By Joy K

He hated Chuck.

Okay, maybe that was a bit harsh. Maybe 'he hated therapy' would be more accurate.

Ezra grunted in pain and blew out a harsh breath as Chuck worked his leg. For the first two weeks after he had been shot, they had been very cautious with his leg, not taking any chances of tearing his sutures or reopening the artery. However, now he was 16 days into his healing and apparently the doctors felt he had made enough progress to start exercising the leg.

For the past two days, Chuck had been torturing him.

And for the past two nights, Ezra had been forced to take pain relievers and keep his leg elevated.

Therapy was not fun, but it was very necessary if he wanted full use of his leg without a limp. And while the antique cane Josiah had given him had flair, he had no intention of using it for any longer than necessary.

Ezra grunted and blew out another breath as Chuck manipulated the leg.

"All right," said Chuck. "That's it for now."

"One more," said Ezra. No, he wasn't a glutton for punishment, but he was determined to heal as quickly as possible.

Chuck grinned. "One more."

Thursday evening when Buck and Chris arrived home, Mrs. Potter was carrying JD. He was clinging tightly to her and crying. Vin was nowhere to be found.

The frazzled housekeeper handed the five-year-old to Buck and he took over the job of comforting while Chris escorted Gloria to the car.

"What happened?" he asked.

"What didn't?" she responded with uncharacteristic shortness. "JD needs attention every moment from whoever is closest for reassurance that he's not being left. He's upset because Vin doesn't want to play with him. Vin doesn't want to play with him because Vin doesn't want to play at all. He's spent more time in their room, the tree house, and the barn - anywhere that JD wasn't. JD's upset because Vin won't read his email, and Vin is upset because JD reads his aloud. And between the two of them… well, your dinner won't be ready for another forty-five minutes."

Gloria stopped her tirade and looked at her concerned employer. She smiled slightly and he smirked.

"They can really get to you sometimes," Chris said.

"Yes, they can," Gloria agreed with a laugh. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to dump on you like that."

"No need to apologize. They really can get to you," said Chris.

"Mr. Larabee, I know that you are doing everything possible for the boys, but I'm worried about them. JD seems to cling more with each passing day and Vin seems to drift further away, participating in less and less."

"I know," said Chris. "I just wish I knew what I could do to change it. We're trying to be here for them and assure them that we aren't leaving, but it seems that their belief in that truth will only come with time."

The housekeeper nodded as she climbed into the car.

"Gloria?" Chris waited until she looked at him. "Thanks for taking such great care of the boys. All of us."

She smiled and closed the car door.

He waited until she drove down the driveway and then went to look for his boy and find out what had happened today. He was doing his best to be a great dad but sometimes it seemed to be more than he felt capable of handling. Today was one of those times.

Chris ended up searching the entire house before going back outside and finding Vin in the tree house with the ramp pulled up.

"Hey, Cowboy," he called.

Vin peered over the railing.

"Can I come up?"

"Is JD with you?" Vin asked looking around the yard from his perch.

"No. He's inside with Buck."

Chris watched as Vin heaved a sigh and moved to the rope to lower the ramp. He accepted the implied invitation and joined Vin in the tree house.

The seven-year-old unconsciously backed away a couple of steps as his foster dad approached, so Chris stopped and sat down, willing himself to give the boy the space he needed for the time being.

"So, JD's bothering you today?" he asked.

Vin sat down across the deck from Chris, leaning his back against the railing. He nodded his agreement to the statement.

"What did he do?" Chris prodded gently to get the boy to verbally express himself.

Vin grimaced, and then suddenly the frustration spilled out. "He's followin' me everywhere and wants to do everything I'm doin' and he's crying all the time and… and… I don't know!"

Chris almost smiled at the last phrase. He understood it perfectly. Sometimes it didn't matter what a person did, it was frustrating.

"Did you tell him it was bothering you?"

"I telled him I didn't want to play." Vin brought his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. "But then he cried."

The boy heaved a big sigh. "I didn't mean to make him cry, but I… I just want to be alone."

"And then he got mad at me 'cause I didn't want to hear his emails from Uncle Ezra."

Chris panicked for a moment thinking somehow Vin wasn't getting email from Ezra again.

"And then he got mad at me 'cause I didn't want to read mine."

"What did you do?" Chris asked.

"I went up here so I didn't hit him."

Chris nodded to him. "That was a good decision Vin. It's the next best thing when you can't talk it out."

They sat quietly for a few moments listening to the birds chirp.

"Are you ready to go inside now?" Chris asked.

"Yeah, but I don't want to read my emails."

"You don't have to," Chris said. "They're private between you and Ezra."

He waited for Vin to join him and then walked down the ramp not knowing that when Vin talked about not reading his emails, he was being literal. He wasn't talking about not reading them aloud. He meant not reading them at all.

Inside the house the viewpoint was very different. JD held tightly to Buck as they sat on Buck's bed and talked about their days.

"And then Vin yelled at me and said he wasn't gonna read his emails from Unca Ezra," JD complained.

"It's okay, Little Bit," said Buck. "You know how Vin is very quiet sometimes and doesn't like to say things out loud?"

JD nodded.

"Well, it's a little like that. Vin wants it to be quiet and private. He might even think someone will laugh if he makes a mistake when he's reading it."

"I won't do that, Da," JD vowed.

"I know that, Son."

"But Da, Vin don't read them at all. He looked and see'd them in his mailbox, but he wouldn't read them."

Buck leaned back in surprise. Vin had been so upset over not getting the emails, why was he not reading them now that they'd fixed the problem?

Well, they'd fixed the mailbox problem anyway; they just hadn't fixed Vin and JD's problems.

"Unca Ezra's gonna think that Vin doesn't like him no more and then he'll never come back."

Big tears rolled down JD's cheeks.

"Aw, Little Bit, that isn't true," said Buck hugging his son. "Your Uncle Ezra understands that Vin is upset right now and he'll just keep trying until Vin starts answering him."

"Are you sure?"

Buck smiled. "I'm positive. And there is one other thing that I'm sure of."


"That JD Dunne is my son and Vin is Chris' son and we're all a family, and nothing can ever, ever, ever change that."

JD smiled and leaned his head on Buck's chest.

Buck rocked him slightly wondering how many more times he'd have to repeat that reassurance before JD truly accepted it.


"Hmm?" the blond responded as he read through a file from work.

"JD told me that Vin isn't even reading his mail from Ezra."

Chris put down the file and looked at his friend. "Are you sure that's what he meant? Vin told me he didn't want to read them out loud."

"No," said Buck shaking his head. "That's what I thought at first, too, but I took a peek at his mailbox. The emails from Ezra aren't opened."

Chris frowned. "Why wouldn't he read them? It was such a big deal when he didn't get them and JD did."

Buck shrugged. "Maybe he's mad at Ezra. Maybe he's scared to open them because he thinks it will make this all permanent. I don't know."

"I don't know what to do, Buck. Sometimes I want to holler at both of them. I want JD to stop clinging to everyone and I want Vin to stop shrugging or shaking his head or nodding and just say what's on his mind." Chris sighed. "But then…"

"Then you remember they are little kids and they're going to react like kids."

Chris nodded. "I'll talk to Dr. Lowery about it tomorrow. See if we can't figure out something more constructive to do to walk them through this stage."

Buck clapped him on the shoulder. "We will get through it. Sometimes I don't know how, but we will."

If the previous days had seemed bad, Friday managed to top them all. Dr. Lowery had to bump the boys' much-needed appointment for an emergency situation and around four o'clock Chris received a rather frazzled call from Mrs. Potter.

"Mr. Larabee, I really hate to bother you at work, but I think you and Buck need to come home now." The woman sounded almost in tears.

"Gloria, what's wrong?" Chris was already standing up.

"Vin's missing. When I picked them up from school JD said Vin got another note. I gave JD his snack but when I looked for Vin he wasn't around. I thought he just needed some time. But I got worried and started trying to find him. He's not in any of the usual places."

"All right," said Chris. "You just keep an eye on JD. We're on our way."

He ended the conversation and left his office. "Nathan, could you lock up for me? Buck, we've got to go."

"Sure," answered Nathan, standing and moving closer.

"What's wrong?" asked Buck, grabbing his jacket and keys.

"Vin's missing."

"What?" Josiah and Nathan said at the same time.

"I don't think he's gone far," explained Chris. "Gloria said he got another note at school. He probably just found a place to be away from JD for a while."

"Call us," said Nathan as Chris and Buck headed for the elevator, their body language displaying an urgency that the Team Leader's voice had hidden.

Though sorely tempted, Chris didn't use lights and sirens on the way home. He was pretty sure Vin had just found a new place to hide from JD, but he could be wrong.

Please don't let me be wrong.

He raced up the driveway and skidded the truck to a stop.

Both men jumped out and headed for the porch as Gloria came out with JD in her arms.

"I still can't find him."

JD reached for Buck and the big man indulged him.

"We'll find him," said Chris heading towards the barn.

He only made it halfway before he spotted his son sitting under a tree just past the storage shed where Ezra's car was stored.


The boy looked up and blew the thistle seeds off of the stem in his hand. He watched them float away on the breeze.

"Vin," Chris said again as he approached. "Where have you been?"

"Around," Vin said with a shrug.

"Didn't you hear Mrs. Potter calling?"

Vin shrugged. He had heard her, but evidently she hadn't heard him when he called to her and said he was fine.

"Son," Chris closed his eyes briefly, "I know you want to be alone sometimes, but you have to tell an adult where you are going. You scared Gloria."

Vin's eyes teared. "I didn't mean to."

"Maybe not, but you did scare her."

"I wasn't running away!" Vin defended.

Chris put his arm around Vin and felt the boy flinch.

"I know," he said, "but next time you tell her first."

Vin sighed.


"Okay," said Vin.


Vin looked across the yard and could see Mrs. Potter watching them from the porch. He loved Mrs. Potter. She was really good to them and he didn't mean to make her sad. It was just that nobody seemed to understand he wanted to be by himself.

He sighed and stood up, walking across the yard to his caretaker.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to scare you."

Gloria hugged him. "I thought something had happened to you."

"No," said Vin shaking his head. "I'm okay. I'm sorry."

"Vin's agreed that in the future he will tell us when he needs to be alone," said Chris.

"Good," said Gloria.

"Vin, you was losted," said JD.

"Nuh-uh," said Vin. "I knew where I was."

"But we didn't so you was losted."



"Hold it," said Buck.

"Vin's just being mean because he got in trouble," said JD.

Vin scowled at his foster brother.

"JD," that's enough," scolded Buck. "You know that it's Vin's responsibility to tell us if he has trouble at school."

Now it was JD's turn to sigh. "Sorry… But Da, Eli Joe…"

"Nope!" said Buck silencing the argument even though he wanted to hear what had happened. It was Vin's story to tell, not JD's.

Chris sat down on the porch step as Gloria went inside to start their dinner.

"So what happened?" he asked.

Vin blushed a deep red, his embarrassment highly evident.

"I pushed Eli Joe," he admitted.

"Why?" Chris asked as Buck and JD sat down beside them.

Vin picked at the knees of his pants.

"I don't want to tell," he said softly.

"Eli Joe called him a baby," JD blurted out.

Vin looked at the ground in front of him.

"This isn't about your trouble on the playground last week?" Chris asked referring to Vin hiding under the staircase after Ezra had been shot.

Vin shook his head.

"He wath making fun of the way I talk." His slurred 's' explained everything they needed to know. His slight lisp had been a little more pronounced in the past couple of weeks, likely due to the added stress and lack of sleep. Vin didn't need one more thing to try to pull him under.

"Damn it!"

Three pairs of eyes turned to Chris. He automatically pulled out his wallet and handed JD a dollar for the swear jar.

"I'm sorry for swearing," he said, "But I'm not sorry for feeling the way I feel. You speak just fine, Vin, and Eli Joe has some major growing up to do."

He put his arm around Vin. "But…"

"I shouldn't have pushed him."

Chris nodded.

"But I really, really wanted to push him."

Chris and Buck exchanged surprised glances over the boys' heads. Vin wasn't usually vocal about his motivations.

"He kept thaying, 'you talk like a baby, you talk like a baby,' and it made me real mad. And I couldn't go out and find a quiet place because I had to stay at my chair."

Vin looked at Chris. "And then he told everybody I got all my spelling words wrong! So I stood up and pushed him." He grimaced as the 's' in pushed slurred.

Chris growled inside. He wanted to know how Eli had found out about Vin's score and he wanted to pound some sense into the little guy or maybe his parents. But no matter how he felt, Vin didn't have the right to put his hands on the other boy.

"I understand how you felt, Son. But…"

"I shouldn't have."

"What do you think should happen now?" asked Chris.

"I have to tell Eli sorry?" Vin asked.

Chris nodded. "And since it's Friday, I think we'll call him and tell him so he doesn't have to wait all weekend."

"But he was wrong," Vin said softly.

"Yes," Chris agreed, "But so were you. Let's go."

Vin sighed and got up to walk inside.



Subject: Hello

Hi, Uncle Ezra. It's me. JD.

Vin still doesn't want to play with me. We was supposed to visit Dr. Will today but he had a merge-in-see.

Vin got lost. He says he didn't, but he did. Da and Chris even came home from work to find him. I was scared. So was Mrs. Potter. I thought Vin was gone away forever. If Chris didn't find Vin, he was going to call the ATF and have them come find him.

If you don't work for the ATF no more can you still help find us when we're lost? If you can't help, who is going to find boys who don't have no Mamas like me and Vin?

I wish you'd come home. I know you like your Mama, but I miss you.



Ezra sat at his computer after reading the latest email from JD. He still hadn't heard anything from Vin personally, just JD's reports. He'd been here a full week, and with each day that passed the doubts about his decision became stronger and his determination to stay weakened.

'Who is going to find boys who don't have no Mamas like me and Vin?'

Leave it to a five-year-old to remind him of the good things about being a federal agent. Maybe they didn't always get their man. Maybe the justice system was flawed and animals that never belonged on the street found their way back far too quickly. Maybe there were accidents and good agents accidentally shot each other. But nothing could outweigh finding two little boys in a warehouse and saving their lives.

JD's question may have been worded awkwardly, but it hit its mark. That was why Ezra had become an agent in the first place. He loved the thrill and the challenge of undercover work, but the utmost reason he had gone into law enforcement was to try to do some good - to make a difference. He couldn't save the whole world, but he could make a difference in one person's life.

But was making a difference in the life of a stranger worth the risk to his own life?

There was a knock at the door and his nurse, Chuck moved to answer it.

Ezra nodded as Peter entered. He was slightly surprised to see that he was alone. Maude must be busy with customers - or shopping - or getting her hair done.

"Mind if I sit down?"

"Not at all," responded Ezra, placing his laptop on the table at the end of the couch.

Peter settled into the chair across from the sofa where Ezra reclined, keeping his leg elevated.

"I'm not one to beat around the bush, Ezra, so if you don't mind, I'll just say what's on my mind."

"Please," Ezra invited.

"Over the past week we've spent quite a bit of time together and I'm pleased we've had the opportunity to get to know each other better. Maude has told me so much about you and actually having you here has corroborated everything she's told me."

Seeing the skeptical look on Ezra's face, Peter chuckled. "Don't worry, Son. She has nothing but the highest praises for you."

That brought a surprised but pleased smile to Ezra's face. His relationship with Maude had been rocky at times, and sometimes he had been unkind because of his resentment from things that happened in their early years.

"But what I want you to think about is the fact that it is impossible to work for two bosses."

"Excuse me?" Ezra asked in confusion. "I submitted my resignation with the ATF. Chris may not have processed it yet, but he will."

"That's not what I mean," said Peter. "Your head may say that you live and work in New Orleans, but, Son, your heart doesn't agree. Your heart is in Denver."

"I…" Words failed him. Ezra Standish, conversationalist extraordinaire couldn't think of a word to say.

"Just think about it, Ezra," Peter added. "No one will hold it against you if you decide to go home. Your mother and I will support you in whatever decision you make."

Ezra watched his stepfather leave as he sat in stunned silence. Peter, nearly a total stranger had read him better than he read himself.

As he prepared for bed, he sent nurse Chuck home for the night. Images of JD and Vin filled his mind intermingled with Chris and Buck and Josiah and Nathan. His family. He had scattered thoughts of the fateful raid and Jeff Pearson firing at him, as well as the conversations with Dr. Frank Snyder, the psychologist his mother had hired for him.

Dr. Snyder had confronted him with the idea that his real reason for leaving might not have been for the boys' protection. Ezra had strongly resisted the idea in the first two sessions, but today he wasn't so sure.

He still didn't want to admit to anyone how much the shooting had scared him, but he was beginning to admit it to himself. There was no shame in being afraid. At least that's what Dr. Snyder told him.

Ezra could remember telling Vin similar words when something had frightened the boy. He picked up a stuffed jaguar and thought of how strongly his nephew depended on the image of security offered by a small stuffed cat.

He snorted to himself thinking how embarrassed he would be if his mother or Peter saw him with the Jaguar. He'd kept it hidden in the drawer, but tonight…

Ezra sighed. Peter had brought a lot of the pieces together tonight with his little talk. He had no doubt that he would be welcomed in either of his worlds, Denver or New Orleans. He simply had to decide which place he really wanted.

Simply? There was no 'simple' about it. He pulled out the note pad he had been using for the past two days following his visits with Dr. Snyder. He had been making notes, pros and cons about Denver and the ATF, and New Orleans and the Bayou Casino Resort. He wasn't allowed to use the boys' feelings in any of his brainstorming. The lists were to be strictly based on the effects to Ezra P. Standish.

Saturday morning dawned and Ezra found himself still on the sofa, his notepad now lying on the floor beside him. He'd never made it to the bed. He had, however, made a decision. He was certain his mother wouldn't like his decision, but he knew that it was the right choice and that he had to go home. New Orleans was a great place to visit, but Denver, Colorado had become his home.

Using his crutches, he hobbled to the shower to get ready for the day. His mother and Peter were expecting him for breakfast in an hour.

He dried his hair and brushed his teeth, still dressed in just his towel. He was pleased that he was able to stand, weight balanced on his leg without too much pain. Of course, he wasn't putting his full weight on the injured leg, but it was progress. His latest lab work showed great improvement, his body starting to keep his blood chemistry balanced. He still tired too easily, but he was making strides.

He finished combing his hair and hobbled to the bedroom to get dressed. He was almost ready when he heard a familiar knock at the door.

Only his mother could knock with such authority.

Slipping on his jacket, he manned his crutches and headed for the door.

"Good morning, Darling," Maude greeted before kissing him on the cheek. "You look wonderful."

"Thank you, Mother. You are ravishing as always."

"She is, isn't she?" said Peter. "Good morning, Ezra."

"Good morning," Ezra returned.

"The car is ready," said Maude. "Shall we?"

When they had finished eating, Ezra knew it was time to talk to his mother and Peter about his decision.

"I've been doing a lot of thinking," he said quietly.

Maude reached over and sought her husband's hand. Peter squeezed it reassuringly. He had told her about his visit with Ezra and she had a good idea what was coming.

"As much as I'm enjoying it here, being with both of you and the challenges of the job, I believe it would be best if I go home."

There. It was said.

Maude paused, gathering her composure before she spoke.

"Darling, I would love it if you stayed here with us, and I really don't want you to go back to your job. It's too risky." She swallowed. "But I want you to be happy."

"I haven't made any decision about returning to the ATF," Ezra said, "but I need to go home."

"All right," Maude said with more conviction than she felt. "Dr. Blalock and the jet will be ready to take you back tomorrow."

Ezra nodded his thanks, afraid to speak.

"I think you're making a good decision, Son," said Peter. "A hard one, and one that we wish were different, but I want you to know there will always be a place here for you."

Ezra looked Peter in the eye and reached across the table and shook his hand.

The man was good for his mother.

The flight home was just as long, if not longer than the flight to New Orleans. Again Ezra was unable to sleep but this time it was because he was both excited and anxious. Excited because he was going home. Anxious because he had some hurts to mend.

He hated the thought that he had caused more unnecessary trauma to little Vin and JD. He couldn't blame them if neither one of them ever wanted to see him again, but he hoped that one day they could forgive him.

He couldn't undo what was already done. He could only offer apologies and seek forgiveness for the hurt he'd caused. He would not, however seek forgiveness for the choice he made. At the time it had been the right decision even if it hadn't been made for the right reasons. His days away from Denver had given him space and unpressured time to evaluate his choices. Maybe he could have done the same thing in Denver, but he wouldn't have had the chance to spend time with his mother and getting to know Peter. And he might not have felt as free to talk to an agency provided psychologist.

But the fallout from his decision had cost his family dearly. JD's emails had expressed an underlying insecurity about his position and the permanence of his relationships. Even the prospect that his adoption process was nearing completion didn't seem to translate to feeling secure that his family would be there.

And Vin?

Vin scared him. The seven-year-old had still not replied to a single email, but a note from Chris had assured Ezra that he was in fact reading them. For most of the week Vin had avoided reading the letters, but sometime yesterday they had been read because the little envelope icons no longer showed them as unread.

Between JD's letters, Chris' brief note and Vin's silence, Ezra had sensed a too familiar response in the boy. He closed his eyes remembering the pain of being left behind as a child. His mother couldn't take him with her. The reason didn't matter, only the fact that she went without him and he had to stay with someone he barely knew. Just when he started to get comfortable and fit in, he was uprooted and moved somewhere else and he felt the loss not only of his mother, but also of leaving his new family. That was the moment he could point back to when he first used the defense mechanism of distancing himself so he wouldn't be hurt.

He thought he'd put away that behavior long ago, but over the past few days, he realized it was alive and well and running his life.


That was an apt description. After he had been wounded, he had started to realize what was really important, and in some ways that had scared him more than being shot. While he had been the one injured, the one who's life was nearly lost, he had realized what he valued most, and what he stood to lose if one of them were gone. And his lifelong habit of pushing away to protect himself from potential pain had kicked into full gear.

That's what Dr. Snyder had made him realize. True, he had wanted to protect the boys from the fears and pain they had endured because of his job and injury, but even more he had wanted to protect himself from the potential pain of someday losing someone he loved.

The only problem was, leaving had removed the 'potential' part of that equation and made it real, and had he stayed in New Orleans, he would have 'lost' those relationships he was trying to protect.

And now he sensed the same behavior in Vin. The boy was hurt and scared and subconsciously trying to protect himself the only way he knew how - pulling away.

He needed to see Vin - to talk to him. He wasn't sure a seven-year-old could understand the psychology of what he was doing, but maybe he could help him find a better way to deal with difficulties.

Ezra shook his head.

"Are you all right, Mr. Standish?"

Ezra nodded to Dr. Blalock. "I'm feeling fine. A little headache and my leg is sore, but no more than usual."

"Well, you certainly look a lot better than you did a week ago," the doctor said, "But I still don't think…"

"I know. I shouldn't be flying. Thank you for your concern. Once we reach Denver, I plan on staying for a very long time."

'Although I have no idea where I'll stay or what I'll do for a job,' he thought to himself.

His mother had helped him break the lease on his condo and make arrangements for the move while he was still in the hospital. The condo was in high demand and had been immediately snapped up. Returning there was not an option. He'd have to find a hotel for a few days until he could find something more permanent.

He tightened his seatbelt as they approached the private airport. He'd call for a cab when they landed and…

And do what?

He was tired and needed to rest, but he wanted to go out to the ranch as well.

A hotel was easier. Especially since no one knew he was coming.

The plane touched down and decelerated, before taxiing to the gate. He looked out the window and saw a yellow cab, the driver waiting, leaning against the car.

He smiled. His mother thought of everything.

The plane came to a stop and Ezra unbuckled. The thought of deplaning was far less intimidating than it had been in New Orleans, but he also had a week of rest and therapy since that flight.

He stood and accepted the crutches as the doctor handed them to him. There was no argument about crutches or canes. He'd realized that for now crutches were easier to get around with. His therapist had suggested a few more days before he began extended time periods with the cane.

He climbed down the steps, this time not minding the doctor behind him or the crewman in front of him. They were simply doing their job to protect him. Once he was safely on the tarmac, the crewman retrieved his bags and took them to the waiting taxi.

"Where to, Mister?" asked the driver.

' Good question,' Ezra thought. 'Where should I go?'

"14911 Rock Ridge Drive."

The Taxi driver looked back, "Are you crazy, Mister? Do you know how much that's gonna cost? Then I have to drive back with no fare."

"I am well aware of how far it is to the ranch and how much it will cost," said Ezra. "I'll pay you double, which will cover the return trip."

"Okay, Mister," the driver shrugged. "It's your money."

"I knew he was lying. I knew it!" Vin screamed before darting out of the room.

Chris cursed.

JD clung.

Buck tried to keep everyone together.

Josiah and Nathan sat silently watching.

Ezra had promised to call at five o'clock every Sunday. It was now six-thirty and they had not heard from the southerner. It was the last straw for Vin and he had finally screamed his frustration. His hurt. His anger.

"Let's give him a few minutes," Buck said in a low voice.

Chris nodded. Vin would be upset with himself about his outburst, no matter how justified his response was.

"I'm going to try to get a hold of Ezra."

Buck nodded. He was glad that Chris couldn't reach through the phone right now. Ezra would look like a pretzel tied up in knots. He loved the southerner. They all did. But that didn't excuse his irresponsibility in keeping his promises to the boys.

Chris slammed the phone into its cradle.

JD began to cry at the violent movement.

Chris bowed his head and took a deep breath. They were all coming unglued.

He walked over and took JD out of Buck's arms and hugged him. "I'm sorry, JD."

JD looked up at Chris' eyes and could see the tears forming. He leaned his head on Chris' shoulder and patted his neck. "I's sorry, too."

Chris rubbed the small back and kissed JD on the top of his head.

"What did they say?" asked Buck, knowing from Chris' response that he hadn't reached Ezra.

Chris shook his head. "They said there's no answer in his room."

Vin sat in his safe spot between his dresser and the bunk beds.

He shouldn't have yelled. Especially with Uncle Nathan and Uncle Josiah there for dinner.

But he was mad.

Chris had stood by him Friday night when he apologized to Eli Joe on the phone. He'd heard Vin say 'I'm sorry,' but he wasn't able to hear Eli's continued taunting on the other end of the line.

'Baby! Baby! Baby!'

Vin hated Eli Joe. He hated Chris for making him apologize. He hated JD for crying so much and hanging on him all the time. He hated Uncle Ezra for leaving just like his Mama and borned Daddy.

Vin burst into tears and ran outside.

He didn't mean it. He didn't hate them. He didn't!

Distressed and confused by his feelings, Vin ran to the shed. It was his only alone spot that Chris didn't know about.

He went inside and closed the door. He'd been coming in here all week. Carefully he lifted the tarp covering Uncle Ezra's car. He opened the car and crawled inside. Closing the car door he didn't notice, or perhaps didn't care that the tarp fell back into place.

Vin held the tiny penlight that Ezra had given to JD so long ago when he was scared. Using the penlight he looked at the crumpled picture of Uncle Ezra and him fishing. He tried to smooth the wrinkles out of the picture. He hadn't meant to wad it up but when Uncle Ezra didn't call, it made him mad and he had tried to throw away the picture.

Remorse had driven him quickly back to the garbage can and he had rescued the picture. Only now it was wrecked. It would never be the same again.

Vin angrily rubbed away his tears with his fist.

Why did Uncle Ezra have to go away? Why did he lie and say he was going to call them every Sunday at five o'clock? Why didn't he call?

Unconsciously Vin's fist tightened and the photograph was crumpled again.

"NO!" he yelled at himself dropping the penlight as he tried to smooth out the wrinkles.

Knowing it was useless, he held the picture to his chest and sobbed in the darkness.

It had been long enough and Chris needed to help Vin work through his hurt. He walked down the hall to the boys' room.

He looked in all the hiding spots, feeling a mild tension growing as he came up empty. Moving quickly to his own room, Chris checked the closets and under the bed.

Still no sign.

He checked the bathrooms, with no results.

"Buck," he said as he entered the great room, "Vin's not in the house."

"He's probably in the tree house or with Peso," Buck suggested. "I'll help you look."

"We'll help, too," said Nathan. He scooped up JD and put him on Buck's shoulders as they went outside to search.

JD and Buck checked the tree house while Nathan and Josiah checked the barn. Chris looked in the shed, but with the tarp in place, the car looked undisturbed.

As they met under the tree house, Chris felt the panic rising. Vin had been very distressed; he just hoped he had gone to one of his favorite places.

"Okay. Buck, you take the meadow. I'll take the big rocks. Josiah, you and Nathan check the creek. Be sure to go up past the bend. There's a rock formation with a hollowed out spot. Vin likes to sit there and watch for deer."

His team fanned out and the search began in earnest. Voices calling "Vin!" echoed across the field.

One by one they returned to the backyard without finding Vin. Ringo and Elvis ran around the yard yapping, trying to get someone to play with them.

"I'll call for reinforcements," said Nathan grimly.

"Someone shut those dogs up!" Chris snapped.

"Hold it," said Josiah.

"What?" asked Buck.

"Look," the older agent said nodding towards the malamute. The pup was scratching at the shed door.

"You don't think…" Buck trailed off.

"I checked the shed," Chris said as he walked quickly toward the outbuilding. He broke into a run halfway across the yard followed quickly by the others.

He opened the door and turned on the light. They made quick work of searching the building, but did not find Vin.

"The car?" suggested Buck.

"Can't get in without the keys," said Chris. "Besides, the tarp is still over it."

"Have you seen the keys lately?" Buck asked.

Chris walked quickly to the car and pulled the tarp off of it.

"Vin!" he called seeing the boy curled up on the driver's seat.

Vin jerked awake and scrambled away from the threat, not realizing it was Chris.

Chris pulled at the door handle and succeeded only in setting off the car alarm.

"Open the door!" he yelled over the honking of the horn.

Vin cringed at all the noise. He hadn't meant to fall asleep. He hadn't meant to hide in the car and not tell someone where he was. He hadn't meant to yell at anyone.

"Open the door!" Chris repeated.

"Relax," Buck hissed.

Chris took a deep breath. "Vin… Cowboy? Please unlock the door."

Vin covered his ears and closed his eyes. It was too loud.

"Can't you shut that thing off!" Chris hollered at Josiah who had the hood up and was trying to deactivate the alarm.

The alarm stopped and the room was silent - except for the sobs from a seven-year-old locked inside a car.

"Let's give them some space," suggested Nathan as he herded Buck, JD and Josiah towards the door.

"Is Vin okay?" JD asked.

"He's going to be fine," Nathan assured as they stepped outside the shed."

"Vin? It's okay Son," Chris soothed. "Nobody's mad at you. Please unlock the door."

"Chris is going to break a window," Nathan predicted.

"I hope Ezra's got good insurance," said Buck.

As his taxi pulled up to the house, Ezra could see that Nathan and Josiah's vehicles were parked in the driveway.

He climbed out of the car and looked with concern at the entrance to the shed. The shed where his Jag was stored. He could see Nathan and Josiah as well as Buck holding JD and looking at something inside. Their posture and the fact that they hadn't noticed the cab drive up illustrated their concern. Something was wrong.

Ezra paid the driver quickly.

"Where do you want your stuff?" the young man asked.

"Just leave it there," said Ezra nodding to the path to the house.

The cabbie dropped his bags and his cane in a haphazard pile before climbing back in the taxi and leaving.

Ezra hobbled towards the entrance to the storage shed.

"Unca Ezra!" JD screamed seeing his uncle approaching from over Buck's shoulder.

Little hands reached out for his uncle as Ezra stopped next to him. The southerner balanced himself and then reached out for the boy.

"You came back," JD said, his face streaked with tears.

He hugged JD, holding him tightly as the boy transferred from Buck to him. Ezra grimaced at the tightness in his leg as he shifted his weight.

"What's wrong?" he asked Buck.

The dark haired man glared at him for a moment. "Vin's had a tough time since you've been gone. He's locked inside your car. Won't come out."

"Vin was losted. We looked and looked and looked for him," said JD. "He was in your car the whole time."

Ezra looked at Buck and nodded his head towards JD asking for Buck to take him. He had a mess to try to fix.

Hobbling towards the car, he stopped by the back quarter panel. "Chris?" he said softly.

Chris stared at him for a moment before nodding to him and stepping back so Ezra could maneuver closer to the car.

Ezra stopped at the driver's door, noting that Vin had scooted to the passenger side, huddling on the floor as far away as he could possibly be from anyone who approached. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his keys, grateful that he had not packed them in his suitcase. Driving was still not an option due to his inability to use the clutch with his injured leg - that and his propensity for blacking out - but the keys felt natural in his pocket.

"Mr. Tanner," he said, "I'm going to open the door. I'm not going to make you get out, but I need to talk to you. It's very important."

Vin didn't respond, so Ezra pressed the button for the automatic locks and opened the door. He awkwardly slid into the driver's seat, dropping the crutches to the shed floor and struggling to get his leg into a comfortable position. For a moment he savored the comfort of the plush leather, before turning his full attention to the hurting child.

"I bet you're angry with me," he said softly. "And maybe scared and hurt. You have every right to be. It's my fault you're so upset."

"You shouldn'a left," Vin responded.

"You're right."

"You said it's okay to be scared," Vin accused. "You said you loved us. You said we'll always be family. But you left!"

Vin looked at Ezra sharply. "You said I should talk to Chris or Buck or you - or Uncle Nathan or Uncle Josiah when something's hard. That I shouldn't run away."

Ezra bit his lower lip, fighting to maintain his composure.

"But you ran away."

"You're right, Vin," Ezra said softly. "I did say all those things."

"You lied to me," said Vin. "You said those things and then you didn't do 'em. Just like you said you we're gonna call us today and you didn't."

Ezra closed his eyes. "Vin, I didn't call you today because I was on my way here."

"But you said…" Vin said half-heartedly.

"I know. I messed up big time. I did say it was all right to be scared, and when things are hard you need to stick it out, stay with it."

"But you didn't," said Vin.

"No," said Ezra as he ran a hand through his hair. "I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I was trying to protect you from ever having to be afraid for me again. That's what I wanted to do. But what I couldn't see, Vin, was that really I was scared."

Vin was silent, listening to his Uncle's words. He kept his head down, not daring to look at Ezra.

"I was scared that I might lose everything - everyone I loved."

Vin's head jerked up as Ezra's voice cracked with emotion.

"And I guess, in a way, I was running away," Ezra admitted. "But I never ever meant to hurt you. I am so sorry for that. I love you and it breaks my heart that I hurt you."

Ezra brushed away tears with his knuckles. "I am so sorry. I don't deserve it, but I hope that someday you can forgive me."

Ezra's tears were the final proof Vin needed that his Uncle was sincere. With a sob of his own he threw himself into Ezra's arms. Man and boy clung to each other, saying nothing yet saying everything.

When Ezra finally looked up everyone had left the garage, except for Chris. Ezra stared at the other man, unsure what to say.

Chris' own eyes were suspiciously bright as he whispered, "Welcome back, Uncle Ezra."

Next up - Interludes by Joy K

Index - Puzzling Out Life's Little Lessons

Comments: Joy K

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