on his face. He carefully placed the cookie cutter as close to the previous cut as possible making sure not to waste any dough, yet keeping the biscuit round. He was a good little worker, throwing all of his effort into any job assigned to him, even though he was limited to using one hand.

He had worked in silence for the past thirty minutes, but Nettie knew she could wait him out. Vin was hurt and confused right now, but he was a very intelligent boy and with a few nudges in the right direction, he would sort things out and be stronger for it.

His phone call asking her to find him a new home had been a surprise, but after a follow-up phone call with Buck Wilmington, she had a pretty good idea what was behind the request. With Chris Larabee on assignment and unable to communicate with the boy, his fear of losing his family had come to a boil and instead of acting out as he had in the past, Vin had decided that in order to avoid being hurt anymore, he needed a new family, a fresh start where he could remain detached from any emotion.

"I didn't want to go in," said Vin softly.

Nettie smiled. She had asked him nearly half an hour ago what had happened at McDonald's.

"Why didn't you want to go in?" asked Nettie, hoping it wouldn't take another thirty minutes to answer.

Vin put the biscuit dough on the baking sheet.

"I didn't want him to leave me."

Nettie prayed that her surprise didn't show on her face. She was trained to expect almost anything from a child, and her years of experience had taught her more than classes and books ever had.

Nettie could have told Vin that Buck would never leave him, but Vin had to realize it for himself, so she took a different tack.

"Did someone leave you before?"

Vin nodded without looking at Nettie. He crossed his arms defensively across his chest, silently communicating that he either couldn't or wouldn't go any further.

It didn't surprise her that Vin had been left before, but it did surprise her that McDonald's had keyed the memory. They had been to McDonald's at least a couple times a week since living with Chris and Buck, and he had never shown any fear of the place. But Chris hadn't been missing and Buck hadn't 'yelled' at him. Maybe it was something that he had blocked from his memory, but the circumstances had brought it to light.

Knowing that pursuing who had left him was no longer an option, Nettie pressed on to make sure that Vin recognized the truth of the situation.

"Does Buck love you?"

Vin nodded.

"Would he leave you or JD?"

"Not JD," Vin answered.

"Not you either," replied Nettie.

Vin nodded again. He knew that. He didn't know why he had argued with Buck. He just got so scared and the 'scared' got so big inside him that it squished out by fighting with Buck. He wanted to tell Miz Nettie how he felt, but he didn't know how to make it into words.

Vin sighed and put another biscuit on the baking sheet.


"Where's Vin?" asked JD as Mrs. Potter buckled him into his seat in the car outside the school building

"He's with Mrs. Wells," Gloria answered as she snapped the buckle.

"When's he comin' home?" JD swung his feet, hoping it would be soon.

"I'm not sure, JD. Let's get you home and have a snack."

"Okay." JD sighed as Mrs. Potter closed the door and walked to the driver's side. He wanted to play with Vin, and he wanted to make sure that Vin wasn't still mad at him for pinching his fingers.



Nettie heard the crash of blocks and a groan of dismay. She looked up from the sink full of lunch dishes in time to see Vin sweep his arm across the kitchen table, scattering the remaining blocks onto the floor and thump his arm down on the table in frustration. Vin looked up, but quickly averted his gaze in obvious guilt.

Nettie dried her hands on the dishtowel, walked over to the table and sat in the chair across from Vin. She waited, hoping that Vin would open up and share what was going on inside his troubled heart. So far he had not been able to find the words to express himself.

Vin chewed on his lip, waiting for the discipline that would be coming. When Miz Nettie didn't say anything, he stole a guilty glance at her face, surprised to see tears glistening in her eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said desperately. "I'll pick them up."

Vin began to gather the blocks into a group on the tabletop, but stopped when Nettie laid her hand on his arm. He looked into her eyes trying to understand the tears and why she had stopped him.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

"Vin," said Nettie. "I'm not angry with you. It just makes me sad that you're hurting."

"I'm okay," defended Vin.

"No, you're not," said Nettie. "I wish you trusted me enough to tell me about it and let me try to help."

Nettie watched Vin's face and knew the word 'trust' had hit the mark. She knew that Vin did trust her and highly valued their relationship. She hoped that questioning his trust would give him one more nudge into talking.

"I'm all mixed up," said Vin with a sigh. He had tried to tell Miz Nettie earlier what he was feeling, but he couldn't find the words. It was hard enough to try to figure out how he felt, but to tell someone else when you didn't understand was virtually impossible. Vin toyed with a block turning it over and over. He looked at the scattered blocks on the tabletop and on the floor, gasping softly as it came to him.

"I feel like the blocks inside!" He looked at Miz Nettie hoping that she would understand and he wouldn't have to try to explain it all, but she wasn't saying anything.

"I get them built up and then they get knocked down all over the place." He looked at her again, hoping she understood.

"Is that why you want me to find you a new home?" asked Nettie.

Vin looked away and shrugged. He didn't know why he asked her to find him a new home. He just knew that Chris being gone hurt a lot. Maybe as much as his Mama being gone. And maybe if he lived somewhere else he then maybe he could not love them and it wouldn't hurt so much.

Nettie scooped up the blocks on the table, sweeping them into her apron. "Grab some blocks and come with me," she said as she walked into the living room.

Vin quickly picked up as many blocks as he could carry and followed her.

"Put them on the table," she said, nodding to the card table that held the jigsaw puzzle they had worked on earlier. When Vin complied, Nettie poured the blocks from the skirt of her apron on the table as well. "Build something."

Vin looked at her questioningly. Miz Nettie was trying to show him something, but he didn't know what it was. Slowly he reached out and began to stack the blocks with one hand, still careful to protect his injured fingers.

When he finished stacking, he stepped back from the table smiling at his accomplishment.

The smile turned to sheer dismay when Miz Nettie bumped the table and the blocks scattered.

"Hmmm," she said without apology, "That didn't work. Let's try the coffee table."

She scooped up some blocks and carried them to the coffee table.

Vin frowned, watching her dump blocks on the coffee table. He didn't get it. Of course it didn't work. It didn't work because she bumped the table. Vin picked up some blocks and moved to the coffee table.

"Build something," Nettie instructed.

Vin sighed and began to stack blocks. His body unconsciously shielded his creation from Miz Nettie so she wouldn't knock it down again, but it did no good. As soon as he was finished, she gave the table leg a push with her foot.

The blocks scattered.

"Hey!" The protest was out of Vin's mouth before he could stop it.

Nettie ignored it. "Hmm. It didn't work in the kitchen, or on the card table or the coffee table." Nettie looked around the room, apparently looking for another answer. "Let's try the kitchen again." She scooped up an armload of blocks.

"They'll just keep fallin' down if ya keep bumpin' the table," Vin grumbled, but he picked up blocks anyway and followed Miz Nettie.

After dumping the blocks on the table, Nettie said, "Build."

Vin balked. He didn't see any point in building if Miz Nettie was going to knock them down, and he told her as much.

Nettie smiled inside at the fact that Vin was being vocal, but she pushed on, hoping that Vin would see her point.

"No matter where we are Vin, there are things that bump the table."

Vin gave Nettie a miniature glare, so like Chris Larabee that it made her want to laugh. At the same time she was pleased that Vin was comfortable enough to respond like any other child without worrying about doing the right thing or worrying if she would still like him.

"Then there ain't no use," said Vin as he began stacking blocks.

"Oh, that's not true." Nettie guided Vin's hand to stack the block next to the one on the table. Then she added another block next to it. "There are things we can do to help stand up against the bumps." She put another block on the table forming a solid square with the others. "But we can't do it alone."

Vin frowned as he started to piece together the object lesson. He held out another block and let Miz Nettie guide his hand to where she wanted it placed.

"We need to rely on our friends. You've got Chris, Buck, JD…" Nettie pointed to blocks in the square as she counted off the names. "And your uncles, Josiah, Ezra and Nathan… and Dr. Lowry, and your teacher… and me."

Vin held out another block, placing it on top of the other blocks at Nettie's nod.

Nettie placed a block beside it, followed by another. Quickly they had a smaller square of blocks stacked on top of the larger square.

Vin now had the idea and completed another smaller square of blocks on top of the second. When he completed the pyramid of blocks, he looked at Nettie expectantly.

"There'll still be bumps..." Nettie gave the table a shove. The blocks shifted, but only one fell.

Vin stared at the blocks. Because of the way they had stacked the blocks, only that one single block had fallen. Could that really be true? He put the stray block on top of the stack again, and then bumped the table himself. It shifted but didn't fall.

He smiled. Miz Nettie was pretty smart.


Mrs. Potter had stopped counting the number of times JD had asked about Vin during the afternoon. She had no answers for him other than to assure him that Buck would let him know when he came home.

When Buck arrived home late, JD peered around his foster father looking for Vin, assuming Buck was late because he had picked up Vin.

"Where's Vin?" asked JD.

Buck heard the worry in JD's voice. This was more than missing his playmate. "He's still at Miz Nettie's," he said, trying to reassure him.

Buck was surprised when JD started to cry. He gathered the five year old into his arms. "Did he take a nap at all?" he asked Mrs. Potter.

"No. He laid down for a little while, but I couldn't get him to sleep."

"Thanks, Gloria." Buck rubbed JD's back. "And thanks for staying late."

Gloria slipped on her coat and picked up her purse. "My pleasure."

Buck watched her walk to the car and pull out before turning his full attention to JD.

"Now, what are all these tears for Little Bit?" he asked, thumbing tears off JD's cheek.

"I want Vin," JD sniffed. "I didn't mean it!"

"Didn't mean what?" asked Buck as he sat down in the recliner with JD.

"I didn't mean to make Vin go away," JD sobbed.

"JD, you didn't make Vin go away," said Buck.

"Yeah huh," said JD.

Buck smiled at JD's variation of the nuh-uh, uh-huh slang for no and yes. Then he closed his eyes to JD wiping his nose on the back of his sleeve, hearing his own age-old argument with his mom…'that's what sleeves are for!'

"I maked him mad tellin' him jokes." JD blinked away big tears. "I jist wanted to make 'im laugh cuz he was sad."

JD sniffed. "An'…an'…and I pinch'did his fingers and he got mad and he said he wanted to go with Miz Nettie and he didn't want me no more!"

Buck swallowed hard. Those big sorrowful puppy dog eyes threatened to rip his heart in two.

"Oh, Little Bit," he soothed, "Vin didn't mean that. "He was upset. He's just upset that Chris is gone. He's not really mad at you."

"He's not?" asked JD earnestly.


"Not even a little?"

Buck smiled. "Not even a little."

"It's not my fault Vin goed to Miz Nettie's?" asked JD solemnly.

"No, JD. It's not your fault," Buck confirmed again.

JD sniffed. "Okay…"

Buck handed him a tissue and JD blew his nose. When he was done, he handed the tissue back to Buck. Buck tossed the used tissue into the wastebasket. Another of the 'joys of parenting' that no one warned him about. He grabbed another tissue to wipe off his hand.


"Yes, JD?" Buck finished wiping off his hand and discarded the tissue.

"When's Vin coming home?"

Buck hugged JD a little tighter, but before he could answer, the phone rang. He gently slid JD off his lap and got up to answer the call.



Nettie watched as Vin ran his hand along the smooth arm of the wooden rocker. It wasn't the first time he had been drawn to the old chair today. She didn't know what attraction it held for Vin, but the rocker clearly stirred something in him. Any time she approached he would casually move away, pretending to be interested in something else.

She watched as he looked at the pictures on the shelf, noting the droop of his shoulders. The seven year old was weary, and rightly so. The past few days had taken a heavy toll on the youngster physically and emotionally. The thin boy grimaced and cradled his injured hand to his chest.

"Vin, is your hand hurting?" Nettie asked.

Vin looked at her and only hesitated for a moment before nodding.

"Well, honey," Nettie chided gently, "If it hurts you need to tell me. Let's get you some more Tylenol."

Nettie went to the kitchen to retrieve the mild pain reliever and a glass of water. Though Vin's fingers weren't broken, the doctor had splinted them to help protect them and to keep Vin from using them too much. The bruising was deep and she had no doubt that his fingers hurt. The clock in the hall chimed seven o'clock as Nettie returned to the living room, holding out the pill for Vin.

Vin took the pill without protest and washed it down. He yawned as he handed the glass back to Nettie.

She smiled and sat the cup on the fireplace mantle. She slowly walked to the old rocker and settled into the chair. It wasn't long until Vin had edged near the chair and gently ran his fingers down the arm.

"Vin, would you do an old lady a favor?" Nettie smiled as Vin nodded. "Would you bring me that afghan from the back of the sofa? I'm a little chilled."

Vin quickly gathered the blanket and brought it to Nettie.

"Could you do something else for me?"

Vin nodded again.

"Would you mind sitting with me for a little while? It will help me get warm." Nettie smiled to herself as Vin accepted the invitation. The little guy was proud, probably thinking he was too old to ask to be rocked. But as a favor to Nettie, he could certainly do it.

Nettie pulled Vin onto her lap and covered them both with the afghan and began to rock. It wasn't long before Vin relaxed against her chest with a deep sigh.

Nettie was grateful for the small child in her arms. Vin had given her the rare gift of his trust. Selfishly, she enjoyed being needed, but foremost in her heart was protecting this little boy and his best friend, and insuring they had the best life possible. Nettie didn't know why Vin trusted her, but she was grateful that he did.

Vin nestled deeper into Nettie's arms. She smelled so good. She smelled like flowers, just like his mama. He didn't remember much about his mama, but he remembered rocking with her. When Nettie started humming a song, Vin brushed a tear from his cheek and sighed.

"Can you tell me about it?" asked Nettie, continuing the steady, soothing rocking.

"You smell like flowers," said Vin, wiping his other cheek.

Nettie waited patiently, knowing that Vin took his time to gather his thoughts before he spoke. But this time the silence dragged on, and it didn't seem that Vin would continue. Perhaps he needed another nudge.

"Do I remind you of her?"

Vin jerked his head around to look at her, surprised that Nettie would know what he was thinking about. His eyes searched her face, seeking acceptance and assurance that it was all right. He nodded slowly.

"Mama smelled like flowers. She smelled like you and she used to rock me."

"Is it okay that I remind you of her?"

Vin leaned into the rhythm of the rocking, taking his time with his words.

"Yeah." The word was barely a whisper. "I just miss her."



Buck listened for a few moments as Nathan told him what was going on. Buck had been there for the bust and for the preliminary paperwork, but everyone had sent him home to be with the boys while Chris and Ezra got checked out at the hospital.

"Chris is okay. Mostly bruises. Nothing broken," said Nathan.

"Great! Are they going to keep him?"

"The doctor cleared him and Ezra both to go home."

"That's great!" said Buck enthusiastically. He was ready for Chris to be home and for things to get back to a normal uproar.

"I'll drive him home. Should be there in about twenty minutes or so."

"Thanks." Buck disconnected and started to dial another number.

JD didn't hear most of the conversation, but his ears perked up at the words, "Are they going to keep him?" and then Buck's pleased response to the answer. Unfortunately JD didn't hear the other side of the conversation and his mind was still on Vin being gone…

He scowled. Nobody was going to keep his Vin.

JD tugged on Buck's pant leg. "Buck?"

"Just a minute, Little Bit. I need to make a quick call," said Buck as he dialed.

"Hello, Nettie? It's Buck…How's Vin doing?"

Nettie smiled. She had known that Buck would not be able to leave Vin even though they had talked about the possibility of Vin spending the night with her.

"Poor little thing just fell asleep," said Nettie. "I'm sure you want to come and get him, but why don't you let him stay the night... he'll be okay. He's worn out, and he's sleeping really well right now. Let me keep him for the night."

Buck nodded in agreement, "Well…" Buck hesitated. "It's probably for the best if you keep him...."

JD's mouth dropped open as he looked up at his foster father, only hearing Buck's side of the conversation.

"He finally opened up some about how he's feeling. I may be able to get him to talk some more over breakfast, and then I'll bring him home. Mr. Larabee won't mind if Vin stays?"

"Nope... Chris won't mind if you keep him... It'll probably be easier all the way around if you do," replied Buck. It made sense. Vin was worn out. Chris was exhausted. A good night's sleep would be the best for both of them.

"All right then. I'll call you in the morning."

"Thanks Nettie."

Buck hung up the phone, oblivious to the misinterpretations taking place in the mind of a five year old. Two plus two equaled sixteen in JD's mind, thoughts racing off in all the wrong directions.

"Hey buddy, can you entertain yourself for a few minutes? I want to grab a shower."

JD looked up at Buck with a frown. He nodded.

Buck tousled JD's hair. "It's okay, JD. I'll just be a few minutes."

JD pulled away from Buck's loving touch and trotted to his bedroom to think.

Buck rubbed his eyes wearily. At least the case was over. His plan was to grab a quick shower and get JD into bed before Chris got home. He knew Chris was worn out as well and could use a good night's rest before dealing with the boys.

Of course, the best laid plans…


JD found himself getting angrier by the moment. It wasn't his fault that Vin was gone forever, but it sure was Chris's fault. Chris was gone and that made Vin all upset and then Buck said Chris would be happy if Miz Nettie kept Vin. JD threw his pillow across the room. If Chris didn't go away none of this would have happened. Vin wouldn't be with Nettie. He would be here.

JD ran to the dresser and checked Vin's clothes drawer. He let out a small cry realizing some of Vin's clothes were gone. He ran to the bed and climbed up on Vin's bunk, diving his hands under the pillow searching. It was gone! Vin's special box of cards from Uncle Ezra was gone and so was Cat.

"No! Vin!" JD cried as it became even more real in his mind. Vin's favorite things were gone and that meant Vin was gone.


Buck's shower took a little longer than he planned, or maybe Nate was early. He was barefoot and in jeans, toweling his hair dry when he heard the truck drive up. Buck pulled on a tee shirt as he hurried to meet Chris at the door. He wanted to fill him in before he came inside.

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, but it was too late.

"JD," said Chris 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 took 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? JD and I are going to get ready for bed."


When Buck finished catching Chris up on the events of the week, without a word, Chris left the living room and went to Buck's bedroom. He looked at the tiny boy curled up on one corner of Buck's bed. He sat down gently on the bed and tucked the blanket in around the sleeping child.

Buck had spent at least thirty minutes calming JD. He had verbally 'kicked himself' to Chris for not seeing how JD was interpreting what he had heard. Chris had assured him that sometimes you just couldn't anticipate what tangent the boys were going to take. Buck had done his best to reassure JD that Vin was in fact coming home. He was not staying permanently with Nettie, just tonight. JD, of course had wanted to go get Vin right now, or at the least call him but finally relented to the exhausted call of his body and had fallen asleep in Buck's bed.

The little guy was as shaken by Chris's absence as Vin, but the two boys expressed their fears so differently. Vin tended to clam up and be even quieter… at least until he was no longer able to contain it. JD tended to get louder. Being cute, sweet, loving, funny didn't seem to be a problem at all, unless you knew that behind that disguise was a terrified little boy trying to do anything to be perfect, to be normal so that he wouldn't lose everyone.

Chris leaned over and kissed the tousled black hair. "I'll bring him home, JD," he whispered.

He stood and walked to the door, not at all surprised to see Buck in the doorway. Buck turned sideways so Chris could exit, but Chris stopped in the doorway and put his hand on Buck's shoulder.

Never big on words, Chris found it difficult to express what he wanted to say. He looked Buck in the eye and simply said, "Thanks."

Buck had known Chris a lot of years. He knew how much more was intended behind the simple word. He nodded in acknowledgement.

"Go get him," Buck said softly, knowing full well that nothing would stop Chris Larabee from retrieving his boy.



It was no surprise to Nettie Wells when Chris Larabee showed up on her doorstep at eleven that night. He looked absolutely exhausted. Slight bruising and a few abrasions marred his handsome face. He had not come through the resolution of the case unscathed.

"He's sleeping," she replied to the unasked question. "He's exhausted, and you don't look too lively yourself."

Chris half smiled. Nettie Wells never beat around the bush.

"I need to see him," said Chris.

"You need to sleep," countered Nettie, "and so does Vin."

Chris nodded wearily. "I won't wake him…"

Nettie stepped aside and let him into the house, knowing that continued protests would do no good. Chris needed his boy and his boy needed him. She led Chris to the guest room and quietly made her way to the kitchen. Vin did need sleep, but he would rest infinitely better knowing that Chris was safe, that Chris was home.

Chris sat down on the bed, just watching Vin sleep. He had one arm wrapped tightly around his stuffed cat, with Ezra's deck of cards clenched firmly in his hand. His other hand, the injured hand rested on the mattress.

When Vin's body began to twitch, the sign of a nightmare, Chris reached over and smoothed his hair. "It's all right, Vin," he whispered. "I'm home."

Vin sighed in response to his foster father's voice, bringing a smile to Chris's face. The weary blond eased his aching body down on the bed next to his boy, intending just to watch him sleep for a while.

Thirty minutes later Nettie Wells walked quietly into the room. She took the afghan from the foot of the bed and laid it over the sleeping ATF agent, tucking him in for the night. She moved to the other side of the bed, picking up the box of playing cards, which had fallen from Vin's now lax hand. She tucked the cards next to Vin's stuffed cat and pulled up the comforter around her boy. She smiled knowing that when seven-year-old Vin Tanner had stolen her heart, she had inherited an entire rag-tag family.


As the sun rose, a slit of light shone between the curtains, landing on a seven year old's face. Vin groggily moved his hand to try to get rid of the offending light and succeeded only in hitting himself with his splinted hand.

"Ow," he complained.

A large hand patted his arm comfortingly. Startled fully awake, Vin looked at the hand, recognizing the black sleeve and the scar on the thumb. His heart leapt. He flipped over in bed to see his sleeping father.

"Chris!" he squealed, launching himself onto the startled man.

It took only seconds for Chris to orient from his sleepy state and realize that it was Vin hugging him and squealing excitedly in his ear. He laughed and wrapped his arms around Vin. It didn't matter that his ribs were protesting the slight weight of the boy laying on his chest, or that every muscle in his body seemed to scream in protest at the tiniest movement. His son was in his arms.

Vin's squeal had brought Nettie to the doorway to check on him. She found the pair talking softly in their happy reunion. Vin showed Chris his splinted fingers, which Chris promptly and tenderly 'kissed' to make them better. In exchange, Vin gently traced the bruises on Chris's face with his other hand as if healing them as well, but more likely healing his own fears.

Nettie smiled at the soft murmuring going on between father and son knowing that the nurturing happening right now would go miles further than any words she could say. She left the reunion undisturbed, heading quietly towards the kitchen to make breakfast for two of her boys.


Chris almost laughed when they pulled up in front of the house. It was barely nine o'clock in the morning, on a Saturday no less, and all of his teammates' cars were lined up in front of his house. He figured they'd all sleep in at least before showing up, but no, even Ezra's car was in the driveway.

"Uncle Ezra's here!" Vin declared with a big smile on his face.

"He sure is. Looks like everyone else is here too."

Chris shut off the engine and reached over the back of the seat to unbuckle Vin, knowing that the seven year old was too excited to wait.

He chuckled as Vin opened the door and slid to the ground, running full tilt for the front door.

Just short of the steps to the porch, Vin stopped and turned back, looking for Chris.

Chris grabbed Vin's backpack and closed the truck doors, with a sigh. He had a feeling he was going to see Vin checking on his presence a lot in the next few days. He caught up with Vin and walked up the steps with him. Chris smiled reassuringly and opened the front door.

"Uncle Ezra!" Vin called at the same time JD yelled, "Vin!"

Vin ran to Ezra and threw his arms around the Southerner, hugging him tightly.
JD stepped away from the group, disappointed that his friend had not been as glad to see him as he was to see Vin. He watched as Vin showed Uncle Ezra and Nathan and Josiah his splinted fingers, feeling a twinge of jealousy that Vin was getting all the attention.

When his uncles had been properly greeted, Vin unconsciously searched for Chris. Their eyes met and Chris winked at Vin.

Vin smiled, and then walked over to Buck while the others talked to Chris.

"Buck?" Vin asked softly.

Buck squatted in front of Vin, coming closer to Vin's eye level. "Hey Junior. How are those fingers?"

"Okay. Buck, I…" suddenly Vin couldn't find the words to tell Buck he was sorry about arguing with him.

"I know," said Buck. "Me too."

Vin smiled and gave Buck a hug. Over Buck's shoulder, he could see JD sulking by the recliner. Letting go of Buck, his eyes checked for Chris again before he moved across the room to JD.

JD brightened just by Vin approaching him.

"Wanna help me put my stuff away?" asked Vin.

"Yeah!" said JD. He ran over to Chris and grabbed Vin's backpack from him. Then he and Vin went to their room.

Vin pulled his clothes out of the backpack and put them in the laundry hamper while JD flung Cat up on Vin's bed.

Vin grabbed the cards Uncle Ezra had given him for Christmas, intending to put them under his pillow, but he realized he couldn't climb up on his bed with his sore hand. He couldn't grip the ladder.

"I'll do it Vin!" JD climbed up the ladder and reached for the cards Vin held up to him. He tucked the cards under the pillow and scrambled off the bed.

Vin set a block on the table and then went to the dresser and put his empty backpack in the bottom drawer. He turned back as JD picked up the block and threw it in the toy box with the rest of the blocks.

"JD, NO!!" wailed Vin. He ran and knelt in front of the toy box digging through with one hand. "Which one is it JD? Where'd you put it?" Vin demanded desperately.

"It's just a dumb ol' block," said JD.

"It is not!" countered Vin. "Where is it?"

"What's going on in here?" asked Chris. He and Buck were both standing in the doorway, having heard the raised voices.

"JD threw my special block from Miz Nettie in the toy box!" cried Vin.

"No! Here Vin. Here!" said JD, holding out his hand. He was still holding the block. He hadn't actually thrown it in the box. Vin's panicked cry had made him stop.

Vin snatched the block from JD, holding it away from the younger boy. He looked at Buck and Chris. Neither of them was smiling. Then he heard JD sniffle. He turned back to the five year old.

"Ya wanna put it in my treasure box for me?" asked Vin.

JD nodded.

Vin handed him the block and JD smiled.

JD ran to the dresser.

"Don't look, Buck! Don't look, Chris!" he instructed.

Both men appropriately looked away as JD tucked the block into Vin's special box in his dresser. It wasn't like they didn't know where it was, but they'd go along with the 'secret.'

Once the block was added to the treasure stash, JD told them it was okay to look again. JD looked at Vin and saw his friend rubbing his sore hand.

"Is your fingers 'kay, Vin?" he asked.

Vin nodded.

"I's sorry."

"I know, JD. I know you didn't mean it," said Vin. "And I didn't mean it when I yelled at you."

"I know. Buck said you was jist upset."

The two were silent for a moment. Then Vin broke into a smile.

"Hey JD, let's go tell Uncle Ezra a joke."

"Really?" asked JD.

"Yeah. You can tell him the cheese joke!"

Buck shook his head. JD hardly needed encouragement to tell jokes. Chris groaned softly.

Two little boys scooted out of the room between them, as if no disagreement had ever occurred.

"Hey! Hey!" called JD as they ran into the living room. "Wanna hear a joke?"

Several pairs of eyes rolled as the men stiffled groans. JD had some of the poorest quips masquerading as humor.

JD literally bounced up and down in front of Ezra.

"Please?" he pleaded.

Ezra smiled politely. "I'd love to hear a good joke."

JD's face lit up.

"Okay… Okay… Whaddya call cheese that ain't yours?"

"I don't know," said Ezra.

Vin and JD looked at each other, and then chorused together, "Nacho cheese!"

Uncle Ezra pulled both giggling boys into a hug.

Buck, Chris, Nathan and Josiah were all grinning ear to ear. Even if the joke wasn't that funny, the delivery was priceless.

The End

Comments: jkersteter@aol.com
March 18, 2003