by Purple Lacey

Nathan smiled at Ezra as the little boy sidled up next to the window for the ninth time in as many minutes and gazed down into the busy streets. Ezra and Vin were staying with Nathan in his clinic for the afternoon helping him roll bandages and grind herbs. JD and Josiah had left four days ago to escort a prisoner, wanted for robbing a stage coach, to his trial in Gopher Gulch and were due back any day now. With their absence the remaining men had been pulling extra shifts. Chris was out checking on a report of cattle rustling on one of the nearby ranches and Buck was patrolling the town.

In the two weeks since Ezra's kidnapping, the child had taken to clinging to Chris Larabee's side like a limpet. Anytime Chris had to be separated from him, Ezra would restlessly watch for the man's return. What Nathan found most amusing was the number of excuses Chris found for stopping by several times a day to check on the boys. Not that Chris Larabee would admit that was what he was doing. No sir, he always had some well reasoned and completely logical reason for his visits, but he wasn't fooling anyone. Ezra's kidnapping had shaken the man to his core and he was still recovering his balance.

Truth be told, they all were. All of the regulators had been affected by the boy's disappearance. Nathan was absolutely sure that if anything had happened to that boy the town of Four Corner's would be looking for a new group of protectors. Chris would have been off somewhere seeking vengeance and drowning himself in a bottle. Buck would have taken off with Vin looking for a safe place where no one would separate them while he tried to put a devastated Vin back together. JD would have been lost in his own world of self recrimination and guilt for what he would have seen as his failure to do his duty and properly protect the child. Josiah might have stayed, but Nathan could see him just as easily chasing after JD attempting to repress his own grief by ministering to the young man. And Nathan himself...well, he figured he might have stayed on as the town's healer, but would have retired as a regulator. He just wouldn't have wanted to continue without his friends.

Ezra straightened suddenly and Nathan began mentally counting down to himself. He turned to face the closed door of his clinic with crossed arms and a smirk. As he reached zero the door to the clinic swung open and the blonde man in a black duster stepped inside, his eyes arrowing immediately to the child crossing the floor to him at a run.

“You're back,” Ezra said softly and reached up to the man who bent down to haul him up into his arms in a smooth motion that had been perfected over the last two weeks by repeated practice.

“Yep, just got back a few minutes ago,” Chris said, settling the boy on his hip comfortably. “I wanted to ask Nathan if Mrs. Wilkins had been by to see him about her little girl. Seems Susie may be coming down with something. Just thought Nathan might like to know he may be needed later,” Chris told the child while avoiding the knowing eyes of his friend.

“I appreciate the warning,” Nathan told him dryly, going along with the morning's excuse.

“Hi, Vin,” Chris greeted the blond child that had looked up and smiled as he walked in but continued grinding the herb mixture with the mortar and pestle Nathan had set in front of him a few minutes ago.

“Hello, Chris,” Vin called back.

“I'm going to the jail for awhile. You boys want to come along?”

“Certainly,” Ezra told him happily.

“Sure,” was Vin's reply. “I think I'm almost finished with this.”

Nathan came up behind the child and looked over his shoulder.

“That's fine, Vin. You did good. Thanks for your help. You too Ezra,” the black man told the boys. “You boys saved me a lot of time and I surely do appreciate it.”

“You are most welcome, Nathan,” Ezra returned.

“Yep,” Vin said with a grin, “Any time.”

“Well let's go then,” Chris said and set Ezra down on the floor.

The little boy slipped his hand into Chris' larger one and Chris reached out his other hand for Vin to take.

“We'll see you later, Nathan,” Chris called as the trio headed out the door.

The healer stood in front of the open door and watched as the trio climbed down the stairs and sauntered across the dusty street to disappear inside the door of the jail. He shook his head in amusement and gave a fond grin before stepping back and closing the door, intending to get his work finished soon so he would have a chance to join them before supper time.

In the jail, both boys immediately made for the open doors of the twin cells and each grabbed the metal bars. Their momentum caused the doors to swing shut with a metallic clang and gave each boy a free ride. Chris settled himself in the chair behind the desk and watched indulgently as the twins jumped off and pushed them open again just to repeat the whole process. He knew they would soon tire of the game and he figured the smiles on their faces were worth putting up with the irritating clang of the doors as they repeatedly closed.

“When's Buck getting back, Chris?” Vin asked as he jumped off the door and walked to the man.

“About the same time as yesterday I suppose,” Chris smiled at the boy as Vin moved to stand in front of him.

“What time did he get back yesterday?” Vin asked.

“Oh, about the same time as he'll get back today,” Chris teased.

“Chr-iss,” Vin moaned in frustration.

Taking pity on the boy, Chris pulled him up into his lap and hugged him.

“He should be back any time. Probably not more than half an hour,” Chris reassured him.

“Can we go riding while we wait for him?” the little boy asked.

Chris shook his head and said, “Someone has to stay and watch the town. With Buck gone that would leave Nathan by himself, and he has his own patrol to do after supper. It wouldn't be fair, would it?”

Shrugging off his disappointment, the blond child climbed down from the man's lap and wandered over to his brother who was still occupied by swinging on the cell door. Vin stepped behind his brother and grinned.

“Let's play, Ez,” Vin told his brother as he gave the door Ezra was riding on a hard push and caused the door to move faster and bang shut with an especially loud noise. “We can be Texas Rangers out to get the bad guys and lock 'em up.”

“And what is the crime of the miscreants that we are attempting to subdue?” Ezra obliged by letting go of the metal bars and jumping off the door to face his twin.

“Cattle rustlers,” Vin suggested with a gleam in his eye.

“Why not something more daring? Perhaps bank robbery? This could be the bank…” Ezra head for a spindle back chair and stepped behind it.

“Come on, Ezra,” Vin argued, as he followed his twin around the room and launched into his own ideas for their game of pretend.

Chris chuckled silently in amusement as he watched the boys interact with each other. He had seen this over and over. Each child would start out with their own ideas, and they would argue and discuss until they eventually wound up playing some strange compromise version that both enjoyed.

Chris had to acknowledge to himself how good the two boys where for each other. Ezra challenged Vin intellectually and exposed him to thoughts and ideas that had never been a part of his world previously, and Vin brought a sense of fun and sometimes downright silliness to the mix.

Having heard the story of Vin's life, Chris could only be amazed at the child's ability to overlook the horrible things done to him and meet each new day with a smile and optimistic enthusiasm. The child had been little more than a slave to his grandfather; forced to endure long, grueling hours of work and both physical and verbal abuse that no child should ever have to endure much less one so young. Although Chris had sometimes wondered if Vin's shy smile might occasionally be hiding darker feelings, he had decided the child's ability to focus on the positive side of things was probably a legacy of his mother's loving influence.

He wished Ezra had been lucky enough to have known the woman. The little boy was so serious most of the time that Chris wondered if Ezra had ever played before he had found Vin. Somehow he doubted it. From the little information he had been able to pry out of Ezra, Chris had gotten the impression that while Edward Standish had loved and been proud of his son he had apparently tried to raise him in his own image: restrained, refined, reserved, realistic, and reactive. He had brought up his son to be the perfect gentleman in that could clean out your pockets at the poker table and then talk you out of your shirt if he wanted. From what Chris gathered, there had been no such thing as playtime in the Standish household. Spare time had been utilized to practice card shuffles and sleight of hand, or studying the lessons assigned by his father. The closest Ezra had come to simple entertainment had been reading; the closest to a game of make believe had been role playing with his father as the man schooled him in the art of the con. Now thanks to the combined efforts of his twin and the five regulators, the little gentleman was finally learning how to play.

Ezra was not the only one that had changed though, As the boys moved around the interior of the jail, Chris couldn't help but be reminded of exactly how much influence the two little lost boys had unknowingly exerted on him, the other regulators, and the rest of the people in the small town. He only had to look around the jail to find visible testaments of how the boys had changed things. Where once before the walls were hung with the faces of men on wanted posters, now he would find several of the children's pencil drawings interspersed with them. In the corner where only a gun cabinet had held rifles and ammunition there was now also a wooden crate filled with a carved train set and wooden building blocks. There were books in the drawers of the desk, and wooden soldiers lined up on the window sill, and hanging from one of the pegs on the wall was a slingshot that Buck had confiscated from Vin when the child came close to breaking one of the jailhouse windows. Chris was paradoxically bothered by how little the new look actually bothered him.

“May we go see Mrs. Potter, Chris?” Ezra's voice interrupted his musings.

“You boys aren't after more candy, are you?” Chris asked, eyeing the two suspiciously.

The widowed storekeeper had been another to fall under the little boys' spell. A mother herself, she had a natural soft spot for children. The knowledge that these particular children “belonged” to the regulators that had brought her husband's murderer to justice when no one else would lift a finger also predisposed her to spoil them a little. The fact that Ezra, with the business savvy drilled into him since birth and his head for figures, had helped her increase her profits ten percent by suggesting she change the way she ordered her shipments of goods and had them delivered had endeared the two to the woman even more. Gloria Potter was always good for a cookie or a stick of peppermint whenever the boys entered her general store. Chris and Buck were trying very hard not to let the boys take advantage of the widow's good nature, a task made more difficult by the lady herself.

“No, Chris,” Vin hastened to reassure the man, “We were just gonna see if she has any old bags we could use to hold the stolen bank money,” Vin told him seriously.

“I see,” Chris worked hard to keep his expression from showing his amusement. Apparently while he had been pondering, the boys had concluded their negotiations and progressed to gathering props for their game. “Alright, but go straight there and come straight back.”

“Sure Chris. Come on, Ezra,” Vin whooped and took off through the door at a fast clip.

Ezra followed along at a slightly more dignified pace. The boy threw a glance over his shoulder at Chris as though checking to make sure he was still there before following his brother down the boarded sidewalk to Potter's. Chris watched him leave then had to rise from his chair and go stick his head out the door to visually follow the two boys' progress. He unconsciously relaxed his stance when both boys disappeared inside the store. Letting either boy out of his sight was still a problem for Chris. Although they were getting better, the man still had nightmares of the night Ezra had been taken. On really bad nights, his fears intermixed and Chris would dream of both Ezra and Adam, trapped and dying together. He always woke in a cold sweat, barely holding back the scream on his lips. On those nights he would have to leave his bed to slip silently into the bedroom of the boys and check on them.

Chris wasn't stupid, and knew he had to get over Ezra's kidnapping, not only for his sake but for the boys' as well. He knew they would gage their reactions by the reactions of the adults around them. They wouldn't feel safe until their guardians let things get back to normal. Chris was trying hard but still had problems with that. He had to check on the boys, there was no getting around that right now. The compulsion would come over him and he HAD to make sure they were alright; that they were safe. He knew his friends found all the excuses he came up with to check on the boys amusing, but he had his reasons for giving them. By having logical reasons for stopping by he felt he was hiding his own uneasy feelings from the twins, and thereby letting them regain their sense of security faster. At least he hoped that was what was happening. His one consolation was that Buck was not much better. The large man had one eye on the boys at all times when he was not on duty.

Chris took a seat in one of the wooden chairs on the porch of the jail. He wasn't watching for the boy's return, he told himself, the air was just fresher outside. Chris was still sitting there staring at the doorway to Potter's store when Buck rode up and reined his big grey to a stop in front of the jail. He leaned over and rested his folded arms on the pommel of the saddle as he looked at his friend then searched for the boys.

”Where?” was all he said.

Chris didn't need to ask him what he meant so simply answered, “Potter's.”

“They okay?”

“Yep. Wanted to see if Gloria had any bags they could play with."

Buck nodded then climbed down from his horse and tied the reins loosely around the hitching post. He stretched his arms over his head to work out some the of the kinks the long ride had put in his back and stepped up on to the jail porch and took a seat by his friend.

“So how'd it go?” Chris asked as he dug a cheroot from his pocket and placed it between his lips.

Buck shook his head and watched his friend light it as he answered, “Everything seems quiet. Nothing much happening. Old man Harlan got drunk and tried to steal a kiss from Miz Wilson and she brained him with her broom again. That's about it.”

Chris had to grin at Buck's exasperated sigh.

“For a man that's been trying to spark the same woman for the last twenty five years, you would think he'd get the message by now that she's not interested,” Chris smirked.

“Nope,” Buck grinned, “He says he's wearing her down, and he expects her to say yes to his proposal any day now. He may be dumber than dirt, but you got to give the man credit for being persistent.”

Both men chucked and then Buck asked, "Did you find any evidence of

rustling out at the Wilkins place?"

This question wrung a wide grin from the other man.

"Found a whole gang of them," Chris told a curious Buck. "A real dirty bunch."

Buck could tell from the amusement in his old friend's voice that he was being set up but played along anyway, enjoying the humor he saw in his too often solemn friend. "Sounds kinda dangerous. You didn't go after 'em all by yourself did ya?"

"Yep. Followed their tracks right down to the river." Chris' eyes gleamed in remembrance of the scene. "Caught the whole gang red-handed."

"Okay, pard, I'll bite. Who were they and what happened?"

"The three youngest Grover kids came across one of Tom Wilkin's calves stuck in the mud and managed to pull it out. They knew enough to look for a brand but since the calf hadn't been branded yet they figured it must not belong to any body. Then one of boys got the bright idea of taking it home. Tommy, the oldest boy, had some big dream of starting his own ranch or something. The other two just wanted it for a pet, but they thought their ma would take one look at the mud covered calf and tell them they couldn't keep it so they decided to give it a bath before they took it home."

Chris finally lost it and began to laugh in earnest, setting off Buck as well.

"You should have seen it, Bucklin. Those three were hauling at that calf, trying to get it deeper into the water to give it a bath, and the calf was bawling and fighting to get away from 'em. It kept knocking 'em into the water and they kept bobbing back up like pieces of cork on a fishing line, shouting at the thing to behave and take its bath like a good cow. I thought I was going to fall off my horse laughing when I found them.

Then when I told them I was out tracking down someone who'd rustled one of the Wilkin's calves...and mentioned how much their calf resembled the missing one...I thought those boys were going to fall all over each other trying to put the blame on one another. It was the funniest thing I've seen in a long time. Tom Wilkins got his calf back cleaner than it's ever been in its life and had a good laugh over it. Then I took the kids home and explained what had happened, and the boys' ma decided if they had so much energy and wanted to clean up after animals so much they could clean out the chicken coop. When I left them, the three of them were ankle-deep in chicken droppings and feathers, calling each other names and making faces at one another behind their ma's back."

"Yep," Buck chuckled, "the dangerous life of a peacekeeper in the town of Four Corners: over persistent suitors and pint sized rustlers. I'm sure the folks around here will sleep better in their beds tonight knowing we've taken care of those dangerous varmints for them."

"No doubt," Chris agreed still smiling.

“Buck!” Vin's excited voice stole the men's attention and both turned to watch as Vin and Ezra ran to join them.

”Howdy, Vin. How's it going there, Ezra?” Buck greeted the twins. Vin headed straight to Buck, crawled into the man's lap and threw his arms around him for a hug.

“Very well, thank you, Buck,” Ezra smiled up at the big man as he stopped by Buck's chair long enough to receive his own short hug from the man and then continued on to stand beside Chris' chair.

Buck grinned at the formality and watched as Chris lifted Ezra to sit on his knee, his arm held loosely behind the boy's back to steady him.

“We're going to play Texas Rangers, Buck,” Vin informed him with a grin, “Do you want to play with us?”

“Well I don't know, pard,” Buck grinned back and gave a lock of Vin's long hair a gentle tug. “Do I have to be the bad guy again?”

Vin looked at Ezra, Ezra looked at Vin, then both boys turned to the man and said, “Yes!”

Buck laughed and gave Vin's hair another tug then said, “Now that just don't seem fair,” Buck mocked a sad shake of his head.

Ezra, his face serious but his green eyes shining with mischievous humor, said, “I suppose it would be more democratic to take a vote to decide who should play the roll of miscreant. Do you agree, Vin?”

Vin's gave a lopsided smirk, one corner of his mouth pulled a little higher than the other, and replied, “I guess that would be fair.”

Ezra nodded seriously, “Very well then, all in favor of Mr. Wilmington enacting said roll please raise your right hand.”

Immediately both boys' hands shot into the air, and a sputtering Buck fought back his laughter to pretend outrage at the verdict.

“Come, come now, Buck,” Ezra barely contained his own smirk, “Majority rules. A gentleman would abide by the democratically determined decision.”

“I'm gonna democratically determine you,” Buck mock- growled and made a show of grabbing at the little boy.

Vin and Ezra, both giggling in glee, jumped down and started running away from the big man that gave chase yelling dire threats at the rapidly retreating little backsides. Chris shook his head in amusement as the impromptu game of tag ensued in the alley by the jail.

"At it again, huh?" Nathan's amused voice captured Chris' attention as the healer climbed up on the porch and took the now vacant chair beside Chris.

"Yep," Chris answered him as both men returned to watching the two little boys and one big one chase each other around the narrow alleyway. It was debatable who was having the most fun.

“Buck has more energy than a man his age ought to have,” Nathan said with a grin.

“It's got nothing to do with age. He's just a little kid in an oversize body,” Chris chuckled, “Always has been. It just took the boys being around to shine a light on it and make it more obvious.”

As Chris spoke, Buck swooped down and caught a laughing Ezra by the waist and spun around a few times as his nimble fingers danced along the boy's ribs increasing Ezra's laughter and making the child squirm to get away.

“I'll save ya, Ez!” Vin yelled and dove at Buck's back, latching onto the man's belt and hanging on with both hands. Instead of stopping Buck, Vin was swept off his feet and whirled around with the man as he spun.

“Woo-hoo!” Vin yelled out in delight.

“Ride 'em cowboy,” Nathan called out in encouragement which earned him a laughing look from the little blonde.

“Gonna break me a devil horse,” Vin crowed.

“Hey, first a bad guy and now a devil horse!” Buck yelped as Ezra managed to squirm out of the man's arms and get both his hands locked around Buck's belt as well. The combined weight of the two boys pulling on the leather was slightly impeding the man's ability to breathe. “I'm telling you I don't get no respect from you two!”

Another round of boyish giggles was his only answer.

As the trio continued to spin, Nathan turned a knowing eye to his leader and dryly asked, “You want to take bets as to which one is gonna puke first?”

“I don't think so,” Chris returned, amused.

The two lawmen were not the only ones watching the laughing trio. The townsfolk as they passed the area looked on in amused fondness as the boys and the regulator played happily in the alley by the jail. Shopkeepers paused in their work to watch and more than one smile was flashed at the sound of the boy's laughter ringing out through the quiet afternoon air. People returned to their work with lighter hearts.

“Riders comin' in,” Nathan told his leader as he spotted the horses then recognized them as those belonging to Josiah and JD. “Looks like they made it back alright.”

The arrival of the pair interrupted the roughhousing. At the sight of the returning travelers, Vin and Ezra let go of Buck and took off at a run toward the men.

“Josiah! JD!” Vin yelled as he waved and ran toward them.

“Welcome home!” Ezra followed his twin, but refrained from yelling and waving. Although he was just as eager to greet his friends, he tried to keep a measure of decorum; after all, his father had always told him appearances were everything.

The three peacekeepers followed the children at a slower pace and saw them come to a sudden stop then surge forward and wrap their arms tightly around Josiah's legs. JD had taken the reins of Josiah's horse and now stood to one side of the tableau.

Chris exchanged a worried look with Buck at the boys' unusual behavior and quickened their pace.

"I'm alright," Josiah was saying as they approached. "It's nothing to be worried about."

"Nathan!" Ezra raised his head as he noticed the healer approach. "Josiah is injured, Nathan!" Ezra's voice rose with worry.

"Can you make it better, Nathan?" Vin's equally worried voice sounded.

"It's just a scratch. Really," Josiah tried to assure them. The oldest regulator was deeply touched to witness the depths of feelings that the children were revealing by their concern for his injury.

Nathan hurried forward and all three men had a clearer view of the bandana used as a makeshift bandage covering the big man's left arm.

"I'm fine boys. I promise you there's no reason to worry."

"What happened?" Chris asked.

"Prisoner tried to make a break for it right before we got to Gopher Gulch," Josiah informed him with a grimace as Nathan peeled the edge of a bandage away from his wound. "He managed to get hold of a rock and was going to knock me in the head with it but he missed when I turned around. He only managed to get my arm. He just cut it a little. It really is fine."

Nathan looked down at the two little faces staring at him anxiously and gave them a reassuring smile.

"Josiah´s alright now. It's just a cut with some bruises around it. It might be a little sore for awhile but that's about all."

Ezra and Vin loosened their grips a little in relief but still held on to Josiah until the man bent his knees to stoop to their level.

"There, you see. Nothing to worry about. I've had worse cuts shaving," he told them with a grin.

Slowly the twins drew back and stood silently beside the ex- preacher, watching his face closely.

"Now how about a proper homecoming greeting?"

Ezra's slow smile seeped across his face and he leaned forward to wrap an arm around Josiah's neck, Vin copying the motion from the other side.

“Now that's what I call a proper greeting,” Josiah told them, “Makes comin' home all the sweeter.”

“Hey!” JD called with a pretended pout, “Where's mine?”

Laughing, both boys bounced over to the sheriff and enthusiastically gave and accepted hugs and the incident was pushed aside in the happy reunion of the seven.

It wasn't until the middle of the night that the men were reminded of the incident. Buck jerked awake to find his room shrouded in darkness. The moonlight shining through the open window just barely providing enough light for him to recognize the little figure standing by his bedside watching him as he slept.

“Vin?” his sleep-roughed voice asked quietly and he rose up on one arm, “You alright?”

Vin started slightly as Buck addressed him, but stepped closer to the man's bed as he realized that Buck was awake.

“Uh-huh,” came the not very believable reply.

Buck raised the covers with his other hand and told him, “Better get in here where it's warm.”

Vin didn't wait for a second invitation but dove under the covers and snuggled up next to the big man. Buck tucked the blankets around the little form and lowered himself back down. Vin used Buck's now prone arm as a pillow and the man used his other to pull the boy closer.

"What has you out of bed at this time of night?” Buck said casually, trying not to spook the child into clamming up. “Did you have a bad dream?”

Vin was still and silent for moment, not wanting to seem like a scaredy-cat to his hero, but really needing the comfort the big man offered more at the moment than his pride. The boy nodded and clung a little tighter.

Buck lifted his free hand and stroked the boy's hair lightly then bent his head to place a kiss on the bowed head.

“You want to tell me about it?" he asked softy.

A swift shake of the head was his only answer.

“Everybody has nightmares,” Buck tried to reassure the boy.

“Not you! You're too brave,” Vin mumbled.

“That's where you're wrong, Vin. I've had plenty of nightmares in my life. It doesn't have anything to do with being brave.”

Buck was silent as he racked his brain for anything that had happened that might have inspired a nightmare in the child and could only come up with one thing. He took a shot in the dark and asked, "Did you have a nightmare about Josiah?"

Vin jerked his head up to stare at his guardian in surprise and whispered, "How did you know?"

"I just figured." Buck said. "You were mighty concerned about him when he and JD rode in the afternoon. What happened in your dream Vin?"

Buck continued his gentle stroking of Vin's hair as he patiently waited for the boy to decide if he wanted to share and if so to find his own words.

Vin drew comfort from the soothing strokes, but felt a tinge of sadness at the same time.

"My Ma used to do that," Vin's soft voice whispered in the darkness.

"What? Stroke your hair?"

"Mm-hmm. She'd read me a story before bed every night and then she'd sing to me and stroke my hair until I fell asleep."

"That sounds like a very special memory," Buck whispered back. "Does it bother you when I do it? 'Cause I would never want to spoil a special memory for you."

"Oh, no!" Vin quickly asserted, "I like it when you do it. It reminds me of Ma but it's a good thing. I feel all warm and good and...and safe inside, just like when Ma did it.”

Buck had to swallow the sudden lump that gathered in his throat.

“My Ma used to do the same thing,” Buck told him. “Every night, rain or shine, no matter what, she'd come in before I fell asleep and sing to me and stroke my hair. It was my favorite time of the day.”

Vin snuggled a little closer and sighed, “Mine too. I miss her.”

“Yeah, I know. It's hard, isn't it? Losing a Ma. I still miss mine and she's been gone for a long time now.”

“I don't want Josiah to be in a box like my Ma,” Vin's voice trembled as he spoke.

“Is that what you dreamed about? Josiah in a coffin like your mother?”

Vin nodded in agreement.

“You heard Nathan, son, Josiah's just fine. He's not going anywhere.”

“But he could.” Vin looked up at Buck's shadowed face in the darkness. “He could wind up in a box.”

“Yeah he could. Just like I could, or you could, or anybody else. Vin we can't control when someone's time is up and they get called home. It's not up to us, and when it happens we can't do anything but miss those that are taken from us and go on living until our own time comes. It don't do you any good to be worryin' over it all the time. That just makes you crazy. You start pushin' everyone away 'cause you're scared you're gonna get hurt when they die and eventually wind up all alone and lonely. That's no way to live, son.

You talked about being brave, Vin. Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is just keep on going, keep on living and doing the best you can to be happy. You told me your Ma always said things were better if you smiled, remember? Well my Ma always said you never knew how long you were going to be given on this earth so you better not waste what time you had worrying about what might happen. It was better to stuff everyday you were given with as much happiness as you could pack into it, just in case it was your last. That way you'd never have to be sorry about anything when you finally got to the hereafter. Do you understand what I'm trying to get at?"

Vin was quiet as he absorbed the man's words. Buck patiently waited, giving the boy time to mull over everything that had been said.

"You're saying don't worry about what you can't change and just enjoy what you've got."

Buck hugged the boy and told him, "That's it exactly. I knew you were a smart kid."

Vin's arms tightened around Buck's neck in return. The two stayed that way for a few minutes until Vin's arms loosened again.

"I guess I should head back to bed now," Vin said with audible reluctance.

Back smiled to himself in the darkness, knowing Vin wanted to stay right where he was, and said casually, "I suppose."

He felt the little shoulders of the boy unconsciously slump in disappointment.

"Or you could just stay right here where it's warm. Not much left of the night anyway. Hardly worth going all that way for."

"Well," Vin tried to sound equally as casual, "It was pretty chilly out there. Maybe I better stay here. Wouldn't want to catch another chill."

"That sound's like a wise thing to do," Buck assured him gravely and had to struggle to keep the amusement out of his voice.

Buck pulled the blankets higher around both of them and soon Vin s soft snores were joining Buck's. Neither one noticed the blond haired man that silently re-secured the bedroom door then returned to his own room to pace the rest of the night away.


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