Disclaimer: Don't own 'em, just tryin' t' spread the obsession. Didn't create the original characters or the AU characters. Make no profit off this, at least nothing of monetary value. I mention several movies in this fic, let me just say that I lay no claim to them and leave it at that. My thanks to K. Poffenberger and S. Berry for creating this AU, and to Joy and Jeanne for their wonderful stories. I've used some of the background they've all created for this universe in this story.
Notes: Just a little comfort fic. MiniVin is sick, and Daddy Chris delivers heaps of TLC.
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in April 2012.
Chris quietly entered the room, the low hiss of the humidifier the only sound inside. Creeping across the room, faint light coming into the room around the window blind, he squatted down beside the little bunk. Reaching out, he stroked the unruly mop of loose curls peaking above the blanket. “Hey, pard.”
“Dad?” The soft drawl sounded sleepy. A pair of feverish blue eyes peered out over the blankets, shining as the little boy found his adoptive father beside him.
“Hear you're not feeling too good,” Larabee said quietly. He had been called by Gloria Potter just after noon to let him know that Vin had been sent home sick. She had taken the little boy to the doctor, who diagnosed strep throat. He couldn't help but smile into the phone as Gloria described the child's insistence at knowing exactly what he had, if it was contagious, and how long he would be sick. Vin had taken care of not only himself, but his adoptive little brother for some time before the ATF agents had found them and was still very protective of him. So far, JD hadn't shown any signs of getting ill himself.
The day had passed with a painful slowness as the impatient blond struggled to complete the day's paperwork. He knew that strep throat wasn't anything to be unduly worried about, and that Vin would more than likely be up and around in a day or two. It didn't make it any easier, though. His foster son had quickly become the focus of his world, and to think of him lying, feverish and sick, at home was almost too much for him to bear.
He stopped on the way home to pick up a few things, including ice cream, children's magazines and several brightly colored helium balloons. Ever mindful of the fact that there were two boys in the home, he made certain that there was also a bag of goodies for JD, too. Buck was out of town for a few days at a conference, so all of the parenting fell to him right now.
“Doc said I got a ‘fection in my throat,” Vin broke into the man's thoughts. “He said it's cause a somethin' called back-tear-ee-ah. Ain't sure where I got it, but he reckons it come from school. Was it somethin' I ate?”
Smiling as his son tried to make sense of the medical information, Chris said, “No, you probably got it from one of the other kids.”
“I didn't mean to.”
“Well of course you didn't.”
“I figgered I got it from the cafeteria… like that time Buck ate them bad fish when he took Miss Kerry out t' that fancy rest'rant.”
Grimacing at the memory of his friend doubled over next to the toilet as he fought off a bout of food poisoning, Larabee asked, “Have you been sick?”
Nodding, his head poking farther out of the blanket, Vin said, “I throwed up in th' bathroom at school. Mr. Yancey heard me ‘n took me down t' th' nurse. She called Miz Potter. ‘M sorry they had t' call you ‘t work. I told ‘m not t' bother y'.”
Reaching out to brush the hair out of the child's eyes, Chris asked, “Why not?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Vin said, “Jist didn't think ‘t was important.”
Gently taking the little chin in hand, the blond turned the young boy's face toward him. “You're my son now, Vin, everything is important to me when it concerns you. I'm just sorry I couldn't get home earlier. I did bring you some things that might make you feel better.”
“I'm feelin' okay,” Vin fibbed. One look at the little boy was enough to know that he was anything but okay.
“Well, you're gonna be staying in bed for another day or two.”
“Awww, but Dad – “
“No arguments, Cowboy,” Larabee said, putting a stop to the child's pleas before they began. “Even when you're feeling really better you've got to take it easy.”
The little boy sighed dramatically, blue eyes pleading with his father not to make him stay in bed. As young as he was, the child had been ill and injured far too many times. The concept of allowing himself the luxury of staying in bed and being waited on was still foreign to him, and he wasn't at all comfortable with it.
Not unaware of the boy's restless nature, Chris said, “Look. I got tomorrow off from AD Travis, and then it's the weekend. Mrs. Potter's going to take JD home with her this evening, so it'll just be me and you until Sunday night. How does that sound?”
The child was torn by what his adoptive father was proposing. While he wasn't certain he liked the idea of JD being sent away, the idea of having Chris to himself for the weekend was very tempting.
Reading the indecisiveness in the tiny, flushed face, the blond continued, “JD can't come around you right now, anyway, because you're contagious. He's pretty excited about getting to spend the weekend with Gloria and the kids, and I promised him you'd call him every night before you both went to sleep. Would that make it better?”
Nodding and yawning at the same time, the boy said, “'Spect so.”
Chris noticed that Vin was rubbing at his throat. “Does it hurt?”
“A little,” the child conceded reluctantly.
“I'll be right back.” Larabee padded from the room, returning a minute later with a wet, warm cloth. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he tenderly laid it over the boy's swollen throat. “That should help in a few minutes.”
They were quiet then, the blond agent sitting at his son's side. Tenderly brushing his fingers through the tangled, dark blond curls, Chris watched as the big blue eyes fluttered, finally sliding closed as sleep overtook him. He continued stroking the child's hair, then realized that he was humming. With a wistful smile, he realized it was the same song he had hummed as he sat at Adam's bedside when that son had been ill.
A soft rap at the door caught Larabee's attention before he could lose himself in his memories. Turning, he saw Gloria Potter standing in the doorway. “JD ready to go?”
With a wide grin, the woman said, “Yeah. He's a little upset that Vin can't go, but so far he's come up with about two dozen ‘suggestions' of things to do while he's with us. He also gave me a long list of ‘supplies' he needs from his room.”
Laughing quietly, the agent said, “Come on in. Vin's asleep, so I'll go say bye to him… if I can get a word in edgewise.”
“Good luck,” the widow whispered as the blond slipped out of the room.
Chris walked into the den to find JD hanging upside down over the edge of the couch, watching the Cartoon Network. Thick black hair swung gently as his head bobbed in time to raucous electronic music, while his little stocking feet banged in time against the back of the couch.
“Hey, Little Bit, what'cha watchin'?”
“Hey, Chris! I'm watchin' Scooby Doo. They're in a ‘musement park. Is Vin feelin' better? Can I go see ‘im ‘fore I leave? Can he talk okay? Miz Potter said I can sleep in my sleepin' bag in her livin' room if I wanna. I aksed ‘er if she'd take me t' go t' th' airport t' pick up Buck Sunday, is that okay with you? I aksed her if we could go skatin', I'm gettin' real good at skatin'. ‘Member when you ‘n Buck ‘n me ‘n Vin went skatin' ‘n Buck falled on his butt ‘cos he was busy watchin' that lady with them tight purple pants on? ‘N then you told Buck – “
“JD, breathe,” Larabee said with a chuckle. “I just wanted to check in with you and see if you're okay about leaving for the weekend.”
His tiny face scrunching in a frown, the tot said, “I wish Vin could come too, but Miz Potter said he's ‘tagious an' has t' stay in bed. What's ‘tagious, Chris?”
“Means if you're around him you'll get sick, too.”
Shaking his head, the blond said, “Anyone.”
“Oh, well I wouldn't want Miz Potter or David or Katie or Buck or – “
“Anyone,” Larabee tried to end the list.
“Or th' kids at school, or – “
“JD, are you ready to go?”
Looking gratefully at the older woman, Chris said, “Ready and willing I do believe.”
JD flipped backward off the couch, landing on his hands and knees as he searched beneath the couch to find his shoes. Pulling out a pair of sneakers that lit up when the wearer walked, he quickly stuffed his feet in them, yanked the shoes off, and shoved his feet into the correct shoes the second time. That accomplished he bounced to his feet and leapt into the agent's waiting arms. Chris gathered him into a hug as he crawled along the man's legs, and he threw his chubby little arms around the big man's neck. Finally he climbed back down, danced across the room, and reached up to take Gloria's hand.
“Can I say bye to Vin?”
“Oh, honey, he's asleep,” Mrs. Potter informed him.
“Oh,” It was clear that the little boy was disappointed, but he recovered quickly. “Well, ‘kay. I'll talk to ‘im later.”
“I'll have him call you to say good-night, if he's awake,” Chris promised. He walked to the front door, watching as his younger ward skipped down the front walk beside their housekeeper. He kept the door open, watching as the old station wagon left the drive, waving even when he knew that JD wasn't watching any longer. Closing the door, he shook his head at the feeling of loss that overcame him. Reminding himself that it was only for the weekend, he locked the door and headed back down the hall toward the boys room.
Vin's eyes blinked open, and he yawned as he looked around the dimly lit room. His eyes settled on half a dozen Mylar balloons, each with a different cartoon character smiling down at him, tied to the end of his bed. Grinning, he bounced up from the mattress to get a closer look… and promptly vomited down the front of his tee shirt and over the blankets.
“Oh… no,” the child groaned.
“Looks like you moved a little quicker than you should have,” Chris said gently as he entered the room. He strode across to where the little boy sat looking miserable, nauseated, and a little frightened. Stroking a hand through the mop of curls, Larabee lifted the child up out of the soiled bedding and carried him to the bathroom. Setting him on the vanity, he gave him a drink, carefully pulled the stained clothing off and washed the shivering child off. Wrapping him in a thick towel, he carried Vin back to the bedroom, settling him on JD's bed while he changed the bedding. That accomplished, he helped his son into clean pajamas and put him back to bed. Looking down, he saw the wide eyes filled with tears. “What's wrong? Are you feeling sick again?”
Shaking his head, the sick child found himself embarrassed as he began to sob. “I'm… I'm sorry, Dad!”
Frowning in confusion, the agent gathered the crying child into his arms. “Sorry for what buddy?”
“Make… makin'… makin' a mess!”
Larabee couldn't help but smile as he tenderly rubbed the narrow little back as he trembled tearfully. “You didn't make a mess on purpose.”
“B-b-but I puked all over, ‘n you had… had… had t' clean ‘t up!”
“Hey, that's what dads do when their kids get sick.”
“Did y'… have.. have t' do ‘t fer… Ad – Adam?”
With a catch in his voice, Larabee said softly, “Yeah, a time or two.”
Realizing from the man's tone of voice that he had brought up memories, Vin's tears began anew and he began to hiccup. “Oh, Dad, I'm… I'm sorry!”
Afraid to say anything else, for fear of only making things worse, Chris sighed. Pulling the blanket from the bed, he wrapped the weeping child snuggly and carried him into the great room. There he settled into the big rocking chair with Vin in his lap and began to rock slowly. Tucking the tousled head beneath his chin, Chris held the little boy close and continued rocking. The two of them simply drew comfort from being together. After a while Larabee felt the little body relax, and continued rocking for a while longer before taking the sleeping child back to bed.
Friday morning dawned to the sound of a ringing phone. Scrubbing his hand over his face, Chris reached for the bedside table, barely catching himself before he fell out of bed. Only then did he realize that he has slept in JD's bed the night before, wanting to stay close in case Vin needed him during the night. Righting himself, he shuffled through the house and caught the phone on the fifth ring.
“Mornin' Chris! It's me,” piped a little voice. “Miz Potter said I could call this mornin' since Vin never called me last night. Is he awake? Is he feelin' better? Is he still ‘tagious? I slept in the livin' room last night, it was almost like campin' out. Can I talk t' Vin now?”
With a chuckle, the man said, “good morning JD. Sorry we didn't call you last night, Vin didn't really wake up much. He's still sleeping I think, and yeah, he's still contagious. I'll go see if he's awake.”
Turning, the agent saw Vin standing in the doorway, rubbing the sleep from his eyes with one hand while he clutched his stuffed cat with the other. “Good morning. It's JD.”
Vin smiled, shuffled across the room, and took the phone. He curled up on the end of the couch as Larabee moved to the kitchen.
Chris listened to the boys' conversation as he made breakfast for his son and himself. He couldn't help but laugh softly as he listened to Vin's end of the conversation. It consisted primarily of “yep” and “nope” with an occasional giggle over something his little brother said. By the time he finished making oatmeal for Vin and an omelet for himself, the little boy was standing in the doorway, watching him. “Hey, Pard, breakfast is ready. You want to eat in bed, or on the couch?”
“Couch,” Vin said softly. He led the way back into the den, curling up on one end of the couch once more.
Chris set the tray on the coffee table and wrapped an afghan around the tiny boy, then settled the tray over his lap. Sitting at the other end of the long seat, he turned the TV on, found it still on the Cartoon Network, and began eating his own breakfast.
By the time he had forced half the oatmeal down, Vin knew he was in trouble. He didn't want to hurt his adopted father's feelings, but the oatmeal felt like sandpaper when he swallowed. Even alternating the cereal with swallows of milk didn't help. Then big hands lifted the tray from his lap. He blinked upward through pain-teared eyes to see Chris looking down at him with a frown. His first instinct, honed by too many memories of being punished, was to get away. Then he saw the frown soften and the big man's eyes looked at him with the compassion he was only beginning to understand.
“What's wrong, pard?”
“Hurts to eat,” he managed to explain.
Nodding, Larabee said, “Thought you looked like you were having a little trouble. How about if I get you something to drink that won't hurt your throat? Your Uncle Nathan told me what tea to get to help make the pain go away, and I'll put some honey in it. Does that sound better?”
Beaming from ear to ear, the little boy nodded. Shyly he whispered, “Thanks.”
Patting one flushed cheek, Larabee took away the tray and quickly brewed up some of the herbal tea Nathan had recommended. Returning with it to the den, he found Vin curled up with his stuffed cat, watching the television through drooping eyelids. Rousing the boy, the blond coaxed him to drink the warm liquid, then carried a sleeping seven year old back to bed a short time later.
Vin slept most of the day, fever and pain making him miserable when he was awake. Chris doted on the little boy, taking his moods in stride. When he was grouchy, Larabee listened patiently to him complain about how unfair it was that he be made to stay in bed all day. When he cried as the pain grew overwhelming and the fever and aches consumed his tiny body, Chris wrapped him up snugly and rocked him.
When his mind was clear enough to think, the little boy found himself amazed at what was happening. Far too often he had found only pain and misery at the hands of adults. Even after six months in his foster father's care, he found it hard to understand that this adult brought only comfort and security to his world. Finally, nestled in Chris arms while they rocked and watched Monsters, Inc, he put his thoughts into words. They tumbled out in a soft drawl, as he attempted to make sense of things.
“Y' don't never hurt me… even when I do dumb things that I shouldn't do. Y' scold me, ‘n y' give me cons'quences, but y' don't hurt me. I figgered my mama ‘s th' onliest one that figgered I's worth a lick, but y' always make me feel like I'm jist ‘s good ‘s th' other boys. Y' don't never make me feel dumb ‘r nothin', an' y' even listen to me when I talk ‘bout things. Even when yer real busy, y' listen t' me.
“Don't reckon I'll ever be able t' understand why y' ‘cided t' let me live here, or call y' Dad, but I'm real glad y‘ did. An' I know I cain't never take Adam's place, but I'll always try m' best t' make it so y' ain't never sorry y' let me be yer son.”
Chris felt the hot sting of tears, and swallowed around the lump in his throat at the boy's words. Wise beyond his years, Vin had innocently filled his heart with a joy he had thought long gone. Pulling the child closer and wrapping his arms around him, he said in an emotion-roughened voice, “I could never feel sorry about making you my son. And, even if you weren't born to me, you're every bit as much my son as Adam was… and is. As for choosing you, I like to think that we chose one another, and I can't tell you how proud I am, every day, when I think of the fact that you decided to let me be your Dad. Maybe I won't always be happy with the things you do, but I'll never intentionally hurt you.
“You're not dumb, Vin, and you never have been. It makes me really sad, and more than a little angry, that people have convinced you that you are. As far as you being as good as other kids… let me tell you this, pard, you're at least as good as other kids, and better than most. I'll try never to be too busy for you, and I certainly won't ever be sorry you came to live with me. I love you, cowboy, and that's forever.”
With a sigh, Vin snuggled closer to the broad chest, one tiny hand grasping at the man's shirt front. As his eyes drifted closed once more, he whispered, “I love y' f'rever, too, Dad.”
Saturday morning dawned with an ominous rumble. Remembering where he was this time, Chris unfolded his frame from the small bed, stretching to ease the kinks from sleeping in JD's bed. Scrubbing a hand across his face, he moved to the window, looking outside to see heavy black clouds crowding the sky. At least Vin wouldn't complain about having to stay inside. Much, anyway.
Turning, he checked to see if the little boy was awake. Seeing movement beneath the blankets, he padded back across the room, to see that Vin was coming awake. And scratching. A fine, red, rash covered the boys face and neck and, he suspected by the frantic digging, the rest of his body, too. The infection had spread to include scarlet fever. Thankfully, his ever vigilant agent/EMT friend had prepared him for this.
“Vin, stop scratching.”
“Cain't… it itches,” he replied in a frustrated tone.
“I know,” Chris answered, taking both little hands in one of his, “but you can't scratch it. It'll just make it worse.”
“But it itches!” The little boy was growing angry, tugging unsuccessfully at the big hand holding his.
Keeping hold of the twitching hands, Larabee lifted his son out of bed and carried him into the bathroom. Depositing Vin beside the toilet, he ran a warm tub of water, filling it with the herbal bath oil Jackson had suggested. As the ill child striped down, he winced at the sight of the deep red rash covering most of the lean frame. Guiding the still grumbling boy into the tub, he watched as the child's face slowly relaxed, relief spreading across his ruby-shaded features. Soaking a wash cloth in the herbal water, he patted the boy's cheeks and forehead, bringing relief to that part of his ravaged body as well.
Letting his son soak until the water cooled, the blond finally coaxed him out, stood him on the toilet seat lid, and patted him dry. Then he began coating Vin with medicated lotion, softening the angry red to a less painful looking pink. He couldn't hide his smile when the seven year old yelped, and protested his attentions around his ‘private parts'.
Helping Vin into cotton pajama bottoms, socks, and a long sleeve tee-shirt, Chris nodded as he saw that most of the rash-covered body was out of harms way. To finish the precautions, he settled the little boy on the vanity and trimmed his nails as close as possible.
“It's time for your ‘bubblegum' medicine,” the blond announced when he finished with the child's nails.
“Ah, Dad, do I gotta?”
“Yeah, you ‘gotta',” the big man confirmed.
“But, I feel okay, why do I gotta take med'cine?”
“Because, you have to take it to help your throat get better and you fever go away.”
“Y' mean I won't never stop feelin' this way if I don't take that stuff?”
“Well, eventually you'll get over it, but it'll take more time. You don't want to have to stay in the house, and not have JD come home for an even longer time do you?”
Vin contemplated this, thinking long and hard as to whether or not having his adopted sibling home again was worth taking the dreaded medicine. But, finally, he knew what he had to do. “No. Reckon I'll take the durn stuff.”
Smiling at the little boy's tone of resignation, Larabee measured out the dosage of Amoxicillin and fed it to him. Watching the sour expression, he only shook his head, knowing that the liquid antibiotic had been manufactured to taste fairly close to bubblegum.
Looking into the elfin face, he said, “I know, you don't like being fussed over. Things will be back to normal in a few days, I promise. Right now, how about we go get something to eat? You hungry?”
“Throat hurts too much,” Vin grimaced.
Nodding, Larabee said, “well, how about some pudding, or Jell-o?”
“Fer breakfast?!” He had been shocked when he'd been allowed ice cream and applesauce for dinner the night before. Pudding or Jell-o for breakfast was beyond belief. He studied the man before him, trying to decide if he'd gone crazy.
With a chuckle at the expression on the child's face, Chris said only, “Yep, for breakfast.” Lifting Vin up, he couldn't help but sigh contentedly as the boy's thin arms and legs wrapped around his neck and waist. Hugging him, the big man strode to the kitchen.
The morning passed uneventfully, a long call from JD and another from Buck punctuating cartoons, story time, and coloring. After lunch, Chris settled a weary Vin on the couch, covering him up and giving him the remote before going outside to check on the horses. The storms had passed, but the day was still gray and overcast.
Returning to the den half an hour later, Chris was greeted by the sounds of gunfire. Checking the big television, he frowned at the sight of Arnold Swartzenegger chasing after Linda Hamilton and… what was that guy's name? Frown deepening, he strode over and picked up the remote. Clicking the ‘off' button, he stared down at his son. Vin's eyes widened and then closed as he awaited the lecture they both knew was coming.
“I thought we'd already gone over this. You're not to watch anything like Terminator.”
“But, I's jist… I wanted t',” he heaved a sigh, knowing he didn't have an argument for his disobedience. Still, he had to try. “I figgered since JD ain't here, I
“JD or not, you're not to be watching shows like this. They're for older kids and adults, not little guys. I know you've seen scary things Vin, but watching this stuff on TV has given you nightmares before, and I'd rather you not have them again. Now, I'm going to leave the TV off until 3:00. You can read, or color until then.” Depositing the remote on top of the big screen TV, he moved to the far end of the great room, switching on his computer. He needed to check on his email and try and get a little work done.
Going to his email first, he growled as he began to delete a series of ‘forwards' from someone with the dubious email address “KowboyzRule”. He hated to lecture Vin about watching TV, especially in light of the boy's past. But it had happened before, after the two boys had come across a copy of Aliens and watched twenty minutes of Sigorney Weaver and… what was that guy's name? – with the sound off – before Buck had found them. Both boys had been screaming banshees by midnight, the make-believe violence of the movie mixing with the horrors they had experienced while living on the streets. The next morning, every movie above a PG rating was locked away, and the boys instructed that they weren't to watch anything without prior approval.
Deleting more of the nonsense sent by the mysterious “Kowboyz” fan, Chris realized that he was being observed. Looking toward the end of the desk, he found Vin standing, chin propped on crossed arms leaning on the desk, watching him.
“You need something cowboy?”
Larabee nodded, and returned to his email. Delete. Delete. Delete. Again he felt a pair of eyes watching him. “Are you itchy?”
Frowning as he looked up from the screen, he said, “Then what can I do for you?”
Shrugging, Vin said, “'M bored.”
“Ah. You looked at all your magazines?”
Leaning back and crossing his arms loosely across his chest, Larabee feigned a puzzled look. “Well then, what would you like to do next?”
A smile spreading across his elfin face, Vin crowed, “Make a fort!”
With a laugh, the blond powered down his computer, knowing his email and paper work would have to wait until the child went to bed.
Using pillows, blankets and chairs, they made a ‘fort' beneath the dining room table. Chris crawled beneath the homemade hiding place, chuckling as Vin drug half his store of toys inside with them. They spent hours playing with action figures and cars, Larabee seeing stars once or twice when, forgetting the low ceiling, he raised up only to bang his head against the underside of the table.
He watched the little boy, seemingly content to make believe they were tucked away inside a castle, or spaceship. He wondered at how his young imagination had allowed him to reclaim that part of his childhood that had nearly been destroyed by the ugliness of life on the street. He wondered, too, if Vin recognized how much their little ‘fort' resembled the hiding place of boxes and crates they had found the boys in.
Shaking himself from his morbid thoughts, the ATF agent resumed his role as ‘Wizard', taking the orders of ‘King Vin' in changing the bad guys into toads.
As evening drew near, Chris watched his little boy begin to wilt, the fever still hanging on. He had let him soak in tubs of medicated water three more times during the afternoon, spreading the lotion over the tiny body each time. The fort was finally abandoned, and one of it's quilted walls used to wrap Vin up as his father settled him on the end of the couch to watch a movie. Dinner was soup and pudding, while they watched Toy Story, followed by Toy Story II. Watching to see the little boy beginning to drift off, Larabee debated as to whether he should remind the child of their promise to call JD in the evening. Before he could make a decision, the seven year old sat bolt upright, paling as the lingering nausea threatened to deposit his dinner on the blanket.
Waiting until the queasy feeling began to disappear, Vin yelped, “JD!”
The blond smiled, he should have known that, now that he was feeling better, the little boy would begin to take up his duties as ‘big brother' once more. Shaking his head, he retrieved the cordless and speed-dialed the Potter home. Greeting Gloria, he turned the phone over to an impatient Vin.
“Hey, JD!” The pale face brightened as his adoptive brother's voice rang out from the phone. He listened for several minutes, his end of the conversation once more relegated to “yep” and “nope”. Finally he managed an entire sentence.
“Me ‘n Dad built a fort, ‘n we played in ‘t all day jist ‘bout.” He frowned into the phone as he listened to something the talkative tyke on the other end rattled. Then, “nuh-uh, it weren't neither better! This ‘n was th' best fort ever. Ever!”
Chris turned an attentive ear as the argument continued at the other end of the phone. As Vin was given the opportunity to speak again, there were tears of frustration in his wide blue eyes.
“Daggonit JD! Y' cain't say that, ‘cos y' weren't here! I'm tellin' y', it was th' best fort ever!”
Deciding it was time to intervene, the blond stepped up before the couch. Motioning to his son, he said, “Vin, let me talk to him for a minute.”
“Yer in trouble now, JD!” The child thrust the handset toward his father then folded his arms across his heaving chest angrily. His bottom lip protruded ominously as he glared into space.
Suppressing a smile as his foster son affected a look of childish indignation, Larabee spoke into the phone. “JD?”
Heart-broken sobs came to the blond through the earpiece. Wonderful. Things were certainly getting back to normal. Trying unsuccessfully to catch the little boy's attention several times, he finally spoke into the mouthpiece calmly. “JD, it's okay. I'm not angry, but you two don't need to get into an argument tonight. Now, can you ask Mrs. Potter to come to the phone?”
Flinching as the phone was dropped and he heard the sobbing boy crying out for the older woman, he waited until he heard Gloria's voice. Greeting her quickly, he explained the problem so that she could console the weeping child. Bidding her good night, the agent hung up, turning back to the couch. He saw that Vin was crying silently. With a sigh, he said, “It'll be better tomorrow. JD and Buck will be home tomorrow evening, and we'll have a welcome home party. How does that sound?”
The little boy nodded, then gulped out, “'Kay. I didn't mean t' yell at ‘m, but he wouldn't listen. He tried t' say we didn't make th' best fort inna world.”
Lifting the sleepy, unhappy child from the couch, Chris cradled him in his arms and headed for bed. Seeming to ponder the dilemma for a few seconds, he finally said, “Well, I guess JD just doesn't know, ‘cause he wasn't here to see it. If he'd been here, I reckon he would have known it was the best fort in the world. But, you and I know. Right?”
Smiling sleepily, the seven year old nodded. “Yep.”
He should have spent another night in JD's bed, the half-asleep man lamented as he stumbled through the house from his bedroom to where a siren wail disguised in his son's voice rang through the house. Entering the boys' bedroom, he saw Vin folded into a tight little ball on the farthest corner of his bed. The child's arms were wrapped around both himself and his stuffed cat, and he was staring wide eyed into the semi-darkness.
“Vin?” Chris kept his voice low and calm, knowing just how traumatic the emotionally scared boy's nightmares could be. “Vin, it's me. What's wrong, cowboy?”
Still screaming, the seven year old slowly seemed to come to, his eyes tracking across the room until he focused on his father's face. His cries slowed to sobbing whimpers, and he held out his arms.
Scooping the little body up, Chris sat on the edge of the bed, holding the trembling body against him. Stroking the narrow back he rocked slowly, waiting until the child finally calmed. When he decided that Vin was calm enough, he asked again, “What's wrong?”
Sniffling and wiping his sleeve across a runny nose, the little boy stammered, “It was… it was in here. I s-seen it.”
“What was in here?”
“A… a mons… monster!”
“Ahh. And what did this monster look like?”
Nodding, he repeated, “Big.”
“Hairy? What color hair?”
“Ah. Like Sully?” He mentioned the main character in their newest video, Monsters, Inc.
“Did he look like Sully?”
A vigorous shake of the head and, “No… no, this ‘n was real scary… not like Sully.”
“Okay, blue fur, but not like Sully. What else?”
“And… and a mean face.”
“A mean face. Mean how?”
Thinking for a minute, the little boy lifted his face and tried to imitate the creature his unconscious had created.
Feigning a shiver, Chris said, “Wow, no wonder you got scared. What was he doing?”
Leaning back against the broad chest, Vin said, “Chasin' me.”
“Was he trying to hurt you?”
Nodding, the little boy said, “He wanted t' take me apart. Said I's a toy. He chased me int' a fort, but JD was tearin' it down. I started runnin', but he was on a motorcycle.”
With a sigh, the agent realized that the sick child had managed to combine all of the movies they had watched, throwing in the Terminator and the argument with his brother for good measure. “Well, he's not here now, is he?”
Giving his father a look that told Chris he'd just said something stupid, the boy said, “course not. ‘S only a dream, Dad.”
“Silly me, of course it was. Are you gonna be all right now?”
Eyeing the bed suspiciously, the little boy said, “I reckon.”
Chris settled him back beneath the blankets, not moving from the mattress. He stayed there, a guard against further monster attacks. Stroking the tangled mass of curls, he watched as Vin slowly settled back into an uneasy sleep. With a yawn, he looked across to the other bed. Heaving a sigh, he rubbed his back, and made a decision. One more night in the half size bed wouldn't kill him.
Larabee woke with a groan, slowly stretching out of the narrow bed. Managing to get to his feet, he shoved his fists into the small of his back and leaned backwards, trying to ease the ache. Then he rolled his head, listening to the pops and grimacing as he tried to get his body back into some semblance of normal. Making a mental note to call his chiropractor when he got to work, he shuffled to the window and stared out. Sunday had dawned with a clear blue sky and the promise that things were going to be looking up.
Turning to the other bed in the room, he saw that Vin was gone. Frowning, he made a quick check, finding the little boy all ready soaking in the tub. The smell of the herbal bath oil was almost overpowering, and he saw that his son was having trouble keeping his balance in the heavily oiled tub. Suppressing a smile, he entered the room after knocking.
“Having a little trouble there pal?”
Turning quickly, Vin slipped beneath the water, bobbing back up with a growl and a splutter. “gosh darn it,” he complained as Chris settled beside the tub and held him above the water line.
“I think you put a little too much oil in the tub,” the blond said with a compassionate smile. “Why don't we let some of the water out and see if we can even things out a little?”
Frowning, the little boy said, “nah, ‘m tired a bein' in here, anyway.”
“Okay, want a hand out?”
With a sigh, the child said, “think I need ‘t.”
Grabbing up a towel, the boy's adopted father lifted him up, wrapping the slippery child up before depositing him on the bathmat. “Can you handle it from here?”
With an exasperated expression, Vin said, “yeah.”
“Okay then, I'll clean the tub while you do, then I'll put some more of the ‘pink stuff' on you.”
“Ah, man, do I gotta?”
“You wanna be itchy all day?”
“No, but…man! That stuff makes me all… all… PINK!”
Unable to hold back any longer, Chris laughed. “Well, sorry, they don't have it in blue.”
“Dunno why,” Vin growled under his breath as he tried to rub his oil-coated from dry. Finally, looking down at his gummy little chest with flecks of blue from the towel clinging to him, he groaned softly, “Dad?”
Twenty minutes later, a clean and pink-speckled Vin skipped down the hall behind his father. They headed for the kitchen, where Chris fixed Vin his first real meal since getting sick. They sat at the kitchen table, the little boy managing to eat over half of his pancakes and several slices of bacon.
After breakfast, they retrieved the Sunday paper from the porch, and retreated to the den. While Vin lay on his belly on the floor looking over the comics, Chris perused the financial and sports sections as he lounged on the couch, feet propped up on the coffee table. ESPN provided background noise for them, the only other sound the soft rustle of the paper.
At mid morning, Larabee allowed the still recuperating child to go with him to take care of the horses. Vin giggled giddily as he skipped ahead of the blond, ecstatic at being allowed outside. While Chris fed, watered and brushed down the big black horses, he kept an eye on Vin. The little boy seemed all right as he explored the loft above, but he didn't want him overdoing.
Larabee turned the animals out into the corral and cleaned the stalls. Finishing up, father called to son, and the two of them returned to the house. On the trip back, the little boy's feet seemed heavier, leading him to scuff slowly along behind the big man.
“You know, Buck and JD are gonna be home in about 5 hours or so. We need to make certain the house is all cleaned, then we've got dinner to make. What if I take care of that, while you make the decorations.”
“Dec'rations?” Vin's head popped up, a glint shining in his big blue eyes.
“Well, sure. We can't very well have a welcome home party without decorations, now can we?”
“Reckon not!” Vin's face lit up, his step lightened, and he hurried to catch up with his father. Slipping one small hand inside the big one he reached for, he said, “so what kind ‘a dec'rations do y' think we ought ‘a make?”
Having straightened the house, airing out the boys' room and changing the linen on both little beds, Chris Larabee spent the afternoon in the kitchen, preparing a feast for the arrival of the other two members of their household. Ingredients were spread along every counter surface as well as the table as he worked to make favorites for both fathers and sons.
Beanie-weinies bubbled merrily in one kettle, filling the kitchen with the aroma of catsup and onions. He checked to make certain there were potato chips, since both boys had discovered how crushed up chips enhanced the flavor of their favorite meal. Two bags, one with ridges and one without, he was safe.
Turning toward the voice, he found Vin standing in the doorway, his arms loaded down with multi-colored construction paper. “Cheese?”
His tousled head nodding sagely, the little boy explained, “'Merican.”
“Yep. For the beanie-weinies. The torn up kind.”
Finally deciphering the child's comments, Larabee said, “Shredded American cheese for the beanie-weinies.”
“Yep. ‘S good that way.”
“Got ‘cha,” he rummaged through the refrigerator, finally retrieving a package of shredded cheese, he held it up for his son to approve. “Cheese.”
Nodding, Vin said, “we got tape?”
Struggling to follow the child's rambling train of thought, he said, “yeah, on my desk. What do you need it for?”
“Mak'n a big sign.” He held up the disheveled stack of paper as proof.
Grinning, Chris said, “okay, just don't stick it on anything but the paper.”
Rolling his eyes, the little boy said, “jees, Dad, I ain't JD!”
Staring after the tiny, retreating figure, Larabee paled as he wondered just what Vin meant by that. Finally deciding that, if he hadn't found any mysterious masses of cellophane tape by now, he was probably safe, the man returned to his work.
Ribs and potato wedges were soon in the oven. Mixed vegetables joined the beanie-weinies on top of the stove. Brownies were iced and waiting to be consumed, and applesauce was chilling in the refrigerator. Although his son was feeling a lot better, he knew he needed some soft foods to substitute when the usual fare became too difficult to swallow.
A short time later, as the blond was putting iced tea and lemonade in the refrigerator, he heard the front door bang open. Putting the pitchers down, he reached the kitchen door just as a dark-haired whirlwind hurdled down the hallway and wrapped itself around his legs. Grabbing the doorframe to keep his balance, Chris looked down, chuckling as he said, “hey there, JD.”
“Chris! I'm glad Vin ain't ‘tagious no more so I can come home! I liked bein' at Miz. Potter's, but David wouldn't share ‘is toys with me, an' Katie yelled at me when I went int' her room. I don't wanna sleep inna sleepin' bag no more, I miss sleepin' in my bed and I miss sleepin' in th' same room wif Vin an' I'm glad t' be home. Can I watch cartoons? David ‘n Katie don' like cartoons an' I didn't get t' watch Scooby Doo a'tall. Where's Vin, Chris? Buck's comin', he's sayin' ‘bye t' Kerry. She meeted us at th' airport, too, cos she wanted t' s'prise Buck, so Miz. Potter went home ‘n Kerry brung us home. Is Vin better? C'n I see ‘im? I'm hungry, Chris, we got anythin' t' eat?”
Shaking his head and laughing at the warp speed dialogue, Larabee almost missed the pause. Quickly he said, “Vin's in the den, Little Bit. Why don't you go say hi, and as soon as Buck comes in we'll have dinner.”
“I'm hungry, so I'll git ‘m!” The tiny tot squealed as he sped back down the hall, almost to the front door before Larabee even registered his departure.
“Oh, Lord,” the blond groaned as he ran after the small child, praying that Buck's ‘good bye' hadn't required the removal of any clothing. “JD!”
The little brunet skidded to a stop, barely catching himself before he banged into the door, turned at the sound of his name. “Yeah?”
Reaching down and gathering up the child, Chris looked out the window to see what activity was taking place in his front yard. Sighing gratefully, he saw the big ladies man standing outside the car door, smiling as he spoke to the blond beauty inside. Stepping out onto the broad porch, he called out, “hey, stud, we've got a hungry JD on our hands, we need to eat. Kerry, would you like to join us?”
The pretty young woman stuck her head out of the window and, in a faint British accent, she said, “thanks Chris, but I've got to go. Early morning tomorrow. Thanks, though.”
Nodding, the agent said, “maybe next time.”
Saying good-bye to the woman, Buck picked up both his and JD's bags, and jogged toward the porch. Joining his long-time friend, the trio re-entered the house. Walking down the hallway, they were greeted by Vin. The older of their two charges had smudges of marker across his face and hands, tape and bits of yarn were dangling from his shirt and pants, all of it underscored by the pink tint of the lotion spread across his rash. He was smiling.
Reaching down to scoop the little boy up, Buck said, “Hey junior, you look like you've been busy!”
“Come see,” Vin giggled excitedly as he wrapped his arms around the big man's neck in a hug. “In th' den!”
“All righty then,” Wilmington strode toward the den, after draping the child across his broad shoulder. Inside, the two men stopped, JD giggling as they all beheld Vin's handiwork. The artist himself levered himself upward from the waist, staring backwards over his shoulder as all four of them took in the sight.
Welcome Home Buck and JD!
The banner was made of construction paper, the colors in a random pattern. Each 9x12 sheet contained one letter, each meticulously drawn by the older boy. He had spent over two hours making the letters, coming to Chris each time he needed to know the next letter. The blond had patiently guided him through the spelling, knowing that the child's learning disabilities made him hesitant to trust his own abilities to accomplish the task alone.
Each piece of construction paper had been taped together, several pieces of cellophane tape stuck along the joined edges. The end sheets had been laced with yarn, the yarn suspending the banner over the couch. The blond had held his son up, helping him to maneuver the banner high enough that he and Buck could manage to get around it.
“Wow!” JD exclaimed as he slowly deciphered his older brother's handiwork. “Did'ja make that all by yourself, Vin?”
“Dad helped,” the honest child replied.
“I was just an advisor,” Larabee disagreed. “Vin did all the hard work.”
“It's great, kiddo,” Buck said, with a slight hitch in his voice. Only his old friend noticed it, or the misty look in the dark blue eyes. Sliding the child off his shoulder and hugging him, he said, “I love it. Thanks.”
They left the decorated den and went to the dining room, where the welcome home feast was spread out over the big oak table. JD giggled as he beheld the beanie-weinies and chips, applesauce and brownies. Buck's mouth began to water as he took in the ribs and potato wedges. Both new arrivals smiled their thanks.
The family sat down to dinner, enjoying one another's company after what seemed like a long separation. Wilmington filled his friend and boss in on the information he had gathered at the conference, hinting that he would fill him in on his after-hours activities after the little ones had gone to bed. The blond smiled and rolled his eyes, mouthing, ‘hound' to tease the man.
JD had news as well, telling Vin all about his weekend with the Potters. He regaled his older sibling with tales of going to the library and the park, eating at McDonalds, and sleeping all alone in their caregiver's living room. The boys giggled and teased one another through dessert, their argument of the evening before long forgotten.
Chris cleaned up while the two boys took baths and Buck unpacked. Interrupting the boys reunion long enough to spread the pink lotion over Vin's rash, he dissuaded JD from teasing him about the medicine's hue, then guided them into the den. Buck joined them a short time later, and the foursome settled in for a quiet evening in front of the television. All of them relaxed, content that their lives were returning to normal.
Chris Larabee groaned, rubbing absently at his sore throat. He shifted on the bed, breathing through his nose as he fought off yet another wave of nausea. Strep throat. It was unfair, it was uncomfortable, and it was undignified.
Rolling over onto his back, he sighed as he thought about the ribbing he would suffer from Buck and the others when he was cleared to return to work. But, as difficult as that would be, there was something far more difficult to face. The boys were banned from his room until the antibiotics had a chance to work. Even though Vin was on the mend, they didn't want to take a chance of his being infected again or carry it to JD. So far the youngest boy had escaped contagion, and they wanted to keep it that way.
The blond caught the faint sound of paper rustling, followed by a short rap on his closed bedroom door. Rolling cautiously from the bed, he looked to see slightly crumpled papers lying just inside the room. Shuffling across to the door, he carefully bent to retrieve the papers. Carrying them back to his bed, he climbed back under the covers and switched on the bedside lamp.
He smiled at the crude drawings covering the papers, people and horses, trees and rainbows, trucks and airplanes. He knew the work of his two adopted sons well enough to identify the artist of each work. But, it was the carefully lettered message on the last picture that brought a tear to his eye:
Dear Dad. I'm sorry I made you sick. I love you lots.
And that's forever. Vin
Brushing the tears that fell down his flushed face, the hard-nosed, no-nonsense ATF agent lay back on the bed, smiling at the message sent him from the son of his heart. Despite the fever, nausea, aches and sore throat, the day suddenly seemed bright and carefree.
And he knew he'd carry that feeling in his heart. Forever.
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