A flight from Denver to New Orleans was only 150 minutes, yet it was an eternity to a man who couldn't shut out the image of two small heart broken boys clinging to their foster fathers as his plane departed.
He'd caused that pain.
Ezra blew out a sigh. Doctor Lowery had told him the boys had a strong support system and they would have to face these kinds of changes at some time in their lives. So in essence he was helping them be better prepared to handle future difficulties.
Well, maybe that wasn't exactly what the psychologist meant, but he had said the boys had faced difficulties in the past and that they would get through this, too.
It was best for them.
Really it was.
They would no longer have to fear for "Unca Ezra's" safety when he was "under covers" with the "trolls."
Ezra closed his eyes. Even thinking of the boys' terminology for him, his job and the gun runners they had encountered made his gut clench.
This was the best for them.
They wouldn't have nightmares worrying about him, or have to visit him in a hospital when he was injured.
He never had shown JD his wound before he left.
Ezra let out another sigh as they taxied down the runway to the tarmac of the private airstrip on the outskirts of New Orleans, his new home.
He had tried to sleep on the flight to blot out the images of his nephews, but was unable to drift off. In the eleven days since he had been wounded he had done nothing but sleep, and yet when he longed for it, it wouldn't come.
"Feeling all right?"
Ezra turned his head away from the window and looked at the doctor hovering next to him. He'd heard of personal physicians, but this had to be costing his mother a pretty penny.
He nodded to the man.
"Any pain, dizziness, headaches?"
Ezra shook his head. "No more than I had before."
"I want one more look before we deplane. Flying this soon after this type of injury really wasn't advisable."
"We've already been over that, and it's done with," Ezra growled as the doctor removed his loafer and sock for the fifth time on the trip.
The doctor checked the pulse in his leg and checked the blood flow to his foot by testing his toes, just as Josiah had done every four hours since Ezra had left the hospital. Satisfied with the results, he replaced the southerner's sock and shoe.
"I want you to stay down for the rest of the day."
Ezra nodded. He didn't feel up to doing anything anyway.
"And I really think you should still be using crutches instead of that cane."
"Good Lord, you're worse than Nathan," Ezra said with a frustrated sigh.
"Mrs. LaMarr is paying me to make certain you have the best care, and that is what I intend to do," said the doctor.
At the mention of his mother, Ezra looked out the window. Spotting the limousine, he wondered if she had come or simply sent the car.
He smiled when the chauffeur opened the door and his stepfather emerged followed by his mother. He had missed her. She could be demanding and overwhelming at times, but she was his mother and he had missed her.
The flight attendant opened the cabin door when the ground crew moved the steps into place.
Ezra let out another sigh. It seemed that was all he did lately - sigh about this - sigh about that. But anticipating the attempt of walking down the five steps to the tarmac was sigh-worthy.
He cringed at the words the boys used to express something difficult to handle. Sitting up, he felt the all too familiar blackness threaten to overwhelm him. He stayed still, letting the danger of fainting pass. It was improving, the blackened vision didn't last nearly as long, but this trip had taken all his strength.
He wasn't sure that he could make it to the steps, let alone make it down them. He stood, grabbing the edge of the seat with one hand and leaning on the bulkhead with the other to balance. Ezra closed his eyes waiting for the dizziness to pass.
"Mr. Standish, let me call for assistance," said the doctor.
"No," Ezra protested. He didn't want someone carrying him off of the plane. He just needed to take his time. He could do it.
Or not. Pain stabbed through his injured leg as he shifted his weight.
Maybe the doctor was right about the cane versus the crutches.
He opened his eyes to see the doctor holding his crutches. He didn't remember putting them on board. It seemed someone else was looking out for his welfare. He smiled slightly, remembering Josiah loading his bag on the plane. He must have stowed the crutches as well, although he had been the one to give the gift of the antique cane.
Ezra reached out and took one crutch, and put it under his arm, taking the weight off his leg. He handed the doctor his cane and accepted the second crutch.
He really needed to remember the doctor's name.
Ezra hobbled up the short aisle to the doorway, pausing to catch his breath before trying to negotiate the stairs.
It was only five steps, but it was five steps more than his body wanted to take.
Taking a deep breath, he began the struggle down the stairs, with the doctor at his back and a crewman ready to catch him if he fell.
It was embarrassing.
He hated being weak.
Ezra wanted to shout for joy when he made it to the tarmac without falling. He paused a moment to gather his remaining strength and then hobbled towards his mother and Peter.
The concern was clear on his mother's face when he approached.
"Mother. Peter," he greeted.
"Ezra," Maude said softly, her hand instinctively reaching out to caress his cheek. "You look so tired. Maybe you should have waited."
"I'm here now, Mother," he replied.
"Welcome, Ezra," said Peter. "It's good to have you here. I'm looking forward to having you join us at the resort."
"I'm looking forward to it as well," Ezra replied to his stepfather. And he was looking forward to it. Peter had created a position for him, combining a security role and entertaining the high rollers at the Bayou Casino Resort.
It was the perfect job. Twice the money he had been making. Close to his mother. No waking up wondering which undercover persona he was today. No one shooting at him
No Vin. No JD. No 'Unca Ezra'
Ezra forced the tears to stay at bay and to stop thinking about his boys. This move was best for everyone.
"Let's get you home," said Maude. "We'll discuss work later."
The flight attendant gave Ezra's carry-on luggage to the chauffeur. The rest of his wardrobe and belongings were en-route by truck somewhere between Denver and New Orleans.
"Doctor Blalock, we've arranged a car for you as well," said Peter, nodding to a smaller limo on the far side of the car. "The driver will take you home and bring you to the Bayou later."
"Thank you," said Blalock. Turning to Ezra, he added, "Bed rest for the rest of the day."
Ezra nodded as he made his way into the car.
Even a stop at McDonalds on the way home could not soothe the broken hearts of two little boys. JD picked at his food at best, and Vin didn't even pretend to try to eat. JD clung to Buck, never letting him out of his sight. Vin sat next to Chris, his body language also illustrating that he needed something to hold on to. He wasn't clinging, but he was as close as the attached stool allowed.
Vin had been quiet and distant since Ezra's announcement, and Chris had hoped that the tears and hugs finally expressed at the airport had been an indication of letting go.
He cursed Ezra silently. He could understand the southerner's need to leave undercover work. It was a high-risk job both physically and emotionally. And being wounded, let alone by one of your own would rattle anyone. What he couldn't understand was why Ezra had to leave Denver
And his family.
Well, there was nothing he could do about it now. While he hoped the undercover agent would change his mind, Ezra was gone and he and Buck were left to deal with the fallout.
Since arriving home, Vin had gone into hiding in the boys' room. Chris had checked on him several times. He didn't want to play. He didn't want to read a book or watch a video. He had vigorously rejected working on his jigsaw puzzle. Instead, he sat on Ringo's bed, seeking comfort with the pup. Perhaps he was telling the malamute all of his troubles. Ringo appeared to be listening.
JD continued clinging to Buck, following the dark haired agent everywhere, and sitting on his lap when he sat. Buck didn't seem to mind. He was just as determined as Chris that they would get the boys through this time.
Currently the five-year-old was sitting on Chris' lap. Buck had needed to use the bathroom. JD had waited outside the door until it seemed that he was taking too long and then his fear of being abandoned had forced him to retreat to visible security - Chris' lap.
He rocked the boy, gently stroking his mop of black hair, wishing he could ease the pain of missing his uncle, and wishing he could do the same for Vin.
He was grateful that it was Saturday. At least they'd have Sunday to try and get the boys acclimated to the fact that Ezra was gone before heading back to school on Monday. They had a little over a day to convince the boys that neither of their foster dads was going anywhere.
"Da!" JD squirmed on Chris' lap, reaching for his father as Buck entered the room.
Buck tried to smile as he scooped up and hugged his little boy. He sat down on the sofa letting JD snuggle.
"Is Unca Ezra in Nor Lens now?" JD asked, looking up at Buck's face.
Buck glanced at his watch. "Probably."
"Then he's with his Mama," JD stated.
JD sighed heavily.
"Talk to me," Buck said softly.
"I want my Mama," JD whispered as tears trickled down his cheeks.
Buck caught a glimpse of Chris wiping his eyes as the blond left the room. He hugged JD tighter and said, "I miss my Mama, too."
"Hey, Cowboy," Chris said as he entered the boys' room with a plate of sandwiches and cookies.
"You didn't eat much for dinner. Thought you might be hungry."
Chris put the plate on the play table in the middle of the room and sat on one of the small chairs. He picked up half a sandwich and began to eat it, watching Vin out of the corner of his eye.
Slowly the boy got up and moved cautiously towards the table. Without sitting down, he reached out and snatched a cookie, stepping back once he had the treat in his hand.
Chris felt a knot form in his stomach. He'd seen this skittish behavior before, and it was something he had hoped was gone for good. He hated the idea of Vin jumping at every small sound or movement. Or worse - jerking away from physical touch even from Chris and Buck.
Doctor Lowery had cautioned him that it was a possibility that the boys might fall back into old behaviors in an attempt to deal with the loss of their uncle, but somehow he hadn't considered that meant Vin would distance himself from him.
He wasn't going to let it happen. That boy was going to know he was loved and even if things changed around him, he would still be loved.
"No one's going to take your food," Chris assured softly.
Vin looked at his half-eaten cookie and then the chair, blushing slightly.
"Ringo's hungry, too," he said, trying to divert the attention away from his behavior.
"Ringo has his own food," Chris answered. "He doesn't need people food, especially chocolate chip cookies."
Vin eyed the sandwiches.
"How about if I leave the sandwiches here and I take Ringo out to eat his dinner?"
"NO!" Vin backed up a step towards his pup protectively.
"Okay," said Chris, recognizing Vin's fear translating to losing his pup. "How about if I go get his food ready, you eat, and when you're done, you can bring Ringo out to eat?"
Vin nodded slowly, agreeing to the arrangement.
As Chris entered the hallway, he cursed silently. It was clear that Vin was afraid he was going to lose everything.
"I wonder if Doctor Lowery makes house calls on Sundays?" Chris muttered as he walked through the kitchen to the mudroom to prepare the dogs' food.
Sunday dawned bright and clear in New Orleans, but Ezra missed it. Thoroughly exhausted from the trip, the emotions, and settling in to the penthouse apartment, he didn't wake until noon and that was only because a worried private nurse woke him.
Assuring him he was fine, just tired, he patiently endured the nurse checking his vitals, and testing the blood circulation in his foot.
He decided it was time to get moving and managed to get showered and dressed with minimal assistance from his nurse.
That was the nurse's name. Leave it to his mother to decide a male nurse would be less embarrassing for him.
He had just settled down onto the plush leather sofa when someone knocked on the door. Chuck answered it and let Maude and Peter into the room, followed by a slew of room service attendants.
"Don't get up, Darling," said Maude. "People reclined while they ate in Roman days, I don't see why you can't now."
Ezra smiled and watched his mother turn his room into a hubbub of activity as the workers set up a table and chairs and laid out their afternoon meal.
Peter stood near the foot of the couch watching his wife with a big smile. She was a good administrator when she let herself do the work.
"How's the leg?" he asked as Maude bustled around instructing the workers in what she wanted done.
"It's healing," said Ezra. "The trip took a little more out of me than I expected. I'm not sure I'm up to starting tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" said Peter, "What are you thinking? We can start talking about what you'll do and maybe introduce you to some high rollers if you're up to it, but I have no intention of you working until you're ready."
Ezra nodded. He liked Peter. The man was good to Maude. He loved her and treated her like a princess. And Ezra could tell, that this time his mother had fallen in love, and fallen hard. He hoped that their marriage would last for many years to come.
Of course, he didn't mind that Peter had money. The man could run the mission where Josiah volunteered for an entire month off a single day's profit.
Ezra frowned. He didn't want to be thinking about Josiah or Nathan or Chris or
Stop it! he cautioned himself. He had a new life and he needed to focus on it.
Saturday night had been a restless night. Vin had climbed into bed with JD sometime during the night and was still sleeping crushed against the wall when Chris entered the room the next morning. He had Cat under one arm and JD's Scooby Doo under the other. JD wasn't in the room. Apparently he had needed Buck during the night and left Scooby to comfort Vin.
Chris reached across the bed and shook Vin's leg gently.
The seven year old grumbled and pulled his leg away, a testament to just how tired he was. Normally Vin was up with the sun.
"Come on, Cowboy," said Chris giving his leg another shake. "Time to get up."
"I'm tired," Vin complained sleepily.
"Too tired to go to the zoo?"
Chris waited for the words to sink in.
"We're going to the zoo?" Vin asked as he sat up and rubbed his eyes.
"Yep," said Chris. "After you get dressed, and we have breakfast and do our morning chores."
"Okay," Vin said with a smile. He scrambled off of the bed and ran to his dresser, grabbing his clothes and running to their bathroom.
"Hi, Unca Ezra! You 'membered to call!" JD jumped up and down excitedly.
"Of course, Master Dunne. I did promise, and how could I not call?"
"How's your Mama?" He asked.
"She's fine. We had lunch together today."
"We went to the zoo!" JD informed him.
"Now that sounds like fun."
"It was. We saw elephants and giraffes and monkeys and snakes and bears and lions and penguins and hippo " JD struggled with the word, "hippopotamuses and rhin-oscars rhinocer-sos-us. They were big."
"Yes, I imagine they were."
"And we got cotton candy but mine got stuck on Da's shirt," JD said, "and when he tried to get it off it turned into gum and it got dirt stuck in it and it turned black instead of pink."
"Oh my. Where were Mr. Larabee and Master Tanner while this was happening?"
"Uh " He frowned. The five-year-old didn't want to tell his uncle where Vin was.
"They was in the bathroom," JD said quietly. "They was trying to get the cotton candy out of Vin's hair."
"Yeah. I was just pointing at the funny monkey and it got in Vin's hair," JD explained. "It was an aksadent."
"Yes, I'm sure it was. Was he able to get it out?"
"Yeah," JD said sadly, "but he cried because it pulled some of his hair out."
"JD!" Vin protested loudly. He didn't want everyone to know he cried.
"Unca Ezra, I think Vin wants his turn now," JD said wisely. "Bye. I love you."
"Hi, Uncle Ezra," said Vin.
"Hello, Vin. So you went to the Zoo?"
"Yeah. Dad says next time we won't walk around while JD's eating," Vin said with a sigh.
"That is a sound plan."
"Do you like your new house?" Vin asked, secretly hoping that Ezra didn't like it and would come home.
"I have a nice room."
"Not a whole house?" He emphasized the word "whole." Maybe Uncle Ezra was sad he didn't have a whole house to himself anymore.
"No, it's a room in the casino resort that my stepfather owns."
"So you live with your mom and step dad?"
"In a manner of speaking. It's a very nice arrangement."
"Oh," Vin said, disappointment creeping into his voice.
"So what was your favorite thing at the zoo?"
"I liked it all. OH!" Vin perked up as he remembered the special thing they saw.
"We saw a REAL jaguar! He was just like yours. He was spotted and he growled!"
"I would have liked to have seen that."
"You can," said Vin. "You can come with us next time." His statement was almost a question.
"Perhaps when I come to visit."
"When can you come?" asked Vin.
"Not for a while yet, I'm afraid. The doctor doesn't want me to fly."
"Oh," said Vin softly.
"I have to go now. I'm supposed to feed the dogs." It was true; he did have to feed the dogs. Just not right this minute. He just didn't want to talk anymore.
"All right. Goodbye, Vin."
Ezra hung up the phone and closed his eyes. He could hear the utter disappointment in Vin's voice and perhaps a little skepticism when he said he couldn't come visit for a while. He hated disappointing the boy, but there was truth to his statement about not flying. And he was trying to let them know he was okay, and not get their hopes up over when he would be home.
He didn't know where home was anymore. He'd had a very mobile life, living in numerous cities over the years. Nothing had felt like home until he became part of an odd family in Denver.
He'd miss them deeply, but returning to undercover work, subjecting himself to harms way, and thus putting the boys through that stress was unthinkable.
Ezra cursed softly. Was it really for the boys, or was it for him?
"You didn't talk very long," said Chris.
"I have to feed Ringo," Vin said evasively.
"Ringo's fine. What's going on?"
Vin frowned and Chris could tell he was deciding whether to tell him or not.
"Uncle Ezra said he can't come to visit 'cause the doctor said he can't go on the airplane."
"That's probably true."
"But he flied there!"
Chris paused, then motioned for Vin to come join him in his recliner.
Vin didn't hesitate to be close. He climbed up and settled on Chris' lap.
"So did you think Ezra was lying to you?"
"I don't want to," said Vin.
"Well, I can tell you this," said Chris, "I know the doctor wasn't too happy that Ezra flew in the first place. And maybe your uncle figured out that the doctor knew more than he did."
Vin sighed heavily.
Chris held him a little tighter, knowing that he missed his Uncle.
"Ith he okay?" Vin asked.
Chris grimaced at the sound of Vin's lisp. It had always been there, but sometimes it was more pronounced. Vin didn't seem to be bothered by it.
"He'll be fine. It will just take some time."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," said Chris. "Hey, why don't you and I drive down to Juliano's and pick up a pizza for dinner?"
"Okay!" Vin scrambled off of Chris' lap and ran to get his jacket.
Chris got up and walked to Buck's bedroom door. He smiled as he watched JD and Buck lying on their stomachs on the bed engrossed in a serious game of "Chutes and Ladders."
"Hey, Pard," Buck replied.
"Vin and I are going to run down to Juliano's and pick up a pizza."
"Pepperoni!" called JD.
Chris grinned. "It's on the list. We'll be back shortly."
He walked back through the kitchen and smiled when he saw Vin waiting at the door with his truck keys, wallet and jacket. The boy was ready.
"Let's go, Cowboy," said Chris as he followed Vin out the door sincerely hoping that heartburn would not be his visitor tonight. Hot dogs and nachos at the zoo, cotton candy for dessert, and now pizza. Not exactly a healthy menu, but he figured it was okay once in a great while.
He'd bring home a salad, too.
After cleaning up the dinner dishes, which consisted of throwing away paper plates and cups, and an empty pizza box, the boys washed up and went to work on the big jigsaw puzzle that Josiah had purchased for Vin.
Chris was hoping it would lend a sense of normalcy and routine to the roller coaster week they'd just been through.
JD put together two pieces before he curled up on Buck's shoulder and was snoozing. Vin tried to please his foster dad by working on the puzzle, but it was obvious his focus was somewhere else. He'd only managed a half dozen pieces before shoving some away in disgust.
"I'm too tired," he said lamely.
"I'm pretty tired, too," agreed Buck. "It's been a long day and you two have school in the morning and we have work. Maybe we should all just turn in."
Chris nodded his agreement, and helped Vin close the puzzle box lid while Buck carried JD to the boys' room.
Around two in the morning, Chris awoke to the all too familiar feeling of being watched. He opened his eyes and looked for his son's silhouette in the darkness.
He held in the sigh, realizing that the nightmares and restless nights were not over.
"Vin, are you all right?" he asked, knowing that he wasn't or he wouldn't be in the doorway.
"JD's crying and I can't wake Buck up."
Chris groaned inwardly.
"Climb in," he invited. "I'll go check on JD and Buck."
Vin padded across the floor and climbed into Chris' bed as he got up. The boy snuggled into his father's warm pillow, hugging it with one arm and his toy cat with the other.
Chris walked down the hall and stuck his head into Buck's room. The dark haired agent was snoring in his deep sleep. The blond thought about walking over and whacking the slumbering man with a pillow, but saner reasoning ruled as he realized how little sleep either of them had had in the past few weeks.
Let Buck rest. At least one of them would be alert in the morning.
He closed the door and walked to the boys' room, hearing the littlest member of the family sobbing before he even walked into the room.
The boy sniffed loudly.
"Why don't you grab Scooby and come in and sleep with Vin and me?"
Another sniff. " 'Kay."
The boy sat up slowly and Chris smiled in the darkness. The poor kid was barely awake, but he obviously needed to be close.
"Come on," said Chris as he walked to the bed and scooped up JD onto his hip. He searched the blankets with the other arm and found Scooby Doo, and started the walk back to his room.
JD sighed and tucked his head under Chris' chin.
Entering the room, he tucked JD in next to Vin and then climbed into bed, grateful that he had a king size bed. Anything smaller wasn't built for a grownup, two small boys and their favorite toys.
Chris grumbled at the sound, and then groaned as he heard giggles. Opening his eyes he saw Buck, camera in hand taking pictures of him. Slightly behind him a skinny blonde boy and dark haired five-year-old hid snickering.
"Good Morning," Buck chirped cheerfully as he clicked another shot with the camera.
Chris groaned. He was in boxers and a tee shirt, and had a stuffed cat tucked under one arm and Scooby Doo under the other. He ought to strangle Wilmington, but the giggles from the boys were a welcome sound. He'd play along.
He looked at Cat and then Scooby Doo. Then he flipped the blankets back frantically.
"Buck, have you seen Vin and JD?"
JD laughed loudly and Vin shushed him.
"I think they're lost," Chris continued. "All I can find is Cat and Scooby."
Wrapping his arms around Buck's leg, JD peered around his Da. "We're right here, Chris. We're not losted. We's teasing you."
"Oh!" Chris groaned as if it was the best joke ever played on him.
"Did we s'prise you?" asked JD as he dove onto the bed followed closely by Vin.
"You sure did," said Chris as both boys decided he was a better place to rest than the bed.
Lying halfway on both sides of his chest the boys giggled. They didn't seem to notice the clicking of the camera as Buck continued to record the memories.
Suddenly Cat popped up from one side of Chris, and Scooby from the other. The boys giggled and swapped so each had his own toy.
The camera clicked one more time.
If only the whole week had gone as well.
Monday seemed to have gone well at school. In the afternoon both boys had appointments with Dr. Will. Chris and Buck's meeting with the psychologist after the boys' sessions was a bit of a wake up call. They knew the boys were struggling with Ezra's move, but neither boy talked to Dr. Will about their Uncle.
JD had spent most of his session talking about anything he could think of, with the exception of Ezra, and his most frequent topic was 'Are we done yet?' and 'Is Da coming in soon?'
Vin had spent most of his time sitting and swinging his feet looking out the window. Most of his answers were shrugs, nods or shakes of the head. Questions about Ezra received no answer at all or a simple insistence that the seven-year-old was fine.
JD was clinging to anyone and everyone trying to hold on to them, while Vin was denying that he was hurt or needing anyone. But in his own way the little blonde had moments of trying to hold on to his family as well. Both boys were confused and having trouble adjusting to the newest change in their lives. Will scheduled sessions for Wednesday and Friday afternoons, hoping he could help the boys make some headway.
Tuesday brought it's own stresses. Chris and Buck had a late meeting at the Federal Building and they returned home to a whining five-year-old and a seven-year-old who seemed to be avoiding them every time they entered a room.
Buck called for a pow-wow even before they had an already late dinner. JD sat in Buck's lap on the sofa, while Chris sat in the recliner. Vin scooted himself to the far end of the sofa away from Buck and JD.
"I'll go first," said Buck, "If that's okay?"
Chris nodded to him.
"Okay, Da," said JD.
Vin looked out the window.
"Well," said Buck, "I think today went pretty well, except for one thing."
"What?" asked JD.
"It really upset me that we had to work late tonight. I wanted to be home with you and Vin."
"It upsetted me, too, Da," JD confessed. "I thought you wasn't coming home."
Buck squeezed him.
"And Vin don't like me no more," JD added.
Vin hunched his shoulders, clearly listening to what was being said.
"What makes you think that?" asked Buck.
"He won't play with me."
"Maybe he doesn't feel like playing right now. How about it, Vin?" Buck asked.
Vin shrugged, still not looking at the others.
"Did something happen at school today?" Chris asked.
Vin squirmed, his small chest heaving as he tried to contain his emotion.
"I know my day was tough," said Chris. "Some things didn't go right and I had to do some budget paperwork."
Vin bit his lower lip.
He picked at a string on the arm of the sofa.
He swung his feet kicking them against the base of the couch.
Finally he spoke.
"I have to go get something." He looked to Chris for permission.
Chris nodded and watched his son walk slowly from the room, head down and shoulders slumped.
"We had spelling at school today," said JD. "I got mine all right. Vin won't tell me what he got. An' I got an email from Uncle Ezra today, but Vin didn't."
"Do you suppose that's why he's a little upset?" asked Buck softly.
JD shrugged. "I don't know. He won't tell me. He's supposed to say when something bugs him, like when I say, 'Viiiiiiiii-iiiinnn.'"
Buck nodded. They had long ago agreed to share if something was bothering them, and Vin had finally fessed up that it really bothered him when JD whined his name. With Doctor Will's guidance, the boys had been working on changing that behavior.
Vin came back into the room with some papers in his hand. Keeping his head low he offered them to Chris.
"I had trouble with my spelling words," he whispered with a slight lisp. Tears began to trickle down his cheeks. "I got them all wrong," he sniffed, "all of 'em."
Instinctively, Chris reached out and pulled Vin into the chair with him.
"They got all mixed up and I just couldn't do them."
Chris hugged his son and let him cry.
"Well, things were kind of crazy last week, and we didn't help you work on them like we should have."
He grimaced as he heard Vin's barely audible response.
"Uncle Ezra's thupposed to."
That was true. Ezra had been helping Vin with his writing skills, his spelling and his reading for quite some time.
"We've been doing okay while he was under cover," Chris said.
"I can help," said JD.
Chris felt the seven-year-old tense in his lap. Vin was sensitive about his reading skills and his spelling because he struggled with them and was slightly behind his age group. Not that he didn't have good reason. He didn't go to school while he was on the streets and no one really knew where he was between the time his mom died and when he found JD. He was at a distinct disadvantage when he started school, but he had made incredible strides.
JD on the other hand was ahead of his classmates, reading and writing coming very easily for him. To his credit, JD seemed oblivious to the differences and was not one to make fun of anyone who had difficulty with schoolwork. Even at five years old, he knew that some people were good at some things and other people were better at different things.
His offer of help was pure love for his brother.
"Thank you, JD," said Chris. "Maybe sometimes we can do the flash cards as a family."
Vin nodded. If everyone were doing it, it would be okay.
"Mrs. R. sent a letter," he said softly.
Chris shuffled the papers and found the envelope.
"She says I can keep working on these words until I figure them out."
Chris nodded. "We'll make sure we help this time."
JD's stomach growled loudly bringing everyone's attention to him.
"My tummy's hungry," he informed Buck.
"So I hear," his Da agreed, tickling him. "Maybe we should put dinner on the table while Chris and Vin take a break."
The two headed for the kitchen as Chris opened the envelope. He quickly read Carolyn's comments and her concern that Vin may have missed his words intentionally. She stated that understanding the trouble with Ezra's injury, she was extending his time and he could take an extra week or two if he needed them.
Chris closed the letter, grateful for teachers who cared about the boys.
"I'm sorry you had a hard day at school," Chris said.
"I'm sorry you had budget papers," Vin replied.
Chris smiled and roughed his hair. "I think I'm hungry. How about you?"
Chris gave him a squeeze before getting up and carrying him to the kitchen.
Ezra took a deep breath. The email to Vin had bounced back and he discovered he had made a typographical error in the address. Unfortunately, by the time he checked his mail, it was well past the boys' bedtime.
He finished retyping and sent the letter a second time before he read JD's email.
Reading the five-year-old's note made him miss the boys all the more. He could picture JD's excitement over the email - his hair flying as he jumped up and down. JD Dunne could express joy better than anyone he knew.
But he could also picture Vin's disappointment. The slumped shoulders and defeated countenance. It was easy to imagine Vin thinking that he didn't matter to Ezra and piling that on top of a difficult day in school
Ezra sighed. He wished he could give Vin a hug and then sit down and help him gain victory over those spelling words.
He wished he could give JD a hug and just enjoy the endless chatter and vivacity of the boy.
New Orleans was exciting, but it was no match for Tanner and Dunne.
"Vin! Vin! Look!" JD shouted as the boys returned from school and their Wednesday appointment with Dr. Will. "I got an email from Uncle Ezra!"
Vin hurried over to the computer to see.
JD read the email out loud and Vin seemed very relieved when he heard that the only reason he didn't get an email was because of a mistake in his address.
"Let me read mine, now!" Vin ordered anxiously. He wanted to see his email from his Uncle.
"Okay, just a minute," said JD as he expertly logged off his email account so Vin could log in.
Vin hurriedly signed in and apprehensively waited as the little mailing envelopes moved back and forth across the screen indicating it was sending and receiving mail.
The program dinged. Vin looked at his empty mailbox. He clicked the little envelope icon to get mail again.
He took in a couple of shuddering breaths before darting away from the computer desk and running to his room.
"What's going on?" asked Buck as he was almost run down by the fleeing seven-year-old.
JD turned sad hazel eyes on his Da.
"Vin didn't get no email from Uncle Ezra."
"What?" Buck moved quickly to the computer desk and hit send and receive.
Nothing. The mailbox was still empty.
"Unca Ezra said he typed Vin's name wrong and it goed back to him. So he sended again."
Buck frowned. "Well, maybe he mistyped again."
Sitting down in the chair he started a new email in Vin's account and addressed it to Ezra.
"Okay, Little Bit," said Buck, "I just sent Uncle Ezra an email from Vin's account so he doesn't make any more typos. We'll just have to wait for him to reply now."
"I'll watch the box," said JD.
"No, it could be a while. He might be sleeping or at dinner. Or maybe he won't check his mail until he goes to bed."
"Can we leave it on?" asked JD.
"Okay, we'll do that. You finish watching your video. I'm going to check on Vin."
JD nodded and went in to watch his video.
"Hey, Junior," Buck greeted as he stood in the doorway of the bedroom.
Vin was picking up toys and throwing them rather roughly into the toy box.
"Are you all right?"
Vin nodded and threw Scooby Doo harshly onto JD's bunk. He held Cat, dangling by its tail.
"You know Uncle Ezra just messed up your address, right?"
Vin scooped up Cat with his other hand and wrapped both arms around his toy.
"I bet he typed it wrong the second time, too," Buck suggested.
Vin looked away.
"I hope you don't mind," said Buck, "But I sent him an email from your account so he'll have your correct address. I bet you'll get something by tomorrow."
Vin shrugged as if it didn't matter, but Buck knew better. He knew the little boy was hurt that there were no emails from Ezra in his box.
"I'm gonna go help Chris feed the horses," said Vin.
"Okay," Buck agreed. He watched the boy struggle momentarily over whether to take Cat with him or not, but he finally put the toy on his bunk and hurried out of the room.
After finishing their chores and a dinner of pot roast and potatoes, the family retired to the den with a plan of doing some reading together and maybe a game before bedtime. Vin saw that the computer was still on and that his mail was open. He also saw that his mailbox was still empty. He walked over to the computer and closed his mailbox and shut off the program.
He stood by the computer for a moment before sighing and walking over to the sofa where Buck and Chris and JD were seated deciding which book to read.
"I'm tired. I want to go to bed," he said softly.
"Are you tired," asked Chris, "or are you disappointed?"
Vin looked up sharply.
Chris reached out and took hold of Vin's arm gently guiding the boy onto his lap despite the slight resistance.
He wrapped his arms around the little blond, feeling the tension in his slender frame.
"I'd be disappointed," Chris said softly.
"So would I," said Buck.
"I want this one," said JD seemingly oblivious to his foster brother's distress, but his eyes kept darting Vin's way revealing his concern.
"Ezra is going to be really upset when he finds out his mail isn't getting through," said Chris. "We'll work it out and find out what's going on. It's probably a Spam filter or something."
If it wasn't, Ezra was going to hear from Chris and the conversation would not be pleasant.
Vin heaved a big sigh and leaned back against Chris' chest as JD began to read his page of the story. He closed his eyes and listened as JD and then Buck read. By the time it was Chris' turn, Vin was fast asleep.
Buck cursed and slammed his hand on the computer desk.
"At this rate you're going to fill up the swear jar in the next five minutes," said Chris. Fortunately, the boys were in bed.
"It ain't funny!" Buck growled.
Chris raised an eyebrow.
"Sorry," Buck conceded. "I know you don't think it's funny that JD's getting the email and Vin isn't."
"Walk us through it one more time," Chris said to the speakerphone.
Ezra's voice was muddled and tinny through the old phone, but his words were clear enough as he walked Buck through the filters on Vin's mailbox.
"I'm sorry," said Ezra. "I could have avoided this mess if I had checked Vin's mail before I left. I put my address in JD's accept list, but I just left the address for Vin."
"Okay, Ez," said Buck. "I think I got it this time. Send again."
"On its way," Ezra replied.
"Yes!" Buck whooped as an email finally appeared. Apparently the email service filtered out any emails with the word "casino" in them as a protection for the children. Without adding Ezra to Vin's safe list, the email would never have come through.
"It worked," said Chris.
"Good," replied Ezra. "I'm resending my messages to Vin right now."
Three messages popped up.
"They arrived, Ezra," said Buck.
"Good," said Ezra with a sigh. "Again, I am sorry for the distress."
Chris picked up the handset, cutting off the speaker as Buck deleted the test mail and closed the program.
"How are you doing, Ezra?" Chris asked.
"Right," Chris scoffed. "Now give me the real scoop. You know Nathan's going to grill me when he finds out we talked. You're off speakerphone, by the way."
"I'm better," said Ezra, "But it's going far too slow. The therapy well "
"Painful, isn't it?"
Ezra laughed sarcastically. "That's an understatement."
Both men were silent for a moment before Chris asked, "How are you doing?"
Ezra took a deep breath and blew it out. It wasn't a question he expected from Chris, but neither of them had been in this position before. He wanted to acknowledge his friend's concern for his emotional state without revealing too much.
"I'm better," he said repeating his earlier comment, "But it's going far too slow."
"Take all the time you need," said Chris, "and don't be afraid to ask for help."
"My mother is making sure I have the best care for everything."
"Good," said Chris.
An awkward silence fell between them for a moment.
"Ezra, I hope you know you can come home any time you want."
"Thank you," Ezra replied softly. "I'd better go now. It's getting late and Chuck likes to start my therapy far too early in the morning."
Chris chuckled. "Take care of yourself."