Vin thought he was going to choke from the ash. His nose and throat burned, as did his eyes. His eyes watered, making things blurrier. Wiping them with his sleeve didn't help because the soot stung. When Chris shouted to run, though, all thought of comfort flew from his mind and he obeyed.
He leaped forward without hesitation and clawed his way along the ground toward the waterfall. He could see by the reflected red that there was a pool under the falls and figured that was a good place to be. When he got to the edge, he jumped in, saddle blanket and all. He felt the water surge as Chris jumped in behind him.
Vin had to let go of the blanket because his feet didn't touch bottom and he had to swim. He sputtered out a mouthful of water when he bobbed to the surface only to find himself swept up in one of Chris' arms. Still coughing, Chris dragged him toward the falls. Vin held on with both hands and blinked. A wave of flame arched over the canyon like a ghoul. Too shocked to scream, he was surprised to find both he and Chris instantly underwater.
He felt Chris bump into a rock and come to a stop. Just when Vin thought his lungs would burst, they broke the surface right into a nightmare.
Vin felt his body go still, the air hot and moist in his nose. Everything was fuzzy and he realized that they were behind the waterfall, tucked under a lip of rock, standing in water up to his chin. Well, not actually standing - Chris was standing and holding him tight.
"It's okay, Vin. Breath slow. We're okay." His dad's lips were right next to his ear, their two heads taking up all the room under the lip of rock. The water's surface tickled his chin. A curtain of water was about two feet in front of them and several feet wide. Beyond that was nothing but red, rolling, flickering red, pierced with yellow and belching incredible heat he could feel even where the were. The falls in front of them wavered, parted and rejoined. Hot wind made it bend inward.
Chris' breath was in his ear again. "When I count to three, take a deep breath. We'll go underwater. Ready?"
Unable to speak, Vin nodded and tried to prepare his lungs by taking deep breaths like he'd learned in swim class. It was hard not to cough.
"One . . ."
The waterfall bent inward a little more, wavering tentatively. The red blur behind it grew bigger and what sounded like a train thundered their way.
"Two . . ."
Pressure and wind cleaved the water wall. It sputtered and spat. Vin felt like an oven door had opened in his face.
Just before they went under, the waterfall turned into hot spray as it evaporated and then it was instantly quiet. They were underwater. Vin's fingers rolled tightly into the sleeve of Chris' shirt. He looked up and saw only red above them and black behind. He heard nothing but a dull roar and his heartbeat in his ears. He felt Chris' heart pounding against his back - and that's what he decided to focus on. He closed his eyes tight.
Vin found an inner peace and hovered there, content, until he felt his body twitch, prodding him to breathe. He wiggled, the peace skittering away as his lungs convulsed. Finally, without a second to spare, he was dragged upward, his face forced into Chris' chest by a hand on his cheek. He gulped in air and soot and smoke frantically, trying again and again to fill his lungs. Coughing was painful and he saw stars. The hot air burned his mouth and nose. Tears stung as ash washed from his face and eyes as he gasped and tried to loosen his constricted throat.
"Shhhh, shhhh, it's all right, Cowboy. We're okay. Relax and breathe, son. Shhhh . . ."
Chris' voice was rough, gravelly and interspaced with gagging coughs. Still, the calm tone enabled Vin to loosen his airway and suck in air. He felt a cloth run over his face and then press over his nose and mouth.
"Let the cloth filter the air. Come on, take it easy. Breathe easy."
Vin breathed to the rhythm of the words and felt himself grow calm. He released Chris' shirt and rubbed his eyes with the palm of one hand.
"Careful, there. You with me now?"
Vin nodded, not trusting his voice.
"Can you tie the bandanna over your nose and mouth again?"
He nodded again and did what he was told with shaking hands. Chris' wide palm stroked back his hair from his face as they bobbed in the water. Vin realized he could hear the falls again and looked aside.
The wall of water was back, the colors dark behind it.
"Where'd . . . where'd the fire go?" he choked.
"It went over us. It's ahead of us now. We're okay." He felt Chris' fingers comb through his hair again. A kiss pressed against his temple. "Shall we take a look?"
Vin nodded hesitantly, not entirely convinced that was a good idea but he trusted Chris.
"I'm not going under. We'll just walk through the waterfall, okay?"
Vin nodded again and they moved forward and passed through the watery curtain, parting the debris that blanketed the pool. Once on the other side, he was shocked by the darkness. Smoke hung heavy in the air, obliterating the sky, but it was moving and thinning all the while. It was incredibly hot. Red embers spotted the ground, crowned with little shots of flame. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, more embers appeared before him.
"I think we may have to stay here until things cool a bit. It's like we're in the middle of a fireplace right now. See the embers?" Vin stared at the gleaming chunks of wood. "I don't think it's long until dawn. Let's go back in the grotto and find a cool, wet rock. It's just down to the waitin' now, Vin. We'll be okay."
Vin nodded, incredibly tired now that fear was gone. Chris walked through the falls again with a shiver and they explored the grotto. It wasn't very big and didn't have a lot to offer, but they did find that the ledge they'd crowded under had room enough for Chris to sit and stretch out his legs. Vin settled in his lap, weary and, amazingly, a little chilled even though his face felt hot. As his eyes crept closed, he wondered where the saddle blankets were but then figured they'd be too wet to sleep under. Conscious thought shut down.He was running after two horses, screaming for them to stop, but they were afraid of him. Whenever Peso's eyes rolled in his direction, they edged white with fear and the horse took off again. Then his tail burst into flames as he ran away. The same thing happened with Pony and Vin started to cry. Chris came into sight, his arm stretched out to him but when Vin reached forward, he saw he had a burning stick in his fist. It caught Chris' shirt on fire and he melted like the witch in the Wizard of Oz. Vin screamed and the stick turned into Cat, who was also on fire.
He ran again, crying, gasping, 'I'm sorry! I'm sorry!' No one was around and he was lost in a forest of charred trees.
"Vin, wake up!"
He felt arms wrapped around his body, trapping him, and he flailed against them.
"Come on, son, you're safe. I'm here."
Chris' voice finally sank in and Vin collapsed into himself, trying to curl into a ball. He found he was crying, just like in his dream. Did he cause the fire when he played with the matches? Was it his fault? There was no way he could confess that major sin to Chris and get to stay his house or his life. He cried harder.
"We're all right, Vin, we're okay."
"Pony and Peso! They're dead!"
He felt Chris rubbing small circles on his back as he rocked him. "I'm sure they got away. They weren't in the valley. I saw them running on the ridge. I'm sure they got out of the way."
Afraid to say anymore, Vin just latched on to Chris' shirt and cried. He knew that as soon as someone found out how the fire started his life at the ranch would be over.
That's all Buck could say as they flew over the fire ravaged land to the command center. A vast area of black was circled by a ring of orange fire, the largest flames moving east with the wind. And somewhere in the center of it all were his best friend and son. He felt sick.
"Reports say lightning started several spot fires that joined up." Josiah was tuned into the fire dispatch center.
It was noisy in the chopper, but they were wired to talk with their helmets. Buck looked out the side window and saw other helicopters crisscrossing the blackened area, organizing fire jumpers and equipment and dumping water.
How on Earth could he tell JD that Chris and Vin wouldn't be coming home? He couldn't, it was that simple. Knowing Chris, he'd find a way. He always found a way, and especially now with Vin depending on him, he'd force the elements to his will. A firm hand on his forearm caught his attention.
"We'll find them," Josiah said with confidence. "We'll get them home."
All Buck could do was nod.
When they touched down at the make shift landing pad, the four men piled out. Nathan spotted the medical tent and headed there while the other three sought out the Chief. Heading for the generator run emergency lights they found their man wearing a Chief's hat, hunched over a map spread out on a portable table. A half dozen men dressed in turnouts listened as he ran his fingers over the map. He looked up on their arrival.
"Perfect timing! Can your chopper drop these men here?" he pointed to the map.
"Whatever you need," Buck said, nodding for Josiah to get the pilot. "I'm here to find my friends, too."
"You must be Agent Wilmington," the Chief said, sticking out his hand. Buck shook it briefly. "Now show me where they were supposed to be."
Buck saw that there was a small Post-it stuck right on top of the campsite. "There. Looks like you knew where I was talking about."
"I thought that was close, at least. As you can see, that area's already been compromised." Buck saw that the map was laminated and white board markers were used to crosshatch the burnt areas in black.
Buck's stomach lurched. Not only was the campground burned, but it looked like it was burned for miles around. "They had horses," he added. "And a map. The fire went this way?" He drew his hand over the area, west to east.
"Yes," the Chief said. "If the tried to get away, they had to go this way." The eastern area he indicated was large. And crosshatched in black. "Not many places to hide. After I got your call, I dropped some men here." He indicated a spot a distance west of the campsite. "They found a charred truck and horse trailer. I think they had to go east. My men are working east from the truck and are about here."
Buck had to swallow bile at the news of the vehicles. "How many established trails run east from that campground?"
"Looks like at least four, and they split to nine. No telling which one they took."
Ezra had been quietly studying the map. "Excuse me, but is this a river?" He pointed to the blue line extending from the blue circle labeled Lake Monroe. The Chief confirmed the question. "I would think that Mr. Larabee would stay close to the water."
"But that river ends in a box canyon. If he followed it, he would be trapped."
Sickly silence settled over the group. The ATF helo fired up and took off to drop the jump team. Buck tugged nervously on his moustache and tried to convince himself that everything would be all right and he wouldn't have to tell JD bad news. He stared at the map, hoping it would whisper good news to him.
But all he actually heard was Josiah mumbling proverbs at his side.
Every time Vin tried to doze he was wrenched awake by horrible dreams. Guilt dug deep in his gut. By dawn he was shivering, coughing and dry heaving. Breathing was a painful thing, stinging his chest and burning his throat. His face hurt.
He could tell that Chris felt just as bad.
When the skies began to lighten Chris said it was time to move, that the cold, wet rocks of the grotto would make them sicker. The only way out was through the falls so they repeated their action from a few hours ago. This time, in the light of day, the embers seemed less threatening but they still threw off plenty of heat.
The smoke was mostly gone but the essence was still thick in the air. Chris set Vin down on the bank of the pool and pulled himself out of the water. He took Vin's hand and they looked around. Blackened skeletons were all that was left of the trees and larger bushes. The rocks and ground were scorched, other shrubs burned away to the roots. The valley looked desolate.
"Look," he said. Vin turned his attention to where Chris pointed and saw their saddlebags and saddle blankets bobbing in the water among the debris left by the fire. Chris fished them out and dropped them with a solid splat. "Let's see what survived."
Vin didn't move. He was paralyzed by guilt and shame, weak from crying and lack of sleep and pain and generally as sore and miserable as he ever felt. He hugged himself tighter and felt water squish from Cat's body, the toy still tucked between his stomach and t-shirt.
He watched Chris open the bags and dump everything out and start to separate the food items from the clothes. Vin could tell the coughing hurt Chris' throat, too, just like his did. He realized he was staring, but didn't care. The both of them coughed endlessly.
Vin saw the worried look Chris cast his way and felt another load of guilt on his shoulders.
"Come here, Vin," Chris said in a hoarse voice. "Eat something. Then we'll find help." He finished with a pair of coughs.
Vin dropped his eyes and shivered. He looked up through singed eyelashes and tried to think of something to say. He shook his head once and again dropped his chin.
"Vin, come here."
He shuffled a step and stopped without looking up. He heard Chris stand, and Vin took another hesitant step. He couldn't take it anymore. He had to tell Chris. He deserved what he got for playing with the match and causing all this destruction. Pooling his courage, he looked up and opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. Instead he gasped and fought back more tears.
Hearing a rush of motion, he soon found he was again hugged tight to his beloved father. Vin wrapped his arms around Chris, sure it would be his last chance.
"It . . . it . . . it's my fault!" he choked between coughs, burying his face into Chris' neck. "I did it! I did it."
Chris drew him close. Vin could feel his cheek press against the top of his head. "Did what, Vin? You didn't do anything. You've been so brave . . ." between the interrupting coughs, Chris' voice sounded like sandpaper on wood.
"I started the fire. I played with a match and started the fire. I killed all those trees. I killed Peso! It's my fault!" It was hard to talk because his throat burned and he coughed a lot so he wasn't sure Chris understood.
Vin waited for the moment that Chris would push him away in shock and anger but it didn't happen. Instead, Chris continued to hold him and stroke him and issue soft reassurances that lightning was the cause. Vin eventually felt his breathing ease.
Finally, Chris did hold him out at arm's length but instead of anger, Vin saw the calm, loving eyes he always saw. Chris didn't say anything, but quietly cupped Vin's cheek with the palm of his hand. That's when Vin noticed that Chris' face looked funny. It was really red.
Chris kept a hand on Vin's shoulder, but used his other one to stroke his own throat. He coughed deeply, and went into a fit, bending over and turning even redder. When Chris looked up, Vin saw a frightened look in his eyes and he started to gasp. Turning away, Chris took stumbling step.
"Chris?" Vin called hoarsely. "Dad? Are you okay?"
To Vin's horror, Chris dropped to his knees and clutched at his throat before tumbling forward.
"Dad!" Vin cried. He made his way to Chris' side on wobbly legs and dropped down next to him. A small puddle of blood pooled under his father's temple and Vin saw that he'd struck a rock when he fell. "Dad!" Vin gasped, his burning throat constricting. Vin patted his father's cheek and the memory of doing the same thing to his mother flashed in his mind. She never woke up.
"Oh, no!" he gasped. "It's all my fault! Chris, I'm sorry! Chris!" Finally, his raw throat gave out and the only noise he could make was a raspy, pain-filled croak. He sat next to his father and forced his breathing to slow and get back into control. Chris needed him. Stroking Chris' cheek, Vin was terrified that he'd never see those familiar green eyes again.
Suddenly, Vin realized that Chris wasn't cold like his mother had been. He felt warm. Vin leaned closer and stared, finally noticing the gentle rise and fall of Chris' chest. He wasn't dead! Vin scrambled to the saddlebags and grabbed a wet t-shirt. Unable to rip the stubborn material, he gently wrapped Chris' head as best as he could. He stood, trying to figure out his next step. A noise made him look up. A plane?
Seeing that they were sheltered by charred trees, big rocks and sloping sides, Vin knew he had to get to open space to get the attention of a plane. Too small to move him, Vin dragged over the heavy, water-saturated saddle pad and tucked it under Chris' head. He checked Chris' raspy breathing one more time and as a last thought, peeled back an eyelid. He didn't know what to look for, but they always did that on television. He was shocked when the black part of the green eye immediately shrank down in size. He jerked his hand back. Was that normal?
Coughing pitifully again, Vin struggled to his feet and looked for the easiest path up the valley wall. There wasn't one. He picked the closest and started upward, ignoring the burning pain in his throat that came with each breath and the pounding headache that grew with each step.
They were to start a search pattern at first light. As the pilot ran through his pre-flight check list, Buck hauled himself from the too-short cot in the first aid tent and woke the others. Things had calmed down a lot in the early hours of the morning and they were able to catch some sleep. Somewhat awake, Buck found the Chief to check on the status of the fire.
"The wind stopped just before dawn and that's huge break. We'll have it 80% contained by noon, I'm sure. Forecast calls for some sprinkles later and we can only hope they're right for once. If the winds stay calm, it should be contained by tomorrow afternoon. Your bird was a great help. We got the teams out much faster. Thanks for the help." He was going to talk some more but he touched his ear as he listened to some radio traffic. He keyed the mike. "Brush unit 33, repeat?"
The Chief listened again then looked at Buck. "Your party had two horses?"
Buck gasped. "Both black," he said instantly. "One with a blaze and one with a star."
The Chief repeated the description into the mike, and nodded with the reply. "I think they got 'em south of here. They wandered into someone's vegetable patch. No saddles, but they had on halters."
"That's gotta be them. Can you get a phone number?"
After a few minutes, the Chief recited a number of the reporting party. Buck wrote it on the back of his hand with a pen. "Thanks. Show me on the map about where that is?"
They returned to the big map and found the approximate location of the small ranch. With the camping site and the ranch location, it narrowed down the starting point for a search pattern. He memorized the coordinates.
Before he left, the Chief held Buck back with a light touch to his arm. "They also found your friend's campsite. Nothing left. No bodies, either, so there's still a chance."
Buck swallowed hard and croaked a thanks before jogging to the helo. Ezra, Nathan and Josiah were already waiting on board.
"They found Pony and Peso raiding someone's vegetable patch," Buck reported. Josiah shook his head and Ezra rolled his eyes. Nathan snorted. "They also found the campsite. No sign of 'em. Between the lake and the horses, I have a starting point to start searching. Let's go!"
After reporting the location to the pilot, the helicopter lifted off.
In the wash of the day's light, the amount of destruction was painfully clear. Forests once green were now laid to waste, charred tree trunks as far as the eye could see like an alien landscape. The blue waters of Lake Moreno were black, choked with floating debris and ash. They circled the lake once and estimated the location of the camp then headed east in a zigzag pattern.
Four sets of eyes combed the land below. Detail was hard to decipher as everything was in shades of black and grey. After an hour, Buck felt the stirrings of a headache. He begged some Tylenol from Nathan's fat first aid pack and continued to scan the landscape. It was the fourth time they'd crossed over the river when Buck thought he saw something.
Scaling the valley wall proved much more difficult than Vin ever imagined. Without any bushes to grab or stabilize his steps, his feet slipped a lot. The ashy dust choked him. And with the pain that came from breathing, he found he had to rest a lot. He'd collapsed in a frustrated heap many times to catch his breath. Each time it became harder to stand up again and, each time, what got him on his feet was the sound of a helicopter or airplane somewhere down the valley. The hope of an overhead pass kept him moving.
Finally, he reached the trail that he prayed had taken Peso and Pony to safety. The trail wasn't easy to see, but Vin noticed the smoother line in the blackened debris matched the location he'd memorized from the map the night before. Vin stood, each intake of air pain filled and ash-laden, and scanned the area around him. There was nothing recognizable about this dead landscape - it was like he was on another planet. A zing of fear made his gut churn. Eventually, the painful breathing became tolerable, just as his feet had become tolerant to not having shoes when he'd lived on the street.
A huge, scorched boulder caught his attention and instantly, Vin knew it was the place to make his stand. Getting to the top wasn't easy, but he made it eventually, ignoring the black dots that swirled at the edges of his vision. His throat and chest burned mercilessly. Vin squatted, studying his raw fingertips until his breath evened.
Finally, he raised his eyes and surveyed the area around him. Everything was black and grey. He looked down at himself and realized he was as black as his surroundings. That wouldn't work - he needed to stand out. 'Why didn't I think of that before?' he chastised himself. His throat tightened as tears threatened at his stupidity, but when he swiped his sleeve across his eyes, he remembered something. Vin pulled open the button-down long-sleeved denim shirt he'd slipped on before star-gazing in camp and looked underneath. The bright red t-shirt was mostly untouched by the black ash!
His weary brain registered the sound of a helicopter. Vin quickly shed the outer shirt, his raw fingers spotting blood on everything he touched. He pulled off the red shirt. Cat fell out and bounced to the ground. Ignoring his stuffed pal, Vin stood on the rock and scanned the sky. It was hard to see at first because of the persistent, hanging layer of smoke, but the small dot grew quickly. Vin frantically began waving the shirt like a flag, all his pains momentarily forgotten.
But a tiny voice within his head wouldn't stop saying that he was probably too late for Chris.
"There!" Buck yelled. "Someone's waving!" The pilot banked right and headed toward the motion. "It's Vin!"
Voices broke into excited chatter as the helicopter circled the lone figure, blowing ash in a tempest of wind. After hopping up and down on the rock, Vin suddenly stopped and bent over, holding his chest. Moments later his legs gave out and he dropped to an ungainly sit, obviously in pain.
"Something's wrong with him! Where can we set down?" Nathan said sharply.
"There's a level spot about a quarter mile up," the pilot reported. "Above the tree line."
"That's too far. I'll repel down." Nathan removed his seatbelts. "Move away to reduce the dust. He's probably inhaled a lot of it already."
Ezra and Josiah immediately pulled out the harnesses from the back area. They handed one to Nathan and the other to Buck. Ezra and Josiah opened the side door, adjusted the winch, and prepared to lower the litter. In no time, Nathan and his massive first aid kit were deployed.
Buck watched anxiously from above as Nathan approached Vin. He had to shed his first aid pack and negotiate several smaller boulders to get into a position where he could reach the boy. Finally, he was able to reach out and lift Vin from his perch. Buck could see that Vin was limp in the medic's arms and the urge to get down there became unbearable. The hook reached the platform and Buck connected up. The drop to Earth seemed too slow. When he finally hit dirt and released the cable, Buck sprinted to the pair.
Vin was coughing horribly and covered in black and gray ash. His bony torso was cleaner where the red t-shirt had been and his face red under the thick layer of soot. He was holding back Nathan's arm and trying to talk but between coughing and gasping for breath, his words were unintelligible. When Buck came into his line of sight, Vin pushed away from Nathan and half crawled, half jumped into Buck's arms, wrapping his thin limbs around his neck, clinging tight.
Buck hadn't had this kind of reception from Vin before and he was speechless at first. His eyes stung and he automatically began crooning gentle words to the hysterical boy. Nathan waited patiently to examine him more closely, but Buck could see him running a critical eye over his little patient's body. Finally, Vin's breathing slowed and Buck felt his body lose some tension. Vin started to talk but his voice was gone, reduced to harsh breath and scratchy mews, and the attempt was obviously painful, but he still tried to talk. Buck continued to rub his back.
"Hey, now. Slow down, little man. I know you want ta tell me somethin' and I'm sure it's about Chris, right?" Vin nodded, his chin bumping against Buck's shoulder. "Do you know where he is?" Vin nodded again. "Is he all right?" This time, a shake. "Is he . . ." Buck paused, unable to say the rest. Vin, though, knew what he meant and shook his head again. "Good, good. So he's hurt?" Vin nodded. "Can you point where he is?"
Slowly, Vin untangled himself from Buck and looked around, squinting in the harsh light. It took a moment for him to get his bearings, but he finally took a few shaky steps to one side and very close to the edge of the valley rim.
"Whoa, there, son." Buck said, gripping Vin's shoulder. "Stop." Vin obeyed and turned his huge, blue eyes to Buck, holding his gaze as he pointed down into the valley. "He's down there?" Vin nodded. "At the bottom?" Vin nodded again, his eyes begging Buck to do something. Buck squatted down so he was at eye level with the boy. "It's okay, Vin. We'll get him out. You can leave it to old Buck, okay? Right now, you need to go with Nathan."
Buck knew that Vin took his commitment to Chris' safety very seriously. If it were up to Vin, he'd stay right here to the bitter end. Buck knew this because it was that same determination that kept JD safe, even to this day.
Buck also knew that Vin wouldn't leave without a fight. He held tight to the exhausted boy's shoulders and glanced over to Nathan, who had signaled Ezra to lower the litter. Vin must have figured out the plan because he immediately broke into action when he saw the litter, kicking at Buck's shins and taking a swing at his chin.
Buck was prepared for all of it and managed to dodge the moves. He pulled the boy into a tight hug and Nathan approached with a hypodermic. No amount of soothing words from either man calmed him, but Nathan managed to inject the sedative. Vin grunted and squirmed, outraged, and managed to head butt Buck firmly in the eye before the drug took effect.
"OW!" the tall agent yelped, but he didn't release his grip until he felt Vin slump in his arms.
"I'll take him," Nathan said as he lifted the boy away.
"Oh, right, now you step in once the fight's over," Buck griped. He rubbed his cheek. "Damn, that kid's gettin' more like Chris every day."
Nathan chuckled as he secured Vin in the litter and checked his vital signs. An oxygen tank and mask were in the litter and the medic got Vin all set up before he signaled the litter to be raised. He also requested that Josiah come down with the second litter to help retrieve Chris. By the time the helicopter returned from delivering Vin and Ezra at the hospital, they hoped to have Chris ready for transport.
While things got sorted out in the helicopter, Buck and Nathan started down the valley wall.
The voice didn't fit the circumstance. Not that he was clear on the circumstance, but he knew Buck wasn't supposed to be here. No, not Buck -
"Vin!" That hurt. It awakened the burn in his throat and the pain in his chest, but he had to find . . . "Vin!"
"We got him, pard, he's just fine. It's your turn now. Damn, Chris, I gotta hear this story."
Buck was the only person he'd believe about Vin being safe. He tried to open his eyes but his head felt like a squashed melon. He coughed deeply and then groaned from the pain it stirred up.
"You've hit your head, Chris." Nathan, he realized. "And you have second degree burns on your face like Vin. Does it hurt to talk?"
Chris nodded once, which was one too many times. He coughed again. His chest felt like he inhaled a porcupine.
"Then don't' do it. Probably burned your throat, too. Smoke inhalation, respiratory distress." Nathan's hand finished with a bandage on Chris' head. "Actually, for surviving a wildfire, you ain't bad off."
Chris tried to laugh, but it initiated another coughing fit. He gasped for breath.
"Here," he felt Nathan put something on his chest. "Hold this while we load ya up. It's an oxygen bottle." Next, Chris felt a mask snuggle over his mouth and nose. "I've done as much as I can now. Can't help ya with your eyebrows, though. That would be Raine's department."
That didn't sound right. Chris forced his puffy eyes open and found a blurry, grinning Buck looking down on him. The question in his eyes must have been clear.
"Burned your eyebrows completely off, stud! Gonna haf ta draw 'em on for awhile."
Chris tried to glare but between his swollen face, the oxygen mask and, God forbid, no eyebrows, he was sure the effect was lost. Buck's stupid grin confirmed it.
Subsequent events were fuzzy and decorated with a bevy of swirling black dots that pulsed in time with his headache. There was Josiah, a cold, hard litter, a trip up a mountainside and a very noisy helicopter. He saw it all between violent, painful coughing fits that stole his breath away and bouts of unconsciousness. At one point he turned his head aside and saw a familiar lump of fuzz.
Cat? He tried to reach for it, but he was strapped in the litter. He tried to tell someone to pick up Vin's stuffed friend but he wasn't sure he was understood. The next second he saw the helicopter above, and in the following second he was inside it. Josiah's soothing voice weaved in and out. Then he was jostled a bit and when he was next aware, he was in a hospital.
God, his chest hurt. A realization hit him and he tried to sit up.
"Hold on, Chris. Lie still. What's wrong?" Josiah.
"Vin?" he managed to croak.
"Vin's here. He's doing fine. They're getting you two a room together."
Chris' hand fumbled for Josiah's arm. With the other hand, he pulled the mask down to talk. "He hurtin' like this?" His voice was unrecognizable and the effort pushed him into another coughing attack.
"Yeah. You two took in a lot of hot smoke, Chris. You'll both be okay, though." Josiah took his hand and squeezed it. "You scared us, boss."
"Scared m'self." More coughing. He inhaled some of the cool oxygen before speaking again. "Vin thinks he did it. Caused the fire." His throat burned and he paused to cough again. "Pony 'n Peso? Thinks he killed 'em. Help him?"
Josiah nodded his understanding. He placed Chris' hand on the gurney and replaced the mask. "I understand. They found those two varmints chompin' away in someone's vegetable garden. I'll get some pictures to prove it."
That mental picture made Chris smile. But what he wanted above all was to see his son and to breathe without pain. Outside of that, he didn't care what happened next.
The ride in the helicopter with his young nephew had been difficult. Vin slept the whole time but Ezra spoke constantly with low, soothing words, held his hand and stroked his temple the entire way to the hospital. He was afraid the boy would wake up in hysterics and Ezra wanted him to know he was safe. Always safe.
Vin's ragged breathing and violent coughing spells were hard to watch. His face, puffy and red with burns and bereft of eyebrows, was ugly and nearly unrecognizable. Ezra had to work to keep his expression a neutral calm. It wouldn't do for the young man to wake and see the horror Ezra felt.
When Vin finally did wake in the emergency room, nothing Ezra did or said calmed him. It was as if the trust they'd establish in this past year was completely gone. After speaking with Nathan, he knew why. Vin wouldn't easily forgive being sedated and Ezra realized that was why he was getting the cold shoulder. Ezra had been shunned before but this time it hurt deeply. Buck and Nathan were saddened by Ezra's conclusion and saw it firsthand themselves; even when they returned Vin's beloved Cat, all they got in return was a cold stare.
After they left, Vin turned his back to Ezra and the agent was sure he was crying those unnerving silent tears. The motion of his shoulders gave the boy away.
Right now it was Chris, and only Chris, Vin would give the time of day; his rock, his unshakeable foundation. Chris Larabee. And the sooner they were together the sooner the boy could start to reclaim his balance.
After a litany of tests and questions, none of which Vin answered, a cheery nurse finally swept into the emergency room bay and prepared the small patient to move. The panic that flared in those impossibly wide blue eyes was very clear to Ezra. Vin hugged Cat close, coughing into the soft fur. There couldn't possibly be another torture for the boy, could there?
Ezra stopped the woman's preparations with a hand on her forearm. "Please. What now?"
"He's moving to a room. It should be quieter there."
"Oh, good. You hear that, Vin? You're moving up in the world." Vin gave him a steely stare. At least the panic was gone.
He followed the gurney to the small room, grateful the other bed was empty. "Well," he said with a smile, "It's not the Ritz, but it certainly is bright, wouldn't you say?" Ezra dared not turn around. He could feel the glare on his back. "You have a nice view." He got a cough as a reply.
Ezra was never happier to see Josiah. He had some papers in his hands and gave Ezra a wink before he approached Vin's bed.
"Hello, Vin. I hope you're feeling better." Ezra labeled the look Josiah received as "suspicious." "I have something here that I think will make you feel better." He held out the sheets. Vin's eyes dropped to look at the papers and perked up.
A thin arm reached out and snatched the sheets away and he studied the papers for long seconds before turning large, hope filled eyes to Josiah. His lips moved, but there was no voice.
"Yup, Pony and Peso are just fine. Well, save for some singed mane and tail hair."
Ezra felt some of his own tension leave him at Vin's obvious relief. The boy tried to talk again, but the result was a pain-filled wince.
"How about trying to write it down, son?" Josiah said softly. He pulled a notebook from his back pocket and handed it to Vin with a pen. The boy glared at him, ignoring the offering.
Josiah smoothly changed tactics and pulled the bedside table to the bed. He put the pen and paper on the table and maneuvered it in front of Vin. Vin suspiciously eyed both Josiah and the paper for a few seconds before relaxing his grip on Cat and picking up the pen. His eyes narrowed in concentration and he gripped the pen hard enough to make his knuckles white. As he slowly and painfully wrote, his shoulders hunched with tension. He was interrupted by several coughing fits, but finally finished with a grunt. Vin's expression was defiant as he put the pen down and pushed the table toward Josiah.
Josiah retrieved the notepad. Ezra read it over the big man's arm. The letters were mostly reversed and very messy, but the message was still very clear: "Cris sed so."
"He did, huh? Then I guess we shouldn't have worried. I just thought you'd like the pictures. We can put them on the wall for a little decoration." Josiah said cheerfully, ignoring the attitude.
Vin's attention, however, had returned to the photos.
"It seems we've been dismissed," Ezra said quietly. "May I speak with you in the hall, Mr. Sanchez?"
"Sure. We'll be right outside, Vin. I'll leave the door open." Vin ignored them.
Once outside Ezra voiced his concern. "Young Master Tanner is right back where he was when we first found him in that warehouse. He does not trust any of us. Have you spoken with Mr. Larabee? Is he aware of this turn of events?"
"No, we haven't said anything about what happened. We'll tell him once he's up here. Chris doesn't need the worry right now and I think once the two of them are together again, things will get better."
"I certainly hope you are correct." Ezra ran his hand over his chin. "I will find out when that may occur."
"I'll hold down the fort," Josiah said.
Ezra waited until his teammate settled in a chair next to their young charge. He saw Vin wiggle down in the sheets and then turn his back to Josiah, the IV lines in his arm draped over his hip and the bedraggled Cat hugged tightly against his chest. Josiah adjusted the blanket and then returned to the book in his hand, leaving Vin alone.
Shaking his head sadly, Ezra headed to the emergency room in search of some good news.
Sleep was the lesser of two evils. Sleep brought dreams but wakefulness brought that gut-tingling fear that distrust and worry wrought. No one had mentioned Chris. But if they did, would he believe what they said?
Vin's little world was shattered.
He curled up facing the wall, the thin blanket pulled up to his chin. Chris must be dead, he figured. That's why no one's mentioned him. The thought made his eyes sting and his throat constrict. Vin knew someone was in the room with him, but it wasn't Chris. Never would be Chris again because of his stupidity. He was goin' back to Child Services for sure.
He vaguely remembered Chris telling him it wasn't his fault; he thought, anyway. Things were a little vague after jumping in the pool and he couldn't seem to think straight with all the coughing. And now, it was just easier to ignore everyone. They'd hate him with time, anyway.
Vin wondered if he'd see JD again.
But mostly, he missed Chris. The thought of him made Vin gasp and fight tears again. He felt a hand on his shoulder and murmured condolences - Josiah. His shoulders hitched again with a sob and he buried his face into Cat, trying to shut out the voice.
There was a quiet clamor of motion at the door. Several voices spoke quietly for a minute. Finally, though, one voice did stand out.
"Come on little man, sit up." Buck - the one that had betrayed him. Vin shrugged off his hand but his voice wouldn't stop. "Come on now, Vin, Chris is here. Wanna see him, doncha?"
Vin threw off the blanket as he twisted, sat up and frantically searched the room with his eyes. There, on the other side of the room, barely visible between standing bodies, was Chris, sitting up and smiling. His face was red and swollen, but it was clearly Chris.
Vin scrambled to get up, oblivious of the hands trying to hold him down; it was just like before when they'd kept him from Chris and stuck him with that needle . . .
"Shit!" he heard Buck hiss. "Watch the IV, Nathan! Vin, calm down! Josiah, grab his legs!"
But they wouldn't hold him, not this time. He wouldn't be kept from Chris this time. Without a thought of the pain Vin yanked the needle from his skin and flailed his arms, throwing one leg over the raised side of the bed. More hands on his body only made him fight harder, the scream that grew from the deepest part of his lungs burned his throat and chest. His vision blurred with tears but he managed to slip over the rail and hit the floor running.
He made it to Chris' bed before being again engulfed by arms. He wriggled and wailed and tried to get loose. In the next instant, he was on a bed.
"Vin! Stop! You're okay cowboy!"
Chris' voice wasn't quite right but the smell of him, the feel of him, was exactly right. He felt Chris' arm pull him close and Vin threw his arms around his father's chest, burying his face into the thin hospital blanket. He eventually felt the reassuring thump, thump of Chris' heart against his cheek and stopped wiggling. Vin gasped for breath, his throat tight and burning, his eyes and face stinging. There were murmurs of voices in the room, one demanding an explanation, but he didn't listen. He didn't care.
He was home and desperate to stay.
"Damn," Buck whispered, rubbing his stomach. "It's like I was wrestlin' a tornado."
Nathan squeezed his hand in his armpit and held his lower lip in his teeth.
"Remind me not to do that again," Josiah grunted as he held his palm against his chest.
Chris, however, kept silent. The desperate display he'd just witnesses had taken his voice clean away and all he could do was hold his boy close, stroke his hair and hope the tremors that wracked Vin's body would subside.
The doctor that had entered the room during the altercation frowned deeply. "This child should be in the pediatrics ward," he said lowly as he untangled the hanging IV line.
Buck caught the glare heading the clueless doctor's way from Chris' bed and figured he'd best take control.
"Listen Doctor." He glanced at the nametag. "Gleason. This is the best for both of them, I'm tellin' ya right now. I'll get Vin's doctor on the phone so you'll understand. These are not normal circumstances." The doctor eyed Buck and the agent got the feeling that hospital security would be arriving at any moment. "You try to move that boy and you'll have to go through us." Buck pulled out his cell as he felt more that saw the rest of the team form up ranks behind him. He dialed the number for Dr. Will, Vin's psychologist, and left a message to call Dr. Gleason, relaying the phone number to the answering service.
When he hung up, Buck looked to Chris and saw his grateful expression. Buck hoped all the ground they had gained with Vin in the last year wouldn't be lost in one day because of a clueless doctor. Gleason obviously wasn't convinced of anything yet, but he was at least willing to listen to Dr. Will.
The doctor's cell rang within minutes, just as he finished examining both patients - not a task easily done with Vin clinging to Chris like he was. Dr. Gleason gave a brief update to Dr. Will and then moved to the hall to talk. As the door swung shut Buck noticed Cat dangling by his neck, stuck between the bed rail and the mattress of Vin's empty bed. He dislodged the toy and tucked it between Chris' arm and Vin.
Twenty minutes later, the nurse came in and re established Vin's IV, leaving the boy where he was. Dr. Will must have worked his magic.
Buck sighed deeply and his shoulders slouched in weariness. "I need to get home and see to JD," he said softly. He took one more look at his best friend and the vision that would forever be stamped in his memory, but he still felt a twinge of guilt at his role in the drama.
Chris' eyes were closed, but he was still awake, his hand tirelessly stroking Vin's hair. The tremors that wracked the boy's body had stopped, but the embrace the boy had on his rock never slaked even though he was asleep - finally. They were one, body and soul.
Buck gave them one long look and left for home and the small boy waiting for him.
When Buck arrived at the ranch it was very late Sunday afternoon and nearing dusk. He was met at the door by both JD and Raine. JD was abnormally quiet and when he reached out to his Da, Buck scooped him up without hesitation. The agent could feel the heat that radiated from the boy's body.
"Still feelin' poorly, huh Little Bit?"
"Uh, huh." JD snuggled up to Buck's chest.
"He hasn't thrown up since noon," Raine said softly, stroking the small boy's hair. "He's getting better, aren't you JD?"
The brown haired head nodded. Buck entered the house and headed directly for the couch where he sank down and held his boy close. The thought of JD in Vin's place made his stomach lurch.
"Where's Vin?" JD's voice was muffled against Buck's shirt.
Buck glanced at Raine and saw that she held her lower lip between her teeth and quickly shook her head.
"Well, Little Bit, I had to go help out Chris and Vin. Seems they got a little off track on their camping trip but they're back on course now. They probably won't be back until tomorrow. Remember that was our original plan? Two nights away?"
"Ya," JD sighed. "You took a day off work. You're playin' hook 'em."
Buck laughed. "No, it's call hooky. I'm playin' hooky from work tomorrow." JD yawned. "Did you eat something, JD?"
"He had some soup and crackers. I gave him some Motrin about twenty minutes ago. He's been up since two so he could be getting tired." Raine started to gather her things.
Buck stood and ruffled JD's hair. "You want ta go to bed or stay out here a while longer?"
"Couch." JD chose. "An' Spirit."
Buck chuckled and set the boy back on the couch. While Raine tucked him in, Buck found the requested video and slipped it in the machine. By the time the opening sequence started, Raine had a fresh glass of water for JD. Buck kissed JD on the head.
"I'm walkin' Raine to the car, okay? I'll be right back."
JD mumbled an incoherent reply.
Outside, Raine gave Buck a weak smile. "Something about a quiet JD is disturbing," she joked. Buck nodded and ran his hand through his hair. Raine placed her hand on his forearm. "Nathan's been calling. I think I'm pretty caught up. It sounds like it was close."
Buck chuffed and felt his eyes burn. He was so very tired. "It was too close, Raine. Too close." His voice was raspy with emotion. He cleared his throat before speaking again. "I think we may have screwed up."
"With Vin?" Buck nodded. "Nathan told me. It sounds like there was no choice, Buck. He had to get in that litter eventually and they would have had to strap him down. You know how he is about being restrained. Nathan would have had to sedate him anyway."
Buck absently rubbed his chest. "Yeah, but we could have handled it better."
"Well, I'm sure Vin will forgive you. He loves you. He loves all of you guys."
"Yeah," he replied wearily. "He did. In his eyes, we betrayed him I think. That's a lot to forgive. Plus he feels guilty about Chris getting hurt and the horses . . . he thinks he started the fire."
Raine frowned. "But lightning started the fire."
"I know that. We all know that. We just have to convince Vin." He scrubbed his face. "He's going to be a different kid when he gets back. Thought you should know. JD doesn't need to know any details until tomorrow."
"Thanks for the heads up. Now go take a load off, Buck. I'm pretty sure JD will sleep much better tonight. There's some spinach lasagna in the fridge for you."
"Will you marry me?"
Raine laughed. "I think Mr. Jackson may take offense to that idea." She turned to go. "Oh, by the way, Nettie called. I've kept her updated."
Buck winced. As a Social Services caseworker, Nettie Wells had been the one responsible for making Vin and JD's adoption possible. These two particular boys had found a way into the woman's heart and she still kept in contact. "I'll be sure to call her. Thanks."
Raine got in her car and left. It was then that Buck's weariness hit him full force and he could only think of joining his son on the couch in comforting closeness.
"I know you're not asleep."
Chris' voice was raspy and raw, a bare whisper of a breeze across Vin's cheek. Vin had fooled the nurses that constantly bothered him, but he really didn't think he could fool Chris. Vin was awake, it just hurt too much to talk. The last time he'd tried Vin's throat felt like he'd swallowed glass so he wasn't too inclined to try right now, even for Chris. Besides, he didn't know what to say anyway.
"It wasn't your fault, Vin." Chris' hand on his head felt solid, warm. Vin knew that talking must be painful for Chris, too, but he wanted to hear his dad's voice.
It must have been the middle of the night. The hallway was much quieter and the room was dark. One of the others must be around, Vin thought, they were always around. What brought him comfort at one time now made his stomach flutter - they could take him from Chris at any time just like Buck did in the canyon.
"If it's anyone's fault, it's mine. I was outside the tent. I felt something coming and I fell asleep." Chris swallowed and Vin could tell it hurt. He turned his face to look up into his father's face. "I was sitting outside for quite awhile. The fire came from the west, where we parked the truck, Vin, not anywhere near our campsite. It was lightning."
The tightness in Vin's chest loosened some. His grip on the blanket over them slaked. Was it true? Chris wouldn't lie to him, wouldn't send him away . . . would he? Chris's hand rubbed circles on his back as Vin struggled to manage the tumble of emotions.
"You're my son, Vin. I love you. I will never send you away. You know that, don't you?"
Vin let the question lie there as he sorted his thoughts. He accepted the fact that he didn't start the fire because Chris wouldn't lie to him. Would he? Vin thought about that and, finally, his heart told him it was true. He could trust Chris to always tell him the truth.
But someone else could take him away. That's the thought that suddenly hit very hard, and a thought that made his stomach churn. Sure, Chris may not send him away but someone else could separate them.
"B . . . Buck took me away," Vin rasped painfully.
"Buck took you away? When?"
"In tha helicopter. I wanted to be with you 'n he took me away."
"Oh," Chris replied, his hand firm on Vin's back. "Well, I'll tell ya, Vin, those helicopters can't take a lot of passengers, did you know that?"
Vin had to admit to himself that he'd never thought of that.
"There's only room for one sick person at a time. Even if you would have waited for me at the top of the valley, we would have had to travel separately."
Vin mulled that one over. "Buck know that?"
"Yup, Buck knows that."
"Yup, Nathan too." Chris paused and Vin felt him swallow and shudder. When his father spoke again, his voice was much softer and still rough. "In fact, the way Buck and Nathan handled it was the fastest way to make sure we were together again. They did the right thing, Vin. Don't be angry at them. They love you, too."
Peaceful quiet reigned for many minutes as Vin tried to keep his fractured thoughts together. Finally, there was only one bit of information left that made his eyes burn with impending tears. "I thought you was dead." The final word was a choked squeak and he gasped for wind as he tried not to cry.
"It's okay, Vin," Chris' rough voice crooned. "I'm still here and we still have each other. Soon we'll be back at the ranch havin' a barbeque with the guys to celebrate. Pony and Peso will be there, too. I hear their tails got a bit singed so they look a little funny. I can't wait to see them with my own eyes."
Vin drifted on the calm sea of Chris' words. It didn't matter what he said, Vin relished in the voice and found his frantic thoughts settle. He relaxed into sleep.
The steady rhythm of Vin's breathing told Chris that the boy was finally asleep. He stopped talking and rubbed his burning throat. It felt raw and probably was, he realized. A pair of coughs bounced Vin's head on his chest, but his son didn't stir.
Chris closed his eyes and willed his body to relax. He ached everywhere and only wanted to sleep, but he was afraid someone would remove Vin if he did so and undo all he had hopefully fixed. Listening to the sounds in the hallway Chris fought to keep his eyes open but was finally beginning to admit that war may be lost when he heard the swoosh of the door opening. The faint scent of sandalwood identified the new arrival as Ezra.
"Ez." Chris croaked, forcing one eye to finally obey and open.
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra greeted lowly. "I apologize for my lateness."
"Don . . . 'em . . . take Vin . . ." Chris wasn't sure the words were clear because it certainly hurt to utter them. He felt a light touch on his shoulder.
"I will not allow anyone to remove Master Tanner from his current position, Mr. Larabee. You may rest assured."
Chris felt satisfying relief. He heard a chair scrape the floor just before he gave up his fight and fell asleep to the tickle of Vin's hair against his chin.
The next day Vin woke up to the rattle of breakfast dishes and the feel of Chris under his cheek. He raised his head, blinked at the bright light of day and silently watched the aide place food trays on two bedside tables. She paused, a little frown wrinkling her forehead as she looked from the two tables to the only occupied bed.
"I will take care of dispensing their meals, miss." Ezra sounded tired.
"Thank you," the young nurse's aide said, leaving the room with a smile.
Vin cautiously twisted his head until he could see Ezra rising from a chair. He stretched carefully with a twitch of pain, adjusted his jacket, and then inspected the trays.
"Well," Ezra sighed. "It looks like the usual hospital fare. A delightful study in beige." The agent turned to Vin and smiled. "Good morning, Master Tanner. May I fix your oatmeal for you?" He picked up a small bowl that contained brown sugar and raised a brow in question. Vin nodded. "I am sure we can abscond with some of Mr. Larabee's portion to sweeten the pot, so to speak. Would you like to try some apple juice while you wait? Please let me know if it bothers your throat." He removed the twist top to a small, plastic bottle and handed it to Vin.
After a second, he accepted it and wiggled to a sit. Chris' arm remained draped around his waist. Vin felt it twitch. He took a sip of the cool liquid.
"Can you swallow without pain?" Ezra asked softly. Vin nodded. "Good. Let us give this repast a moment to cool before you taste it." Ezra was stirring the oatmeal.
Vin watched his uncle and remembered the bad thoughts he'd had the day before. Feeling guilty about it now, he dropped his head and picked at Cat's ear as he sipped the juice. He just wanted to feel like he'd felt before the fire. Like family. He wasn't sure he deserved it now.
"Mornin' cowboy." Chris' voice, although dry and feathery, sounded wonderful. Vin released Cat's ear and rested his hand on Chris'. "You feelin' all right?"
Vin nodded, nervously rolling the small bottle of juice in his hand. He could feel the tears building and his throat burning as he tried to swallow the growing constriction away. It was no use - Vin turned to Chris' chest again to hide his eyes.
"Careful, there," Chris whispered, taking control of the slipping bottle. Vin then twisted his free hand in Chris' blanket and squeezed Cat with the other hand. Vin heard a muffled tap as the bottle was placed back on the table just before he started to cry silently again, feeling so stupid for doing so.
"Shh, shh, you're okay." Chris crooned quietly, holding him close. "Everything will be okay, Vin, I promise." Vin felt the comfort of Chris's hand rubbing his back. "Can you tell me what's bothering you? Are you hurting?" Vin nodded first, then after a moment, sniffled and then shook his head. "Are ya feelin' bad?" Vin nodded, the tears mostly dry.
He started to sit up when he felt the head of the bed begin to raise up. He adjusted a little until he was sitting up next to Chris, eyes downcast as he started in on Cat's ear again, this time with both hands. Vin just couldn't seem to be able to look at Ezra - he was too ashamed.
"I, ah, need to refill my coffee," Ezra said softly. "The oatmeal is nearly cool enough to eat. Mr. Larabee? Is there anything I can get for you or Vin?"
"I think we're good. Vin?" Chris' hand gently brushed through Vin's hair.
Vin shook his head without looking up. He heard the door swish open and muted conversation in the hallway before it closed.
"What's on your mind, son?" Chris asked, fingering the soft tangle of Vin's hair.
Vin felt Chris shift and glanced sideways. He was rubbing his throat.
"Hurts?" Vin whispered.
"Some," Chris replied. "Not bad. Yours hurt, too?"
Chris kept quiet while Vin organized in his mind what he was feeling. "I . . . I was mean to Uncle Ezra. And Buck. And Uncle Josiah," he finally blurted.
"Oh, I see." Chris paused. "Maybe you'd feel better if you apologized?"
"Yeah." Vin rubbed his nose and he felt Chris move. Then he felt a tissue in his hand.
"Be careful. Your face looks as sore as mine feels."
Vin mumbled a thanks and dabbed his eyes, and then blew his nose. "I wanna go home."
There was more silence.
"C'n we call JD?"
"I don't see why not. Can you reach the phone?"
Vin turned and looked at the small table between the beds. He dragged the telephone closer by the curly cord, then picked it up and put it on his lap.
"You hold the receiver and I'll dial." After reading the instructions on how to get an outside line, Chris dialed.
The phone rang three times before Vin heard Buck's voice. "H'llo?"
"Buck?" Vin said nervously.
"Vin? How are ya, buddy? I was going to come by later."
Vin worked his mouth a second. "I'm sorry," he said in a rush of words. "I treated ya bad. I'm sorry!"
Vin felt Chris hug him closer in support. On the phone, Buck was saying it was all right, that he understood and he accepted the apology. "All we want is you and Chris home again. Want to talk to JD?"
Vin nodded, forgetting Buck couldn't see him, but it didn't matter because in the next second, JD was on the phone.
"Vin! I heard ya got no eyebrows and burnded! I'm all okay now and really miss ya and Peso and Pony got here early this mornin' and their hair's all melted . . ."
"Yup! Buck let me feed 'em an' brush 'em while they ate. Theys really hungry."
"Peso's always hungry."
"Yeah, Buck says he 'n Milagro are both piggies."
That made Vin laugh for the first time since the fire.
As Vin laughed - although it started a coughing fit - Chris felt his own body relax. He started to pick at the breakfast, mostly so Vin wouldn't feel self-conscious. All Chris really wanted to do was watch his every expression, every breath and every nuance in his amazingly blue eyes and expressive face.
Chris knew he was a lucky man, having a second chance like this. And when the door to the room opened to reveal that Josiah and Nathan had joined Ezra, he knew that, eventually, their odd family would be just fine.