Universe: ATF Little Britches

Disclaimer: Do we really even have to do this? We all know they're not mine.

Author's Note: Suffice to say I don't know anything about anything. If something doesn't sound like it makes sense, there's a very real possibility that it doesn't. For example, I'm aware that it is likely that the search wouldn't have been called off so quickly, but I ask that you let that go. Also, it was pointed out to me that it's not required to wear seatbelts on the big yellow monstrosities dubbed 'buses'. I know that, but from personal experience, some bus drivers require that the kids wear them, especially the younger ones; we're going to operate under the premise that this is one such driver.

Thanks: To Bonnie May and Selene who beta'ed for me, and to the people who volunteered to; all mistakes are mine, I can be incredibly obstinate when I want to be and didn't take all the suggestions that I probably should have. Also, thanks to the creators of the ATF and LB universes, couldn't have done this without them.

Feedback to Author: Sage

Chris picked up the phone in the middle of the second ring.


"Mr. Larabee? This is Detective Williams of the Denver PD," a voice on the other line said, he sounded concerned and worried about something.

"How can I help you, officer?" Chris asked, distracted by the paperwork he was working on for the team's most recent case, he was only half paying attention to the voice on the other end of the line.

"Mr. Larabee, there was an accident earlier this afternoon involving a school bus." At this the detective had Chris's complete attention. "Route 13 from Winslow Elementary School crashed earlier this afternoon, the bus driver lost control of the vehicle and went off the road."

Oh God. "V — Vin and JD?" He could barely get the words out.

"JD Dunne is fine, a few cuts and bruises, nothing serious, he's being treated at the scene." There was a noticeable hesitation in the detective's voice.

It was 'JD's fine', not 'they're both fine'. Oh God, Vin. "What about Vin?"

Williams took a deep breath before continuing. "We haven't found Vin Tanner yet; it appears that he might have been thrown out of the vehicle and wandered off. He wasn't in the bus when we got there, and by the time that we noticed that he was missing, the snow had obliterated all traces of him. We've got dogs on the way."

Chris sat in shock. Vin — Vin was out there somewhere, alone, probably scared, undoubtedly cold, maybe even injured. And his time was running out. Chris was no idiot, he knew that the chances of one small boy all alone surviving in this icy weather were small at best, and dwindled with every passing hour.

"Mr. Larabee, it would be best if you could get here, for your son, JD," the voice barely registered in Chris's head.

"I want to be part of the search," he stated flatly.

"Mr. Larabee, I'm not sure that would be such a good — "

"I want to be part of the search."

Detective Williams sighed. "I can't promise you anything — "

"Just tell me where you are."

Williams sighed again and relayed the information.

Chris sat motionless for a moment after hanging up the phone, then got up, grabbed his coat and practically ran into the main office. "Where's Buck?" He demanded of the other three agents harshly.

"Right here, Stud, what's up?" Buck asked, coming out of the break room with a coffee cup in his hand.

"Get your coat," he ordered, then turned to Josiah, "Josiah, you're in charge. Let's go Buck." He turned toward the door without a second glance at any of them.

"Hold up a second Pard, care to tell us what this is all about?"

"I must concur, Mr. Larabee, your actions have us all a bit perplexed," Ezra seconded Buck's request for information.

Chris turned back towards his team, eyes like ice. "The boy's bus crashed this afternoon."

"Oh, God."

"Are they all right?"



All four spoke at once, voicing their concerns. "JD's fine," he relayed, "they haven't found Vin yet." He saw the looks of horror and fear on his agents faces. "I need you guys to hold down the fort until quitting time, we'll keep you posted and let you know if you can do anything."

The others nodded and Buck shrugged into his coat and headed towards the door. JD might not be physically hurt, but he needed him, and if Vin was... Buck needed to be there for him.

Ezra spoke before the two agents could get all the way to the door. "Mr. Larabee, if you could clarify what it is you mean by 'they haven't found Vin yet'?"

Chris closed his eyes and took a deep breath before answering. "They think he might have been thrown clear and wandered off," with that he and Buck left.

The other three watched them go in silence, absorbing their leaders last words. Being lost in the cold winter wilds could be just as much of a death sentence as if Vin were lost in the wreckage of the bus.

+ + + + + + +

It started to snow harder while Chris and Buck drove to the site of the accident. With every flake, their fear increased. Not only did the snow put Vin in more danger if he hadn't been found yet, it decreased the chances that he would be found. All Chris could think about was how scared his son must be, how cold. A part of him wondered why he wouldn't have made his way back to the bus even if he had been thrown from the large vehicle, and a pessimistic corner of his mind insisted that he must be unable for some reason to return to the bus. Another part of him clung to the belief that Vin was all right, that they'd have found him by the time he and Buck got there and the two agents would be able to take their sons home. But the niggling doubt remained that Chris couldn't dismiss as hard as he tried.

In his car following Chris' black Ram, Buck was just as concerned about the missing eight-year-old, but found his thoughts turning time and again to his precocious five-year-old son. JD must be terrified. He and Vin were very close and it was likely that none of the adults on the scene had told him anything.

Pulling his car to a halt beside Chris' just outside the police barrier, Buck barely waited for the car to stop before jumping out of it and running towards the scene. As it was, Chris had a huge head start.

Even to a trained eye it seemed chaotic. Dogs barked, children cried, parents yelled, police, fire and rescue crews swarmed over the scene.

Chris stopped short of the activity on the edge of the road and surveyed the scene, hoping desperately to catch a glimpse of his son. Buck caught up to him, also looking around for someone. But his someone saw him first.

"Buuck!" The shrill cry rent the air. Both ATF agents turned to see JD tear out of the back of the ambulance he had been sitting in, avoid restraining hands and come barreling towards his fathers.

Buck reached down and swept up the precious bundle, holding him close. JD sobbed into his shoulder, mumbling incoherently. Buck just held him, speaking soothingly in an effort to calm the child down.

Eventually, JD raised his tear-streaked face out of his father's shoulder. "Poppa, where's Vin?" He hiccupped. "They won't tell me where he is. Is he okay?"

The tearful voice tore at Buck's heart and he didn't know what to tell the little boy.

+ + + + + + +

Chris, seeing that Buck was dealing with the distraught JD, went to find someone who could tell him what the situation with Vin was. He stopped in his tracks when he got far enough off the road to see the bus over the small precipice it had run over. The front end was mangled, the vehicle having run into a tree, but beyond that it seemed relatively untouched. But Chris' blood ran cold at the sight; he knew Vin and JD usually sat in the front, the older kids claiming the back. Chris could easily see how Vin could have been thrown from the vehicle.

His fears were realized by the sight that met his eyes. Police roamed the area with dogs. If they were still out, then they couldn't have found Vin yet.

"What are you doing here?" a voice behind him demanded. "This is — "

Chris spun on the man, pulling his badge out in one fluid motion, green eyes deadly. "Chris Larabee, ATF," he spat coldly. "They're looking for my son."

Captain O'Reily took a deep breath and retreated from the rage and fear he saw in the man's eyes. "I'm sorry sir, I was not informed of your arrival," he apologized. "Vin Tanner, right?"

Larabee nodded. "What can you tell me?"

There was an edge to the man's voice that unnerved O'Reily. He gathered his courage to tell the man the bad news. "The bus driver said that there were a few boys teasing your son about wearing his seatbelt. The fact of the matter was that they were the ones in the wrong, because the driver requires that all the kids wear their seatbelts. Apparently Vin was sitting with his brother when they came up from the back of the bus and pulled him up from his seat. They started teasing him, pushing him around, the bus driver was telling them to break it up and go back to their seats when he hit a patch of ice that was hidden by the snow. When he impacted with the tree your son along with one of the bullies was thrown from the bus, the other had fallen into a seat when the driver lost control. The other boy was killed when he was thrown out of the vehicle, but there were indications that your son got up and walked away. Unfortunately the snow had just about covered everything up by the time we got here."

Chris took a deep shuddering breath and closed his eyes against the pain and the fear. "What are you doing to find him? What are the chances we will find him?"

O'Reily took a deep breath and released it before answering. He gave Larabee the full, albeit harsh, truth, knowing that the ATF leader wouldn't appreciate it if he softened the truth. "There are multiple search parties out, a few with dogs at this point. The snow is hindering our efforts though and the chances that we'll find him alive get less the longer that we don't find him. It's cold, snowing, and it's going to be dark soon, there aren't any tracks to follow, the dogs can't find a scent. Those aren't good odds."

Chris nodded, refusing to give in to the pain those words caused. "I want to be part of the search."

"I'm not sure that would be such a good idea, Mr. Larabee, you're too close to this."

"I need to do this," Chris growled.

"I don't know Mr. Larabee," O'Reily studied the scared father and came to a conclusion; this man wouldn't just sit passively on the sidelines watching, and he wouldn't be a pleasant "spectator" if forced to. "I'll see what I can do," he sighed, "but I can't promise anything. Technically you shouldn't be involved."

"I know," Chris responded, "but I'd appreciate anything you could do." He turned and headed back to Buck and JD, leaving O'Reily behind him.

"Poppa, where's Vin? They won't tell me where he is. Is he okay?" Chris returned to Buck and JD in time to hear the youngster's frightened query. He listened as Buck stumbled through a response that didn't even begin to answer JD's question.

"We don't know where Vin is, JD," Chris said quietly, startling both man and boy with his presence. "When the bus hit the tree, Vin was thrown out of the vehicle, do you remember?" Chris' voice was surprisingly calm and gentle with the child. Buck knew that he shouldn't have expected less of Chris, but he was a little surprised that Chris had been able to take his mind of Vin for long enough to explain things to the scared five year old.

JD nodded hesitantly. "Supposed to be wearin' a seatbelt," he murmured.

"Yeah, he was," Chris confirmed, "but I hear it wasn't Vin's fault that he wasn't wearing it." JD nodded his agreement from Buck's arms. "When Vin got thrown from the bus, he wandered away," Chris continued his explanation.


"I don't know, JD. Vin might have been hurt. If he hit his head, he might not be thinking straight."

"Vin always thinks straight," JD stated with confidence.

"If Vin hit his head, he might be confused," Buck interrupted to explain. "You remember when Uncle Ezra was all mixed up about where he was in the hospital a couple months age?" JD nodded. "Well, he hit his head, that's why he thought he was still in Atlanta."

"Oh," JD said quietly. "But even if he was all mixted up, why would Vin go 'way from the bus. I's cold out."

"I know it's cold," Buck agreed, "but Vin probably had his reasons."

JD nodded sagely. "Vin always has good reasons." He looked trustingly from one father to the other. "You gonna find him?"

Buck looked expectantly at Chris, silently asking what they were going to do.

"I'm going to stay here and help look, Buck is going to take you home."

Buck looked like he wanted to protest, but the child in his arms beat him to it. "Wanna stay an' look for Vin." The voice was solemn and sincere, the eyes wide and pleading. "Vin might be scared when you find him, you might need me."

Chris studied the dark haired child, considering his words. "You might be right," he conceded. "But I need you to go home and take care of Buck, make sure that he's okay. Ezra, Nathan and Josiah are going to be here soon to help me look. If we need your help, we'll make sure to call you. Do you think you can watch out for Buck for me?"

JD nodded, uncharacteristically serious. "You promise to bring Vin home?"

"I'll do my best," Chris whispered. JD nodded, seeming for all the world as if he knew that that was the best that Chris could give him.

"You sure you're going to be okay?" Buck asked quietly over JD's head.

"I'll be fine once we find him," Chris said grimly, mentally adding alive. "The rest of the guys'll be here soon. Go on home."

"Call if anything turns up."

Chris nodded and watched as Buck strode away, meeting the wide, innocent eyes that stared over his shoulder, hoping he appeared more confident than he felt.

Chris took out his cell phone, knowing that he should update the others before he got too involved, but wanting nothing more than to forgo the pointless exercise and get on with the search. He called Nathan.

"Nate, it's Chris."

"Hey Chris, you find anything?" Nathan's voice sounded strained with worry and Chris realized that this was probably just as difficult for the others as it was for he and Buck.

"Not yet," he informed him grimly. "Buck's taking JD home. He's a little shaken up, but he's okay. Wants to know where Vin is, nobody here told him what was going on."

Nathan swore quietly. "What did you tell him?"

"The truth."

"How'd he take it?"

"I'm not sure he really understands what's going on."

"Yet. Probably won't be too long until he's askin' Buck if Vin's dreaming with angels."

"Hopefully he won't have to ask."

"We'll be there in an hour," Nathan informed him. Chris glanced at his watch and noted that they'd be leaving about half an hour before quitting time to get there by five, and couldn't bring himself to care. "Call us if you find anything before we get there, okay?"

"Of course," Chris assured him.

"Well, get out there and find him," Nathan ordered, tone half joking, but still deadly serious.

"Yes sir," Chris responded with a lightness he did not feel before hanging up.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was assigned to help a team, and he worked tirelessly, a frantic attitude colored his actions. The other members of the search party watched him with a deepening sadness as more and more time passed and still the father didn't find his son.

The others arrived and were assigned to teams without much fuss, and still nothing was found. It was approaching nine o'clock when the teams were called in.

Chris didn't know what to think when they were going back to the scene of the accident. Hope warred with fear, he couldn't believe that they would have called of the search, yet there had been no word that Vin had been found. When the impromptu "base camp" came into view, fear won out, then crystallized into anger. They were packing up to go home, but there was a downcast slump to everyone's shoulders that told him that Vin had yet to be found. His men stood in a small group, grim faced and determined. Ezra appeared to be arguing with Captain O'Reily.

Ezra swore at the obstinate man before of him, of course, he did so eloquently with his customary ten-dollar words, so his audience was lucky to catch every third. Larabee's men knew, though, and the Captain was beginning to realize it. "Mr. Standish, I understand — "

O'Reily would have sworn that the temperature dropped several degrees as he found himself confronted with an enraged blond juggernaut. "No," he hissed, "I don't think you do. That's my son out there. My son. And you're just going to give up on him. Explain to me why that makes sense."

O'Reily looked into those frozen green eyes, and felt very thankful to still be alive, even if it wasn't for long. "It's been almost six hours, my men are tired, it's cold, it's dark, and there isn't a trace to be found of the boy," the excuse sounded hollow and weak, even to his ears.

O'Reily stared up at the ATF leader, knowing that this man was willing to make his life an absolute living hell. "What if it was your son?" Chris ground out, fingers twitching with the desire to wind themselves around the bastards neck.

"We'll resume the search tomorrow morning," O'Reily informed him coolly.

"He could be dead by then," Chris growled.

"He's probably already dead." O'Reily didn't like having to break bad news to parents, and the last thing he wanted to do was tell this man that there was virtually no hope that his son was still alive, but it had to be done, and by virtue of position, he was the one that had to do it.

Chris took a step back, then hauled off and hit the man. O'Reily dropped as if he'd been pole-axed. Chris turned to his men, noting distantly the grimly pleased expression on all their faces, Nathan didn't even move to check the downed man. "I'm staying," Larabee said quietly.

"You say that as if you do not expect us to accompany your esteemed self in this most important endeavor," Ezra stated calmly. "You do not truly expect that we would leave one of our number unaccounted for in his hour of need, do you?"

Chris saw the agreement on all their faces. "No, Ez, I guess not. And thanks."

Ezra gave him his customary two-fingered salute.

O'Reily watched with quiet admiration from the ground as the men broke up into pairs to continue their search, Larabee and Standish, Jackson and Sanchez. He had really expected no less from these men.

He rubbed his jaw as he slowly stood. He'd have a bruise, a nasty one if he was any judge, but he wasn't going to press charges. O'Reily had seen enough distraught parents to be prepared for this kind of response. Besides, the mood they were in, Larabee's men would probably say they hadn't seen anything.

If he survives, that kid is the luckiest kid on earth. O'Reily wished the four men luck.

+ + + + + + +

"Josiah, I'm gonna call Buck before we go out again," Nathan quietly informed his friend. "He should know what's going on, and it's been a while since we updated him."

"Sounds like a plan," Josiah agreed, glancing over his shoulder at Chris and Ezra as they disappeared back into the woods. "I doubt Brother Chris has remembered to keep him updated."

Nathan nodded grimly and exhaled before calling the ranch. He knew there was probably a good deal of truth behind that statement.

Josiah moved a few steps away to give Nathan a little room, but he still listened with half an ear to the conversation.

"Buck, it's Nate... No, we haven't found him yet." Nathan hesitated visibly and tensed almost as if expecting a blow. "They called off the search." Josiah could hear Buck's response, if not the specific words from where he was standing. Nathan held the phone away from his ear. Eventually Buck must have run out of steam because the noise decreased, and Nathan put the phone to his ear again. "Yeah, we're gonna keep lookin'. One of us'll let you know when we find him.... We will. Alright, take care of that other little one for us. ... Later Buck." He flipped the phone closed.

"That went well," Josiah joked quietly.

Nathan rolled his eyes. "If Buck'd been here, O'Reily wouldn't have survived."

"He's frustrated he can't be here helping."

"Yeah," Nathan murmured, looking away. "You think he's still alive?" Nathan asked quietly.

Josiah studied his friend for a long minute. "I have faith that the Lord will keep watch over our missing lamb until we arrive."

Nathan nodded, noting that that didn't necessarily answer the question. "Well, let's go find our lamb then."

+ + + + + + +

Buck picked up the phone on the first ring. While he hadn't exactly been waiting by the phone, he had been hovering within reach all afternoon and into the night. And now, late into the evening, JD curled up asleep on the couch next to him, the call that Buck had been expecting finally came. And he dreaded what the news would be. "Hello," he greeted.

"Buck, it's Nate," the voice of the medic came through the line.

"You got Vin?" Hope and desperation warred in his voice.

"No, we haven't found him yet." Buck visibly deflated, sinking into the sofa. He didn't say anything, knowing there was more. "They called off the search," Nathan informed him, obviously not happy with the situation.

Buck swore vehemently, trying to remember to keep his voice down in deference to the impressionable young boy asleep on his lap. He wasn't very successful. "You're still looking, right?" he growled eventually, knowing even as he asked that they wouldn't stop searching until they found him, one way or another. That morbid thought sent a chill down Buck's spine.

"Yeah, we're gonna keep lookin'. One of us'll let you know when we find him."

"Just make sure you do," Buck said quietly.

"We will," Nathan assured him. "Alright, take care of that other little one for us."

"Will do, Nate."

"Later Buck."

"'K." Buck put down the phone and laid his head back against the back of the couch, willing the tears he felt welling in his eyes not to fall.

"Buck?" a small voice called from the vicinity of his lap.

"Yeah, Little Bit?" Buck asked, opening his eyes and looking down on the precious bundle curled up in his lap.

"Is Vin dreamin' of angels?" Desperate brown eyes were full of fear and tears.

The question took Buck's breath away, knowing exactly what that meant to the two little boys. JD was asking if Vin was dead. "No, Little Bit," Buck said comfortingly, with a confidence that he didn't feel.

"Then how come you's so worried? Where is he?" JD was pleading with him to tell him that his best friend, his brother, was all right.

Buck was momentarily at a loss as to what to tell him, but Buck knew that he deserved the truth, and Buck didn't want to be the next in a long line of people who lied to the precocious little boy. "Vin got lost this afternoon," Buck explained carefully, "after the bus crashed."

JD shook his head, denying Buck's words. "Vin doesn't get lost," he proclaimed confidently.

"Well, ya see, the thing, is we think that Vin hit his head and that he mighta been confused so he wandered off," Buck did his best to explain in terms the child would understand without scaring him.

"Oh." JD seemed to deflate with the statement. "An' you can't find him, an' ya don't think that he can find his way home."

Buck stroked the boy's hair, pulling him close. He wished, just this once that JD wasn't as smart as he was, that somehow he could have shielded his son from that knowledge. "Chris'll find him," Buck whispered. "Chris won't give up 'til he finds him, and he's got all a the boys helpin' him."

JD nodded his head against Buck's chest. "Chris'll find him," the child echoed with absolute faith, "just like if'n I was lost, you'd find me."

Buck felt his heart swell at that simple declaration of faith and love. "You bet I would, Pard. Now, don't you worry about a thing, 'fore ya know it, Vin'll be back here and the two a you'll be playin' cowboys an' injuns like nothing happened." JD's soft giggle was muffled by Buck's chest, but it warmed Buck's heart. "Come on, Pard, let's get you in bed," Buck murmured, shifting JD so that he could carry him easier.

"Wanna stay with you," JD protested sleepily.

Buck gazed down at the tousled mop, love sparkling in his eyes. "Alright," he whispered quietly, leaning down to kiss his son's head, "we'll stay right here together and wait for the phone to ring."

JD settled himself into a more comfortable position in his father's lap. "Together," he mumbled.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra watched Chris as he plowed determinedly through the gathering snow. The man's dedication was admirable, but Ezra could sense a growing despair in the man.

The others didn't see it, didn't want to see it, maybe. Chris was their leader, they looked up to him, and now, in a time when they needed to be able to believe in miracles the most, they wouldn't allow themselves to see Chris' fear. But Ezra was a man that knew a mask when he saw one.

"Are you alright, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked when Chris stopped once more.

Chris spun to look at the Southerner, intending to give him a piece of his mind, but in the sincere green eyes he saw an understanding that he hadn't expected to see. He sighed, eyes traveling beyond the undercover agent to scan the landscape. "Why'd he leave?" Chris whispered. "He must of known that he'd be safe if he stayed with the bus, and I never would have thought he'd leave JD there all alone."

"Mr. Larabee, may I remind you that Mr. Tanner is still very much a wild and distrustful child; a child with some truly horrendous memories. It is likely that he wasn't thinking clearly and that something about the situation frightened him into running away from safety instead of towards it."

"Like what?" Larabee challenged.

"Like, perhaps he hit his head and was disoriented," Ezra snapped back, "or maybe he saw the body of that other boy and got scared."

"Vin's seen that sort of thing before," Chris dismissed, at the same time hating the fact that it was true.

"Perhaps," Ezra countered," but the circumstances were different this time, and he might fear your response if he considered himself responsible."

"What do you mean?" Chris asked, confused.

"Simply observing that the last thing that the young Master Tanner wants to face is your condemnation, and perhaps he believes that his actions would have garnered your disgust."

"I wouldn't — " Chris protested. "He couldn't possibly think that."

"Recall for a moment that it is Mr. Tanner of whom we speak, and that he has an amazing capacity for guilt, forced upon him by his life thus far and those less than desirable cretins masquerading as homo-sapiens with whom Vin spent far too much of his young life."

Chris broke eye contact and sighed. "Damn," he breathed.


"You think he's still alive?" Chris asked, allowing the fear that he'd been feeling since receiving the call this afternoon to show through for the first time.

Ezra was touched by the depths of the trust that Chris was displaying by allowing him to see his vulnerability. He answered as honestly as he could. "Master Tanner is a survivor above all else; no doubt he is much more comfortable at the moment than we are."

Chris snorted in what was almost a laugh. "With any luck, he found an abandoned cabin somewhere and is holed up in front of a roaring fire," Chris commented, turning away from Ezra and back to the search.

Ezra smiled his agreement, turning his flashlight back to their surroundings, looking for anything that might indicate that a seven year old had passed through the area. Something of to his right caught his attention. Ezra frowned, trying to discern what had attracted his attention. Perhaps it was nothing, all he could see was uninterrupted snow and trees. Ezra took a few steps in the direction he was looking and understood why the area had attracted his attention. The snow might have been uninterrupted, yes, but it wasn't undisturbed.

A smile tugged at his lips as he realized what he was looking at. "Perhaps not a cabin," he commented, "but certainly the next best thing."

Chris turned at the comment and saw that Ezra had wandered off in another direction. He directed his gaze to where Ezra was focused. He couldn't see anything, but the ramifications of the Southerners words slowly sunk in. "You found him?" he asked breathlessly, hurriedly catching up with the undercover agent.

"It is a distinct possibility," Ezra told him, studying the area illuminated by his flashlight intently.

"I don't see anything," Chris growled with frustration.

"Direct your attention to the illuminated area," Ezra directed his confused leader. "Notice how the snow seems to be disturbed. It is possible that someone burrowed under the snow there."

"Someone like Vin."

"It would have been a very intelligent move on Master Tanner's part, and he has enough sense and knowledge of the great outdoors to consider doing so. I would, however, advise approaching with due caution," Ezra's words gave Chris pause, "it's possible that it is nothing of significance." They proceeded at a more sedate pace than either of them would have preferred.

+ + + + + + +

Vin woke to a pounding head and pain in his right side; and he quickly learned not to move his right arm for fear of the searing pain in his shoulder. He stood up and looked around.

Vin saw the bus first. Fear washed through him at the sight of the large yellow vehicle crushed against the tree. "JD," he whispered.

Next he saw the lifeless form of Brad the Bully lying motionless on the pristine snow, his neck lay at an odd angle and blood leaked from the corner of his mouth.

All thoughts of his adopted brother fled from Vin's thoughts at the sight. Brad was dead... He was dead — and it was his fault. Chris would hate him. Vin felt the sob well up in him. Chris was going to hate him. And Vin knew that he was right to do so.

It wasn't really a conscious thought to run, but with only a glance back at the bus and the assurance that Buck would take care of JD, Vin was steadily making his way into the woods.

It began to snow.

+ + + + + + +

Vin dropped in the snow. He was cold, tired and hungry. Every step got harder as the snow got deeper with each flake.

Vin glanced behind him longingly. His heart was telling him to go back, but his head insisted that there was nothing to go back to.

With a huge sigh, he forced himself up and trudged onwards, but the next time he fell he realized that he had to find some kind of shelter, even bundled up the way that he was, he could feel himself going numb, even his injuries didn't hurt as much any more.

Vin wondered detachedly about the chances of finding a cave to hole up in until the storm passed, but he realistically realized that the chances of finding one were slim to none, and even then, while it would offer shelter, it would do nothing to keep him warm.

Listen to me, boy, this is important the strong, clear voice of the grandfather he'd all but forgotten echoed in Vin's head. If you ever get stuck outside in the wintertime, you dig yourself a hole in the snow and you curl up in there. Make sure that you leave an airhole, so you can breath. It will be warmer in there than if you're out in the snow.

Vin nodded to himself, blinking away the snowflakes that had accumulated on his eyelashes.

He started digging.

+ + + + + + +

Vin curled up in his little burrow. His ribs ached, his head was pounding and the searing pain in his shoulder had been reawakened by his efforts.

Vin closed his eyes and tried not to think, but events from the day sprang unbidden to his mind. He saw the crash over and over again, with frightening clarity the horrific events played in his memory.

He wanted so badly to be home, with his father's arms wrapped securely around him, knowing that he was loved, but Vin knew that that wasn't an option. Chris would hate him after today, he'd made Brad die, and now Chris wouldn't want him.

Tears slipped out from beneath his closed lids and rolled down cold cheeks. Even if he had stayed, Chris would have sent him away. Vin didn't want to go back into foster care; he wanted Chris. But Chris wouldn't want him, not after today. He told himself that it was better this way.

Curled into a tight ball, hurting from his injuries and aching from the loss of the best thing he ever had, Vin slipped off to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Ezra approached the disturbed snow carefully. Chris barely dared to hope that they might have found what they were looking for. Doubts ran rampant in his head. What if it's not him? What if we're just wasting time? Time we don't have? What if it is him, and we're already too late? What if he's dead?

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra reprimanded quietly, "it would be most appreciated if you could tone down your anxieties."

Chris shook his head and tried to do as asked.

Ezra easily found the opening left for air, despite the fact that it was mostly obscured by freshly fallen snow. Both men felt a surge of hope at the discovery. Dropping to their knees, the two men made short work of uncovering the burrow's small occupant.

Chris was paralyzed with fear at the sight of Vin curled up and laying on his side in the small hole. There was no indication as to whether or not he still lived. The little boy was motionless, skin pale almost to the point of being blue, and his tears had frozen to his cheeks. "Oh, God," he breathed, "Vin."

Ezra was momentarily frozen by the same fear, but recovered quickly. He took off a glove and reached a shaking hand towards the child.

Ezra felt his world had come to a screeching halt as he placed his cold fingers to Vin's neck and felt... nothing.

Ezra had never been a very religious man, but in that one moment he would have railed for all he was worth against the injustices of a cruel and unfeeling God. And in the next instant he was praising him as a just and merciful Lord as a slow pulse beat against his freezing fingers.

Chris saw both the pain and anger and the relief that followed a second later on the Southerner's face. Ezra barely got the whispered "He's alive," out before Chris was snatching his son up and wrapping him securely in his coat against his body for warmth.

"Be careful," Ezra warned, hearing a small moan from the unconscious child, "we don't know what kind of injuries he sustained in the crash."

Chris nodded his agreement, having seen the blood that marred the side of his son's face. "Call the others," he instructed quietly, his focus never leaving his son.

Ezra nodded and straightened and moved away, searching for his cell phone to call Nathan and Josiah.

+ + + + + + +

The unexpected ring startled Nathan. He and Josiah were in the middle of nowhere, with two flashlights, a prayer and flagging hope when the abrupt cessation of silence caused the medic to jump. "What — ?"

"Your cell phone, Brother," Josiah pointed out, amusement coloring his quiet words.

"Oh. Right," Nathan grinned repentantly then hurried to find and activate the device. "Jackson," he greeted.

"Ah, Mr. Jackson," the cool and unhurried tones of the Southern undercover agent rang clearly through the cellular connection. A brief flash of anger that Ezra could be so calm in a situation like this was followed immediately by a surge of hope.

"Did you find him?" Nathan demanded. He knew that he had Josiah's attention, but he was too focused on what Ezra had to say to really care.

"Indeed, Mr. Jackson, we were successful in our endeavor."

"Well? Is he alright?" Both men waited with baited breath for the answer.

"He is alive, yes, and cold certainly."

"Oh thank God," Nathan breathed, sagging in relief. "Anything else?"

"We have been unable to ascertain the extent of his injuries, although judging from the blood adorning his outer garments, it would be sufficient to say that he has sustained an injury of some sort. Currently Mr. Larabee is doing his best to warm the boy."

Nathan nodded, though Ezra couldn't see it. "Alright. He can't be too badly injured if he walked as far as he did," Nathan reasoned. "Bring him back to the road, I'll take a look at them there." He paused for a moment, thinking. "Would you like to call the hospital, or Buck?"

There was a pause before Ezra answered. "I believe I will take the hospital. You may tell Mr. Wilmington that we have located Master Tanner, that he appears to be in relatively good health, considering the circumstances and that we will transport our young charge to the nearest hospital presently."

"Alright Ez, we'll see you in a little bit." Nathan closed the phone and turned to Josiah. "They found him," he breathed.

"I heard, Brother," Josiah replied with a huge grin. "Now, let's get back so that we can see to the safe return of our missing lamb."

+ + + + + + +

The phone ringing woke the little boy nestled in his father's lap. JD looked around, confused, this wasn't his room, why was he in the living room, where was Vin? He remembered then, Vin was missing, and Chris and his uncles were looking for him, that's why he was with his dad in the living room.

JD looked up at his father as the phone kept ringing. Buck showed no signs of moving or waking in any way. JD watched his father for a second before coming to a decision and climbing carefully over his father to get to the phone.


"JD? Is that you?" Uncle Nathan's voice came over the phone.

"Yep. Unc'a Nathan, didya find Vin?"

"Yes, JD, we did. Can I talk to Buck?"

JD glanced at his father. "He's sleeping," the little boy informed his uncle. "Is Vin okay?"

"He's going to be," Nathan assured the little boy. "Can you wake Buck up for me? I need to talk to him."

Buck stirred, slowly coming awake. He opened his eyes to find a small face with innocent hazel eyes staring up at him. "Poppa, are you awake?"

"Yeah, Li'l Bit, I'm awake," Buck replied, blinking the sleep out of his eyes.

"Uncle Nathan wants to talk to you."

Buck sat up straight at those words. It was then that he noticed the phone clasped loosely in JD's hand as he balanced on his father's thigh. He took the phone from JD, pulling the little boy tight against him. "Nate?"

"Buck," Nathan exclaimed. "Chris and Ezra found him, he's alive."

Buck let out a loud, excited whoop, JD providing the harmony with his innocent giggles.

"We're gonna take him to the nearest hospital, check him out, make sure he's okay," Nathan's voice broke into Buck's exaltations.

"Okay, Nate, I'll see ya in a bit."

"See ya, Buck." Laughter echoed in Nathan's voice.

"Bye, Unca Nathan," JD called into the phone.

Nathan's chuckle bloomed into a full-blown laugh. "Tell the peanut I said 'bye'."

"Will do," Buck chuckled in response.

"Poppa, when's Vin coming home?" JD asked, bouncing up and down on his lap.

"Slow down, Li'l Bit," Buck cautioned, laughing. "Chris is going to take Vin to the hospital, so they probably won't be home 'til tomorrow."

"Oh," JD deflated a bit. Then, as if thinking of something, he brightened. "Can we go see him?"

Buck laughed at his small charge, but he couldn't find it in himself to deny the child what he himself wanted so badly. "Yeah, Pard, we can go see him. Let's go get you into some cloths first though."

JD agreed readily, racing in front of his father to get the chore done so that they could go see Vin.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was dreaming. He was dreaming that he was warm and safe wrapped in his father's arms. Vin knew that he had to be dreaming, because Chris hated him, he wouldn't want Vin anywhere near him.

Vin knew that he was dreaming, but he also knew that this was the last time that he would feel this safe, so he forgot that this was a dream and snuggled into the warmth and safety of this dream.

+ + + + + + +

"Where are they?" Chris growled as he paced the roadside. Fear roughened his voice as he vented on Ezra. Vin hadn't moved since just after they had found him. With the exception of the slight shifting and quiet moan just after Chris had settled his son against his chest, inside his jacket, Vin had lain limp and lifeless the entire journey back to the cars.

"I'm certain that our compatriots will be joining us shortly," Ezra said calmly from his position leaning against the fender of Chris's truck where he had been watching the blond pace.

Chris turned slowly, deliberately, on Ezra, ever mindful of his son, a murderous glint in his eyes. "How the hell can you sit there so calm, as if nothing was wrong?" Chris demanded. "Don't you care?"

Green fire sparked in Ezra's eyes. "How dare you," he hissed, pushing himself upright and stalking forward a few steps. "Of course I care, but there is little that I can do at the moment, the hospital has been notified, and an ambulance dispatched, Nathan is fast approaching and you are doing all that can be done to warm Vin. There is nothing else you or I can do until either Nathan or the EMT's arrive. I am very sorry if I am not displaying the proper amount of fear and apprehension, but I can assure you that I feel them just the same."

Chris sighed, knowing he'd screwed up royally. "I'm sorry Ez," he apologized, "that wasn't fair. I know you care, it's just... I'm scared Ez. He hasn't so much as moved since we found him."

Ezra nodded his understanding. "Be assured that help is on its way. Vin will be fine."

Chris nodded. "I sure hope you're right, Ez," he whispered.

Ezra tilted his head to the side and listened intently. "Ah, I do believe I hear our companions now." Josiah and Nathan exited the woods. "Gentlemen," Ezra called in greeting, "So good to see you. I trust that your excursion was most enjoyable."

Josiah shook his head at their teammate's antics. "Brother, sometimes I wonder how you survived so long in this world."

Ezra flashed him a toothy grin. "Trade secret," he informed the profiler. Josiah rolled his eyes.

"How is he?" Nathan asked Chris quietly.

Fearful green eyes met worried brown ones. "He hasn't moved since we found him."

"I need to see him," Nathan informed him. "I don't suppose either of you thought to start your car to get the heater working."

Chris shook his head repentantly; Ezra gestured to his gently thrumming Jag. "I thought that it might come in handy." He grinned.

Chris carried Vin over to the Southerner's car, refusing to allow anyone to take his burden from him. Gently he lay Vin down on the driver's seat, then he slipped out of the way so that Nathan could get in to check Vin.

Nathan worked quickly and efficiently, not wanting to keep Vin exposed to the cold night air any longer than possible. "Well," he said, drawing out of the car to tell his teammates what he had found, "he's got a broken collarbone, bruised ribs, and a knot on his head that could amount to a concussion, plus some cuts and abrasions. There's nothing too serious and he should recover, but I still think you should bring him to the hospital."

Chris nodded at the assessment, eyes fixed on Vin.

"An ambulance is already on the way," Ezra informed the healer.

Nathan nodded, shucking off his jacket to lay over the sleeping child. Turning back to the others, he found himself presented with three more jackets.

A laugh bubbled up from inside him. Nathan shook his head incredulously and accepted the coats, knowing that Vin needed all the warmth he could get and that arguing would be fruitless.

+ + + + + + +

Chris listened to the wail of the ambulance as it got progressively closer. His eyes never left the small form, sleeping ensconced in coats and blankets in the front seat of Ezra's car. It was a miracle that they had found the boy, and Chris wanted nothing more than to hold that miracle in his arms and revel at his presence, at the life in the small boy.

Caution stopped him from reaching into the car and scooping his son up. Chris didn't want to cause more pain to Vin. He was scared that too much had been done already.

Vin still hadn't woken up. Nathan assured him that he was fine, but fear chewed at Chris's gut. What if Vin wasn't all right? What if Vin died? Chris didn't think he could deal with losing another child.

How did you let him get so close? A voice inside him question. You should have known better after last time. Walk away, Larabee. Everyone would be better off if you just walk away.

But another voice, one that sounded suspiciously like Buck Wilmington, angrily overrode the other. Listen up, Pard, you walk away from that kid, and I'm gonna kick your ass so far inta next month it'll be spring before you see light again. That boy needs you. Hell, you need him just as much. If you decide you want ta self-flagellate your ass, that's all well an' good, but I'll be damned if I'll let you take that boy down with you. He deserves better.

Chris shook his head and wondered when his conscience had started sounding like Buck Wilmington. Buck's been your conscience for a long time, Chris told himself, you just haven't had the good sense to recognize it before.

Medical personnel that Chris hadn't even realized had arrived were pushing him out of the way to get to Vin. Chris stood to the side as they worked with cold and impersonal precision to evaluate Vin's condition, then bundled him onto a stretcher and loaded him into the ambulance. He and the others listened as one of the EMT's listed off Vin's injuries, although there was nothing different from what Nathan had already told them.

Josiah had the wherewithal to question them about their destination, although none of them were surprised to here that they were headed to County General.

Chris watched as the ambulance trundled down the road, the most important thing in his life bundled into the back with cold efficiency.

Get a move on, Pard, Buck whispered inside his head. Junior's been through hell, and he's gonna need you when he wakes up.

+ + + + + + +

He was cold. That was the first thing Vin was aware of. The pain was a close second, though.

Vin was pretty sure that he was waking up. The dream was gone. Vin felt the painful loss of his father's embrace, even though he knew it was just a dream.

The hands that Vin could feel poking and prodding him told Vin that he was no longer alone. But Vin probably felt more alone then than he had all day. There were people there, but not the one that Vin wanted — needed.

Don't be stupid, he berated himself, Chris ain't gonna come. Somebody's dead 'cause a' you, Chris'll hate ya forever.

Vin drifted back into the dubious safety of oblivion.

+ + + + + + +

Chris looked through the door at his young son, lying curled up on the bed in the darkened room. He looked so small.

The doctors had already seen to him, wrapping his ribs, setting his collarbone and diagnosing his head injury as nothing serious. For his part, Vin had been in and out of consciousness, but he hadn't spoken a word since they had brought him in.

A few minutes ago, a nurse had come into the waiting room and told them that the doctor wanted to keep Vin overnight for observation, and he was settled in a room so they could go in to see him if they wanted, but he was sleeping, and they weren't to disturb him.

The others had insisted that he go in to see Vin, and, at the time, all Chris had wanted to do was go in, scoop his son up in his arms, hold him close and tell him that everything was going to be all right.

Standing in the doorway now, Chris was at a loss for what to do. Part of him wanted to go in, but a part of him was deathly afraid of entering the room. Indecision froze him half in, half out of the room.

"Hey Pard, how's our boy?" Buck's quiet voice came from behind him. Chris turned to see his conscience standing in the hallway, a sleeping child cradled in his arms. Buck grinned at him. "JD wanted to come," he explained, "he just didn't quite make it all the way here."

"And you had nothing to do with it." Chris raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

Buck shrugged. "He okay?"

"Broke his collarbone," Chris told him. "Bruised his ribs, bumped his head, got some cuts and bruises, and he was mildly hypothermic."

"They gonna let us take him home?"


Buck studied his friend. Chris looked worn, tired. "You okay, Pard?"

Chris didn't answer the question. Eventually he said, "He looks so small and alone."

"Ya know, there's an easy way to fix that," Buck pointed out gently. He studied his friend; Chris was tense, every line of his body plainly displaying his pain and fear. "Ya can't play the 'what if' game, Chris, you miss too much, lose too much that way. Vin's in there, he's alive, and he's going ta need you when he wakes up, maybe more than ever. He saw a boy die, someone he knew at that, even if he didn't like him. Knowing that boy, he probably thinks he's responsible."

Chris knew that Buck was probably right, but... "He ran away."

"You won't know what happened for sure until he tells you. Whatever his reasons, he wasn't running away from you."

"Maybe," Chris said noncommittally, "maybe not." He turned away from Vin's room.

Buck watched with a heavy heart as his best friend walked away.

+ + + + + + +

Vin knew he was awake this time. He had figured out that he was in a hospital, but that hadn't been hard, the cool temperature, antiseptic smell and persistent background noise had been easy give-aways. He also knew he was alone. It was no longer a surprise, Vin had come to expect it, but it still hurt some.

Vin heard voices at the door. They were too quiet for Vin to really hear, but sounded vaguely familiar. Prob'ly just doctors, Vin told himself. No one else'd care.

Soft footfalls brought someone to the bed, but Vin didn't take much notice other than to be glad that if it was a doctor or nurse, they weren't poking and prodding as they were wont to do.

A soft hand caressing his hair startled the child. He jerked slightly at the touch, then carefully turned his head to confront his assailant while causing the least amount of pain from his immobilized shoulder. He found himself face to face with the normally jovial ladies' man. "B — Buck?"

"Hey Junior," Buck greeted the child quietly, "didn't know you were awake. How you doing?"

The single good shoulder rose and fell in a half shrug, eyes carefully averted. "'m okay," he muttered. "Buck?" Wide blue eyes looked up at the big man after a long moment of careful deliberation, eyes drifting momentarily to the slumbering JD. "Promise me you'll take care'a JD for me. Please? He deserves a good home and he's happy with you."

"Vin — "

"Promise," the little boy repeated with more force.

"I promise," Buck told the child honestly. "But where are you gonna be during all this?"

Vin broke eye contact. One shouler moved up then down in a lopsided shrug. "Chris don't want me around any more, he hates me."

Buck was speechless for a second. "Why do you think Chris hates you?"

"Brad's dead, an' it's my fault. Chris is right ta hate me fer it."

It took Buck a second to connect "Brad", to the bully who had died earlier. But he did know that it wasn't Vin's fault that he had died. "It wasn't your fault that Brad died, Vin, and Chris doesn't hate you," Buck tried to assure the little boy, but he knew that there was only one person who Vin was likely to believe.

Vin didn't believe the kind-hearted man. Oh, he knew that Buck meant well, but Vin had heard the slight hesitation in Buck's voice. Vin didn't respond, just turned away from Buck once more and slowly drifted off into a restless sleep.

Buck sat with Vin until he was sure that the little boy was asleep. He didn't really need to wonder why Vin thought Chris hated him. Vin took responsibility for all together too much, it was only natural that he'd assume guilt for what had happened, even if it wasn't his fault. And Vin knew how his father prized life. To top all that off, Chris hadn't even been in to see the boy yet, and if Vin had heard them talking before Buck had come in, had heard Chris walk off...

Blood boiling, Buck rose to his feet. Settling the still sleeping JD in the chair he had just vacated, Buck exited the room, hell bent for leather. He'd make that stubborn cowboy see sense if it was the last thing he did.

Chris Larabee may not deserve something as pure and precious as Vin Tanner, but Vin Tanner sure as hell deserved the hero he saw in Chris Larabee, and Buck was going to make sure he got him.

+ + + + + + +

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" An enraged voice growled from behind him. Chris turned to face his aggressor. He found himself grabbed around the collar and shoved up against a convenient wall, the snarling visage of Buck Wilmington barely inches away.

"I could ask you the same thing," Chris ground out. He had been wandering the halls of the hospital aimlessly, wrestling with his emotions when Buck had attacked him.

"That boy back there is laying in bed, hurt, guilt ridden, and convinced that you hate him, and you don't even have the decency to go to him and appease his fears."

"I don't — Why would he feel guilty?" Chris stuttered.

"Why did you blame yourself after Sarah and Adam died?" Buck sneered. "And it don't matter whether or not you really hate him, what matters is he thinks you do."

Chris paled at the reference to his wife and son. "You have no right — "

"I have every right," Buck snarled, slamming Chris into the wall again. "I don't know why, but that boy sees you as some kind of hero, and I'm not going to let you shatter that illusion. He deserves more than that. He deserves a hero; he deserves a father, and for some reason he thinks you're it, so get your head out of your ass and realize that this isn't all about you anymore."

"He ran, Buck," Chris said quietly, slumping in Buck's grasp.

"He didn't run from you, Chris," Buck assured softly, "not because he wanted what you have to end. He ran because he thought you wouldn't want him anymore."

"That's — "

"That's Vin, Pard. And you haven't done anything to convince him otherwise since finding him." Buck released him and stepped back, regarding Chris steadily.

Chris slumped against the wall, running a hand through his hair. "I'm real screwed up, aren't I?"

Buck chuckled quietly. "You're only human, Stud."

"That's reassuring," Chris grumbled.

Buck let out a booming laugh. "I don't know what you expected Pard. Now," Buck regarded Chris warmly, "go see that boy o' yours. You can still convince him you're perfect."

Chris shook his head in amazement. "What did I ever do to get that lucky?"

"I don't know Pard," Buck laughed quietly, "but what ever it was, I think we musta done it together."




"Anytime you need a conscience Stud, you can count on me."

Chris laughed quietly. "You got no idea Pard. No idea."

Buck wasn't quite sure what to say to that, but no response was required. He let Chris precede him down the hall, back towards the room where their sons were sleeping.

+ + + + + + +

Chris stared down at the small child sleeping in the bed. Buck and JD had been in the room for a little while before Buck decided that it was time to take JD home. He had woken the boy up so that he could see Vin before they left, promising that Vin and Chris would be home the next day. One by one, the members of team seven had filed in to see Vin and tell Chris that they were going home, until Chris was the only one left.

It would be dawn soon, and life in the hospital would resume its normal, hectic pace. Chris knew that he needed to talk to Vin, and he wanted to be able to do that without too many interruptions, but he was also reluctant to wake him.

Chris reached a hand out to stroke Vin's shoulder length hair. "I love you Vin," he whispered, "I hope you know that. No matter what, I love you."

+ + + + + + +

"I love you Vin, I hope you know that. No matter what, I love you." The words penetrated the shroud of sleep. Vin could feel the pull of consciousness, but he didn't want to wake up. He wanted to stay right here, where he could feel safe and loved.

Reality, as it invariably does, intruded. Vin opened his eyes to the semi-dark of the hospital room. He squeezed his eyes closed again. He didn't want to be here; he wanted to go home. A single tear escaped from his eye and rolled down his cheek.

Chris saw the tear. "Vin?" he called. "You awake, Cowboy?"

"Chris?" the quiet call came. Vin opened his eyes and cautiously searched the room for his father.

Chris got up and sat down at the edge of Vin's bed. "Right here, Pard," he said quietly.

Big, soulful blue eyes stared up at him. "You're not mad?" Vin's entire existence hung on the answer.

Chris's heart broke at the question and the insecurities and fears that it revealed. "No Cowboy, I'm not mad." Chris shifted so that he could hold his son in his lap, careful not to jar any of the boy's injuries. "You scared me somethin' awful though."

"'m sorry," Vin mumbled into Chris's chest. "I 'as scared. Thought you was gonna hate me; tha' ya wouldn't want me no more."

"Never happen Pard," Chris assured him, wrapping his arms tighter around the small bundle in his lap. "I'll always love you, and I'll always want you, no matter what happens or what you do."


"Promise," Chris replied, hating that he even had to ask. "The boy who died," Chris felt Vin stiffen a little in his arms, "I want you to know that it wasn't your fault. You don't have anything to feel guilty about."


"Promise." Chris laid his cheek carefully on Vin's head. "You never have to be afraid of me, Vin. I'll never do anything to hurt you, and I never want you to have to feel like you have to run from me." He felt Vin snuggle closer. "I love you Vin."

Vin's "I love you too, Dad," warmed his heart.

When the nurse came in to check her patient she found them curled up like that, both asleep, and both looking like they had everything they needed in the world.

+ + + + + + +


The house was quiet, only the normal creeks and groans of the building breaking the silence. They'd only brought Vin home from the hospital two days ago. JD had been bouncing up and down in excitement when Chris had walked in the door, Vin safely ensconced in his arms. Questions had tumbled out of the little boy's mouth at an astounding speed as he rocketed around the room.

Vin had responded by turning his head towards Chris and burying his face in Chris's shoulder.

Buck had taken one look at the eight year old and quickly taken the younger boy into the kitchen.

Things had settled back into their normal rhythm with relative ease, but JD had been cautioned not to bring up the crash with Vin and the two adults tread cautiously around the issue as well. Chris wasn't certain that Vin was completely over what had happened or had accepted that the death of the other boy wasn't his fault.

Chris was continually surprised by the resilience of children. Vin got better everyday, and even though he still couldn't use his arm and favored his right side, he was more active than Chris would have expected. That didn't make everything all better though.

Chris sighed and shifted in the rocker in the living room, the only light in the room the moonlight filtering in from the windows. Buck had taken JD into town earlier and they had decided to stay the night at Ezra's. Vin was doing a lot better, but hadn't felt up to going and now was sleeping in his room. Despite the late hour Chris found he couldn't sleep, so he was sitting in the dark room. Earlier he'd had to tear himself out of Vin's doorway where he had been hovering. Chris suspected that Vin was having nightmares about what had happened, but Vin hadn't said anything, but he was loath to broach the subject with his son for fear of bringing up memories if Vin truly had been able to deal with them.

Chris sighed. Who was he kidding, there was no way that Vin had just "gotten over" the death of another little boy, that just wasn't who he was. It was Chris who didn't want to dredge the subject up again; he was just as afraid to face it as Vin was.

The soft creak of the rocker was comforting and Chris felt himself relaxing to its steady rhythm. A small, virtually non-existent sound drew his attention to the door where the hall met the living room.

Vin stood there in his pajamas, barefoot and clutching Cat, he stood just inside the door, eyes fixed on Chris.

"Hey Cowboy," Chris called quietly, "you okay?"

Vin shrugged, averting his eyes.

"Come 'ere," Chris beckoned.

Vin moved silently across the room to stand in front of his father. One look into his loving green eyes and Vin carefully climbed into Chris' lap.

"Couldn't sleep?" Chris asked as Vin settled himself against his father and Chris wrapped the afghan from the back of the rocker around the two of them, setting the rocker to an easy rhythm. He felt Vin shake his head against him. "Bad dream?" This time the head nodded. "Want ta talk about it?"

Vin was quiet for so long that Chris thought that maybe he wasn't going to answer. "Keep seein' it over an' over," the quiet voice came eventually.

"The crash?" Chris asked when Vin didn't continue, although he didn't have to ask to know that was what Vin meant.

Chris felt Vin's head nod against his chest. "Why, Dad?" the small voice asked so softly that Chris almost didn't hear it.

"Why'd it happen?" Again the nod. "I don't know Vin, sometimes bad things just happen. Even to good people." Memory of Sarah and Adam caused him to tense a little. Vin shifted uncomfortably against him and Chris let the tension go with an ease that three years ago he never would have thought possible.

"Don't seem right," Vin mumbled.

"No it doesn't," Chris agreed, "but sometimes we just have to accept that it does and go on, grateful for what we do have."

Vin nodded. "'m grateful I've got you."

The rocker stilled momentarily as the sentiment Vin expressed stopped Chris in his tracks. His heart swelled at the love and trust conveyed in those simple words. "I'm grateful for you too Vin, more than I can ever say."

They rocked in silence for a while, the creak of the rocker the only sound in the dark room.

"How'd you know to dig that cave Vin?" Chris asked the question that had been bothering him since after they'd brought Vin home and he'd had a chance to process.

"'Member m' grandfather tol' me ta do that if'n I ever got caught outside in th' snow," Vin mumbled sleepily. "He knew lotsa stuff like that. Was teachin' me b'fore he died."

"Sounds like your grandpa was a really smart guy."

"Yep. 'Most as smart as you."

Chris smiled fondly at his son. He decided to add Vin's grandfather to his list of blessings.

Vin's mother and grandfather, JD's mom, Sarah, Adam, Nettie, Inez, Mary, Nathan, Josiah, Ezra, Buck, JD, and Vin. Always Vin. They were his blessings. And right now he was most grateful for the blessing in his arms.

The End

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