Vin's leg was killing him; the pain was throbbing from his toes to his thigh. He squeezed his eyes shut, wishing he could bend it or rub it or even situate it in a halfway comfortable position. His stomach was starting to roll and he could feel himself breaking out in a sweat. Damn, he hated this.
"Come on, pard." The sound of Buck's voice was a relief and he opened his eyes to find the man smiling down on him, holding two pills in one hand and a glass of water in the other. "Even football stars need to take their meds."
"Thanks, Buck," Vin replied, grateful that the man always seemed to know what he needed, even before he knew himself. He didn't like taking the pills; they always made him feel dopey, right before they put him to sleep. This time he'd make an exception though, and he swallowed them down without argument. When Buck started to adjust the pillows under his foot, he decided he better take care of some other business before he zonked out again. "Wait a sec," he said, trying to scooch himself up on the couch. "Gotta go, first."
Buck nodded then grasped his arms and carefully eased him upright. "Need any help?" he asked, his eyes twinkling with amusement.
Vin pretended to think it over as he accepted the crutches that were handed to him. "Hmm . . . that's real nice of ya to offer, Bucklin, but you know . . . I'd hate to be the cause of you getting one of them inferior complexes." He gave the man a sympathetic look. "I hear tell those are what leads to havin' troubles with the ladies, and Lord knows I wouldn't want to--"
"Yeah, yeah, dream on, Junior!" Buck cut him off, laughing as he helped him down the hallway. "I hate to break it to ya, son, but it's a well known fact that the leading cause of inferiority complexes just happens to be kids." He gave Vin a playfully pointed look and added, "The same goes for lady troubles, too."
Vin snorted. "Don't look at me. If you got them kind of troubles, it ain't my fault."
"Oh yeah? If I recall, you're the one who thought you needed to call me every thirty seconds whenever I went out on a date."
"That was a long time ago." Vin defended himself - his past self, anyway. They could make light of it now, but there had been a time when he could hardly stand to let either Chris or Buck out of his sight. Vin was pretty sure that his behavior had gotten on their nerves, but they had never, ever let it show. "Besides, I was just watchin' your back."
"Sure you were."
"Yep, had to let you know I's there for ya, incase you needed my help, or advice, or anything."
Buck laughed again. "Well, I thank ya for that, Junior," he said with mock sincerity. "Don't know what I'd have done without all that help and advice of yours."
Vin smiled unrepentantly at him and let go of one crutch to pat him on the shoulder. "Just remember, I'm still here for ya, anytime ya need."
"Lord, help me." Buck shook his head and gave Vin a gentle nudge forward. "You holler if you need anything," he said seriously before closing the bathroom door.
It took a lot longer than usual, but he finally managed to get everything handled and make his way ungracefully back to the living room. Instead of lying back down right away, he went over to the window. JD was outside, leaning against the corral, staring at the horses . . . and damn, smoking a cigarette. Vin had no idea where he kept getting those, but it didn't seem to matter to the kid that Chris and Buck had told him that he wasn't allowed to smoke. Vin wondered again what else he was smoking -- more than just tobacco by the way his eyes looked, most of the time. He hadn't mentioned that to either of his fathers, but they were both pretty smart when it came to that sort of thing, being in law enforcement and all, so he was pretty
sure they had a clue that something wasn't right.
Vin wasn't at school because he'd broken his leg in Saturday's football game, but JD wasn't there for a whole different reason. He wasn't even registered in school, yet. In fact, they had no idea how long it had been since he'd last attended school.
The thought of that made Vin overwhelmingly sad. JD had always been so damned smart; academics had been so easy for him, and so difficult for Vin. Years ago, he'd felt a little jealous of the younger boy, although he never would have admitted that.
JD had been so bright, so happy, so innocent and trusting. Everyone had loved him so much and had such high hopes for him. He'd been Vin's hope, too. Vin had always known in his heart that JD was something special. He'd taken care of JD, protected him and tried to make sure he was safe because JD had been everything that Vin knew he could never be. And now . . . well, thinking about it only made him feel guilty and wonder why things turned out the way they had? Was there anything he could have done that would have changed anything?
Originally, Buck had taken the day off so he could get the kid registered and ready for school, but now he was there, babysitting Vin, which made Vin feel even worse. He set his crutches against the wall and pressed his cheek to the glass, thinking back over the years to The Day. Even now he could picture the scene clearly in his mind. He could see Nettie Wells pulling up in the driveway, getting out of her car and walking over to Chris. He could remember the look on Chris' face, shock and anguish, as the two of them walked toward the house. There had been no warning, no notice, no time to say a real goodbye. After two years of living with Chris and Buck they'd just taken for granted that they'd always be together. They'd never imagined that JD's father - a father they had no idea existed - would show up one day, out of the blue, with a court order saying he had legal custody of JD. Just like that, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, the boy and most of his things were gone.
Afterwards, Vin had stood at this very window, for a long time, unable to believe that his brother was gone -- that he wasn't coming back. Then he'd gone through a period where he'd just stand there, watching and waiting, because he knew the time was coming when he'd be taken away, too. If it could happen to JD, it could surely happen to him, and he'd wanted to be ready for it. It had taken a long, long time for him to feel safe enough to let his guard down, and even then, every once in a while he would find himself looking out the window, expecting something bad to happen.
Over the past seven years, it had become less painful to think about or talk about JD, but they had never stopped missing him. Not a day had gone by that Vin hadn't worried about him, wondered how he was doing and whether or not he was all right. Then, last week they'd gotten some news that had shocked them all. Ms. Wells came out to the ranch to inform them that JD was in Denver, at the downtown Youth Shelter. She told them that the kid's father had been put in prison and JD had been on the run, living on the streets for the past several months. Somehow, he'd managed to make it from New York to Denver, but for some reason he hadn't tried to contact them.
JD had lived a different sort of life with his father than he would have with them, and that was putting it mildly. From what Ms. Wells had told them, his father had been involved in some mob family -- a small time player, she'd said, but still dangerous nonetheless. The courts were allowing him to stay in Colorado for his own protection, instead of sending him back east, like they normally would have done. Late one night, last week, Vin had overheard Chris and Buck discussing whether or not it was a good idea to let JD stay there. He still couldn't believe they'd been worried about him, and his safety. He'd wanted to yell out that they should be worried about JD, not him, but that would have only gotten him in trouble for eavesdropping, and he was pretty sure they knew which way he would have voted -- not that he ever got a vote on the really serious things. In the end, they decided that no matter what, JD belonged there with them.
It hadn't taken long for them to figure out that the fourteen-year-old JD was nothing at all like the JD they remembered. There was no sign of the little boy who'd been taken from their home, all those years ago, crying hysterically for his Da, begging him not let them take him away. That awful image was permanently etched into Vin's mind. All of their hearts had broken that day, but especially Buck's because he'd had to watch helplessly as his son was taken from him, not knowing if he was going to a good place or a bad one -- not knowing if his little boy would be safe or happy or loved.
One thing hadn't changed too much; JD still had those big brown eyes. They didn't hold the same bright, carefree spark they had before, but at least once Vin thought he'd seen a glimmer of the old JD in those dark eyes. On Saturday, Chris and Buck had practically forced JD to come to Vin's football game. Unfortunately, the game hadn't gone too well for Vin and he'd ended up underneath a pile of gorilla-sized guys. When they'd all finally moved off and away, he'd been left lying there, in a pain-filled daze. He could barely remember his dads racing onto the field and crouching beside him, holding him and soothing him when the paramedics immobilized his leg . . . or Chris scaring a path through crowd with his infamous glare as he was carried off the field. The only thing he remembered clearly was looking up to find JD standing over him, his eyes wide and full of worry. It had almost been worth the pain, just to see a tiny remnant of the brother he knew. As soon as he'd realized Vin was looking at him, the kid had shut it down, invoked the same Empty Face that Vin had taught him, all those years ago. Since then he'd acted like he couldn't care less whether Vin was dead or alive, pretty much the way he'd been acting ever since they'd brought him out to the ranch.
Vin couldn't blame the kid for feeling resentful of him. He'd had a great life with Chris and Buck -- the life JD should have had, too. It just didn't seem fair.
The pain pills were starting to kick in. Yawning, he blinked his heavy eyelids and watched as JD flicked his second cigarette butt to the ground and stepped on it. Chris sure wasn't gonna be happy when he found those in the yard. JD stuffed his hands into his pockets and turned around, leaning back against the fence and turning his face to the sky. Vin wondered what was going through the kid's mind. Was he feeling as worried and uncertain as they were? Did he really hate them, or was it just an act to keep himself distanced? Vin knew how that felt, not wanting to trust anyone, or allow anyone close because you're so afraid of losing them. He wondered if there was anything they could do to get their JD back -- if their JD even still existed?
It was getting more and more difficult to keep his eyes open; he felt his body sway to the right, about the same time he felt hands on his shoulders and heard Buck's quiet voice in his ear. "Come on, stud." Was it wrong, he wondered, to be thankful that over the years those hands had always been there to guide him? Whether they were tossing a ball, or fixing his bike, or
helping him with his homework -- or holding him up, just like now. Was it wrong for him to be glad that Chris and Buck had been there for him, if they hadn't been able to be there for JD, too?
"Yeah, I know. Let's get you over to the couch."
He couldn't help the feeling of guilt that crept over him. Buck should be helping JD, right now, not fretting over him. "'m okay, Buck. You can go get JD reg'stered," he tried to say, though his mouth felt like he'd been chewing on cotton.
"Don't worry, Chris'll be home in an hour or so, then we'll get JD taken care of." Buck settled him on the couch and tucked the pillows under his leg. "Just close your eyes and get some rest, now."
He was supposed to be the strong one, the older one. It should have been his job to protect and watch over JD, to take care of him and make sure he was safe and happy and had a good life. If he could go back in time and trade places with JD . . . would he? Somehow, he'd let JD down, and he didn't know if JD would ever forgive him, or if he even deserved to be forgiven.
He didn't realize he'd spoken his thoughts out loud, but in the far off distance, he heard Buck's calm voice saying, "Hush now, Vin. Things might be a little rough at the moment, but we'll get it all worked out. We got him back and that's all that matters." Then he felt the warmth of a blanket covering him and fingertips brushing softly across his forehead. As he drifted off, he heard, "Everything's gonna be just fine, son, you'll see."