Disclaimer:- Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note:Betaed by LT.
Vin and JD were very happy; their father's were back where they belonged. After five very long days away in Montana on a case, they were finally back. While they were away, the boys had been staying with Ezra. It was Saturday; Chris had called at ten to say they expected to be home by seven. Both boys we ecstatic, bouncing around with so much energy and excitement, that Ezra feared for the structural integrity of the house. There was nothing for it; he had to take them out for the day, to burn off some energy and save his home. Casting dignity aside, Ezra had packed his swimming shorts, which he had to admit had never seen a swimming pool (since when he swam for fitness, he wore Speedos) and took the boys to the local leisure pool with it's slides, tubes, whirlpools, rapids, pirate ships and indoor waves. After three hours, the boys were exhausted but still happy, and he was forced to admit, he too had had a good time and was also exhausted. The day's activities had finally overcome JD's excitement and he'd fallen asleep in his car seat as they headed west toward the ranch. It was dark and the weather was grim, with sleet coming in almost horizontally on a biting north wind.
Vin, having given Ezra the `big eyes', had persuaded his uncle to put his booster seat in the front, beside him. Vin just loved to ride in the Jag, and Ezra suspected that, despite his love of horses, Vin was a closet petrol head. Buck, another petrol head, was probably indoctrinating him behind Chris' back.
Vin was just beginning to get drowsy when Ezra's cell phone rang.
"Hello?" he answered via his car's built-in hand's free set. "Oh, hello Chris."
Vin was instantly awake and all attention.
"Yes they're fine, Vin is right beside me." He gave Vin an encouraging nod.
"Hi Dad!" Vin called out.
"Hey there Cowboy, see you soon. Ezra?"
"Sorry to ask you, but any chance you could call in and pick up some pizza and a few basic supplies?"
"I think we can do that." Ezra glanced at Vin who was grinning.
"That'd be great; you know the Pizza Hut next to the Exxon with the mini mart? It's right on your way."
"I know the place."
"Great, the pizza will be all ordered and paid for in your name."
"Is there a problem?" Ezra asked, detecting some odd noises in the background.
Chris sighed. "Looks like one of the fuses tripped while we were away and everything in the fridge and the freezer is ruined. We're going to have to trash the lot of it. All we need is pizza for tonight and some milk, butter and bread for breakfast. We'll have to hit Wal-Mart in the morning."
"Not a problem."
Through all this JD hadn't stirred. As he drew up beside the mini mall, Ezra was reluctant to wake him. Outside, the sleet came down and the wind howled.
"Vin, do you think you could stay in the car with JD until I get back? I don't want to wake him up and take him out in this weather."
"Sure," Vin answered confidently, he trusted Ezra.
"I won't be long and you can see me the whole time, okay?"
+ + + + + + +
Once Ezra was out of the car, Vin unbuckled his seat belt and scooted over into the driver's seat. He could see better from there and he got to play with the steering wheel and pretend he was driving. He was in the middle of making the last turn at Daytona when the door beside him was yanked open.
Vin jumped, he'd just seen Ezra waking into Pizza Hut. His uncle had been running with the groceries in a bag, he's even given Vin a quick wave. The man at the door was all dressed in black, his face hidden deep in a hooded top.
"Get out kid!" he ordered.
Vin's very first thought was to run, but a mille-second later, he thought of JD.
"No!" he stated defiantly.
The man made a grab for him, but Vin was too quick, ducking out of the way.
"C'm here!" the man shouted.
He managed to get hold of Vin's ankle just as he was trying to get between the seats and back to JD. The man yanked Vin, pulling him back and slamming his back against the gear shift. Instinctively, the boy began to writhe and twist, trying to free himself.
"Uncle Ezra! Help!" he yelled.
"Vin!" JD called out, as he woke up and tried to work out what was going on.
The man was holding Vin by one ankle and trying to grab the key out of the ignition with the other. Seeing what he was trying to do, Vin also made a grab for the key and just managed to beat the guy to it. By now, JD was crying.
"JD get out!" Vin shouted. "Run to the Pizza Hut."
It might have been almost a year since the boys had lived on the street, but JD's instinct when danger threatened was to do what Vin said. The trouble was he was so scared he couldn't make his little fingers work the buckle on the unfamiliar car seat. The boys had been so proud when Ezra had purchased his own car seats for them; he's had them customised to fit the leather interior of his car.
"You get out of here!" Vin shouted, kicking out with his free foot. "Or my uncles' gonna shoot you!"
"Oh yeah, what with, his credit card?" the thug taunted.
"No, his gun, he's a fed'rl agent!"
The man hesitated, then from the distance they heard. "Freeze, Federal Agent!"
Instantly, the man let go of Vin, turned and fled. He got about twenty feet in his blind panic, then tripped over a curb, causing him to stumble, wind-milling his arms wildly wildly. As he was going down, his foot found a pothole and he fell, he lay there, screaming in pain and clutching his ankle.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra had spent a little longer in the store than he had intended. As well as milk, bread and butter, he'd picked up peanut butter, jam, Cheerios, ham, cheese and ice cream. The pizza Chris had ordered was almost ready. As he stepped out of the store he saw a sight he'd never forget. A dark clad stranger was bending over the car, his head and shoulders inside, and he was struggling with something, or someone.
Ezra's gun was out and the familiar worlds of warning on his lips before the food hit the ground. To his great relief, the man ran instantly. Ezra, however, never even considered running after him, he just ran to the car.
"Boys?" he called even before he got a look inside.
Both boys were in the back, JD still strapped in, sobbing, Vin clutching onto him, the car key still in his hand.
"You okay?" Ezra asked as he snapped back the seat and began to unbuckle JD.
JD just reached for Ezra and climbed into his arms. Holding the youngster tight, Uncle Ez turned his head to face the older boy. "Vin?"
Vin edged forward, nodding, but clearly trembling. Then he flinched as) a stranger ran up behind Ezra.
"I've called 911!" he shouted. "Looks like Mike from the Exxon's got the bastard."
Ezra nodded his acknowledgement, then pulled out his cell phone and hit the first number on his quick dial.
"Chris?" he began, as the call was picked up.
"Nah, he's taking out more trash," Buck explained. "You on your way?"
"No, there has been a bit of an incident," Ezra began rather hesitantly.
"What's up, are the boys okay?"
"They're fine, but could you come down here?"
Suddenly JD realised who Ezra was talking to. "Da!" he wailed.
"Pizza Hut," Ezra told him quickly and hung up. As much as he knew JD needed his father, now was not the time or the place.
Very carefully, he peeled JD away a fraction. "JD, can I give Vin a hug now?" he asked softly. Huge brown eyes looked up at him and then he nodded, scooting back a fraction to let Vin get to Ezra.
As soon as the coast was clear, Vin wrapped himself around Ezra; he just needed to know he was safe again. There had been a time when he would only let Chris hug him, then Buck. Now, he was happy to seek comfort from any of his uncles. However, if he could choose, he'd choose Uncle Ezra. It wasn't that he loved him more than Josiah or Nathan, but the boys spent a lot more time with Ezra. Ezra's hand rubbed his back and he couldn't help but flinch.
"Vin?" Ezra asked with concern, pulling back. "Did he hurt you?"
Tears were now welling up in Vin's eyes, despite his desire to stay strong for JD.
"Does your back hurt?" Ezra asked.
"Can I see?"
Vin shook his head.
"Okay, but you know you'll have to show Chris right?"
Vin edged closer to Ezra again nodding. Somewhere down the road, sirens were approaching.
+ + + + + + +
Buck had hung up, grabbed Chris' keys off the dresser by the front door and was out of the house and locking the door behind him, before he was even aware he'd done it.
"Chris!" he yelled even as the familiar flash of orange acknowledged that the truck was now unlocked.
"What now!" Larabee griped as he came around the house from the trash can storage what with puppies, foxes and racoons, they had been forced to put the trash bins in a wire cage.
"Ezra's got a problem, we have to go meet him and the boys at Pizza Hut."
"What do you mean by problem? That fancy car of his got a flat?"
Chris had been behind the wheel for most of their long and very tedious trip home in foul weather, it wasn't that Buck hadn't offered to drive, but Chris preferred to drive. The whole trio had been a miserable trip from start to finish. The case, while technically in their jurisdiction, could just as well have been handled by the local authorities, had necessitated long man hours and a lot of miles on the road. The local law agencies had figured they could save a lot of money in over time and gas, by having the ATF take the case off their hands.
All this, combined with missing the boys and the food disaster had made him irritable and snappy.
"No idea but he sounded worried and JD was crying," Buck informed him.
Larabee cursed and began to run, changing direction at the last minute when he realised Buck was climbing in behind the wheel.
"So what the hell is going on? Are the boys okay?" Chris demanded, even before Buck got the truck turned around.
"I told you I don't know, but he said the boys were fine. I got the feeling he couldn't talk because they were with him."
"What else did he say, could you hear Vin?"
"I told you he didn't say anything else! Asking again won't change that!" Buck shouted, his own fear and worry getting the better of him. "Look, its only fifteen minutes away, so just sit there and don't ask questions I can't answer." There was silence. "Okay?"
As they approached the gas station, they were met with flashing lights, police tape, one ambulance and at least three police cars.
"Oh shit!" Buck swore, even as he was getting down from the cab.
At first the police tried to stop them. Chris showed his ID, but the young officer was about to protest that this was not an ATF matter when Buck just gave the poor boy a look that said 'don't even try it'. With that, he let them pass. After all, whatever the sergeant might do to him was better then being shot by the blond one or mutilated by the big one!
Several people were sheltering under the gas station cover, giving statements to uniformed officers. A group of police and EMTs were working on someone on the ground. Both men advance on this and then pulled back as they simultaneously saw that who ever it was, it wasn't Ezra or one of the boys. Ezra's car was sitting rather forlornly in the Pizza Hut parking lot, one very cold looking officer guarding it.
"Officer, where is the driver and his passengers?" Buck asked, showing the man his ID.
"We're family," Chris added.
"In the restaurant Sir, it was so cold out here we thought it best."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was sitting on the bench in the restaurant foyer, where the take out customers wait. JD was in his lap, thumb in his mouth, crying silently. Vin was sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest, just as close as he could be to Ezra's side, his eyes fixed on the door. Ezra said his dad was coming and that was all he wanted right now.
Ezra felt the weight on his side lift as Vin sat up and dropped his legs, seconds later the door opened and the boys' fathers came in. Vin was moving before the door was really open. JD almost fell off Ezra's lap in his haste to get to Buck, silent tears suddenly became a torrent of words so fast and so distorted by the crying no one could have made them out.
"Hush Little Bit, it's okay, I'm here, o'l Buck's got you safe now, nothing to worry about, hush baby boy." This littering of soothing words continued as Buck began to pace with JD held close to his chest, knowing he'd get no sense out of JD for some time.
Chris was in the process of lifting Vin into his arms when Ezra intervened.
"Careful of his back," he warned.
Frowning at Ezra, Chris spoke to Vin. "Your back sore son?"
Chris adjusted his grip so he was supporting his son under each thigh, with Vin's spindly legs wrapped tight around his hips, thin arms around his neck, head on his shoulder.
"You gonna tell me what happened?"
A shake of the head.
"Can I ask Uncle Ezra?"
Chris looked at Ezra, waiting to be told. So Ezra told them what he knew.
"I swear Chris, I was only gone for a few minutes, your order was ready, all I had to do was pick it up. I never thought... it was so fast... I'm sorry, I am so sorry... I ..."
"Quit it Ez," Buck began when Chris said nothing. "We've all done it, even him." He nodded at Larabee.
"Don't be mad at Uncle Ezra," Vin whispered. "You do it all the time at the feed store."
"That's different, that's in the day time, at a feed store, there are fork lifts, it's dangerous, it's..." He stopped and thought and knew he was wrong. "Yeah, you're right Cowboy; I do it all the time."
"Uncle Ezra asked if it was okay and I said I didn't mind," Vin added.
By now JD had calmed down, safe in his father's arms. "Troll," he suddenly stated, pointing out of the window.
All of them turned to see the paramedics lifting a stretcher into the ambulance.
"Is that him?" Buck asked rounding on Ezra.
"I believe so, I was too concerned for the boys to see what happened after he ran off, but the officer told me he fell and injured his foot in some way."
As they watched, the ambulance doors closed and it drove off. They were still watching its lights disappear down the street when the restaurant's door opened. A female EMT came in with her medical kit slung over her shoulder.
"Hello," she greeted cheerfully. "I'm Emma, and I've come to check the boys."
JD just stared at her, thumb back in his mouth. Vin clung to Chris all the tighter. "Nathan," he whispered.
"Um," Chris began, he did want Vin checked, but he didn't want to frighten him. "We have a friend who is an EMT, I think it might be better if..."
"I did try to call Mr Jackson," Ezra interjected. "But, if you remember, he and Rain have gone to Colorado Springs for the weekend, to visit with her college friend who had just moved there? Even so, I tried his cell phone, but it went directly to message."
Chris nodded his acknowledgement. "I'm sorry Cowboy, Uncle Nathan is too far away to come and help you. Can you be a brave boy for me and let the pretty lady look you over? I'll be right here all the time."
Vin didn't respond.
"What if she checks JD over first?"
Vin pulled back to look at Chris. "If he don't mind."
"JD?" Buck asked. "Can the pretty lady check you over?"
JD had been scrutinising her, then looked up at his father. "'K," he said around his thumb.
+ + + + + + +
JD's exam was swift; he was unhurt, just upset.
With that she turned to Vin. "And what about you, young man, can I check you over?"
Vin was still hesitant, but eventually he let her, though he stayed sitting on Chris' knee the whole time.
"Does it hurt anywhere?" she asked.
Vin said nothing but he looked at Ezra, who explained that he had detected some soreness to his back.
"Vin has back problems anyway," Chris explained, "Mild scoliosis."
"Okay," Emma acknowledged. "Can I see?"
Very carefully, Chris peeled off Vin's winter layers. The boy always seemed to feel the cold more than JD, so under his puffer jacket, he had fleece top, flannel check shirt and a thermal under shirt. When everything but this last layer was off, Chris gently rolled it up to reveal Vin's lower back. There was a huge red mark just to the right of the spine, in the lumber area.
"Vin, how did that happen?" Chris asked, trying not to let his mounting rage show.
"On the gear leaver, he was tryin' to get me out of the car, but I didn't let him, 'cause JD was still asleep. Then JD woke up but he was too scared to work the buckle an' he couldn't get out so I grabbed the key and I kicked him."
"The troll had hold of Vin's foot," JD added, "But he kicked him real good with the other one."
"You did?" Buck asked.
"Way to go Vin!" Buck exclaimed.
Vin looked at his father, clearly not sure how to take this. "Buck's right, sometimes you just have to fight and you did really good Cowboy, I'm proud of you."
This made Vin smile, finally.
Emma made a thorough exam of his back and kidneys, it was clearly painful but he was very brave.
"Can't find anything to suggest there is more going on than bruising and possibly some soft tissue damage. I am willing to have him transported to the hospital if you want, but it's your choice. If you choose not to go to the hospital, I'd recommend some pain and anti-inflammatory medication such as Tylenol and Ibuprofen, he can take them together. Then some ice packs, twenty minutes on every two to three hours."
"I know the drill," Chris assured. "I think we'd all like to go home as soon as possible."
"I would also advise keeping an eye on his urine out put and colour, for possible kidney damage, but I think it's unlikely." She smiled at Vin. "You, young man, are very brave."
Vin gave her a shy smile and a quiet 'thank you'.
Emma picked up her bag and turned to go.
"Da?" JD asked.
"Ain't you gonna ask for her number? She's real pretty and she don't got no ring."
"Um..." Buck spluttered helplessly.
Chris and Ezra looked fit to be tied, while Vin looked mortified and JD just confused.
"Yeah Buck, ain't ya?" Chris prompted.
Emma was trying not to laugh as she dramatically examined her left ring finger. "Well he is right, there is no ring there, not any more, and I'm not looking to put it back on anytime soon."
Buck suddenly looked less embarrassed and more interested. "Well you know neither am I, not that there has ever been one."
She grabbed a take out menu and wrote on it. "Might be fun." With that, she handed it to him and walked out.
Ezra looked at the closing door in amazement. "What just happened here, I mean." He turned to Chris. "How does he do that?" "What just happened here?" He turned to Chris. "I mean, how does he do that?"
"It's like magic, if you knew how it worked, it would spoil the show," Chris explained. "Now." He turned to back to Vin. "I need to go and speak to the policemen out there, so is it alright if Ezra takes you out to the Ram?"
+ + + + + + +
Vin sat gingerly back into the seat and let Ezra buckle him in, while Buck did the same for JD. He wished he could see what Chris was doing, but he knew there was important stuff to do. He knew all about giving statements and collecting evidence, he'd made it his job to find out, because when he grew up, he was going to be an ATF agent and a rodeo rider. He sat there watching Buck and Ezra, who were watching Chris. Finally, Buck moved away from the car, and he knew he was going to meet Chris.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was expecting Chris to look serious, after conferring with the police. He wasn't expecting him to look so grim.
"He's dead, the guy who attacked Vin, he died."
"Dead? How? I though he just hurt his ankle."
"Possibly, but then it seems he had a heart attack. They worked on him for over half an hour, but it was no good. They took him to the hospital on a machine, but the EMT told me it's just a formality, he'll be called DOA as soon as the docs do the brain activity scan. Looks like he was a heavy drug user."
"Damn it, why do people do that to themselves?"
"Desperation, depression, to forget?"
Buck looked at Chris and frowned. "He tried to hurt Vin; he would have driven off in Ez's car with JD in the back! And you're defending him?!"
"No, I'm just saying, heroin or coke or meth, what ever it was, it was his drug of choice, booz was mine. The only difference is, alcohol is legal and takes longer to kill you."
"You would never have hurt a child, no matter how drunk you were."
"Are you sure about that."
"Yes pal, I am. He had a choice, so don't go shedding any tears over that sad piece of shit."
Chris still wasn't sure. Buck had a tendency to see things in black and white, there was a lot more grey in Chris' world. "Maybe, come on, let's go home."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra had watched the conversation from beside the car. There was no way, whatever the weather, he was ever leaving the boys alone again.
"Ez, I'll walk you back to your car, fill you in." Buck offered as he approached.
By the time he was back at the car, Buck had explained everything.
"So since he's dead, and all the witness statements agree it was him, there is no case. You're free to take the car and the boys won't have to give statements."
Ezra just stood there, cold, wet, shivering.
"Ez?" Buck prompted. "You okay?"
Ezra looked up, his first instinct was to say, 'fine' but he wasn't and Buck was his friend. "I seem to be shaking," he admitted. "And I can't stop, isn't that inconvenient?"
"Inconvenient? Only you would call shock, inconvenient. You go ride with Chris, I'll follow in the Jag, you're staying with us tonight."
"I don't wish to impose."
"Ram, now, go!" Buck ordered.
+ + + + + + +
It had only been as the Ram was pulling out, that Buck remembered there was no food at home. Ezra's groceries had been taken in by the restaurant staff, so he ran back for them.
"The ice cream had started to melt, so we replaced it," the manager explained as he handed over the bags. "And we made you some fresh pizza."
"Thanks, I didn't even know there was ice cream."
The manager smiled. "We heard what the boy said, about how he fought off the guy. That is one brave, tough kid."
"Oh you have no idea," Buck told him with a smile. "In fact, they are both pretty tough, brave too."
"You must be very proud of them."
"Here, we hope you'll come back." The manger handed over a very generous collection of vouchers.
+ + + + + + +
When Buck walked in, he found all the others, in dry clothes, sitting around a roaring fire in the large brick fireplace. Vin was on the couch on his side, an ice pack propped against his back with cushions.
"Buck!" JD greeted happily. "Chris found some marshmallows, so we's toasting them."
"I can see that Little Bit. I have pizza and ice cream."
JD at least seemed to be over his ordeal, for now, night time might prove more problematic, but for now he was okay.
"What about you, Cowboy, you want some pizza?"
Vin looked up and smiled. "Is it meat feast?"
Okay make that two little guys okay for now.
"So Ez, you up for some meat feast?"
Ezra looked at his hands, they weren't shaking any longer. "It would seem so."