ATF Little Britches Universe
"Where you goin', Vin?"
Vin Tanner sighed heavily, turning toward the sleepy voice that came from the lower bunk of the room he shared with his younger friend. "I'm jist goin' t' git a drink."
"Why do y' gots your packpack?"
"I'm jist puttin' my backpack in the front hall. Now go back t' sleep."
"I wanna drink, too," the rustle of blankets announced that five year old JD Dunne was untangling himself from his covers.
"No!" Vin kept his voice to a whisper, but it carried a harsh tone. Seeing the smaller boy's startled face in the moonlight, he managed a smile and said, "I'll bring y' a drink back. Ain't no reason fer both of us t' git outta bed."
Hesitating only slightly, the tiny brunet snuggled back under the blankets, whispering to his friend, "'kay. Could y' put it in m' Blues Clues cup?"
"Yeah, sure. Now, be quiet. Ain't no reason t' wake Chris up." No reason to give him another reason to be angry and disappointed.
"'Kay." From the sound of his voice, it was obvious that the tyke was almost asleep again.
Young Tanner crept from the room and down the hallway, carrying his emptied backpack with him. He was glad, at least, that JD had been too sleepy to notice that he had his clothes on. That would have meant a lot more questions to answer, and he didn't have time for that.
He was running away.
Heaving another sigh, the little boy slipped into the kitchen. As he quietly opened the cabinets, he thought back to that afternoon. He had come home from school with a note from his teacher that Chris had to read. And he knew that, when his foster father read it, he'd been sent away for sure. Daniel Markson's brand new Beyblade had been found in his backpack that afternoon after the other boy had told the teacher that someone had taken it.
He had been innocent, but no one seemed to believe him when he said that he didn't know how the toy had gotten in his pack. His teacher had looked very disappointed in him and wrote a note, asking his Dad to come to school the next day. She had told him that she was leaving it up to him to tell his father what had happened but, if Chris didn't show up the next day, then she would tell him herself.
With a broken heart, he had handed over the note as soon as the blond came in the door. Then he had stood quietly before the big man, awaiting the punishment he didn't deserve. Life had taught him, though, that reward and punishment didn't often have anything to do with what he did, or didn't do.
"Is this true?" Chris' voice was soft, but Vin could hear the disappointment in it. He couldn't respond... couldn't even look into the man's eyes. Instead, he had looked down, staring at his feet. After a full minute, his Dad had repeated, "Is it true, Vin?"
"Teacher says it is. She's th' one that found Daniel's beyblade in m' backpack."
"That's not what I asked, son. Is it true? Did you take the toy?"
All he could do was shake his head, never taking his eyes from the floor. He felt Chris' hand on his shoulder, barely keeping the fear out of his face. Even after six months, he continued to expect this adult to act like so many others had. One day he would make the kind, quiet, man who had taken him into his home angry enough, and Chris would hit him as the others had.
"All right, son. We'll go to school and get this taken care of."
And, to the little seven-year-old, those words sealed his fate. Chris would take him to school and make him apologize to stupid Daniel and then probably make him give over his allowance so the creep could buy another beyblade. And he had been saving it up so he could buy one of the really fancy ones for JD, for his birthday.
Sometime between the dessert he could hardly eat and climbing into bed, he made his decision. He couldn't go apologize to that dumb Daniel Markson for something he didn't do... he just couldn't! And he couldn't stand to be taken away from the ranch... from JD, Buck, Peso, Ringo... and especially not from Chris. He couldn't stand to go to another facility for kids that didn't have families.
There was only one thing to do.
Angrily scrubbing the tears from his face with the sleeve of his hoodie, Vin concentrated on what had to be done. He had emptied out his backpack earlier, leaving only the bag of trail mix he kept there all the time. After careful thought, he pulled several packages from the cabinets. He took the full jar of peanut butter, knowing that Chris could buy more soon. Bread would get smooshed by the other stuff so, instead, he added a box of saltines. That could be his lunch and supper. For breakfast, he included a new box of pop-tarts. They were blueberry, and he liked raspberry better, but they would do. Milk would spoil, but he remembered that Buck used powdered stuff in his coffee, so he added a plastic container of it to his stores. He took two apples and a banana from the fruit basket, but knew he would need more than he could take with him. Looking through the cabinets once more, he came across a box of Fruit Roll-ups, and added them to his bounty.
Zipping the full backpack up, he carried it to the mudroom. The distant rumble of thunder told him that there would be rain soon. He pulled on his boots, stuffing the legs of his jeans down into them, and then pulled his lined raincoat on over his hoodie. Climbing onto the bench sitting along one side of the little room, he pulled the canteen and mess kit Buck had gotten him from the shelves above. Creeping into the kitchen, he filled the canteen, then returned to where he had left the other things.
He was ready.
Pulling the straps of the canteen and mess kits over his head, he draped them each over his shoulders. The heavy backpack was pulled on over both shoulders as well. Then, with a final look down the darkened hallway, he slipped out the back door.
The little runaway looked up at the full moon, glad that at least he had its company on his trip. He had wanted desperately to bring Ringo with him, but knew he couldn't take care of him. Besides, the pup would more than likely start barking, or want to play, and would give him away. He had to stay quiet, to stay hidden. So, he had left Ringo behind with Elvis, in the crate they slept in at night.
Looking across the big meadow, he tried to figure out how long it would take him to make his destination. He had to follow the fence down to the corner nearest the barn, turn, and walk beside it all the way down to where it turned again. At that corner he would leave the fence and head toward the trees.
His new home would be there... in those trees.
Vin reached the fence, turned to the right, and took a deep breath. Squaring thin shoulders, he began to march through the dry grass of the barnyard.
Just as he turned the corner, he felt the first fat raindrops splash against the rubber material of his rain hood. The bright moon was hidden now, behind dark rain clouds. Shoving his hands into the deep pockets he ducked his head and continued walking.
"Ow!" He cried out as he found himself on the ground, his left foot stuck in something. Struggling to push himself up under the weight of his burdens, he whimpered as pain shot through his ankle. Growling at his luck when he found himself in a Gopher hole, he gingerly lifted his foot out of the ground.
Pulling himself up with the aid of the fence, he tentatively put weight on his injured foot. It hurt, but he could stand on it as long as he held onto the fence. Looking around, he realized that he was more than halfway down the fence line. He could still make it to his new home.
Keeping his balance by holding onto the fence, Vin limped forward. He stopped several times, wiping the tears of pain from his little face while he gauged how far he had left to walk.
By the time he reached the corner of the fence, it was pouring down, the rain mixing with the tears that continued unheeded. The miserable little child blinked, staring into the darkness. He had walked this path several times in the weeks since finding the hiding place that would be his new home. When he had found it, he thought of it only as a place to get away from JD from time to time. As much as he cared for the boy he considered a little brother, he could be a pain at times. So, whenever he could slip away, he had gone, fixing up his secret place.
He never expected it to become his new home.
It would be just right, though. He would be close enough to keep an eye on JD without anyone knowing where he was. Later, after he was certain his little friend was okay, well... he'd think about that later.
Gingerly setting his throbbing left foot on the rain-soaked ground, Vin stepped away from the fence. He grunted with pain, but continued walking. He had counted his steps a couple of times, and knew that it took forty-seven steps to get from the corner of the fence to his hiding place. He began to count them off aloud, using the sound of his voice to quiet the funny feeling that was growing in his tummy.
"Three... four..." his mind showed him a picture of him and JD, Chris and Buck. They had been on a picnic nearby, only two weekends ago. He felt a lump in his throat as he remembered Chris lifting him high in the air, spinning in circles until they were both dizzy.
"Six... seven..." that was how many people there were in what Uncle 'Ziah called their family circle. There were others, too, but he, JD, Chris, Buck, and their three adopted uncles were like a family.
No, they were a family.
Vin couldn't stop the heartbroken sob that escaped his now trembling lips. There had always been a part of him that expected it all to end. Something would happen to make it so he couldn't live with Chris any more.
"Fifteen... six... sixteen..." Then he heard his own voice inside his head, sounding happy this time.
"Buck says that when I'm sixteen I c'n git a driver's permit."
"Yep," Chris had replied. They had been driving through the pasture, his father holding him on his lap, while he steered the wheel.
"When I'm sixteen I won't have t' sit on yer lap."
"I sure hope not!" Chris had teased him, and ha had laughed.
"Twen'y - three... twen'.... Twen'y... f-f-four." May 24th was his birthday. Chris had promised that he could have any sort of party he wanted, even a sleep-over. He already knew he wasn't going to invite that stinky Daniel.
But even more important than that, Chris had promised that they would go on an adventure for a whole weekend. Just the two of them. But now there wouldn't be any special trips. There wouldn't be anything special for him ever again.
The tears flowed even faster, burning his cold cheeks. He hated Daniel Markson! He hoped the little creep got animal maggots! He wasn't sure what they were, but he'd heard Buck talking about them, and they sounded gross. He couldn't imagine having ladies falling all over you, your whole life. It sounded like just the thing for a kid as mean as Daniel.
"Thirty-seven... thirty... thirty... eight... th-thirty... ow!" He slipped, falling in the mud. All he could do for a very long time was lie there, crying like a baby. When he finally caught his breath, he pushed himself up onto his hands and knees. Slowly he climbed to his feet, making certain to keep as much weight as he could on his right one. Even so, as soon as he stepped down with his left, he cried out in pain, and fell to the ground once more.
Again he lay still, trying to catch his breath, and berating himself silently for being so clumsy. Then he recalled that he had been just getting ready to count forty, which meant that he only had seven steps to go. He could try hoping on one foot, it was easy when they played games on the playground. But it wasn't raining then, and he wasn't carrying a bunch of stuff.
There was only one thing to do.
With a resigned sigh, the young boy began to crawl forward. He wasn't exactly certain how to count the steps now, so he just counted the numbers up when he moved his right hand.
"Forty... six... fah... forty... s-seven..." Chris would be forty-seven on his next birthday, in July. He hoped that Buck would throw him a party. His father hadn't had one for a long time.
Sitting back, he looked around, trying to see through the darkness to figure out where he was. With a soft cry of relief, he saw that he was only a couple of feet away from his destination. Dropping forward again, he crawled toward his new home.
He could remember the moment he had found it. He and JD had been playing hide-and-seek, while Chris and Buck were mending the fence. He had recognized immediately that this was someplace special, and had kept it secret from his surrogate little brother. And, even though he knew he was breaking the rules, he had snuck out here a few times since. He was only supposed to go as far as the fence, and then only if he got permissions first and took one of the walkie-talkies Chris had brought home. But, with a seven-year-old's reasoning, he decided that, as long as he got permission and took the 'talkie, he was only breaking one rule, so that wasn't so bad. Besides, he was still on Chris' property.
He knew it was Chris' property, because he knew that Chris had built this hiding place. No one had told him so, but he knew it.
It was a little log cabin, just a little taller than he was. It had been built strong and sturdy and looked like the cabin on his Lincoln Logs box. The roof had even been painted green, although it was faded now. There was a door that opened and closed. The top hinge was broken, but as long as you lifted the handle just so it moved pretty easy. There were two windows, cut on opposite walls that had plastic set in them. The plastic was yellowed, dirty, and scratched by the tree limbs nearby, but you could still see through them.
Pushing the door open carefully, Vin crawled inside the little cabin. Sliding it closed behind him, he heaved a tired sigh of relief. The cabin was weather tight and, even though it was cold, at least he was out of the rain. Tugging off his backpack and other supplies, he laid them all carefully on the floor. Next came his raincoat, which he spread out to dry.
Feeling his way across the tiny, dark room, he found the little bed he had made. It was really only a pile of leaves and dry grass, but he had a big piece of canvas tarp over it and it was comfortable. He had been shocked when his dad had started to throw it out, just because the mice had chewed a few holes in it. Chris had looked at him funny when he asked if he could have it, but had given him permission to take it.
He didn't take things without asking, no matter what that jerk Daniel said.
He settled on the edge of his makeshift bed, carefully taking off his boots. He whimpered as the left one slowly slid over his aching ankle, but it didn't hurt as badly as it thought it would.
Finally, drawing back the tarp, he burrowed into the crunching pile and covered himself with the heavy canvas. Curling up as tightly as he could, the distraught little boy cried himself to sleep.
"Vin! Vin! Where are you? Vin!" Chris Larabee called out over and over again, panic growing in his voice.
"He's not out here!" Buck Wilmington called from the barn, where he leaned out the hayloft door. From his vantage point, the big man scanned the surrounding area for any sign of the little boy. Seeing nothing, he reluctantly climbed down, almost certain that as soon as he turned away, Vin would appear out in the pasture. As he reached the barn floor, the blond came through the door, cell phone pressed to his ear.
"Look, I'm not certain what he's wearing... he was in his pajamas the last time I saw him... yes, we're checking to see what's missing... we've already called anyone who lives close enough for him to walk to...WHAT?! How stupid do you think I am!? Of course we looked - " he glared at his old friend, who pulled the phone from his hand.
"Hello?" Buck said into the phone, avoiding the twin, hazel lasers aimed at him. "Hi officer... Gray, hi. Uh, look, I'm sorry about my friend. He's really upset, I'm sure you can understand.... Excuse me? No, of course not... we... yes... of course we did... we... now look! We're agents for the ATF, we know how to... yeah... okay... okay... yeah, I appreciate that." Ending the call, he looked at his distraught friend, growling, "that's one pompous jack ah - "
"Hey, Buck! Chris!" JD jogged into the barn, smiling at the two men. "How come y' didn't wake me up for school? Did Vin go to school? How come I gots a day off? Can I have pancakes for break'ast? When's Miz Potter gonna be here? Did she take Vin someplace?"
"Buck," Larabee said softly in a pleading tone.
Nodding, the big brunet strode over and picked the little boy up. The younger of their adopted sons had slept through more than an hour of frantic searching when they discovered that Vin was missing.
When he had gone to wake the boys up for school, Chris had found Vin's bed empty. Checking the bathroom, and finding it empty as well, he moved on to the den and then the kitchen. As his concern grew, so did his pace, and by the time he went out to check the barn, he was at a dead run.
The boys knew that they weren't to leave the house without checking with one of the adults responsible for their well-being. While they could count on JD to forget a rule from time to time, Vin never did. If anything, the serious child was overly concerned with following the rules; fearful that even the most minor indiscretion would result in his once again being abandoned.
"Ah, hell," Chris growled under his breath. Hurrying into the house, he found that buck was talking quietly to a tearful JD. Joining them, he was speared through the heart by a pair of red-rimmed eyes that stared pleadingly up at him.
"Chris I'm sorry! I didn't know he was gonna run away he said he was just gettin' a drink and he was gonna get me a drink too but I falled asleep b'fore he comed back only he didn't comed back Buck said he must a runned away las' night when we was all sleepin' and we gotta find him cause it rained last night and - "
"JD, stop!" The blond said the words more harshly than he intended, his tone colored by fear. Reaching out a hand to gently stroke away the child's tears, he said softly, "I'm sorry, Little Bit. I didn't mean to yell."
"S'kay," young Dunne said sagely. "I know you're scared too, 'cause we don't know where he is - "
"JD, I need to ask you a question. It's very, very important."
"Was Vin upset last night?"
Thoughtfully the tyke said, "Yeah."
"Do you know why?"
"He was sad 'cause nobody b'lieved him that that creepy Daniel Markson said Vin taked his beyblade and nobody b'lieved him when he said no he didn't, and then - "
"Was he afraid that I wouldn't believe him?"
Shrugging, the tiny brunet said, "maybe. He didn't say so, but I know he always gets scared that you won't like him no more and you might make him go away - "
Chris didn't hear anything more that the child said. He walked into the den with leaden steps. Stopping at the computer desk, he watched the special screensaver he and Buck had created. Each picture that appeared on the monitor was of all, or some combination of, the four of them.
As he watched, his favorite picture appeared. Vin stood, smiling broadly into the camera, blue eyes glistening brightly. He was standing proudly, holding up the trout he had managed to catch all alone. They had been on a weekend fishing trip; it had been one of the first family outings that the four of them had gone on. Reaching out, he gently touched the image just as it faded from the screen.
"Oh God... Vin..." He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to find his friend behind him. "It's my fault, Buck... my fault he ran away."
"No it ain't, and you stop thinkin' like that right now."
"But... if I had just talked to him last night.... I knew he was upset about the note from his teacher, but I didn't say anything. All I was thinking was that I was tired, and didn't want to deal with it right then. He must have thought I was disappointed in him... and I didn't let him know that I wasn't. I wasn't, you know? I was just tired. I know he doesn't steal."
Wilmington heaved a mighty sigh, trying to find the words that would comfort his friend, and failing miserably. All he could think of was, "we'll find him, Chris. And you'll have the chance to make it right with him."
Tears trailing down his ruddy cheeks, the blond said, "I hope so... oh God, I hope so."
He whimpered softly as pale sunlight brushed across his face, even that frail intrusion enough to drag him from a restless sleep. Squinting open tired blue eyes, Vin stared around him in confusion. Slowly the events of the night before came back to him, and a poignant sigh dragged itself from the depths of his soul.
"Hi. How come you're sleeping in here? Did you get lost?"
He rubbed his eyes, trying to focus in the direction the voice was coming from. Finally he found the speaker, a little dark haired boy, in the corner of the little room. He grumbled under his breath at the thought that JD had found his hiding place. Running the tip of his tongue over dry lips, he said in a raspy whisper, "how'd you... git out... here?"
Shrugging, his visitor said, "I come out here sometimes. I didn't know anyone else did."
"When did you... OW!" He cried out as he moved, jarring his injured ankle. Curling up on his side, Vin grasped his leg, crying softly as arrows of pain shot half way to his knee. For several minutes the rest of the world disappeared as he struggled to get the pain back under control. Finally, he looked up, blinking the tears out of his eyes. Frowning, he realized that he was alone.
"Must 'a been dreamin'," he hissed through clenched teeth as his ankle continued to throb. He pulled back the tarp and looked down at his leg. Whimpering when he saw the swollen lump that stretched his sock and pressed against the bottom of his jeans. "Oh... no."
It had to be bad to be that swollen, and it hurt so bad he could barely stand to move at all. He forced himself to do just that, though. Carefully, moving his left leg as little as possible, he crawled to the other side of the little cabin. Opening the door, he scooted out just far enough to relieve himself, then moved back inside. Dragging his supplies with him, he managed to get back to his leafy bed. He had to stop more than once, when the pain became too much for him. Dropping back on his little bed, Vin draped an arm across his eyes, tears soaking into the soft material of his hoodie.
He lay there for several minutes, feeling more helpless than he had for months. Then, with a tiny growl, he scrubbed his sleeve over his eyes and sat up. Taking a deep breath, he pulled his things toward him. Opening his backpack, he opened the Pop-Tarts and pulled out one of the package. Putting everything back inside, he sat the heavy pack on his makeshift bed. Gently, he slowly lifted his swollen ankle and placed it on top of the backpack. He cried out several times, unable to stay quiet as the pain threatened to overwhelm him.
Getting his injured leg elevated, he collapsed once more onto the little bed, simply lying there, unmoving for a long time. Then the thin chest raised and fell in a deep sigh, and he reached out, fingers searching for the package of Pop-Tarts. Wearily he tore the end of the wrapper and slid one of the pastry squares into a muddy little hand. Taking a bite, his pale little face screwed up in distaste.
"Why'd it have t' be Blueberry?"
JD was pee-oh'd. He wasn't certain just what that was, but he had heard Buck say it once, and right now he felt the way his Da had looked that day. Nobody would listen to him. They kept telling him "not now, JD", and "later, Little Bit", before he could get the words out of his mouth. Then they just walked away like they forgot he was there.
None of them would listen to him, even though he knew where Vin was.
The little boy stood at the sliding glass door, looking out at the bunch of men and women in the yard. He could see Buck right in the middle, pointing in all different directions as he talked. And Chris was standing beside him, looking sadder than JD could ever remember seeing him before.
There were police and some of their neighbors out there, all of them listening to Buck talk. Unca' 'Ziah was there, too, but not Unc'a' Nathan or Unca' Ezra. They had gone back into Denver, and he had heard them say something about 'leads' and 'kidnap'. He wasn't sure just what those words meant, but he knew they had to be bad. When Chris heard the last word, he had made a really scary sound, and Da had to grab him before he fell on the floor.
Hazel eyes going from the cluster of people to the far end of the pasture, the little boy heaved a sigh. He knew that Vin was out there, in his hiding place, but nobody would listen.
He had known about his friend's secret for weeks. He had even snuck out there one time, but didn't stay long. He could understand Vin liking to sit out there all alone, just listening to the birds, but he didn't like it. After a few minutes he was bored, bored, bored.
Even though he hadn't seen the seven-year-old go out there, he just knew that was where Vin was.
He had heard them calling his name, over and over, but he didn't respond. It wasn't hard to do most of the time, except when he heard Chris' voice. Even as far away as his adoptive father was, he could hear the sadness in his voice, and he had to keep from crying. He wanted so bad to have Chris come in, pick him up, and carry him back to the house. He wouldn't even feel embarrassed about being to big to be carried.
"Aren't you gonna answer them?"
He jumped, yelping as the movement jarred his left ankle. Turning, he saw the other little boy sitting in the corner again. He frowned, realizing that it wasn't JD after all, and he couldn't figure out how he'd gotten into the cabin. Deciding to start with the last, he asked, "how'd you git in here?"
"They've been lookin' for you for a long time," the other child said, ignoring the question.
"I know, I ain't stupid," Vin snapped, suddenly angry at the stranger.
"Well then how come you ain't answerin' them?" The other boy grew angry as well.
"'Cause I'm runned away, that's why." Vin growled.
"Well you're stupid!"
"I ain't neither, you take that back... dummy!"
"You're the dummy!" The brunet yelled, hurling a small object toward his opponent.
Vin jerked back to avoid being hit, his leg slipping from it's roost. As his heel hit the hard ground, he gasped, going rigid as pain shot through him. Unable to breathe or cry out, he simply lay there on his little bed, mouth and eyes opened as wide as possible. The agony continued to rip through him, and everything went black for long minutes.
The world slowly came back into focus, and he let his breath out in a squeaky sigh. He blinked several times, feeling tears once more running down his cheeks. Then the injured child realized with embarrassment that he had wet his pants.
Turning his head slowly, Vin saw that the little boy was sitting right beside him. With a deepening frown, he realized that he knew who his visitor was. In a shocked tone, he said, "y-yer... Adam."
He had been standing there for what seemed like hours, just waiting for someone to remember he was there. The grown-ups had walked all around, even out past the pasture. They had to have walked right by Vin's hiding place, but no one had found him.
Shaking his head at how silly growed ups could be, JD turned away and walked into the kitchen. Mrs. Potter was standing at the counter, making sandwiches for all the people that were looking for Vin. "Miz. Potter?"
Gloria gasped, her hand going to her heart. Turning, she said, "my goodness, JD, you frightened me! I'm sorry sweetheart, I'd forgotten you were here."
"Ever'body forgot," the little boy mumbled forlornly.
"I'm sorry, dear, what did you say?"
Shrugging, he said, "nothin'. Can I take Elvis 'n Ringo outside? They need to go pee."
Managing a smile, their housekeeper said, "sure. Just stay close to the house, okay?"
Nodding, the little boy went to get the pups and set his own plan into action. If the growed ups couldn't find Vin, he'd just do it himself.
"How come you know my name? I didn't tell it to you." The young brunet asked.
"I seen yer picture... an' Chris told me yer name right after I came t' live at... at..." he paused, his eyes widening as he realized what was happening. "You cain't be here... you... you... "
"I went away... with my Mama."
Nodding, young Tanner said, "an' that mean's y' cain't be here. I must be dreamin' ag'in."
Shrugging his shoulders, the tiny spirit said, "I don't think you're dreamin', but I don't know how come you can see me, either. Mama says I'm too little to understand, but I don't think she does either."
Looking around, Vin said, "yer... Mama? Is Mrs. Chris here?"
Adam giggled. "Mrs. Chris... that's funny. No, she ain't here. She doesn't know I come here. I get bored, an' I like comin' here and playin'."
"Oh," the seven-year-old said, confusion still gripping his finely chiseled features. "Do y' come here a lot?"
Shrugging once more, Adam said, "sometimes."
"When I'm here?"
"Not usually... maybe once or twice."
"Oh." He wasn't certain he liked having someone around that he couldn't see, but didn't know what he could do to change it, either. He pushed himself up while he tried to process this news while he attempted to lift his throbbing ankle back onto the backpack. He managed to bite back the cries of pain, since he wasn't alone. With a grunt, he dropped back onto the leaves. After he caught his breath, he asked, "do y' come t' our... to th' house?"
His face growing sad, Adam said, "Not too much. I... it makes me sad to go there."
Vin reached out, surprised when he actually touched the phantom. He didn't think you were supposed to be able to do that. Patting one ghostly shoulder, he said, "I'm sorry... Adam."
They sat quietly for a few minutes, neither boy certain of what was happening. But then the natural resilience of children finally reasserted itself. For once, Vin found himself being the one to break the silence.
"Is it fun where y' are?"
"Sort 'a, but I get bored sometimes."
"C'n y' do tricks... like movin' things without touchin' 'em an' stuff?"
Giggling, Adam said, "I don't know, I never tried. That would be really cool, though."
Smiling, Vin said, "mebbe y' could try 't on this kid in my class... Daniel."
He had been caught twice going too far away from the house, and the second time Mrs. Potter threatened to make him come back inside. He decided that he would have to be sneakier before he tried it again. It was getting late... almost evening. He knew that if he didn't get away before dinner time, he'd have to wait until morning.
Picking up a stick, he looked at the two dogs. Shaking the piece of wood, he called out, "fetch!" Throwing with as much strength as he could, he watched the dogs scrambling after the stick. Instead of waiting for them to bring it back, though, he ran after them. Wrestling the stick from Elvis, he repeated the action.
Slowly he made his way closer to the corner of the fence.
"... an' I like baseball, too, jist like you di... do," Vin was saying to his spectral friend.
A frown furrowing dark brows, Adam said, "how come you know so much about me?"
Realizing the other boy was upset, young Tanner stammered, "I... I... well, Dad... um... Chris... he talks 'bout y' a lot."
Adam smiled broadly. "He does?"
Surprised at the other child's response, Vin said, "well, sure. He misses you an' Mrs. Chris... a lot. Buck said he used to be real sad almost all th' time.
Sometimes he'd git real angry an' he wasn't too nice t' people. Buck said he'd prob'ly still be doin' that, 'cept now he's got me an' JD - " He broke off, realizing that he had hurt the other boy.
"I'm... I'm sorry Adam. I didn't - " He broke off, watching the specter of Chris' son slip into the far corner. The dark headed little boy drew his knees up under his chin, wrapping his arms around his legs.
"Oh man... gees, I'm sorry Adam. I didn't mean -"
"It ain't your fault." Slowly the little boy faded away.
He had made it to the corner without anyone seeing him. Checking behind him, the little brunet slipped around the rail fence, staying close as if the widely spaced wooden planks would hide him. Peering back around the corner, he watched the house for as long as he could. Finally, satisfied that he had managed to sneak away, JD smiled. Looking down at his two companions, he said, "c'mon... we gotta go find Vin."
Vin wasn't certain how long he'd lain there, confused, alone and feeling miserable. He knew that he had to have been dreaming, ghosts were only in books and movies. But he still felt bad about making Adam sad, even if it was only in his dream.
He was getting hungry, too, but the thought of moving his foot to get into his backpack kept him from doing anything about it. He wished he had taken some of the food out earlier.
He was focused on a way to retrieve one of the apples, everything else forgotten as he made and discarded several plans. So much so that he hardly heard the soft voice calling his name.
"Vin? Hey, Vin?"
Twisting around, he found that the other little boy had returned. A broad smile brightened his face as he said, "Adam! Y' came back!"
With a smile of his own, the little specter said, "yeah."
"Yer not mad at me?"
Shaking his head, the ghostly little brunet said, "I wasn't mad at you. I just.. I just got sad that my Papa doesn't need me anymore."
His smile absorbed by a deep frown, young Tanner said, "I never said he don't need y'."
"You said that he's not angry anymore since he has you and JD."
"Jist 'cause he don't git angry like he used t' don't mean he don't miss you an' Mrs. Chris."
Dark eyes brightening, Adam said, "It doesn't?"
"'Course not," Vin said gently. "Why do y' think he talks 'bout y' all th' time? An' why do y' think he's keeps yer pictures on th' walls, an' yer toys packed up in th' - " he broke off as he noticed a change in his new friend.
Little Larabee tensed, seeming to be listening to something - or someone - that Vin couldn't hear. He blinked several times before turning back to the other boy. "Someone's gonna be here soon."
Shaking his head, young Tanner said, "I ain't gonna go back."
"Please Vin? Please go back... for my papa?"
"But... but he's angry at me."
Frowning, Adam said, "so?"
In a painfully soft voice, the former street urchin said, "he'll send me away."
Laughing, the little spirit said, "He used to get angry at me a lot, Vin. He never sent me away..." In a sad voice, he finished with, "he couldn't help it 'cause the bad men... took me away from him."
"But yer his son, Adam. I ain't. I'm only some kid he 'dopted."
"You're not just some kid, Vin!" The ghostly image growled adamantly. "If my papa 'dopted you then it means you're real special! And if you don't go back to him he'll be sad again, and if you do that then it means that you're a real jerk!"
Blinking huge blue eyes in shock, Vin stared open mouthed at his friend. Before he could say anything, the spirit of his father's son continued.
"Darn it Vin! You've gotta go back there, no matter what you thinks gonna happen. If you don't then... then... then I'm gonna do things that scares anyone who's around you and they'll think you're a freak and then you won't have any friends!"
"Adam, I - "
"You can't hurt my Papa, Vin! You can't! You gotta go back and take care of him! I can't do it, Vin, but you can! Don't you leave my Papa, too!"
"Adam!" He had to call the name loudly to get the other boy to stop his tirade. When the dark eyes settled on him, he said in a quieter tone, "okay. I'll go back."
The ghostly visage beamed; the little face breaking into a smile. Then he once more stared off into the distance. After a minute, Adam sighed, turning back to face his new friend. "They're gonna be here in a few minutes, Vin. I'll have to go, then."
"I don't want y' to leave! I wan'cha t' stay with me. I feel... I feel like... "
The dark-haired child smiled. "You feel like... maybe... we could really have been brothers if... if I hadn't had to... go away."
Grinning, Vin said, "yeah."
The little Texan felt something beneath his hand, and looked down to see a small, elegantly carved horse laying there. He realized that this was the thing that Adam had thrown at him earlier. Picking it up, he held it out to the little spirit. "This is yours."
Not taking the toy, the other boy said, "You keep it. Papa carved it for me... a long time ago."
"But, it's yers."
"I have to leave it here, anyway. And 'sides... I can give it to my brother if I want to."
Giggling now, Vin said, "thanks."
Nodding, Adam moved back across the room. Pointing to a place on the wall, he said, "See where this part is darker than the rest?"
"If you pull on it, it'll open. There's a little hiding place inside. Papa fixed if for me, so I could keep my special toys in it." Turning to the injured child, he said wistfully, "would you take care of them for me?"
In a solemn tone, Vin said, "sure."
With tears in his eyes, the diminutive phantom said, "and... Vin?"
"Would you... would you take care of my Papa... our Papa... for me?"
With a lump in his throat, Vin said, "sure. And, I promise.. I won't leave him, Adam. Not again."
Smiling again, the little spirit said, "Thanks." Then he turned once more to stare into space. Heaving a heavy sigh, he said, "I've gotta go."
Struggling not to cry, Vin said, "will I see y' ag'in?" Even as he asked, he realized that the other boy was fading from sight. "Adam?"
Turning back, the fading spirit said, "I sure hope so... brother."
Reaching out a hand, Vin said softly, "me too... brother."
He had almost made it.
Intent on getting to the hidden playhouse, JD had sprinted along the fence as fast as his chubby legs could carry him. He could just make out the outline of the little log cabin when -
Stumbling as he tried to stop, he found himself grabbed up in a pair of strong arms just before he fell face first onto the muddy ground. Looking behind him, he found himself eye to eye with Chris Larabee. A very angry Chris Larabee.
"Where do you think you're going, young man? Don't we have enough to worry about, without you running off? Now we're going back to the house, and you're going to your room - "
"NO!" The little boy struggled, trying his best to squirm out of the man's arms. "Lemme down! You won't lis'en so I gotta go myself! Lemme down! No! Vin - "
"Vin? What about Vin?" Chris loosened his grip on the wriggling boy, staring hard into the cherubic little face.
Ceasing his actions, the five-year-old said tearfully, "nobody'd listen to me... I tried t' tell you I know where he is, but nobody'll listen to me!"
Taking a deep breath, the blond tried to calm himself down. Managing to compose himself enough to set the child down and squat down in front of him, Chris said evenly, "what did you try to tell us, JD?"
Lower lip trembling, hazel eyes flaring, and pudgy arms crossed across his chest, the five-year-old said, "I tried to tell you that I know where Vin is."
Running a hand through his hair, the agent asked, "Where is he, Little Bit?"
Trying to gauge whether or not he was actually going to be listened to, JD finally said, "He's in his hiding place."
"JD, please... if you know where he is - "
"I'll take you... if you promise you won't yell at him."
Taking another deep breath, the blond said, "I'm not going to yell at him... I promise."
Nodding, JD took his hand. "'Kay... c'mon."
They reached the end of the fence, and JD tugged on Chris' hand to get him to stop. Looking up at the tall blond, he said, "maybe you should stay here an' I'll go..."
Smiling at the little boy's concern for his friend, Larabee said, "it's okay, Little Bit, I promise I won't be angry with him. I just want him to come home. Trust me?"
Eyes traveling from the little stand of trees to the blond and back, JD said hesitantly, "yeah... okay." Pointing toward the small stand of trees, he said, "He's in the woods."
Squeezing the tiny hand in his, the worried father left him behind to stay with the pups, while he stepped quietly across the grass. At the edge tree line he stopped, leaning against one of the trunks. His breath caught in his throat as he saw the little playhouse sitting, forlorn and forgotten, and hidden by the trees.
Closing his eyes for a minute, Chris tried to fight the memories that insisted on forcing themselves on him, but failed.
He could remember building the little playhouse for Adam before his son could even walk. Sarah had teased him about building it for himself instead their son, leading him to reply that he would finally have a room of his own then, a place to hide when she had work for him to do.
He had set it up beneath the tree nearest the house, far enough away for Adam to feel independent, but close enough for his parents to keep an eye on him. His son had loved the house, and spent long hours out there, playing.
But then... after... he hadn't been able to look at the little cabin without expecting to see his son waving at him through the window. And, God help him, sometimes he did see his son smiling at him there. The little playhouse became just another reminder of what he had lost.
Try as he might, though, he hadn't been able to dismantle or get rid of it.
Finally, with the help of Buck and some other friends, he had loaded the tiny cabin onto a flatbed and drove it to the far end of his property. There, it was left to sit amongst the stand of pines where he and his family had picnicked so often. Where better to hide one reminder than in the midst of another?
Scrubbing his hand roughly over his face, Chris growled at himself for wool gathering when the son of his heart needed him. Squaring his shoulders he padded softly to the door, bending so that he could enter he knocked gently before pulling the wobbly door open.
Vin looked up at him, not seeming very surprised to see that someone had found him. With a sleepy smile, the little boy said, "hi, Papa."
Larabee tried not to let his shock show. Only one person had ever called him Papa before. Smiling back at the seven-year-old, he said, "hi, cowboy. Thought I'd see if you're ready to come home."
Tears spilled from the child's eyes. "Y' really want me t' come back?"
Dropping to his knees beside the makeshift bed, Chris said, "of course I do. And I want to apologize to you, pard. I should have talked to you about the situation at school last night, but I was tired and let that get the best of me. You need to know that I'm not angry... or disappointed in you for what happened at school. If there's one thing I know about you, young man, it's that you don't lie. If you say you didn't take that kid's toy, then I believe you."
He couldn't help it. He began to sob, the tears forming a river down his little face as everything that had happened over the past several hours overwhelmed him. Vin reached out, silently begging to be held. It was a request Chris was only too happy to grant. As he gathered the sobbing child into his arms, little Tanner yelped as his injured foot moved. Adjusting his hold, he gently lifted the swollen limb, settling it along one arm.
"Looks like you had a little accident," he whispered.
Nodding against his father's broad chest, Vin said, "go...gopher hole."
"Ouch. Think we'd better have the doctor look at it." He felt one tiny hand clutch at his shirt. Placing a kiss on the top of his son's head, Larabee said, "sh, it's okay. I'll be right there with you."
Awkwardly carrying the little boy out of the little cabin, Chris grunted as he straightened up outside. With Vin still clinging to his shirt, he carried him beyond the trees and headed back to where JD waited. He found that he wasn't very surprised to see Buck there as well. The big man was busy giving the five-year-old a scolding, only stopping when Larabee spoke up.
Turning, the mustached man's expression changed from one of anger to shock and relief at the sight of the little boy in his friend's arms. A small spreading across his face, Wilmington could only manage to say, "oh... thank God."
Returning the smile, Chris said, "let's get back to the house and let the others know."
Nodding, Buck said, "sounds good." Lifting a sniffling JD into his arms, and settling him on his hip, he started off at a jog, calling over his shoulder, "last one home's a rotten egg!"
Listening to little Dunne's giggle carried back to him on the breeze, Larabee shook his head. Moving forward at a more sedate pace, he felt Vin snuggle against him. Sighing as a sense of relief and contentment settled over him, he said softly, "let's go home."
Chris looked up at the sound of someone entering the little, curtained, cubicle. Turning his head, he saw Ezra Standish standing there. "Didn't expect to see you here."
Standish couldn't help but grin at the sight of his big, bold, tough boss, sitting on the hospital bed. He was leaning back against the raised head, legs crossed at the ankle. A freshly scrubbed Vin was sprawled across his lap, one hand wound in the material of his dark shirt, the other clutching his stuffed cat. And, if he wasn't mistaken, Larabee was holding a copy of "Captain Underpants". It also looked suspiciously as if he had been reading it, even though the worn out seven-year-old was sound asleep.
"Something on your mind, agent Standish?"
Clearing his throat, the undercover man said, "I just thought I'd stop by and see how Vin's doing."
Nodding toward the child's left foot, which now sported a walking cast, he said, "Doc said the breaks clean and, other than being a little dehydrated, he's in good shape. I'm taking him home tomorrow."
"That is good news. Have the two of you... made up?"
"Seems so. I'm not sure it won't happen again... him thinking I'm going to give up on him. But, for now, he hasn't let me out of his sight any more than he's had to since we got here." Then, noting the bag in the other man's hand, he said, "been shopping?"
With a gold-edged grin, the Southerner opened the bag, pulling out a stuffed bear, complete with a little 'cast' on its leg. "I thought that perhaps young Vin would like someone to commiserate with. And..." He pulled out a package of markers, "I thought that I'd give my young friend a surprise when he awakes."
With a chuckle, the senior agent said, "I think he'd like that."
Chris brought the Quad cab Ram to a stop at the end of his driveway. He couldn't help but heave a sigh of relief as he beheld the sight of his ranch house. There had been many times that the sight of the house gave him pain, but no longer. It had once more become a place of happiness... a home.
Looking over his shoulder, he grinned at the sight of the little seven-year-old sprawled out on the back seat, asleep. Vin lay with his casted leg propped up on the seat, his head resting where door and seat met. His little mouth was slightly open, soft breaths bespeaking total relaxation.
Larabee climbed out of the truck and carefully retrieved the child, pulling him into his arms. Little Tanner grumbled at the disturbance, blinking owlishly into the late morning sun. When he realized he was in his adopted father's arms, he smiled sleepily and rested his head back on one broad shoulder.
With a chuckle, Chris said, "don't go back to sleep, cowboy. We've got company."
"Yep. Lots of folks wanted to be here to welcome you home." Respecting the child's normally shy nature, he said, "Is that okay?"
"Sure... 's Unca' Ezra here?"
Checking, and seeing that the agent's car was parked at one side of the drive, Larabee said, "Yeah, he is."
"Good." Stretching his left leg out, waggling the bright yellow cast that had been meticulously decorated with the likeness of Spongebob Squarepants, he said, "gotta tell 'im how cool my cast is."
"Where we goin'?" Vin asked, as he step-clomped down the hallway after his father. It didn't really matter to him, it was Saturday and his adopted father wanted the day to be for just the two of them. That was all that mattered.
"Just in the back yard. That okay?" Chris asked, looking down at the child who held his hand. Vin had seemed to need more physical contact than he normally did, and he was only too glad to give it.
"Sure. What're we gonna do?"
"I've got something to show you."
Nothing more was said as father and son walked out the back door and onto the broad, redwood deck. The big blond stopped, turned, and lifted the child into his arms. Vin frowned at him, his independent nature asserting itself. "Chris, I c'n walk."
"I know, but I want you to close your eyes. I've got a surprise for you."
Uncertainly, the seven-year-old said, "okay."
By the time Larabee had stepped off the deck, his son was settled against him, head on his shoulder. He couldn't help but wear a smile as he walked to the farthest corner of the yard. Stopping, he said softly, "Okay, you can look now."
Raising his head and shifting around, the little boy gasped. There, under the big tree, was the log cabin. The windows had been replaced, the door re-hung, and the roof freshly painted. His little mouth stretched into an 'o', and before thinking, he said, "but that's Adam's house."
Frowning, Chris said, "How did you know it was Adam's?"
"I... um... I... "
He was torn, not wanting to lie to the man, but not wanting to tell him the truth, either. Dropping his gaze, he said, "y'll git mad."
Drawing a finger in an 'x' over his heart, the blond said, "cross my heart. I'd really like to know, and I promise not to get angry."
Grappling with his emotions, Vin sought to find the words he needed to tell his story. He had wanted to talk about his meeting, but had been afraid of what the grown ups would say. They didn't understand that, sometimes, people woke up for a little while, stopped listening to the whispering angels and visited places that had been important to them.
"I... well... um, I... y' see..." He stopped his stammering explanation, taking a deep breath before finished quickly, "Adam told me."
Vin looked into his foster father's face, searching for signs that the man was getting angry. Seeing nothing that would indicate that he was about to get yelled at, he whispered, "yes, sir."
He couldn't believe his ears. "Yer... yer not mad?"
"No." Easing the little boy to the ground, Chris knelt before him. "I told you I wouldn't get angry, didn't I?"
"Yeah, but... but..."
Reaching out, he brushed a loose curl back from the boy's forehead. "Vin, would it surprise you if I told you that I've seen Adam, too?"
"Y'... y' have?"
"Lots of times. And usually he was here... in his cabin. That's why... well, that's why it was out there. It... well, it just made me sad to see it."
"Did it make you sad to see Adam?"
Nodding his head, Vin said, "I think he's sad, too. I think he misses y'."
Fighting back the tears and managing a smile, the blond said, "I miss him, too, cowboy."
Frowning, the seven-year-old said, "will it make you sad t' have th' cabin out here? If so..."
Taking the narrow chin in his hand, Chris said, "maybe, sometimes." Seeing the blue eyes grow sad, he added, "but you know what would make me really happy?"
Clucking the boy's chin, he said, "watching you playing in it."
The smile returned to the little, elfin face. Reaching out and taking a big hand in his, he led his father to the door of the cabin. Opening it, he step-clomped into the little cabin. While Larabee watched, he moved to the dark patch on the wall. Easing himself to the floor, he worked at the wood until it pulled away, revealing the little hiding place. He giggled as he saw the treasures inside. Carved horses, matchbox cars, trading cards protected in a baggie, and other things important to small boys filled the space.
"Well, I'll be..."
Vin was surprised to find Chris, on his knees, beside him. "He... he showed me this hidin' place." Lifting out one of the carved horses, he asked, "did y' make this fer 'im?"
Nodding, the agent took the piece, turning it over and over in his hands. "Yeah, I did. He loved to watch me carving them. I must have made a couple dozen horses... "
Little Tanner eased himself around, settling against the cabin wall as he listened to his father tell the story of making this particular gift for his son. As he listened, something caught his eye, and he turned toward the corner. There, barely visible in the shadows, he saw another little boy, smiling as he listened to the story as well.
The smallest member of the gathering stood before the others. He dropped his gaze to the ground, fearful of how his tale would be perceived. For several moments no one said a thing, silence holding court over their proceedings. Finally, he took a deep breath and sought to meet the eyes of each of his older fellows. His eyes widened as he realized that each face held a look of wistful sadness, and tears were evident on some of those faces. Confused, he turned toward the leader.
Placing a hand on the tiny shoulder, the bigger man said in a voice that shook slightly, "that was quite a tale, little one."
Nodding his thanks for the man's words, he took his seat beside the largest member of their fellowship. He smiled in contentment as a big arm gently circled his shoulders, drawing him close in a hug.
Clearing his throat, the leader said, "Our time together is drawing to a close. We will have time for only one more story. Who would like to spin his tale?"
Another of the gathering stood, drawing closer to the fire. "I would tell my tale now." As the leader moved into the shadows, nodding his agreement, the big man spoke to them all.
"The story I offer takes place during a time of great turmoil for the world at large. Men brought to their brethren violence of horrific proportions, creating some of the most hideous acts imaginable. Both sides of this great conflict worked tirelessly to find better and more efficient ways to kill.
"In the midst of this violence, a handful of men stood together. They sought to bring an end to the vile acts using their own, unique talents. This is the story of a time that three of them found themselves facing a violence that went far beyond that of mere mortals..."