Summary: Vin is upset and Chris tries to find out why.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to the creators of this Universe for allowing others to play and, as always, to my wonderful betas Pam and Yuri.
Carole and Xiola encouraged this skeptic to experience the LB Universe for herself. Having done so, I found myself so captivated by lil Vin that I had to try writing a story myself, so guys - this one is for you. .
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. I dont own the rights to the Magnificent Seven and I dont make any money from this work.
Chris Larabee closed the front door of the ranch house quietly behind him, dumped his briefcase in the hall and walked into the den. As he expected, his colleague and housemate, Buck Wilmington, was sitting there, slouched in a recliner with his feet up on the coffee table, watching TV.
"Hey, pard," Buck greeted him. He switched off the TV and looked at his watch. "Youre late. How was the conference?"
Chris sank wearily into his old, comfortable recliner.
"Pretty much as you'd expect."
"Too long, too boring and a total waste of time," Buck stated with a wide grin.
"That about sums it up, yeah." Chris sighed. Attending an obligatory conference on new firearms legislation on a Saturday of all days was the icing on a cake that had already included a solid five days of working late at the office.
"How was the game?" he asked.
"Great. The boys enjoyed it. We met the Watsons and went to Antonios for pizza and ice cream afterwards."
"Vin " Buck hesitated and Chris looked at him sharply.
Buck shrugged. "Not sure. I mean, he seemed to enjoy the game, but he was real quiet on the way home, wanted to go straight to bed when we got in. Wouldnt tell me what was wrong, though, and I couldnt get anything out of JD either."
Chris frowned. Vin had been very disappointed that Chris had to work instead of going to the baseball game, but as usual the boy had seemed to understand and had seemed fine when Chris left early that morning.
"Something must have happened to upset him, Buck."
"I know. My best guess is Billy Watson."
Chris groaned inwardly. Billy Watson was the elder brother of one of Vins school friends. For some reason the older boy had taken a dislike to Vin and took every opportunity to be spiteful.
"The boys were sitting together at Antonios," Buck went on. "Reckon Billy mustve said something to Vin then, but you know Vin, hes keeping it bottled up and wont say anything."
Chris stood up. "Ill just go in and check on him."
He pushed open the door to the boys room quietly and padded over to the bunk beds. The dim glow from the night-light illuminated JD on the lower bunk, sprawled across the bed in an ungainly heap, fast asleep and snoring gently. Turning his eyes to the upper bunk Chris could see that Vin was asleep too, curled up with his slight body wrapped tightly round his toy cat. His eyes were puffy and his cheeks stained with tear tracks, evidence that once again the little boy had cried himself to sleep.
Chris felt an urgent need to wake the child, to hold him in his arms and reassure him, but reluctantly decided that it was better to let the boy sleep; hed get to the bottom of this in the morning.
+ + + + + + +
The following morning saw the unconventional family working together outside. The routine was for Vin and JD to help out in the stables before they could go and play. JD rushed through his chores as quickly as possible, then ran off towards the treehouse.
"Come on, Vin! I wanna finish that game of cowboys an injuns!"
"In a minute, JD," Vin called and carried on sweeping the stable floor.
"Youve finished your chores, Vin. Why dont you go and play with JD?" Chris said when the small Texan showed no sign of following his young friend.
"Its okay. I havent finished here yet," Vin answered quietly.
Chris looked at the child closely. Vin had been quieter than usual all morning. Chris had asked him over breakfast if anything was wrong, but Vin had insisted that he was fine. Hed been overly helpful, first taking out the breakfast dishes without being asked, and now doing more than his fair share of the chores in the stables. Ironically, this display of helpfulness concerned rather than pleased Chris. It reminded him of the early days when Vin had been afraid that hed be sent away if he didnt pull his weight. Chris had thought theyd got past that stage; that hed managed to convince Vin that he didnt have to earn his place in the family.
He wondered if his recent late nights at the office had had more of an affect on the boy than hed thought and driven Vin back to a feeling of insecurity. He found himself cursing the job that required him so often to work unconventional hours and then couldnt help smiling at the thought; not too long ago this same job had been the only thing that gave his life any meaning.
For now, he didnt push the boy and hoped that the announcement he and Buck had planned for later would cheer him up. It was now almost six months since the boys had come to live with them and the two men had decided that it was a landmark they should celebrate.
After lunch Buck and Chris told the boys to stay seated at the table once the dishes had been cleared away.
"Next Friday is a special day," Buck began. "Do you know why?"
"A day off school?" JD guessed immediately.
Buck laughed. "Good try, Little Bit. Vin?"
Chris looked at Vin who was frowning in concentration. Finally the boy suggested tentatively, "Someones birthday?"
"Nope. Looks like Im gonna have to tell you. Next weekend it will be six months exactly since you boys first came to live here, and we thought it would be nice to do something special to celebrate. So we need you guys to tell us what youd like to do. Anything at all within reason," he added quickly, grinning as JD immediately opened his mouth to speak.
Chris exchanged an amused glance with Buck as JD threw himself into the important task of thinking, his face screwed up in concentration. Vin sat quietly, waiting as always for JD to offer his preference first. Chris was torn between a sense of pride in the way the little boy always looked out for his younger friend and wishing that just for once Vin would tell them what he wanted to do.
Eventually, JD came to a decision. "I want to go see the aminals at the zoo. And I want a big party with pizza and ice cream, and vite Unca Ezra, and Unca siah, and Unca "
"We get the picture," Buck interrupted, smiling. "Reckon that shouldnt be too hard to organise."
Chris turned to Vin. Hed been watching the boy carefully as JD spoke; hed discovered that, while Vin often didnt vocalise what was on his mind, his eyes usually spoke volumes. This time the brief look of disappointment that crossed his face was hard to miss.
"What about you, Vin?" Chris asked. "Is that what youd like to, or would you rather do something else?"
Vin nodded slowly. "I like the zoo and a party would be fun."
"You sure, Vin? If theres something different youd like to do, we have the whole weekend."
Vin looked up at him and this time Chris found it hard to interpret the emotion he saw in those big blue eyes, before the little boy nodded his head firmly. "Is sure."
Well, alrighty, then," Buck said. "The zoo and a party it is. You can invite all your uncles, and Aunt Raine and some of your school friends too, if youd like."
JD was so excited that he wanted to start making special invitations for the party guests right away. Buck went outside to finish off some chores while Chris settled the boys down at the big kitchen table with some card and crayons. He fetched his briefcase and took out the papers he needed to read before a meeting the following morning.
Chris found himself unable to concentrate, his eyes constantly wandering to the solemn, shaggy-haired little boy sitting at the other end of the table.
Chriss world had been turned upside down when the two small homeless children had been discovered during a raid. Looking back, if someone had told him then that he and Buck would end up as foster fathers to the boys, he would have suggested they see their doctor for a check-up. But somehow it had happened and for the past six months he and Buck had been juggling their ATF work with caring for a pair of small boys. While JD, with the enviable adaptability of the young, had settled in very quickly, it had been more difficult for Vin. Chris had worked hard to make the skittish boy feel secure and wanted in their home. He knew that Vin had made a lot of progress, but it also took very little to shake the boys fragile feeling of security.
Recently Buck had started bringing up the possibility of officially adopting the boys. Chris had been reluctant to make such a big decision; still unsure if living with two single ATF agents was the best long-term option for the boys. He knew that Buck had no such qualms and was itching to start proceedings.
Now, he found himself watching Vin as the little boy worked, his tongue sticking out between his lips in concentration as he colored his card with characteristic care and attention. Chris felt a surge of protective love for the boy, a feeling that startled him with its intensity.
Vin must have felt Chriss eyes on him, for he looked away from his work and his face lit up with one of his rare but beautiful smiles that Chris knew would be breaking girls hearts in a few years. Chris stood up and walked over to the boy, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Have you finished your card?"
"Almost." Vin shyly offered the card for Chris to see. He had drawn a picture of a sports car and colored it in carefully in red. The words of invitation were written in pencil.
"Its beautiful, Vin. Youve done a great job it looks just like Uncle Ezras car. Hell love it. Are you going to color the letters in?
Vin ducked his head. "Can you check my letters first, see if Ive done them right?"
"Sure, cowboy. Lets take a look."
They had discovered early on that Vin was dyslexic and that knowledge had gone a long way to explaining why he had been having such a hard time at school. Chris quickly checked over Vins letters and patiently showed him how to change the rs to the right way around. He knelt beside the table and watched as Vin carefully went over the letters in multi-colored crayons.
"Ive fished too!" JD shouted, thrusting three brightly colored cards into Chriss hands.
JDs cards were made up of vivid swirls of colour; striking, if a little less tidy than Vins.
"Theyre lovely, JD," Chris said, smiling. "Just wait til Buck sees what youve done!"
"Vin! Will you help me put the names on?" JD asked.
Vin looked down again and mumbled, "Chris should help you, JD. You know I aint too good with my letters."
Chriss heart ached for the little boy. Hed had a hard enough life already; it didnt seem fair that he should have to struggle with this as well. "Why dont I write the names on in pencil," he suggested, "then Vin can color them in for you, JD." He looked at Vin. "You did such a good job on your own card, cowboy."
Vin flushed in pleasure at the praise.
When the cards were finished Chris collected them up to put somewhere safe and told the boys to clear the table for dinner. He couldnt help but smile at the difference in the two boys working areas. Vin had his pencils and paper all neatly arranged and lined up; JDs area looked like a bomb had hit it, with paper and pens everywhere. He watched Vin help JD put his pencils away tidily in his pencil case and then put them away in the cupboard where they belonged.
Later, while Buck was putting JD to bed, Chris wandered outside and sat on the porch in the big rocker, waiting for Vin to come out and join him. This had become a daily ritual of late. As Vin was older than JD he was allowed to stay up a little longer and he seemed to enjoy those few minutes sitting alone with Chris. Sometimes Chris read to him, sometimes they just sat and Chris got Vin to tell him about his day in school. It wasnt always easy for Vin in school he had missed a lot of schooling and was behind other children his age, and although he was very bright, he also struggled to keep up, the dyslexia being a real problem.
When Vin didnt appear, Chris looked around and saw the little boy standing hesitantly in the doorway.
"Come and sit with me, Vin," he called. "I want to talk to you."
Vin padded over obediently and climbed up beside Chris in the wide rocker. He had never been a very demonstrative child, a trait Chris reckoned was due more to his life experiences than to his nature, but recently he had taken to snuggling up on Chriss lap. This evening, however, he squeezed himself into a small space beside Chris and sat there, stiffly upright, another sure sign that there was something wrong.
Chris carefully put an arm around the little boy and squeezed his shoulder.
"Want to cuddle up? Its a little chilly out here."
Vin seemed to consider the invitation for a moment, then willingly snuggled in closer, resting his face against Chriss chest and wrapping an arm as far as he could around his waist. An arm that was still too thin, Chris noticed absently; Vin had put on some weight since hed been in their care, and his appetite was healthy enough, but he was still such a skinny little thing that Chris sometimes wondered where he got all his energy.
Chris put his hand over the smaller one tangled in his sweatshirt and ran his thumb over the little knuckles.
"You all right, pard? Youve been really quiet all day."
Vin let out a big sigh. "Im fine."
"Can I ask you something, Vin?"
"I got the feeling earlier that there might be something youd prefer to do than go to the zoo next weekend. Am I right?"
Vin turned his head until his face was hidden in Chriss chest. "No," came the muffled reply, after a short pause. "Want to go to zoo."
"Are you saying that just because you know its what JD wants to do?"
Vin didnt answer, but Chris felt him tense up. He squeezed the little hand.
"You know, Im real proud of you for the way you always look out for JD. But sometimes, its okay to put yourself first and to ask for something you want."
Vin looked up at him.
"Wouldnt that be selfish?"
Selfish? Chris had never met a less self-centered child and guessed that it was partly Vins nature, and partly a product of the role of protector hed taken towards JD.
"Well, it would be selfish to always want your own way, but sometimes its okay because youre just as important as anyone else, Vin; to me youre more important than most anyone else. And I want you to be happy."
Vin didnt say anything and Chris could still feel the tension in the slight body. He was determined to get to the bottom of this, but he knew from experience that only patience would get Vin to talk, so he continued speaking.
"Also, we have the whole weekend; plenty of time for both of you to do what you want. So, is there something else youd like to do next weekend?"
Vin buried his face back in the sweatshirt and Chris heard a muffled, "Its okay, I like the zoo."
Chris put a finger under the little chin and turned Vins head so he could see into the boys eyes. "You know this is a really special day, right? Ill be very disappointed if it isnt as special for you as I want it to be. Are you afraid Ill have to work again and wont be able to come?"
Vin shrugged. Chris took that as a yes.
"Ill be there, Vin, I promise. Ive finished all the work I needed to do and itll be a while before I have to work late again. So you dont need to worry, okay?"
"So, what would you like to do?"
After a slight hesitation, the truth came out in a whisper that Chris barely heard. "Id like to spend the whole day with you, just the two of us."
Chris wasnt sure what hed expected to hear, but for some reason Vins request surprised him.
"You would?" he asked. "Whys that, Vin?"
"Cause, I like it when I have you all to myself," Vin replied shyly. "I can pretend youre my real dad and there isnt nobody but us in the whole wide world."
Chris felt his throat constrict at the hesitant words. Vin was looking up at him timidly and Chris was almost overwhelmed by the love he saw in the boys eyes. But there was also a hint of fear; a fear of rejection that Chris had seen too many times before.
"Thats not a lot to ask," he said softly. "So why wouldnt you ask me, Vin?"
Vin shrugged and whispered, "Didnt think youd want to. I dont want to be a bother."
Chris tightened his hold on the boy and smiled reassuringly. "Vin, why did you think I wouldnt want to? Do you think I dont want to spend time with you?"
Vin shrugged again. Chris sighed, brushing back a lock of wayward hair and stroking a soft cheek with one finger.
"The zoo will be fun, Vin, but I like your idea better. Id love to spend the day with you, just the two of us."
"Really?" Vins eyes widened in surprise.
"Really. Its nice being with Buck and JD, but I like being with you best of all, Vin."
"You you do?" Vins big blue eyes filled up and a single tear escaped and ran down his cheek.
"Hey, cowboy, whats wrong?" Chris wiped the tear away and Vin buried his head back in the safety of Chriss chest.
"You can tell me, Vin. Tell me whats wrong."
There was silence for a long time, then Vin whispered, "I didnt think youd want to do something with just me."
"Why would you think that?"
Silence. Chris took a guess.
"Buck said you were upset yesterday. Did someone say something to upset you?"
Chris waited patiently, absently running his fingers through the soft, dark blond hair, waiting for Vin to tell him in his own time.
The truth came out in a rush. "Billy Watson said you only took me in coz they told you to keep me an JD together. An he said you think Im just a nuiz... a nuis a bother because Im stupid an I cant do my school work right an youd really rather be doing your work than having to worry bout me, an that when JD dont need me no more, youll send me away." The breathless speech ended on a sob.
Chris pulled the little boy up onto his lap, holding him tightly and rubbing his back slowly as he sobbed. He could feel Vins heart thumping wildly against his chest. If Billy Watson had been a grown man instead of a twelve-year-old, Chris would have gone to find him right then to tear his head off. As it was, he had to fight to hold back the anger that flooded him. Vin was already so insecure, with such a low opinion of himself that he tended to believe anything anyone said to him; even no-good kids like Billy Watson.
Chris held the sobbing child for a long time until he felt Vins breathing even out and the crying stopped. Chris sat him up, passed him a handkerchief to blow his nose, and wiped away the last of the tears with his finger. When he was sure Vin was calm again, he said,
"We need to talk about this, Vin. Since when did you start paying attention to anything Billy Watson says? You know hes just trying to upset you."
"I know. But you are always working and I am a bother I try really hard not to be, but I jus cant help it and I know you keep having to go see my teacher because Im stupid."
Big blue eyes looked up at him, still brimming with tears.
"First of all, youre not a bother, Vin," Chris said firmly. "Youve never been a bother and you never will be. Second, youre not stupid. It isnt your fault that youre a bit behind and it isnt your fault youre dyslexic. That doesnt make you stupid; it just means that you have to work harder to catch up. Your teacher says youre making great progress and Im very proud of you."
Vin looked at him solemnly but didnt say anything.
Chris went on, "I know Ive been working late a lot. Im really sorry about that. I cant promise you it wont ever happen again, because that wouldnt be true its the way my job is. But I want you to understand that I would never choose to work rather than be with you. If I could be here with you all the time I would, pard, but I just cant."
"Okay," Vin said in a small voice.
"All right. So whats this other garbage Billys been saying about me only taking you in because of JD?"
"Do you think its true?"
Vin shrugged again. "Everyone loves JD," he stated simply. Chriss heart ached for what he didnt say; this little boy who had seen so little love in his life that he seemed to so readily agree that he must be unlovable.
"Of course everyone loves JD, Vin," he said firmly, "but they love you, too. I guess JD makes friends a bit easier than you do, thats all. Now, you listen to me carefully. When we first found you and JD and we were deciding what to do, of course we wanted you to stay together and Id have taken both of you if thats what was needed. But I knew Buck wanted to take JD, so it wasnt a problem. But for me, it was always you, Vin, from the first moment I saw you."
He swallowed around the lump that had formed in his throat as he thought back to the first moment hed seen Vin curled up half dead under a pile of old boxes. Hed been telling himself that he shouldnt get too close; he was only looking after Vin until a more suitable home could be found and it wouldnt be good for either of them to get too involved. Now, he found he could no longer deny the truth. In six short months he had come to love this skinny, solemn little boy more than life itself and he knew it would kill him if anyone tried to take Vin away.
He looked down at the serious little face staring up at him wide-eyed.
"I want you to know, Vin, that having you here makes me very, very happy."
"Why?" Vin whispered.
Chris found that the next words came easily. "Because I love you Vin, very, very much."
Vin had been watching his face intently through this speech and his eyes widened in wonder, as if he could hardly believe what he was hearing. A shudder ran through his slight body and a few more tears escaped. Then he slowly raised a hand to Chriss face and touched his cheek softly with one finger.
"I love you, too," Vin whispered.
Chris tightened his grip around the small body and resolved that as soon as hed put Vin to bed he would tell Buck to start the ball rolling on the adoption papers.