Magnificent Seven Seven Brothers AU


by Ami-chan

Warnings: Slash relationships, mentions of child abuse.

Chapter One

He wanted to die, to crawl under the courtroom's table and just disappear into the floor, never to be seen again. It was never that simple, though, and he'd been here before – in this courtroom, yes, but also in various other juvenile courts over the years.

"We're here in case number – "

He knew the drill and could probably recite the last ten drawn-out speeches that were supposed to motivate him to do better that the judge would say. It didn't really matter why they were there. In the end it all came down to the same thing.

" – 4350 in the matter of – "

Someone had done something stupid and he'd run again. He'd hidden and tried to get away again because no one really listened. His caseworker was beside him; she wasn't a bad lady, she was just doing her job, but she could never understand him or why he did what he did.

" – Vincent Tanner."

After the first couple of times being called "Vincent" he'd grown to tolerate it. He didn't care no more what they called him. That wasn't the point.

He tuned out the judge's words, a low hum in the back of his mind, until he heard the words, "Do you understand your rights?"

"Yes, sir," he spoke quietly. Then again, he always spoke quietly.

"Do you understand the charges against you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Would you like to admit or deny the charges at this time?"

It took an effort, but he managed to keep his head up. He wasn't too slouched in his hard, wooden seat, his shoulders hunched forward just slightly, feet firmly planted on the floor. "Admit."

"Do you understand that by admitting that you wave the right to an adjudicatory hearing?"

"Yes, sir." The judge rambled on about not being able to subpoena or cross-examine witnesses and he uttered a few more 'yes, sirs' until the judge finally ended the spiel and got to the point.

"This court finds you delinquent as charged. Vincent Tanner, you've been in my courtroom too many times in the past…" The words continued, just words that didn't touch him and then, "Vincent, I've put you on probation until you're 18, I've given you community service hours… what do you think it's going to take to make you stop running?"

That was the question, wasn't it? "Don't know, sir. Suppose some place I don't want ta run from."

"Where would that be?" Judge Walters asked.

"Don't know."

"Vincent, your mother is deceased. Your father terminated his parental rights three years ago. We heard at a past hearing that you have no other family available to take you as your grandfather has had a lot of health complications."

He nearly snorted. He would have run from his grandpap's sure as anything, mean bastard that the man was. Hell, the judge knew he'd run from him, or at least he should have that on file somewheres – one of the reasons he was first taken by the state and put into foster care. Gotten tired of being knocked around and he'd run. More or less the same thing happened when he was placed with his dad and then there was another foster home and another.

Now he was here again because he couldn't stop runnin' and there wasn't a damn thing anyone could do about it. Not even himself. Just nowhere for him anymore. And no one really wanted to take in a delinquent teen even though they's gettin' paid for it.

"What would you say if I told you that we may have found a permanent home for you?"

Vin jerked in his seat, his neck snapping up as his eyes pinched into a frown. Hell, judge wasn't talking like DYS or shit was he? That wasn't no better than prison for kids and if he was talking a group home – another one – then they'd seen how long it took for Vin to light out of there!

"We've tried permanency planning for you in the past and something always happened and you always ran, but what would you say if I told you that there was a family that wanted to adopt you?"

There wasn't any way. It was impossible, as his foster families had always told him. He was nearly fourteen, he wasn't cute or nice, he was a problem, he'd run anyway, so who would be stupid enough to want him?

His eyes narrowed further, suspiciously. "I'd ask who it was, sir."

Judge Walters eyed him for a long time. "You know a Chris Larabee?"

Vin's chin tucked down slightly in a vague nod.

"Would you have any objections to being adopted by Mr. Larabee and his partner Mr. Wilmington?"

"No, sir."

"Would you be comfortable staying with Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington at their home?"

"Yes, sir."

"Could you explain why that would be?"

Chris n' Buck had owned the ranch next to the foster home Vin had most recently occupied. Most days Vin had been at their home instead of the foster home, helping with the horses, mending fences or whatever else was needed just so he didn't have to be with the foster family. They had too many kids as it was and the babies needed more help than Vin wanted or needed. Plus Vin's personality clashed with his latest foster father as most of his past ones usually did. They thought Vin acted like "a tough guy" and that he had a chip on his shoulder and, yeah, maybe he did, but they never wanted to even attempt to understand why.

He'd known this last time, when he'd run, that he would eventually end up at Chris and Buck's and that they'd turn him over to the authorities. They were both with law enforcement, ATF agents, but it made it easier knowing it was them and that he'd made that choice. It was either that or Vin would have just starved to death – out a week and no one could find him – so he'd snuck into Chris and Buck's barn and "hid" in plain sight, in Peso's stall.

Peso was a good horse, though Chris called him "mule". The black horse with a white blaze on his head was just misunderstood and he and Vin got on real well. Peso'd been a rescue, been abused and Vin knew how that went, knew how that felt and, yeah, Vin was mule-headed too. He and Peso, they didn't trust lightly.

Chris, though, Vin trusted Chris and even Buck, though he was a bit more wary of the bigger man. Buck was easy around him, almost too easy, like walking on eggshells when Vin had seen and knew Buck was loud and boisterous but was none of those things around Vin himself. On principle Vin didn't like anyone that was too much bigger than himself, someone he didn't think he could take down in a fistfight. Buck seemed to know that and gave him space.

How to put all of that into words for the judge, though?

Vin took a breath. "I trust them. They're good people."

"The Jamison's won't be taking you back today, Vin. I'm going to continue your sentencing and see how the next few months go with Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington. They've gotten everything in order already and you have met with them before and assuming you behave yourself and don't get into any more trouble… well, we will see at your next hearing if we will be proceeding with an adoption or not."

"Yes, sir." So he wasn't going back to that foster home, back to the Jamison's. He was going to Chris and Buck's.

Vin's stomach suddenly tightened, turning again and again as it always seemed to every time he was moved somewhere new. Thought he would have been used to it by now, but obviously he wasn't. The only thing Vin could think, even though he'd wanted this before, privately dreamed about it, was "How am I going to screw this up?" Because something always went wrong and Vin was almost always the cause of it and it seemed to be only a matter of time.

"I'll take you to get your things, then I'll drop you off at Mr. Larabee's, they'll be expecting you." A smile lit the social worker's face. "So what do you think?"

"Dunno." He unfolded himself from his seat and trailed after the woman, Angie, whom he was just slightly taller than.

"You've talked about Mr. Larabee before and Mr. Wilmington, as well. Do you think you'll get along well with them?"

Vin shrugged. How could he possibly know that now? He'd never been faced with this, with this possibility and all the other "permanent" homes, well, there was always a way to break free of that, to mess it up. If there was one thing Vin Tanner could do it was find a way to screw something up that seemed perfect.

Chapter Two

It wasn't a task to get his things from the Jamison's – he didn't have much, anyway, and he'd kept his stuff packed in his duffle bag. His backpack, mostly for school, also stood packed and waiting. Vin'd known he wasn't going to stay long. He never did.

Then he was standing on the familiar porch of the Larabee-Wilmington house with his social worker, Angie, at his side. She was practically bouncing as she cheerfully greeted Chris who answered the door. Chris, however, was watching Vin as he gestured them both inside.

Buck was leaning against the front room's wide doorway as if he was waiting for them too, a wide smile on his face. "Miss Angie, pleasure to see you again. Hey there, Vin, come on in now."

The social worker stayed for about fifteen minutes, chatting and smoothing things over before she left them alone. That was usually when things fell apart. When someone started laying down rules and constraints that Vin would be honor-bound to break because that was just how he was.

Only this time it didn't happen.

"Let me show you to your room." Buck gestured down a hallway and Vin hesitated for a moment before following after.

"Dinner will be ready soon," Chris call after them and turned in what Vin assumed to be the direction of the kitchen.

He'd never been inside their home before. It was nice, clean, organized. Except for one room that they passed, which contained a few armchairs, a computer, and piles of papers and books stacked up on the two desks and stand in the room. Upon second glance there were two bookshelves in the room, as well, and they were crammed full of books and random seeming objects.

Vin jumped when he heard a low chuckle. "That's Chris's lair where he does most of his paperwork and such. Calls it organized chaos. Can't find a thing in there myself, but ol' Chris, he knows right where everything is."

Then Buck pointed further down the hall and Vin crept toward him and into the room, glancing in Buck's direction as he did so, just to make sure he knew where the man was. Experience taught him to be wary. The room was surprisingly large. There was a tall dresser stained a dark reddish color with an oval mirror on it against one wall and what appeared to be a closet with sliding doors off to the side. The bed was a double.

Most surprising was the comforter on the bed because it had to have been gotten special. It was dark red – maroon – with white lettering with the logo for the Texas A&M college football team. The two pillows on the bed also bore the same logo.

"Chris thought you'd like it. If you want anything changed around like painting the walls or something we can get to that later, all right?"

There was a small desk in the corner of the room, right in front of a window. The window was framed with maroon curtains, the same color as the comforter. "Okay."

"I'll let you put your things away." Buck drifted away, having never entered the room – his room – at all.

Vin's grip tightened on his duffle bag. He'd told Chris once, in a moment of foolishness, that he'd lived in Texas as a kid, that his mama was originally from Texas and that her favorite football team was the Texas A&M. Because of that, Vin had added, they were his favorite team, as well.

Chris had remembered.

The fluttering in his stomach grew and for a moment Vin was sure he was going to be sick, then the feeling passed. He set his duffle bag on the floor beside the bed, not wanting to wrinkle the comforter. His backpack was dropped by the desk. He opened neither.

Vin wandered out of his room again, uncertain of what to do next. He moved through the front room and peered around into what turned out to be the kitchen to find Buck with his arms encircling Chris from behind. Chris pulled from Buck's grasp when he noticed Vin standing there, but Vin only nodded at him in return. Wasn't a secret that Chris and Buck were together and Vin wasn't going to make a fuss if'n they wanted to cuddle in their own house.

"Dinner's ready." Chris nudged Buck with his hand, directing the taller man into the dining room, Vin following in their wake.

Turned out Chris was a good cook, better'n a lot that Vin had had before – wonderful in comparison to some of the soggy pre-cooked meals he'd gotten at the Denver Juvenile Hall. Or the Adams County Detention Center, or just Adams, for short. Hell, even Giliman and Mountain View.

Nothing much happened that night, but then nothing much normally did happen the first night. Except this time it didn't feel nearly as uncomfortable as it should the first time in a new place and that made Vin strangely uneasy the next morning when he realized he'd fallen into a dead, dreamless sleep instead of staying up half of the night staring at nothing. It was early yet, but Vin got up anyway and crept out of the house so as not to wake anyone else. It wasn't even 5am yet.

Peso stuck his head out of his stall, his ears flicking back and forth as Vin approached. Pony and Lady blinked sleepily at him then proceed to ignore him, as did Missy and Queen. Magic, their stud, didn't even turn his head, his eyes still closed though he was obviously not asleep. Star and Bitty, two more of their mares, seemed equally uninterested in him.

Vin got the horses their feed and some fresh water then turned them out into the pasture before he started cleaning out the stalls. He was nearly done when Vin felt eyes on his back and he was compelled to turn and look; Chris was standing in the barn's open doors just watching him. There was a flash of something that looked like fear and then it was gone. Chris had thought he'd run, if only for a moment.


Vin ducked his head in a nod. "Mornin'."

"Breakfast will be ready soon." Chris wandered further into the barn towards him. "You didn't have to do all this."

Vin shrugged. "Was up anyway." He liked to be doing something, didn't like to be idle for anything, especially when Vin was in a new place. Thinking too much tended to be a bit dangerous.

Plus, if he didn't keep busy he tended to wander. Folks usually called that "taking off" or "running away" but sometimes it wasn't. Sometimes it was just walking or just running because there was nothing else to do.

He finished up in the barn and came back into the house, silently passing through the hall to his room to get clean clothes. Vin almost paused, almost asked, but he didn't and went ahead to take a shower in one of the two bathrooms he'd noted in the home. When Vin was done he went to the kitchen's table that was smaller and cozier than the dining room's table. He wasn't rebuked for anything.

The talk was quiet and easy. Then Vin was getting up to retrieve his backpack and catch the bus. Chris held out something to him and Vin plucked the object from his hand – a key. "We won't be too long after the bus gets you back, but you'll need this."

Vin nodded. "Thanks." No one gave him a key. They didn't trust him. Vin ducked back into his room, retrieving his backpack from the floor. He walked to the end of the drive and in a few minutes the bus appeared, though not before Jamie did, one of the foster kids from the previous home he'd been at.

"Hey, heard you were with the neighbors, now." Jamie was eyeing him curiously and Vin shrugged in response. "They haven't done anything… funny yet, have they?"

"What're you talking about?" His eyes narrowed at the boy sharply. Jamie wasn't bad, just kind of annoying and hyper. Vin was for damn sure it was the meds they had the kid on. They'd tried to put Vin on some of that shit and he'd never taken it – spit it out and tossed 'em, mostly. He'd become an expert at hidin' the damn things in his mouth or slipping them in his sleeve or hiding them in his hand so's he'd avoid takin' them.

Jamie was bouncing on his toes. "Well, they are gay."

If Vin were slightly more prone to violence he would have smacked him. "They're gay, not pedophiles, you jackass. They don't like kids."

"Oh." There was a pause. "So they didn't do anything to you?"

"No." Jamie would probably be going home to his mom soon. There'd been some issues of abuse with his dad, so Vin had speculated, because Jamie didn't talk about his dad except to say that his parents were getting divorced. He'd come to the foster home early in the morning one day a couple of months ago and Jamie'd been roughed up, lots of bruises, split lip. Vin knew the feeling, knew the look of that kind of pain, but from the hushed whispers of the foster parents and what he'd gotten from Jamie said he'd be going home soon, home to his mom only.

Vin slid into one of the back seats when the bus arrived. It was a long ride from out in the county, but it wasn't so bad. It gave him time to think. He'd never had a "home" to go back to. There was never anyone waiting to take him back and there was no place he'd ever wanted to be or really belonged.

Inside his pocket the key Chris had given him seemed to burn through the material of his jeans. That key meant a lot.

Chapter Three

"Welcome back." The bench seat of the bus dipped with the sudden weight, Vin edging closer to the window to wordlessly make way for the intruder. "Where'd they lock ya up this time?"


There was a nod. "Damn, well, only for a day this time, right? Back with the Jamison's, then?"

Vin shook his head. "No."

"Who's it this time, then? You've been shifted to all of 'em by now, haven't you?"

"Just about." Vin glanced over at his friend, one of his only friends, JD Dunne. JD was a bit over enthusiastic at times and overly optimistic, but he understood a bit of what Vin was going through, their stories seeming similar at face value. When JD's mom had died JD had wound up in the system, though he had pretty much stayed in one foster home, except for one move early on.

The difference between Vin and JD was that people liked JD and he didn't rub them the wrong way or cause no waves unless you counted when he got really excited. But people tended to like JD's enthusiasm and they didn't like Vin's silences – always thought he was up to somethin' even when he wasn't.


"The neighbors, Larabee and Wilmington." He bit his lip, glancing down at the backpack in his lap. "Judge said they want to adopt me."

JD smacked Vin in the shoulder, a grin appearing on his face. "For real? Those are the guys with the ranch and everything, right? The cops? You like it there."

Funny, JD saying that he liked it there. He did, but he'd never said it or really thought it about anywhere else. "Yeah."

"You have to invite me over sometime, seriously. Gotta meet these people. So what do you think?"

Vin shrugged. "Dunno yet."

There was a sigh and JD leaned back in his seat. "You always say that, but it'll be different this time. Won't it? You can't keep running forever."

That was a frightening truth. JD's dad had given up his rights to JD a long time ago and he didn't have any other family that was really willing to do anything for him or with him. JD's dad had been a wealthy man that had a whole other family that he didn't want JD to ruin. Vin's dad, well, he didn't have much of excuse other than being a mean bastard that didn't want to pay back child support. It might have been likely that JD would have been adopted by the family that he was with, the Martin's, except for the fact that JD had clearly stated to the judge that he didn't want to be adopted. JD could be content almost anywhere and with anyone, but Vin was more particular, more untrusting than JD ever was or ever would be.

School was long and difficult as usual. The teachers gave him the same looks they always did when he returned. Yeah, Vin Tanner, delinquent, no-good troublemaker. He went to "special" classes for reading and math and hated it because most of the time he didn't care one way or the other. No matter how much he tried to understand he never seemed to get it – he was just as stupid as his dad had always said he was. Never could do nothing right.

The teachers made him write down his assignments, they always did, to make sure he had them down. They checked to make sure that Vin had all of the books and homework that he needed to do for the next day and that he had his list of assignments in his backpack before he left the building at the end of the day. Not that Vin usually did his homework anyway, but it was part of their plan to try to get him to actually work on something school related.

It was a long bus ride back, JD sitting beside him again and chatting almost non-stop until it was his turn to climb off the bus. Vin stared listlessly outside the window until finally they reached his stop, Jamie getting off at the same stop and heading toward his foster home. The walk up the drive wasn't bad, Vin stopping to collect the mail and paper just because he was there and he might as well. He put everything on the porch while he went to bring the horses in, then he went inside.

He dropped the mail and paper on the end table by the door then dropped his backpack in his room. Vin was just wandering back into the front room when the door opened and Chris and Buck entered the house. "Hey, how was school?"

A typical question deserved a typical answer. "Fine."

"Where's your homework?"

Vin frowned, his head going down. Chris hadn't asked if he had homework but where it was so it wasn't a simple matter of saying he didn't have homework. He glanced at Chris, wondering if he'd delayed too much in answering. He had.

"I know your assignments are supposed to be written down, Vin. Where's your planner?"

Damn. Vin backtracked wordlessly, going back to his room and fetching his backpack and daily planner. Chris was waiting for him, sitting at the kitchen table while Buck apparently was starting dinner. They must switch off who did the cooking.

"You have your books?" Chris asked after he'd glanced over Vin's assignments.

Vin nodded, once more annoyed at his teachers and their vigilance. Everything in Vin rebelled at the thought of completing his homework and doing something that just made him feel even more stupid.

"Need any help?"

"No." It was a lie. Vin probably did need help, but he wasn't about to admit it. Plus, he could always pretend that he'd done his homework when he really hadn't. That usually worked. Only, it seemed it wouldn't work this time. Chris was ready and willing to go over each and every single assignment until Vin was scowling and ill tempered.

Then Buck whistled sharply to get their attention. "Hey, lay off that until after we eat, huh?"

Vin sighed, his head already spinning. Food was good, but the break didn't last and then they were back at the kitchen table where Vin's homework waited. Instinctively Vin began to protest after what seemed like a horrible amount of time, to pull away and Chris called a brief respite for snacks and drinks in the living room. Buck was already in the living room watching some crime show – figured, they were cops or close enough.

"You want to watch something?" Buck offered Vin the remote, but Vin shook his head.

"Don't watch TV much." It was entirely true. He usually wasn't given a choice and thus had never really developed a preference for anything to have a desire to watch a certain show. Some of the foster homes only played kid shows like the Disney channel, others only educational shows like Discovery, or the Science channels, while others watched whatever the adults liked which might be HGTV, HBO, or even porn. So Vin was content to just not think for a while, listening but not really taking in the drone of the voices on the TV.

"Ready to finish up your homework?"

Vin stretched and glared in Chris's direction until he heard Buck laughing. "Wrong question, pard," the large, dark-haired man said. "Never be 'ready' or all that willing, huh?"

Chris rolled his eyes. "All right then. Vin, how about we finish up your homework? Now."

It was a tone that brooked no argument even though it was said softly, almost gently. Chris was not a man that had to shout to be obeyed and despite Vin's obvious reluctance he followed Chris back into the kitchen. There wasn't a whole lot of interference on Chris's part – he watched Vin do the work and occasionally asked if Vin needed help if it seemed he might be needed. Then, when Vin was done they went over it together.

"Vin," Chris said, once they were finally done and Vin was more than ready to flee, "I want you to promise me you're going to turn in all of your assignments tomorrow."

That gave him a moment's pause, but of course the social worker would have told Chris and Buck all of that information. That he had a tendency to "lose" his homework so it never got turned in, that Vin refused to do make-up assignments or extra credit to improve his grades. That Vin was a general screw-up when it came to everything he did and that all the teachers knew he was stupid so it didn't matter anyway.

"Vin, promise me."

Damn it all to hell. "I'll turn 'em in."


Vin clenched his teeth, having hoped to get away without actually promising. "Fine, I promise I'll turn my homework in."

"Good. Now go get ready for bed." Chris smiled and it was almost worth having promised. Despite everything Vin felt conflicted about he still didn't want to disappoint Chris.

Vin showered quickly then went immediately to bed, exhausted from having gotten up so early. He slept peacefully for the most part, only waking up twice during the night, and rose just before dawn. Buck's dog, Sam – Samantha, actually – walked with Vin to the stable. Sam was a golden retriever mix and seemed to be pretty quiet and dependable, not bothering the various cats that occupied the barn. Sam spent most of her time outside, but usually spent the nights in the house.

Buck had told Vin that the cats were Chris's, that he babied the felines and made sure they all got the care they deserved and more. All the cats were fixed and had breakaway cat collars with their names, address, and their phone number engraved on them. There was a room beside the tack room all made up for the cats – it had cat beds, blankets, and 12 bowls for food and water. There were cat-sized entrances to the cat's room, with flaps to keep out cold weather in the winter and keep cold air in during the summer, the room having been set up with an air conditioner for their comfort. There were eight cats in total and Vin had yet to learn all their names, but they were real friendly so Vin knew they got a lot of attention.

After taking care of the horses – he was joined by Chris who silently began to assist Vin in his self-appointed task – they went inside to have breakfast. There was no mention of Vin's previous promise as he left for the bus, but Vin had given his word so he dutifully turned in his completed homework much to the surprise of his teachers. The lessons made a bit more sense because Chris had made Vin actually do the assignments and against his own will Vin found himself paying more attention than he normally would. Vin told himself it was only because Chris was going to make him do his homework whether he wanted to or not.

Sure enough, as soon as Chris and Buck arrived home, Chris asked after his homework assignments. Inwardly Vin rebelled while outwardly he produced his planner and slumped into one of the kitchen chairs, looking bored. Once more he completed his homework and turned it in as promised.

Then it was Friday. Even then Chris made Vin do his homework first before anything else so he would have it done and then it was finally the weekend for real. Chris had mentioned possibly going riding sometime this weekend and going into town to pick up some groceries and other things.

Saturday morning after taking care of the horses Vin rode with Chris in his big four-wheel drive truck to the nearest town. To Vin's surprise they were going shopping for him – new clothes, two new pairs of shoes. Chris had Vin pick out a bookcase he liked and covered up the prices of them when he saw Vin glancing there, first, instead of at the bookcases themselves. Then they picked out a small bedside stand and an alarm clock, though Chris laughed and said he really didn't need the alarm part, and a lamp just because. They also bought books, Vin hesitatingly selecting a few about horses and Chris offering a few suggestions on books he liked. They also got some more things for school, mechanical pencils, erasers, more notebooks and not the cheap kinds that Vin usually got either.

It was a little bit overwhelming and Vin was suddenly struck with the realization that maybe they really did want him. He was alarmed at the total when they checked out, but Chris didn't seem surprised or all that concerned over the price. After that they got groceries and Chris actually asked Vin what he liked or wanted and though Chris said no to some of the junk foods he wanted Chris hadn't said no to most of it, not even the ice cream.

They all helped put the groceries away when they got back and then Chris suggested that they put the shelves together. Chris had insisted on the sturdier bookcase that had real wood and was pretty heavy and Vin was more than ready to help him put it together. The shelves looked a little bit empty since Vin was only able to add the books he had just gotten and Chris told him that they would have to fill them up a bit at a time.

A few hours after lunch Chris casually mentioned that they were thinking of inviting some of their friends for a cookout – in a week or two. They mentioned Nathan and Rain who were apparently neighbors. Nathan was a paramedic that worked at the nearest hospital. Rain was a nurse at one of the doctor's offices in the nearest town that was about a ten-minute drive from them. Josiah was another of their friends and Buck said that he was a preacher of some sort and worked at the local shelter and helped bring in donations for food and such. Mrs. Potter was another neighbor who owned the local grocery store and had a couple of kids of her own – Johnny and Angie.

Buck was talking about their friends, those they were going to invite and those they weren't, and mentioned the beautiful Inez who was part of their ATF team. Vin was wandering around the kitchen fixing himself a sandwich as a snack when Buck suddenly gestured expansively in one of his stories. His reaction was immediate even though Buck was standing a good five or six feet away from him, Vin's back cracking hard against the kitchen wall.

The big man froze, his arms still in the air, as he turned to look at Vin. Chris had paused in reading the newspaper before him, tipping the paper down further so that he could get a good look at Vin.

For his part, Vin didn't move, his head down. He felt stupid, but his heart wouldn't stop racing even though his brain kept telling Vin that Buck had been too far away to have come close to him.

"Vin? You okay?"

He nodded. What else could he do?

"You know I wasn't going to hit you."

Vin couldn't respond. Because he hadn't known, not for sure.

"I wasn't going to hit you," Buck told him firmly. "I'd never hit you, pard."

He didn't lift his head. Couldn't. But he knew they were watching him closely, expecting an answer. So Vin said, "Okay." Then he bolted for the door.

Chapter Four

They didn't follow as Vin ran across the yard to the open field, Sam darting after him from her post on the porch, keeping pace with him. Vin didn't stop at the end of the field but kept going into the woods until he couldn't run any further.

For a few minutes Vin just stood there, arms out and bracing himself against one of the trees, listening to himself pant and picking up on Sam's panting, as well. Then he slid to the ground and turned, leaning back against the tree and drawing his legs up against him. Sam sat and stared at him before whining and scooting closer. Vin tried to wave her away, but she only watched him and waited. When Vin patted his leg Sam wriggled against him, propping her head on his knee and tried to lick his face.

"Damn dog," Vin muttered, but still his arm went around her neck and he held her against him.

Vin sat there for a while with the dog before finally dragging himself to his feet and beginning the long walk back to the house. It was then that Vin realized he wasn't even wearing shoes, though that didn't seem like all that big of a deal. As soon as Vin cleared the trees he saw Chris and Buck on their horses – Chris on Pony and Buck on Lady, their large grey mare.

With a sigh Vin wondered if they had called the police and figured that they probably had and had probably called his probation officer and the social worker, too. He really didn't need that right now. Chris pulled Pony to a halt a safe distance from him, and then offered his hand, kicking his foot out of the stirrup so that Vin could mount the horse. They headed for the house with Sam keeping pace with them.

He kept expecting Mr. Hammond, his probation officer, to appear around every corner after they had gotten back and Chris and Buck had taken care of their horses. After a few hours Vin began to realize that no one was coming. "You didn't call my probation officer." Vin leaned in the doorway to the living room, waiting.

Chris gave him a long look from his worn but comfortable recliner. "You didn't run off. Did you?"

Most people would have said that he had so Vin shrugged before he could think and force out the words, "I just… sometimes I need to get away. To run – but I – I wasn't taking off."

"All right, then. Just remember that next time you need to get away, you tell us where you're going first and when to expect you back, okay?"

Vin nodded sharply and backed out of the room. He could have easily spent anywhere from a day to a week in a detention facility, depending on how bad they could have made Vin's running off sound. Looked like he wasn't being sent away this time.

It still seemed premature to hope and it wasn't until Sunday afternoon that Vin got up the courage to take a few items from his duffle bag. The items made their way onto the bookcase, a worn little teddy bear and a small jewelry box that didn't hold much more than a few pictures and knick-knacks. Vin didn't open it, not wanting to hear the familiar song "You Light Up My Life" that he knew would play if he did – he'd known he shouldn't have wound it up to hear it a few months back, but he had. Sometimes he had to hear the song even if it always made him cry and Vin had closed the lid before the song stopped and he'd bound it closed with a leather strap.

He couldn't help but pause as he set the box in the middle of the bookcase's shelf. It wasn't fancy by any means and it had definitely seen better days having been dragged from place to place almost never leaving Vin's duffle bag. Vin could still remember his mother holding it and listening to it and singing along; it was one of the few memories of her that he was still able to cling to.


Vin turned to find Chris standing just outside his room. "Yeah?"

"Thought we might go riding."

"Okay." Vin knew almost nothing about riding, but he'd dealt with the horses quite a bit. "Can I ride Peso?"

Chris's eyebrows rose. "Peso's not a beginner horse, Vin. He can be a handful."

"That's 'no', then?"

The corner of Chris's mouth went up in a half-grin. "Yeah, that's a no. Now Pony or Lady would be more your style – they don't spook easy and their manners are much more refined."


Chris showed him how to saddle Pony and put on his bitless bridle. "Now it was Peso here that started us using these bridles because he doesn't like bits, got his mouth all cut up from fighting them and not being handled right. So we had to find a special bridle for Peso and liked them so much we started using them exclusively." Vin watched, Pony's reins held lightly in his hand, as Chris put on Peso's bridle, Buck having already gotten Lady ready.

Peso didn't so much fight as warily eye Chris as he slipped the bridle on, flinching and shaking a few times until the bridle was in place. Peso's skin seemed to wriggle and ripple and Peso stomped his feet a few times as if waiting for something to happen that he could fight off. When nothing happened Peso seemed to calm, though he continued to jump and shy at shadows.

After Chris mounted Peso the horse kicked a few times before settling down, shaking his head and then his whole body. Buck snorted as he held Pony for Vin to climb into his saddle. "That's ol' Peso for ya. Best thing is to let him get it out of his system, but he'll test ya all the way."

Chris corrected Peso when the gelding tried to nip at Lady. "Like trying to ride a tornado."

With Pony there wasn't so much riding as following, Pony ambling on alongside Lady and Peso, his ears flickering a little bit now and again at Peso's antics, but mostly at peace. The smallest nudge had Pony turning and he'd stop at the smallest pull. "Pony's a good horse," Buck was saying as he gave Vin tips on how to sit a horse and what commands to give Pony. "He's done barrel racing with Chris, got a few trophies and ribbons, too."

"Do they still race?"

Buck shook his head. "Not Pony, no. He's getting up there in years and doesn't have the speed to compete, but sometimes they still go through the courses for fun. Now Magic, Magic's got the spark for it, and Bitty, too." Buck patted Lady's long neck. "Now Lady never has had that drive or the speed to do much of those things, but she's got the stamina for long hauls, that's for sure. Not a problem, though, I've never been much for racing."

"What about Peso?"

"Peso?" Buck glanced sideways at the black and white quarter horse that was still fighting for his head. "Oh, he's fast when you let him go, but he's too unpredictable for anything like that. It was a miracle we were able to get the boy saddled at all – never thought we'd ever be able to ride him. He threw Chris a time or two when he tried at first, put up a royal fuss. There'd be too much noise for Peso's liking and then someone'd just get hurt."

Vin nodded, well aware of every time Peso jerked as if to subtly test Chris's control. "So why do you keep him?"

Buck's eyes softened. "Love at first sight. Chris couldn't stand the thought of him being put down and no one at the rescue could do anything with him – called him the devil horse. Kicked the walls in, couldn't hold him in. Can't say we didn't admire his spirit, though we had to walk him here, afraid he'd hurt himself if we loaded him up. We had to camp out a couple of nights and it was long going. Fought every step of the way and Pony near to took his head off when Peso tried to bite him."

Vin glanced at the sedate horse he was riding. "Pony did that?"

"Oh, yeah, Pony's a regular spitfire if you get him riled up enough. He's taken on Magic a time or two, back when we first got him – Magic didn't stand a chance."

Buck went on to tell Vin that Pony was mostly as relaxed as Vin had always seen him, a dependable horse. Surprisingly Pony had also been a rescued horse, though Pony's circumstances had been due to neglect, Pony having been extremely underweight when Chris had gotten him. Chris and Buck often took on rescue horses when there was no room for them at either the Friends of Horses Rescue or the Horse Protection League horse rescues. Peso had been at the Friends of Horses Rescue, which had worked out fine as Centennial, CO was closer to their ranch than Golden, CO was.

"Have you ever turned down rescue horses?"

There was a pause, Buck obviously scanning his memory to try to answer Vin's question. "Can't say that we have. Once we had a whole bunch of mares here, ones they were going to sell off as meat because they used them for that estrogen replacement therapy and they were done with them."

Vin wrinkled up his nose. "Why would anyone want to eat a horse?"

"Say it's a delicacy over in Europe, but the rescue groups got together and bought up all of the mares. It's not as if we didn't have the room for them and all of them were wild, barely handled. They say they keep them cramped up so they can barely move so they were all scared and not used to being out." He leaned forward in Lady's saddle, squinting into the sun. "Worked with them for a long time, got 'em used to people and they all turned out to be pretty good saddle horses and found some good homes."

Pony slowed to a stop when Lady did. "You didn't keep any of them?"

Buck shook his head. "We have the room if they have more horses then they can take care of, the Cleveland Bays we breed and we keep Lady, Pony, and Peso as saddle horses, though we work 'em all."

The evening wound down after they saw to the horses and headed inside, Vin finding a few hours quiet in his own room. Vin spent an hour just thinking about everything and nothing at all, letting the events of the day, the weekend, and the few days of the week that he had been with Chris and Buck roll over him. Then Vin's gaze settled on the bookcase and he dragged himself across the room to pluck one of the books up, flopping gracelessly on the floor and opening the book, "The King of the Wind".

He'd seen Chris read books in his study, wearing a pair of reading glasses and it made Vin wonder what the appeal was. The only good memory of books and reading he had was a hazy memory of his mother, her arms wrapped around him as he sat on her lap and read a book about a rabbit. Or maybe it had been a cat.

"Vin, lights out."

Vin jumped in surprise, turning toward the door to face Chris, the passage of time having been nonexistent. "Oh, okay."

"You like it?" Chris asked, nodding at the book in Vin's hand.

"Yeah." And he did, more than he could have imagined.


One of the bookmarkers Chris had given him was slipped into the book – Chris was particular about his books, said that bending the corners down was bad for them – and then he turned back to Chris who was still watching him. "You rode Peso on purpose."

"Of course I did. Peso needs exercise, too."

Vin rolled his eyes. "No. So Buck and I could talk."

Chris didn't reply to that, but Vin hadn't expected him too. After Vin put the book aside and got in bed Chris flipped the light off. "Good night."


Chapter Five

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Vin glared, forcing his eyes down and reminded himself that if he got into trouble at school – again – that he was in deep shit. No fighting, absolutely no fighting at school Mr. Hammond had told him.

"Hey, I asked what you thought you were doing!"

He braced for the shove he knew was coming and ignored it. There was no way he was letting Eli Joe pull him into the same trap as before – start a fight and then blame it on Vin because he had the rap sheet. That's all it was. So he tried to walk around him. Eli Joe blocked his way, getting into his face. "What, are you some kind of pussy now? Can't take me on, huh?" Vin was shoved again and he tried, desperately, to hold in his temper.

"Leave him alone!" That was JD and Vin cringed because he shouldn't be involved in this.

"Your little boyfriend sticking up for you now? How cute." Eli Joe sneered and there was nothing that would have satisfied Vin more than punching him so hard that he couldn't see out of his eye for a week. He probably would have, too, had two arms not wrapped themselves around his arm, stopping him.

"Jealous, Eli?" That was Casey Wells, all talk and energy, and more like a guy than most of the guys were. "No one would go out with you if you paid them. You can't fix ugly!"

That was not helping.

"Can't fight your own battles anymore, Vin?" Eli Joe pressed forward, shoving Vin backwards even though little Casey tried to edge in between. "Got a girly boy and a boyish girl to speak for ya instead of standing up for yourself?" The next shove sent Vin to the ground and he had to remind himself just why it was a bad idea to beat the shit out of Eli Joe on school grounds.

"Hey, break it up!"

Shit. Vin winced, but didn't move from the ground, knowing it would only look worse if he was standing.

"Who started this?" The principal, Mr. Richmond, was glaring at Vin naturally.

"It was Eli Joe!" Casey and JD stated together, at the same time Eli Joe's much larger group said, "It was Vin!" No help at all.

"All right, both of you – "

"Mr. Richmond," a soft, smooth voice interrupted. It was one of the lunch ladies, Doris, who was getting up there in years but still one of the few nice people that Vin liked at the school. "I saw everything. Vin didn't raise a hand to that boy," she pointed at Eli Joe. "He kept pushing and harassing Vin when Vin tried to walk away."

Vin sighed and raised his head finally to nod gratefully at Miss Doris. Then he turned to the principal who nodded firmly at Eli Joe. "My office, now. Vin, I'm glad to hear you're trying to stay out of trouble now."

That might be the case, but Mr. Richmond would have never believed Vin if he'd told him that he hadn't started it. He would have believed Eli Joe, though, even with no proof but Eli's word – it had happened in the past and would probably happen again. "Thanks, Miss Doris."

"I only told the truth, Vin. That boy is nothing but trouble, always picking fights. You steer clear of him, you hear?"

Vin nodded. "Trying to." He dragged himself to his feet, ignoring JD and Casey's attempts to assist him.

"He's nothing but a – " Casey stopped whatever she was going to say as a teacher passed and then continued with, "He's nothing but a jerk, Vin. I know he's hard to ignore and gets under your skin, but you can't get into anymore trouble."

"He knows that Casey," JD hissed. "You're not helping."

Vin tuned them out, Casey and JD starting another one of their arguments that never seemed to go anywhere. He began walking down the hall and away from them knowing that in a few minutes they would catch up. They did, of course.

"Vin, hey! At least this time it was Eli Joe that got in trouble, right?"

Casey nodded. "Yeah, it all turned out fair."

Only it wasn't fair at all because Vin had needed proof from an adult that it hadn't been his fault for anyone to be convinced that he hadn't been involved in a fight. "Sure. Better hurry up or you'll be late for class." Vin ducked into his classroom to escape his well-meaning friends.

The final bell rang and Vin, having already grabbed all of his things in anticipation of that stood, ready to be done with school for the day. "Vin, hold on for a moment." Then stopped, his eyes locking with Mrs. Davidson's, his stomach falling through the floor. What had he done this time or what did she think he had done? "Can I see your planner?"

All sorts of curses flowed through Vin's head as he handed his planner over. It had been a while since they had made any notes in them, those damn teachers, but they usually did when he'd screwed something up. He'd turned his homework in, like Chris had made him promise. What more did they want?

"You've been doing so well lately, Vin. I want you to keep up the good work." Mrs. Davidson handed the planner back to him, the short message "Vin's work in class has been improving and he has been turning in all of his assignments" with Mrs. Davidson's scrawled name after it.

Vin nodded as he backed out of the room, feeling just the slightest bit confused and overwhelmed. JD was waiting for him in the hall, Casey probably having already gone to meet her Aunt Nettie who always picked her up after school. "Come on, we don't want to miss the bus." Their bus was one of the "early buses" because they had such a long ride so if they didn't hurry they could get left behind. Neither of them wanted to stay any longer at school then they had to.

They just made it to the bus on time and slipped into the back. Like always, their regular seat was free. "What kept you?"

"Davidson wanted to write a note in my journal." Vin edged against the window, leaning away from JD to give himself some more space.

JD's eyes widened. "Was it bad?"

"Nah. It was actually good this time."

"Then it's not a problem." JD settled just like that, looking content again. "Everything else is still going well too, right?"

He meant with Chris and Buck. "It's okay. We went riding over the weekend." They continued to talk the rest of the ride, JD doing most of the talking. Silence descended as soon as JD left and Vin noticed for the first time that Jamie wasn't on the bus, which probably meant that he had gone home. Good for him, at least Vin hoped it was good. More than once he'd seen other kids go home and it ended up being the same as before and they'd just end up in another home in a month or two.

Vin was tired when he got off the bus and by the time he'd gotten the horses in and thrown his backpack by the table he didn't want to do anything. He got himself a glass of water and curled up in the relative dark of the living room in one of the armchairs, his eyes closed. About ten minutes later the door opened.

"Vin? Vin?" Chris appeared in the doorway after a few moments and Vin watched him though his partly closed eyes. "Ready to start your homework?"


For a few moments there was nothing. Then, "No? You're not going to do your homework?"

"No." Vin opened his eyes to glare fully at the man. There was no way he wanted to put himself through that torture, not after the day he had.

"There a problem, Vin?"

It didn't take a whole lot to ignore the concern in his voice. "No."

"You going to say anything other than 'no'?"

Vin scowled and looked away deciding it was best not to respond to that.

"Did something happen at school today?"


Then Buck nudged in beside Chris, the faint smile on his face aggravating. "Honeymoon over already, pard? Was hoping it'd last a bit longer myself." His arm wrapped around Chris, pulling the blond against him comfortably even as Chris tried to detach him. Buck was a very touchy-feely sort of person and Chris, well, maybe he was when he didn't have an audience, but around Vin he didn't seem to like Buck touching him. "Why don't you and Vin go for a run?"

"What?" Chris twisted in Buck's grasp, not quite avoiding the kiss that was placed on the side of his neck.

Vin was unable to avoid Buck's piercing stare, his gaze level and knowing. "You said before that sometimes you just gotta run, so why don't you and Chris go runnin'? That is, assuming the old man can keep up with you." Buck winked behind Chris's back as the blond turned to glare at him.

"Watch who you're calling an old man."

Buck stole another quick kiss. "Older than me," he replied laughingly as he ducked out of the living room and headed toward the kitchen. Buck almost always cooked dinner while Chris almost always cooked breakfast. Buck said it was because he could cook a larger variety of things than Chris, while Chris said it was because Buck just couldn't get up early enough to make breakfast.

"What do you say? Want to go for a run?"

Vin peered at Chris as the man waited for him to respond. He didn't have to think when he was running. Breathe in. Breathe out. There was a familiar rhythm and beat, the steady rise and fall. Suddenly he didn't feel as tired anymore. "Okay."

"Let's get changed, then."

Chapter Six

Chris was more than able to keep up with Vin on their run, easily matching him stride for stride. There was no need to speak or think. There was just the air around them and the ground at their feet. They cut across the field, shortening their path before heading back to the house, Chris slowing them down to a walk as they neared the house. Vin imagined it was like what they did with the horses, cooling them down after a run and gradually easing them down to a stop.

"Have you ever considered joining the track team?" Chris was breathing hard, but was still able to talk easily enough.

"Not really."

"You should." Chris was grinning at him. "There's a book you should read, too – 'Maniac McGee'." They both showered after that and threw their dirty clothing in the laundry room before finding their way to the dining room table.

Buck didn't say anything to them about the run, just grinned at them and made some comment about how lovely the day was. He was full of stories and was able to launch into a tale about one of Chris's cats getting caught in a small space in the hay loft and how they had to bust in part of the wall to get the cat out. It was relaxing, somehow, listening to Buck talk and Vin figured that Chris thought so, too, by the absent sort of smile on Chris's face.

After dinner Vin helped Chris clear the table and wash the dishes then Chris again addressed the matter of his homework. Part of Vin still didn't want to do it, but it was easier this time to sit down at the kitchen table and pull out his books and planner. Chris immediately picked up the planner and opened it, his eyebrows rising as he read the note from Mrs. Davidson.

"Sounds like you've been doing well at school. I'm glad to hear it and I'm proud of what you've been able to do. You just have to keep trying."

Vin didn't want to admit it – refused to verbally – but it wasn't as difficult to understand what the teacher was saying anymore and it was easier to follow along. It also wasn't as hard to actually complete his homework, since the teacher had basically already explained it word for word. Having Chris's help made the work go faster and the fact that Chris was proud of him, well, it had been a long time since anyone had ever said that to him. It felt good.

"Are you going to tell me what happened at school today?" Chris finally asked after they had gone over his last assignment for the evening.

"Nothing happened."

Chris signed, leaning toward him. "I know you're lying Vin. You think I don't deal with people who lie to me all day at work? I expect you to be honest with me, Vin, because I want to be able to trust you. I'm never going to lie to you and I want to be sure that I'll get the same respect from you. Now, if you don't want to tell me that's fine, but don't tell me nothing happened when something did. All right?"

Vin nodded sharply. There wasn't anything else he could do.

"Now, did something happen today at school?"


"Do you want to tell me what happened?"


"Okay then. Just so we're clear. If you ever want to tell me about it or about anything at all, I'll listen."

"Um." Vin froze when Chris paused to look at him. It was stupid and he wasn't sure if he could ask, but now he had Chris's attention and he had to say something. "The – that get together you guys were planning on doing? Can I invite some friends?"

"Sure. Who were you planning on inviting?"

Vin bit his lip. "JD and Casey. Miz Nettie too, she'd probably want to come."

"Casey a girl or a boy?"

Vin glared at the hint of suggestion in Chris's voice. "Casey's a girl, but she's nothing like a girl."

"Ah, okay." The smile did not leave Chris's face. "Who's Miss Nettie?"

"Casey's aunt, she has custody of her."

"Casey will have to ask her aunt, then, and JD will have to ask his parents – "

"Foster parents." At Chris's look Vin added, "JD lives with foster parents."

"Then he'll have to ask his foster parents if it's okay, but I don't have a problem with them coming. Besides, I want to meet these friends of yours." Somehow that made everything seem just a little bit better and Vin found himself smiling against his will.

"Okay." That went better than he'd thought it would. Then he waited a few moments, timing it so that Chris was taking a drink from his glass of water. "Will you get me a pony too?"

Chris's coughing fit had Buck flying into the room and hurriedly trying to mop up the water that had been spewed across Chris and the table. "You – watch yourself, Tanner, you're going to regret that." The fact that Chris was laughing and coughing while he said it completely ruined the effect. "He's downright sneaky, Buck, that's what he is."

"Isn't that what every kid wants? A pony?" Vin insisted. He listened as Chris filled Buck in on what had happened and the big man was unable to keep the amused smile from his face.

"It's the quiet ones," Chris said, glaring at Buck who was trying to hide his smirk, "That you got to watch out for."

Buck leaned conspiratorially toward Vin and stage whispered, "Sure, he says that because he's one of those 'quiet ones' ya have to watch out for. Don't turn your back on him, kid, or you might regret it."

"Oh, that reminds me. Vin, you're got a counseling appointment tomorrow and Buck's going to pick you up from school instead of you riding the bus home. There's also community service on Friday evening and Saturday morning." Chris paused in the act of helping Vin put his books and homework away. "You know you have to do community service, Vin, after – "

"That doesn't bother me." Community service could actually be pretty fun sometimes, not that he'd ever admit it and it was something to do that got him out of the foster homes for a while.

Chris and Buck exchanged a look, one that Vin couldn't quite interpret. "Then why do you look like you swallowed a bug?" Buck piped up, his jovial tone not matching the obvious concern in his eyes.

"I hate going to counseling." They'd switched counselors on him at least five or more times and then he had to start from the beginning each time and he was really getting sick of repeating himself. None of them really cared and they were all looking to get a better, higher paying job at one of the private counseling practices anyway. Plus, he never had anything to say to them.

"You know what, it's not such a bad thing." Vin scowled at Chris; of course he'd say that. "We have to see a psychologist for work just to make sure we're dealing with the stress of our jobs properly. Doesn't it make a difference when you can talk to someone without having to worry about them telling everyone and getting an honest opinion in return?"

Vin shook his head. "No, it's just a waste of time." They couldn't convince him otherwise and besides the counselors talked to his social worker who talked to his probation officer so it wasn't as if what he told the counselors was private. Still, it was easier to just go and get it over with – he'd been through digging his heels in before and that just got him in trouble for not obeying the rules, which was against his probation. Mr. Hammond could be a nice guy, so's long as he was doing what he was supposed to and it was best not to piss him off too much.

School wasn't so bad the next day, JD commenting on Eli Joe's absence and speculating that he might have been suspended. If he had been, that meant he'd be in a bad mood when he came back and Vin was already thinking of possible ways of avoiding Eli Joe upon his return. So far he'd considered playing sick, getting run over by a bus, and not leaving the classrooms at all. Becoming invisible would be nice, but that was even less likely than getting run over by a bus.

Then Buck was there to pick him up, about ten minutes before the final bell and they were driving toward the familiar, but unwanted destination. Vin sprawled across one of their uncomfortable plastic chairs as they waited for the counselor to finish up with her last session. As soon as she appeared, ushering out the last person, Vin stood and headed for the door, wanting to get it over with and leave. She stopped him, her eyes going toward Buck. "Hello, I'm Barb. You are…?"

"Buck, ma'am, Buck Wilmington."

"Good, then why don't you join Vin and I for a few minutes and then I'll finish up with just Vin."

Damnit. Vin sighed as he dropped into his usual seat in the counselor's too-cold office.

"You and Mr. Larabee are considering adopting Vin?"

Vin heard the chuckle and the warmth in Buck's voice when he replied, "Ain't just considering it, ma'am. We're pretty well decided, just up to Vin now."

"How are things going, Vin? You've been with them for… how long now?"

"'Bout a week."

"No blow-ups?"

"No." Vin could tell she didn't believe him, her eyes darting toward Buck for confirmation.

"You haven't been throwing things?"

"No." Again, Barb looked at Buck to confirm.

"That's certainly progress then. Have there been any problems so far? You haven't run off have you?"

Vin glanced around the room, unresponsive.

"There was a moment on – was it Saturday, Vin?" He nodded. "On Saturday, where Vin went for a run, but he wasn't takin' off or anything. Just a bit startled, I guess."

Barb turned toward Vin. "What happened on Saturday that made you… go for a run?"

He sighed heavily, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling. Of course she believed he'd taken off, no two ways about it. Hell, maybe he had. "Nothin' happened, just went for a run." Barb waited him out until even Vin couldn't stand the silence. "It was stupid. There was – I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and I sort of flinched."

"Flinched? Vin, you nearly put yourself through the wall."

Buck obviously didn't know that he wasn't supposed to actually be honest with the counselors and it was never good to exaggerate, either. They tended to blow things out of proportion. "It wasn't that bad."

"What made you flinch?" Barb asked, but Vin could tell she was using that word because he had and that she was really envisioning his head cracking against the wall – which it had, but no sense in telling her that.

"Buck was gesturing while he was telling me about some of their friends."

"Was he standing close to you?"

Vin shook his head. "Not really."

"What did you think was going to happen?"

"Didn't think, just reacted. Felt stupid afterwards for it, don't know why I did it."

Barb leaned back in her chair. "I think you do know why you did it, Vin. Can you tell me why you flinched like that, what you thought was going to happen that made you just react?"

She wouldn't let up 'til he said it, so Vin replied curtly, "Thought he was going to hit me."

"Do you still think Buck would hit you?"

"Said he wouldn't."

"Do you believe him?"


"Do you trust him?"

That was a big issue with this counselor, the trust thing. A counselor or so past had focused mostly on past abuse and how to "overcome it", this lady focused on him learning to trust other people. "No."

Barb glanced at Buck to get his reaction as she asked, "Do you trust me?"

"No," he replied immediately.

"Do you trust yourself?"


"Do you trust anyone?"

Vin bit his lip, his head going down. He wanted to say no, like he'd told her before, but what came out was, "Yeah." That threw Barb off and there was a moment where there was nothing.

"Who do you trust, Vin?"

He raised his head. "Chris."

Barb glanced down at the papers in front of her. "Chris… Larabee?" Vin nodded. "What makes you trust Chris?"

"I don't know." And he didn't. He'd questioned it before, but the more time he spent with the man the more Vin knew he would follow him to hell and back it he asked him to.

Her demeanor changed and Vin knew Buck was going to get kicked out because there was something Barb wanted to discuss with him alone. "Thank you Mr. Wilmington. Would you mind going out to the waiting room until we're finished?"

Didn't matter if Buck minded or not, he was headed out the door and Vin braced himself for whatever was coming next.

Chapter Seven

"It's okay, Vin." Buck had already fastened his seatbelt and was waiting for Vin to finish fastening his, the SUV already started and awaiting the drive home. "It's okay that you don't trust me. Just wanted you to know that and that it's okay that you trust Chris, too. Trust is something that needs to be earned and I do plan on earning your trust, pard."

Vin didn't have anything to say to that and Buck didn't seem to expect a reply.

His session with Barb had been about the same as always. As soon as Buck had left she began asking him how he liked it there, what they did, how comfortable he was with them. At the best of times he didn't like talking to Barb, but at least she had focused on that, which was better than her focusing on school – a topic he never liked. That, and he didn't have to lie about not being involved, however unwillingly, in a fight at school.

It was a relief to get back to the ranch. Chris was waiting, already ready for their run and Vin hurried to get changed, half-listening to the conversation between Chris and Buck as he did so.

"Yosemite's been working some with Missy, said she's gettin' along real good." Missy was their youngest horse, just two years old. Star and Bitty were both pregnant and Buck had mentioned that they'd probably breed Queen next year. Yosemite worked with the horses during the day and made sure they were all in good health, he also made arrangements for Magic concerning his stud fees.

"That little girl is going to do some good things, glad to hear she's taking to the harness so well. He still gearing her up for endurance racing?"

"Yeah, still wants Queen out this year, competing. Magic, too. I know you and Lady –"

Buck made a "hm" sound that interrupted whatever else Chris was going to say. "We know the girl's past her prime and we only compete for fun, but she does always finish. Maybe Vin would want to take her out, but we should definitely be showing Queen off while we can, get a better price for her foals. Another good mark on Magic's record can't hurt any, either."

"Right. So, how'd it go today?"

"Good, I think. Counselor asked me to go back with him for a bit – she mentioned that she'd like to meet you sometime." Buck sighed and Vin could almost see him wrapping his arms around Chris and resting his head on Chris's shoulder. "Said he trusts you, but he's still a long way from trusting me."

Vin waited long enough so that he could enter the room without them thinking he'd overheard them. They'd yet to realize exactly how good Vin's hearing was and he wasn't about to let them know, either. As expected, Buck was enfolding Chris in his arms and after a tug Chris had pulled himself free. "Oh, we're going to be getting a few more horses, probably tomorrow."

"Overflow?" Buck asked curiously.

"No, actually, the Horse Protection League just has some bad cases that they haven't been able to do anything with. They've seen what we did with the other horses and hoped we might be able to work with these ones."

Buck frowned. "More Pesos?"

"Not loco," Chris laughed. "Just scared and more than a little wild. They mentioned one of them is part mustang."

"As I recall Peso was more than a little scared and a lot wild and I'm not in a hurry to see your head cracked open from another one like that." It was the closest to a disagreement that he'd ever seen between Chris and Buck, though their voices remained low and there was only mild annoyance on their faces.

Chris nudged Vin toward the door. "I know, Buck. Aren't I always careful?" The look on Buck's face was of disbelief and Chris grinned back, obviously in agreement with him. "Come on, Vin."

There was a smile on Chris's face throughout their run and just when Vin thought his smile would fade it would reappear in full-force like something funny had just struck him again. Chris loved teasing Buck, liked setting him on that fine edge that made Buck's protectiveness rise to the point where he wanted to step in and save Chris from whatever it was that might harm him. It wasn't meanness on Chris's part, but it was something they both needed – Chris needed to push and Buck needed to feel he was needed. Even Vin could see that.

What Vin couldn't see yet was how he fit into all of it. Or if he fit into it at all.

Yet, he'd already fallen into a routine, one that Buck seemed to sense he needed and that made him want to test it. Vin felt twitchy all through dinner and throughout the grueling process of finishing his homework with Chris patiently helping him with everything. He didn't want help even knowing he needed it.

The horses arrived two days later – three horses in all. Chris said the chestnut gelding looked to be a Thoroughbred, while the silvery white horse was the mustang, and the black mare Chris said was at least partly a Quarter Horse with a touch of Arabian. The chestnut's name was Chester, the mustang's name was Ghost, and the black mare was called Ally.

Buck and Chris both told him not to go near any of the horses and that the three horses were going to be kept in the paddock where there was a lean-to if they needed it, though Ally and Ghost wouldn't go near it and Chester didn't seem to want to leave it. Ally and Ghost were barn-shy and trailer-shy and had had to be tranquilized to be loaded into the trailer. Chester was just scared of everything, but could be moved into any location if he was chased in the right direction. None of the horses were safe to approach because they were easily frightened and might inadvertently hurt someone because of their fear.

The week passed slowly, the restless feeling never quite leaving Vin and when he had a moment he leaned against the fence railing to watch their new horses. Chris and Buck did the same thing, saying that they wanted to get the horses used to them being around and hopefully gradually decrease the distance they could get from them without them turning tail and running. They all left treats for the horses – slices of apples, carrots, sugar cubes, or sunflower seeds – when they came near so that the horses would associate them with good things.

Community service on Friday and Saturday wasn't so bad and Vin noted that he didn't have all that many hours left to do, providing the judge didn't tack on extra hours from the most recent time he'd run off. Another week passed and on Sunday they had their get together, both Casey and JD in attendance along with Miss Nettie and Buck and Chris's friends.

Mrs. Potter's children, Johnny and Angie – she said that Vin could call her Angel so that it wouldn't be so confusing with the "other Angie", his social worker, that he knew – were 15 and 12. Josiah was an older man who seemed nice, though there was a potential there for violence that put Vin on edge and made him avoid the man. Nathan and Rain appeared to be good people, but Vin avoided allowing Nathan to get to close to him because of the man's size.

Vin took Casey, JD, John (he preferred to be called John, but said he could never break the adults of calling him "Johnny" even though he wasn't a little kid anymore), and Angel on a tour of the ranch. Chris warned him not to go too far and that they would be eating soon. Casey was drawn to the horses, while JD was rather taken with Sam – John and Angel said that Sam had been one of their pups from a litter several years back, after Buck's old hound had died. The Potters were impressed with the size of the ranch, even though they only got to see around the yard and as far as their eyes could see.

Lunch was a small feast of hamburgers, hotdogs, ribs, casseroles, and some dishes that Vin didn't know the names of that he sampled and others he just wouldn't touch. Mrs. Potter had brought an apple pie, Rain and brought a blueberry pie and Chris had gotten ice cream earlier in the week. JD marveled at how much food Vin could pack away and still be as skinny as a pole, which earned his friend a kick to the shin and the muttered, "Ain't no pole."

Then, after they'd finished eating dessert, JD surprised him by suddenly turning and latching onto Buck's arm as if he'd known the man all his life instead of mere hours. Vin wouldn't do that and he was the one living with them! "Can we go inside? I want to see Vin's room."

Buck didn't seem all that disturbed that JD was tugging at his shirt in a fair imitation of a much younger child. "Well now, I don't know about that." Buck sat back, his eyes darting toward Vin as JD became more insistent, whining and pleading to be allowed to see Vin's room. "You'd have to ask Vin that, now wouldn't you. It is his room."

JD brightened up real quick and used his grip on Buck's arm to pull himself off the picnic table bench he was seated on. "Vin?"

"I don't know, JD," Vin began, just to be difficult and because Buck was smiling so wide at JD's… JD-ness.

Then Casey latched onto his arm, getting into the act. "Vin, please?"

"Okay." After that Casey and JD were dragging him inside, Angel and John following close behind, though not with the same enthusiasm. They were all suitably impressed with Vin's room, Angel and Casey were shocked by how clean and neat it was. His duffle bag, along with the teddy bear and music box, were carefully concealed in his closet in anticipation of this very event.

"This is really nice, Vin." JD was seated at his desk, his eyes taking in everything in the room. He'd already nosed in the desk drawer, as Vin expected he would, and found an assortment of school supplies that he kept there.

They were outside a while after that, Miss Nettie and Buck coordinating games for them to play while Chris, Rain, Nathan, and Mrs. Potter played a card game called euchre. After that everything wound down and dishes were picked up by whomever they belonged to and all of their guests left, Miss Nettie driving JD back to the Martin's. School was a distant but ever present nagging thought at the back of Vin's mind as he curled up on the couch, exhausted.

"Not going to have to carry you to bed, am I?" Vin opened one eye to peer up at Chris. "Don't know if I could, with everything you ate today."

Vin snorted and pulled himself into a seated position to make room for Chris to sit down. "I'm not going to fall asleep on the couch."

"You sure about that?"


They sat watching TV for an undeterminable amount of time and when Vin began to nod off, Chris stood and offered Vin his hand. "Come on, time for bed." Vin stared at Chris's hand, suddenly struck with the realization that he'd never touched Chris before. Vin didn't actually willingly touch many people. Then he took the offered hand and allowed Chris to pull him up and turn him in the direction of his room.



Vin was almost sleepy enough to say something he'd regret in the morning. "Nothing, good night." Some foster kids started to call their foster parents "mom" and "dad" – he'd seen it time and again. He'd seen kids that had forgotten their real parents or at least wanted to forget their real parents, but Vin remembered his real dad all too well and calling or thinking about calling anyone else "dad" just didn't sit right. Chris was so much better than his real dad.

Chapter Eight

Eli Joe was back at school the next day and he didn't look happy. Even though Vin couldn't become invisible, he did the next best thing, and though hiding around corners and making sure there was a teacher or other adult in sight at all times was not the easiest way to live, it at least saved him from getting into trouble. After lunch when they were able to go outside, Vin took off with JD and Casey as soon as the teacher went outside and made sure to stay within feet of the teacher. Not even Eli Joe was crazy enough to hassle him that close to a teacher.

That went on for two weeks, in which time Vin finished up his community service hours and had a visit from his probation officer, Mr. Hammond, and his social worker, Angie. They were both impressed with Vin's progress at school and the fact that Vin had yet to have any of the typical "explosions" that he usually did. Vin justified it to himself because there was nothing there with Chris and Buck to set him off and if he started to get upset they defused the situation. Plus there was always something to do on the ranch and it kept Vin busy. After school Chris would go running with him, they'd have dinner, then Vin would do his homework. It was a routine that Vin had come to expect and it made it easier to accept.

"Do you think Eli Joe will ever give up?" JD shifted in his seat, watching Eli Joe out of the corner of his eye.

"Don't know, JD. Probably not." If there was one thing Vin knew, it was that bullies tended not to give up. As soon as the teacher went outside, signaling that they were allowed to go outside for recess, Vin took off, Casey and JD right beside him. It was easier to get out and into a good, visible spot when Eli Joe was still in the cafeteria with his friends.

Most of the kids were all over the place in small groups, typically as far from the teacher supervising as possible. JD was drawing cartoons in a notebook and occasionally showing his progress to Casey and Vin. Casey was talking about the fishing trip she and her aunt were planning on taking, but that they weren't camping out this year because Aunt Nettie said that her old bones didn't like sleeping out on the ground anymore.

Casey sighed loudly. "If we had a camper we wouldn't have to pitch a tent, anyway, but they're too expensive so that's out. We'll leave really early, though, and probably stay pretty late so I guess that's okay."

That's when a shadow fell over them and Vin found himself looking up at Eli Joe and his friends. Vin's eyes darted toward where the teacher should have been, but he found that she'd turned her back and slipped further away from them. Shit.

"You been trying to avoid me, huh? You really are chicken, Tanner."

Oh, yeah. Vin didn't stand up from the bench he was lounging on.

"Back to that again? What's wrong with you, huh?" When that provoked no response Eli Joe moved in, grabbing JD's notebook right out of his hands. Vin was on his feet in a flash, his arm going out to stop JD from standing up.

"Give it back, Eli."

There was a gleam in Eli Joe's eyes as he tossed the notebook back to one of his friends. "You gonna make me?"

Damn, damn. "No, cuz you're going to hand it over. Now," he insisted when Eli Joe was unmoved.

"Come on, Tanner, you're smarter than that – maybe. You know it isn't going to be that easy. What, you don't want to protect your boyfriend there? Get back his shitty little drawings he works so hard on?"

"Don't be such an asshole, Eli. We ain't done nothing to you, just give it back."

"No way in hell, Tanner. Might just keep it." Eli Joe pushed him backwards making the back of Vin's legs hit the bench behind him. "What's your boyfriend need with it anyway?"

Casey was beside Vin, bouncing on her toes. "Can't you ever stop being a jerk? What the hell's your problem? Leave us alone!"

Eli Joe ignored Casey and pushed Vin again, his whole attitude challenging Vin, trying to get Vin to fight and Vin was really close to snapping. He would have snapped, too, had a basketball not suddenly interfered, colliding with Eli Joe's shoulder.

"What the hell?" One of Eli Joe's buddies grabbed up the basketball and Eli Joe grabbed it from him angrily, their attention turning toward the basketball courts. Using the distraction Vin grabbed JD's notebook back and tossed it to his friend.

"Hey, pass the ball back." It was a voice they all recognized as belonging to the most popular kid at school – he had all the right clothes and all the right things. He was on the baseball team and the basketball team and probably some other sports-related things Vin didn't know about.

Eli Joe glared at the kid, whether he'd been the one to throw the ball that hit him or not. "What are you going to do if I don't?"

The boy approached, unafraid of Eli Joe or his gathered friends. "I doubt that is going to be an issue because you are going to return that ball so we can continue with our game."

"Yeah? And why would I do that?"

Back at the courts, the bored players were gathered and began following their friend. "Ezra, what's taking so long?"

Ezra didn't respond, his eyes gazing fearlessly at Eli Joe as he held his hand out for the ball. Eli Joe didn't move and neither did Ezra. The rest of the basketball players came closer. "There a problem here, Ezra?"

A faint smile appeared on Ezra's face. "No problem."

Eli Joe sneered at him and threw the basketball with as much force as he could at Ezra and Ezra caught the ball easily, the pleasant expression never leaving his face. They continued to stand there until Eli and his friends backed off, then the basketball players all turned their attention back to the court.

"Nice shot," Vin felt obligated to say because he knew for a fact that that ball had been thrown on purpose. They hadn't been that close to the basketball hoops.

His suspicions were confirmed when Ezra turned, flashing Vin a hint of a smile, a real smile this time and not the faked one he'd directed at Eli Joe. "Dreadful. I was aiming for his head." Then Ezra was jogging back toward the basketball court, passing the ball to one of his friends as he went.

"You think he did that on purpose? Why? He doesn't know us." Casey was watching Ezra and his friends on the basketball courts for several long moments before turning back to her friends. JD was clinging tightly to his notebook as they edged closer to the teacher once more.

"Dunno, Case, but he's got pretty good timing."

JD nodded reluctantly in agreement. "Guess he's not so bad."

Yeah, not so bad at all, even if Vin figured their paths wouldn't cross again because Vin's friends were not Ezra's friends. Ezra was rich and popular. Vin wasn't and was content enough not to be apart of their crowd. Too many people around bothered him and there was no expectation for him to be anything other them himself with JD and Casey.

On the bus ride home the only thing JD could talk about was what happened with Eli Joe at recess, re-enacting Eli Joe getting smacked with the basketball. Eli Joe had not tried to cause any trouble for the rest of the day and JD thought that it had a lot to do with the popular kids suddenly turning against Eli Joe, someone they had previously ignored. JD credited Ezra for that and while Vin thought Ezra did have something to do with it, he realized it probably hadn't been a conscious effort on Ezra's part. Eli Joe had challenged Ezra and because Ezra was popular it was a challenge to their entire group, which meant that Eli Joe was not on their good side. Still, Vin hoped it lasted.

Chris and Vin went running after school like they usually did and Vin bounded up the steps afterwards.

"You're in a good mood, Junior."

Vin stopped, frowning in Buck's direction. "What'd you call me?"

A huge grin split Buck's face. "Called ya 'Junior', Junior."

"Buck, the potatoes are boiling over," Chris called from the kitchen. "How long have you had them on?"

"Thirty minutes," Buck replied.

Chris appeared in the doorway. "When did you put them on?"

"Thirty minutes ago." Buck rolled his eyes and exchanged a glance with Vin that suggested that Chris was being overly cautious. Chris snorted and shook his head, but didn't press it. "Junior knew that. Getting addled in your old age?"

"Junior? Huh." There was amusement clearly written on Chris's face.

"Name's not 'Junior', Buck."

"Sure it is, Junior." Buck chuckled as he made his way back toward the kitchen. After that the nickname stuck, at least as far as Buck was concerned. Chris said not to worry about it, that Buck often gave people nicknames whether they liked them or not – when Vin had asked what nickname Buck had given him, Chris got real quiet and wouldn't say. Even when pressed Chris wouldn't tell him, so Vin figured it was something he wasn't supposed to hear and he'd certainly never heard Buck call Chris anything other than "Chris".

They continued to slowly work with getting Chester, Ghost, and Ally used to people and to hearing them talk. Saturday was the first day that one of the horses, Ghost, took a piece of carrot from Chris's hand. Ghost had immediately turned tail and run, spooking Ally and sending Chester further back in the lean-to, but they had already had their small victory. A few days later Ally took a slice of apple from Buck. The hold-out was Chester, but Chris said that there was no hurry and they weren't going to rush him.

While they were leaning against the fence one evening - Ally and Ghost standing close enough to snatch offered treats, but not so close that they could be easily touched - Vin said, "He doesn't like his name."

"What's that?" Chris stirred beside him, his movements slow and careful, Ally's ears perking up when she saw him cutting another chunk from the carrot he was holding.

"The Thoroughbred, he doesn't like his name."

Buck glanced at Vin out of the corner of his eye. "What makes you say that, Vin?"

There wasn't much of a reason, just a feeling really and a bit of observation, too. "Shakes when you say his name, shivers all over like Peso does when you put his bridle on. His name don't mean him. It means he gets hurt."

"Think you might be right there, Junior."

Chris was still as Ally lipped the carrot chunk from his hand. "Yeah," he said softly, watching as Ally snorted at the sound of his voice, but didn't bolt like she would have a week ago. "Should think of something else to call him."

"Can't call him Scaredy Cat?" Vin replied, only half serious. He couldn't blame Chester for being afraid and not trusting people when he'd obviously only seen the worst of people. Chris hadn't been able to get a good look at the horse, but said he figured he wasn't that old, maybe four or five at most. Chester had seen a lot of hurts in his short time.

"Well, it'd fit."

Chapter Nine

"Vin, don't forget the court hearing is tomorrow."

That was not something Vin was likely to forget. Two months – not that it seemed that long with the way the time had just flown by – had already passed. Two whole months where Vin had not spent the entire time looking over his shoulder or wondering when the axe was going to fall.

He wanted to whine, to say he didn't want to go back to court, he'd had enough of that and he was okay so why wouldn't they leave him alone? He didn't, though. If there was one thing Vin had learned it was that it didn't really matter what he wanted because in the end everyone would just do whatever the hell they wanted.

"Yeah, I know."

Only recently had Vin been allowed to let Ally and Ghost eat out of his hands, both horses allowing their faces and necks to be petted. Chester – they had been calling him "horse" out loud, for lack of a better name – had only just begun to leave the shelter of his lean-to, but the slightest movement could send him back inside. Both Ally and Ghost would allow Chris or Buck to put a halter on them and lead them, though Ghost still bulked on occasion. They never lost their patience with them, never yelled or got frustrated with their slow progress.

"How do you think you did on that math test?"

Vin shrugged. "Okay I guess." He'd known a lot more of the answers than he usually did, so Vin figured he hadn't flunked it completely. "Is Buck picking me up for the hearing?" Buck always picked him up for his counseling appointments, or at least all of his appointments so far.

"We'll both be there to get you for the hearing." Chris's hand rested on Vin's shoulder briefly before disappearing again.

That was something, at least, having Chris there too which was something that Vin hadn't expected or hoped for. Vin didn't sleep well that night – he never did before a court hearing and school was a hazy blur that barely registered in his mind. Then Chris and Buck were there to pick him up for his hearing. Mr. Hammond was waiting for Vin when they arrived and Angie appeared shortly after that, stopping to talk for a little while until they both disappeared into the Juvenile Court office.

"You all right, Vin?"

He nodded to Chris's question.

"You're being awfully quiet," Buck added.

Vin smiled faintly at them. "The ceilings are high so everything echoes real loud. It's better not to say too much." He chose not to tell them why.

Angie re-appeared and gestured for them all to enter the juvenile court room and Vin slouched into the seat beside the social worker while Chris and Buck settled onto the wooden bench directly behind them. It wasn't the first time that Vin had had foster parents at a hearing with him, but it was the first time that they hadn't sat a row or two back. He wasn't sure what that meant or if it meant anything at all.

The judge entered and they all stood obediently before the judge told them all to have a seat. Vin was able to ignore his turning stomach as he focused on sitting up reasonably straight – having been corrected several times in the past for bad posture – and remembering to breathe.

The usual rambling spiel began the hearing and then the judge's eyes fell heavily onto Vin. "For the last two months I've heard nothing about you Vincent and you know what? That's a good thing because usually I only hear things when they have gone bad. How do you feel the last few months have gone for you?"

"Good sir."

"Have you had any problems with Mr. Larabee or Mr. Wilmington since you've been with them?"

"No sir."

"Do you feel that you would be able to succeed if you were to remain with them?"

"Yes sir."

"Why is that?"

Vin swallowed hard, the sudden thought that it was easier when he was in trouble and the answers were simple and straightforward. "I don't know, sir. I just… I – they care what happens to me." He was able to breathe again when the judge turned to Angie and started asking her what her impressions were and how Vin was doing. Angie said that Vin's schoolwork had improved, that there had been no fights at school – Vin was suddenly glad that he hadn't punched Eli Joe after all – and that Vin's attitude had improved.

Then the judge's attention turned to Chris and Buck. "Mr. Larabee, Mr. Wilmington, what are your thoughts about all of this?"

It was Chris that spoke up. "I've enjoyed having Vin with us. It's been – it's been good to see him start to open up, to smile more, to laugh. Whether he realizes it or not he's a good boy and I want to make sure he has the chance to prove it and to show us all what he's capable of."

"Vin's got a good sense of humor that we are only now beginning to see," Buck added when Chris's voice started to falter. "I expect we'll have troubles somewhere along the line, but I'm sure we'll be able to get through them. We've seen moments of stubbornness already and none of the blowups we'd been expecting, but there's nothing that we can't get through. Vin will always have a place with us no matter what."

Judge Walters's steady gaze was back on Vin and Vin felt his chest constrict and breathing was nearly impossible. "You've heard everything that's been said today, Vincent. Now I have a very important question for you. Do you remember what you said to me at the last hearing?"

"No sir."

For a moment that powerful gaze was broken as the judge's eyes glanced down at the papers in front of him. "When I asked what it would take for you to stop running away you said that you supposed it would take somewhere you didn't want to run from. Have you found that place, Vincent? Would you like to remain on a more permanent basis with Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington?"

"Yes sir."

"Would you like Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington to adopt you?"

His heart thudded in his chest and for several moments he couldn't take a breath. The room was spinning and Vin felt light headed as he replied, "Yes sir."

"Vincent Tanner, as you have managed to keep yourself out of trouble for the past two months this court will not add on to your community service hours." There was a pause. "We would all like to see this end well, Vincent, and I'm sure you will find that everyone in this courtroom would like nothing more than to see you succeed. Denver County custody of Vincent Tanner is hereby terminated and temporary custody is now granted to Chris Larabee and Bucklin Wilmington. As Vincent has already been staying with you for two months we will waive the usual six months waiting period and schedule a final adoption hearing in four month's time. Denver County Children Services will continue with home visits to check on the family's progress. Court is adjourned."

Sometime during Judge Walters's monologue Chris's arm had circled around Vin's chair until he was half-hugging Vin. In a distant part of his mind Vin realized he was clutching at Chris's arm so hard that it would likely bruise. It wasn't until Buck's smooth voice broke in, "Chris, Junior, come on guys ya gotta breathe," that Vin released his hold on Chris and the breath he'd been holding in, Chris's arm dropping from around him.

They waited for the court papers and even then Vin wasn't quite sure he believed what it said even after he'd read it several times. He slowly counted back the years. Vin had been six when his mother died. He had stayed with his father until he was a little over eight. Then he'd been in foster care for a few months before being placed with his grandfather – that had only lasted a few months, at most, and then he'd been in foster care again. Over five years Vin had been passed around from family to family and now, now he was no longer just another foster kid.

"What do you want to do, Junior? We have the whole rest of the day free."

Vin could only think of one thing he wanted. "I wanna go home." He didn't feel as bad when tears misted his eyes because Chris and Buck were in the same state Vin was. They understood somehow. It was the first time Vin had called it home and the first time that Vin had truly had a home in nearly eight years.

Chris's arm came up around Vin's shoulder and Vin leaned into him slightly just because he could. That evening after their run, dinner, and homework Vin wandered back to his room and pulled out two books, one more worn than the other. He placed them purposefully on the coffee table in front of Chris, not exactly giving them to him, but making the offering.

"What's that?" Chris asked, glancing down at them and then up at Vin.

He ducked his head down and burrowed back into the couch, pulling his feet up onto the cushion in front of him. "My Life Books." His voice was so soft that Chris had to lean in to hear him. When Chris nodded to them Vin nodded back. Then Chris reached over and picked up the first one; Vin had placed the oldest one on top.

The first picture was of his mother, one of the better ones he had, with her date of birth and date of death listed as well as her height, weight, hair color, and color of her eyes – he forgot sometimes. That was all taken from her old driver's license that Vin had hidden away with some of her other belongings. Vin remembered being dragged away from her body by his father, he remembered clutching her purse as he cried. He also remembered hiding away what his father had tried to throw away – everything else in the purse that hadn't had any value.

"What was here?" Chris asked, pointing at a spot in the book where something had obviously been ripped out. Angry black slashes in permanent marker covered the words that had been so painstakingly written there.

"My dad." That picture had been torn from the pages in one of Vin's rages. It had been torn into small bits and burned with a lighter he'd stolen from the foster parent's he'd been staying with at the time. He'd wished time and again that his dad had died instead of his mother. Vin only had one picture left of his father and even though he'd thought about destroying it, too, he'd somehow never been able to.

The picture of his grandfather remained intact, but Vin liked to think that was because he only had the one. If Vin was honest with himself it was probably still there because he hadn't been with him long enough to hate him as much as he hated his father. There were pictures from the first foster homes Vin had been in, including the various pictures of other foster children he'd lived with. Then there were pictures of the more recent foster homes as well as some pictures that Angie had taken of Chris and Buck and given to Vin.

Every now and again Chris would ask about a certain picture or a certain person, but for the most part they were silent. Vin had written the dates that he was at the homes and the dates that he left. He'd left scribbled notes in the margins of the pages, little drawings, and other reminders that brought up more memories than Vin cared to admit. When the last page was turned Chris held the books in his hands before offering them back to Vin. "Thank you."

Vin nodded back, acknowledging, before taking the books back and burying them once more in the bottom of his duffle bag in the back of his closet.

Chapter Ten

The wind was loud throughout that night, whistling and howling to the point that Vin could barely sleep. Buck and Chris both asked if he wasn't feeling well the next morning, but Vin told them he was fine and that he was going to school. Vin dozed on the bus for part of the way until JD jostled the seat and tugged on his arm, his expression worried and demanding, "How did it go?" bringing Vin back into awareness.

"Fine. They got custody of me."

JD frowned at him. "Chris and Buck? Then why do you look like hell?" His hand started for Vin's forehead as if to check his temperature and Vin shoved his hand away.

"Didn't sleep too good."

"So they've adopted you?"

Vin shrugged. "Not officially, I guess, but they hold custody. They said the final hearing would be in a few months and Angie still has to make visits to see how things are going."

"Well, that's something at least. Can you believe it? You're going to be adopted." JD sounded even more excited about it then Vin did and the thought made Vin smile as he turned his face toward the bus's window. Leave it to JD to know how to make someone light up.

After that Vin was determined to enjoy himself at school and refused to even think of Eli Joe or looking over his shoulder to make sure he wasn't being followed. He didn't hurry from class to class just to make sure to avoid anyone and it was nice to be able to take his time. The hallway was a jumble of people with kids yelling out, "Wait up!" and "Did you hear about…?" and "Can you believe it?" For once the noise didn't bother Vin in the least.

"You coming, Ezra?"

The name caught Vin's attention and he found himself turning toward a locker where the other boy was standing, obviously throwing books he didn't need in his locker as he retrieved other books. "Be right there." Ezra caught a glimpse of Vin in the mirror on the inside of his locker door, a mirror that Vin imagined had been placed there by a girl because one side had her picture in it. That and the mirror's frame was a flashy pink. When Ezra turned their eyes met for just a moment, Ezra throwing him a smile to which Vin nodded back.

"Hurry up Ezra! We're going to be late." Then Ezra was gone, his locker snapping shut with a bang and Vin realized he'd been staring and that he, too, was going to be late. Vin just managed to slip into his own classroom before the teacher closed the door, signifying that any other students would be tardy.

Vin almost told JD about seeing Ezra at school again while they were riding the bus home, but every time he thought about it there didn't seem to be any casual way to work it into a conversation. So he didn't say anything. The air was calm as only the mildest of breezes swept by Vin on his walk up the drive and Vin took a moment to enjoy it. A couple of sticks snapped below his feet due to the high winds, but the trees were still sprouting new leaves and summer was just around the corner.

It was unintentional, but Vin started on his homework as soon as he sat down at the kitchen table. There didn't seem to be any reason not to start his homework and Vin knew it was only a matter of time before he would be working on it anyway. That was what he was doing when Chris and Buck got in the door. It was shortly after that that everything went to hell.

"Vin, come help us pick these stick up out of the yard." The windstorm the night before had knocked the trees about and there were all sorts of stick and leaves and everything all over the yard. He knew that, somewhere in his mind, even as his body bulked and he froze up.


"Come on, Junior, it won't take long with all of us working together." Buck reached for his arm, what had become a familiar gesture, and Vin jerked away before he could be touched. "Junior? You all right?"

Vin's chest tightened up, a stabbing pain going through his chest, his lungs constricting as he dropped into a crouch on the floor, one of his hands going automatically out to balance himself. He began sucking in short, rapid breaths through his mouth, panting as if he'd run a marathon.

"Vin! Vin, you all right?" That was Chris. "Buck, call the ambulance!"

Between breaths Vin gasped, "No – fine – I'm – fine."

"Are you sure, Vin?"

He nodded back as he continued to concentrate on his breathing. Gradually the pain faded and Vin took in a deep breath, able to return to a normal breathing pattern.

"What just happened there, Junior? You sure it's nothing we need to have checked out?"

Vin found himself nodding again as he dropped back to sit on the floor, his legs propped out in front of him. "Yeah. Panic attack." It had been a while since he'd had one, years in fact. Hadn't really thought he was capable of having them anymore, thought he'd built up an immunity to everything.

"Anything special bring them on?"

That was a harder question than Chris realized, one Vin even now hesitated to answer. "Yeah. Sticks." He saw Buck frown and Chris's eyes narrow – but it wasn't quite what Vin was sure that Chris thought it was. "M'dad once had me – he told me to clean up the yard, to – to get the sticks out of the yard and put them by the fence. So I did." Vin swallowed hard, his head drooping even as he continued to stare straight into Chris's eyes, as if the man could give him his strength. "He didn't say nothin' about where to put them, just by the fence. Told me I hadn't put them on the right side of the fence, got mad at me. Started hittin' me, then he got out his belt. Someone must have called the police – it was right out there in the yard – and I remembering m'head hitting the ground a coupla times and musta blacked out after that."

"Ah, Junior." Buck's arm slid around his shoulder, his head leaning against Vin's head, just holding him. Chris had already claimed both of Vin's hands. "Any other triggers we should be aware of?"

Vin coughed, trying to cover for the tears sliding down his face and not wanting to sniffle. "Belts," Vin replied, trying to make his voice sound light. "Not if they're being worn, but held. Broken glass. Fly swatters." Here Vin paused for a moment before hesitatingly adding, "Baseball bats." As an afterthought he mentioned, "Cigarettes."

They didn't ask the details and Vin wasn't sure he could have told them those, not just yet. The sticks had been bad enough. No need to scare them off completely.

"You have a counseling appointment tomorrow."

"No!" Vin jerked from Buck's arms abruptly and then forced himself to calm down as he remembered how to reprocess his thoughts and feelings as one counselor had taught him and how to breathe to calm himself down as another had showed him. There was a very fine line that Vin knew he was walking and he had no intention of showing either of these people how violent he could be. "I don't want to go."

Chris took a breath and leaned down until he caught Vin's eyes. "After what just happened I really think you should."

Vin struggled with another burst of anger until he could force out the words, "I don't like her. Barb. I don't like her."

"Have you ever told anyone that before?"

Vin shook his head no.

"Would you like us to find you a new counselor?"

Vin shook his head again.

"Let me rephrase that – if you have to go to counseling no matter what, would you rather see someone new or see Barb?"

"Someone new." Vin took the hand Chris offered and dragged himself to his feet. He didn't ever offer or initiate physical contact with either Chris or Buck, but he didn't mind it when they did. Buck liked to ruffle his hair sometimes, to touch his arm now that Vin had allowed him into his space and there was no stopping Buck once he knew you were okay with something.

"Okay, then we'll find you someone else, someone you do like." Vin was nothing if not amused – it wasn't likely that they would be able to get him in to see a new counselor for months. Most of them were all booked up and maybe by then they would forget to take him.

It came as a shock the next day when Chris told Vin that he had an appointment with a John Perkins the very next week. Vin shrugged when Chris asked if it was okay that it was a male therapist because it didn't really matter much to him. He mentioned it to JD on the bus and JD smiled immediately. "I like John! He deals with cutters and things like that, the serious cases, you know. They sent me to him for a while. He doesn't accept the medical card so…"

Vin frowned back at JD, slowly processing what his friend had just told him. "You cut yourself?"

For once JD fell silent, his eyes going wide. "Just – it's been a long time." JD didn't want to talk about it anymore after that and they sat in silence for most of the ride to school until JD found a new topic he did want to talk about.

Then next thing Vin processed was that this therapist didn't accept the medical card, which meant that Chris and Buck would be paying for it themselves. Shit. Vin sighed and wondered what type of medical insurance they had and if that would cover at least part of Vin's sessions because he was their's now, right? He hoped it did because therapists were expensive and if this guy was as good as JD said he was then it must be a lot of money. If there was one thing Vin didn't want to do it was cause trouble.

Vin dreaded the up-coming appointment even more than any of his previous ones because of the cost and the thought that if he didn't like this new therapist that Chris would only find another one for him. He'd already had enough therapists to last a lifetime. What was the point of finding one he liked?

Buck picked him up from school on the day of his counseling appointment and even his steady stream of words couldn't keep Vin's stomach from twisting itself into knots. The waiting room was small and none of the magazines could draw his attention, nor could the barely visible refrigerator in the mini-kitchen to the side of the waiting room. Vin stared at his feet until the sound of a voice saying his name drew his attention up even as Buck rose to greet this man that introduced himself as John Perkins.

He wasn't what Vin expected – he was older and his hair was grayish white, his face and stomach round but not enough to be over-large for his size. For a large man his voice was higher than Vin would have imagined and yet it didn't seem out of place. He was offered a drink from the refrigerator and after the second offer Vin ended up getting a Pepsi just because he could. Then they headed back through several twisting hallways to a room with dark green walls and soft plush furniture including two large armchairs and a matching loveseat. Mr. Perkins told him to sit wherever he wanted. In the corner of the room was a computer as well as another chair on wheels that obviously went with it. Vin sat in one of the armchairs. Buck chose the loveseat and John, after fumbling around for a bit, took the other armchair.

"What brings you here today?" Before Vin could form an answer John continued on, "I have some kids that see me because they are having problems with their behaviors or with kids at school and fitting in or even because they've hurt themselves or don't feel that great about themselves. Would any of those fit for you?"

"Not really…"

"I have other kids that see me because someone hurt them, maybe not physically, but maybe emotionally and maybe it happened a long time ago and maybe it happened pretty recently. Would that be closer or am I way off?"

Vin found himself fighting back a smile at the way his counselor rambled on and he knew it was supposed to make him laugh and he didn't want to like this man. "That's close."

"Okay. We'll go into that a bit more later. I'd like to know a little bit about you and who you live with. I have some kids that live with their parents and others that live with their relatives like maybe an aunt or uncle. Other kids live with foster parents or with someone else."

His eyes went wide for a moment because Vin couldn't say that he lived with foster parents anymore because they weren't. But Buck and Chris – well, they weren't his dads either. They were just… Buck and Chris. "I – "

"We're in the process of adopting Vin. We just got temporary custody recently." Vin threw Buck a grateful look.

John nodded, his eyes never leaving Vin. "Who is 'we'?"

That was an easy question. "Chris and Buck."

"Chris is…?"

"My partner," Buck responded.

"Can you tell me a little bit about your real parents and what happened to them? I have some kids tell me that they've gotten adopted or are going to be adopted because something happened with their parents that wasn't their fault. Maybe their parents didn't have enough money to take care of them or maybe mom and dad fought a lot."

Vin shrugged when the pause indicated that he could either respond or allow John to continue talking. "Mom's dead."

"And your dad?"

"Might as well be dead. He gave up his parental rights so he wouldn't have to pay child support." Vin also assumed that part of it was that his dad hadn't wanted to deal with children services or their anger management and shit. He didn't want to get better.

"So now you're living with Buck and Chris. Are their any other people in your home?"


They talked more about his current family and about movies and books and school for a while until John asked Buck to leave. Despite his better judgment Vin found he already liked John. "What is it that you would like to see happen here, Vin? What would you like me to help you with?"

Vin sank back into the armchair he was in, considering what he'd been asked. He could never recall having ever been asked that by anyone else before. "I don't want them to hate me."


"Chris and Buck." Wasn't that obvious?

"Why would you think they would hate you?"

"They've never seen me before and I don't want them to."

John didn't press though he considered Vin's words for some time before finally nodding as if to himself. "There's someone inside you that you don't want them to see."


"Is there anything in particular that you don't want them to see?"

"Yeah." The time flew by and then it was time to go. On the way to the truck Buck asked him if he'd liked John Perkins and Vin couldn't help but say, "Yeah." It was only when they were almost home that Vin remembered the cost of counseling and he began to wonder if maybe he shouldn't have said that he liked him after all.

Chapter Eleven

After several more sessions with John Perkins he began to consider the pros and cons of remaining with him as a counselor. Vin didn't want them to have to pay for him to see John. More than that Vin didn't want Chris or Buck to resent him for making them spend all of that money on him. On the other hand Vin didn't want to go back to see Barb or switch to another counselor that he might end up liking even less that he'd liked Barb. Plus, he really did like John.

"We're got another appointment scheduled on Thursday, Vin. Okay?" Chris had it marked on the calendar in the kitchen along with all of the other appointments they had.

"I don't have to go." His feet scuffed the floor restlessly. "I don't have to go to counseling, I don't need it."

"Vin, we've been through this before."

Chris sounded annoyed and Vin knew that they'd said it before, but there it was hanging over his head. "I don't need it, though."

"Do you want to try another counselor, Vin? Is that what this is about?"

He bit his lip and considered that question. "One that accepts the medical card?"

Chris's eyes narrowed and Buck, who had been half-listening to their old argument, sat forward suddenly. "Who told you that John didn't accept the medical card?"

"I just heard."

"That what this is really about, Junior? If it is you can drop that right now. From what I've seen you and John get on real well and this nonsense about whether he accepts the medical card doesn't mean anything. You just worry about listening to John and sorting things out. That's your job. We'll take care of everything else."

It wasn't all that reassuring, but maybe it really was okay. He'd never heard Buck and Chris ever fight about money and that was usually what adults tended to argue about. Still, it didn't seem fair that they had to pay for him to see a counselor, even a good one like John was. With a heavy sigh Vin filed those thoughts away in the back of his head to take out later because it was time for their run and he didn't have to think during that. After their evening rituals were complete Vin found himself fast asleep before he even knew it, whatever he had wanted to think on having slipped his mind.

A sharp ring woke Vin from a sound sleep and a glance from sleep-blurred eyes showed the clock's display proclaiming that it was 12:30am. Either Chris or Buck answered the phone because it stopped after two more rings. Vin wavered between wanting to fall asleep and wanting to make sure everything was okay – calls that late at night usually weren't good signs.

The hall light flashed on not much later and Vin listened quietly to the low murmur of first Chris then Buck's voice. "Vin?" That was Chris, just outside of his doorway. "You awake?"

"Yeah." He sat up and wandered toward Chris in the semi-darkness.

"They have a boy that needs a place to stay. He's apparently managed to chase off a couple of families already tonight. What do you think?" Vin stared at Chris wondering exactly what he was being asked even though he had a good idea. Nobody asked the kids, not even when it was their own kids. "Would you mind someone else staying with us?"

"I don't mind."

Chris nodded, stifling a yawn. "I'll let her know. You can go back to bed."

Vin didn't go back to bed but instead leaned against his wall and listened to the murmur of voices followed by both Chris and Buck wandering down the hall and into the kitchen, talking quietly to each other. There was another bedroom, more like a guest room than anything else and Vin never went into it. There was one more room besides that, but it was crowded full of boxes and random furniture, more of a junk room than anything.

With only a slight pause Vin headed toward the kitchen and hovered halfway in the doorway. "How old is he?"

"About your age," Buck replied as he ran a hand through sleep-tousled hair. "Fourteen, I think she said."

"Do you know his name?"

Chris kept glancing at the coffee pot as if he were considering making some, but realized that he wouldn't be able to go back to sleep if he had any. "Ezra something."

"Standish? Ezra Standish?" Vin's voice rose in surprise, the quiet calm that had surrounded them snapping into pieces.

"You know him, Junior?"

Vin leaned back into the kitchen wall, crossing his arms over his chest. "He's – he's in my grade, but he's really popular and… rich."

"Money don't mean you don't have problems, Vin. Is it going to be a problem? Him being here?" The look Buck gave him suggested that Vin did not seem overly fond of Ezra, but that wasn't it at all. He was just shocked.

"Not a problem." Vin gnawed on the inside of his mouth as he considered the fact that if Ezra was staying with them, even for a short amount of time, it would mean he would be able to talk to him by himself. For once.

Chris and Buck talked about changing the spare room around some – tomorrow, of course – so that Ezra would be more comfortable there. When the car pulled up to the house Chris got up and met the social worker at the door and Vin thought they called her Nicole. "Ezra, get in here now." Chris glanced back at Buck as apparently their newcomer did not want to leave the vehicle. "We have been through this before now come on! He has a lot of things with him already," she said back to Chris.

It didn't surprise Vin that Ezra had three suitcases with him – nice suitcases that sounded heavy. Nor did it surprise him that Ezra looked very tired and even more unhappy. Vin's first thought had been that someone had beaten Ezra up but there were no marks that he could see on Ezra's face or arms. It was late at night, though, so something must have happened to get the police involved and that had to be serious.

"Sit down." Chris gestured Ezra to one of the kitchen chairs. Even tired as he was Vin saw Ezra dig his heels in, oddly reminding Vin of Peso. "Sit down," Chris repeated himself as Buck wandered over to the social worker to sign the usual paperwork and get some of the forms in return.

"Why the hell should I do anything you say?" Ezra glared at Chris his whole posture defiant. They were all giving Ezra a lot of space, more than Vin was used to seeing them give a person.

"While you are here – " Buck cut off Chris before he could continue. It was the first time Vin had heard Chris raise his voice and it made him a little edgy even though it wasn't directed at him.

"Have a seat." Buck met Ezra's fierce gaze calmly and after several long seconds Ezra sat as if having no other choice. He was probably too tired to protest too much.

Then the social worker left after telling Chris and Buck thanks and telling Ezra to behave. Ezra looked ready to fall over – it was almost 1:30am now and Vin doubted he'd gotten any sleep at all yet. "We'll show you to your room."

Ezra sat there for a moment as if debating with himself before he lifted his eyes and said in a much calmer voice, "I would like to take a shower first." His expression didn't change and there were no real signs from Ezra himself, but Chris flinched ever so slightly and Buck's eyes suddenly went to the floor. Vin knew then why Ezra was here even if he didn't know the details of it.

"I'll show him." Vin stepped forward into the kitchen, watching as Ezra turned toward him and their eyes held.

"I've seen you before." Vin hadn't thought that Ezra knew his name. "I'm Ezra – "

"Standish. I know. I'm Vin Tanner." He took possession of two of Ezra's large suitcases that had wheels on them, too – the third Ezra had never let go of. "Come on." Ezra followed more slowly down the hall and they set the suitcases down in the spare room then Vin showed Ezra where the bathroom and everything was. "You need anything my room's right across from yours."

Ezra nodded at him, but Vin had the feeling that Ezra wouldn't ask even if he needed something. After Ezra had gotten clothes to change into Vin wandered back into the kitchen where Buck and Chris were still sitting and poured a glass of water and grabbed an apple from the refrigerator. At Chris's questioning look Vin shrugged, "Don't know when he ate last." He set these by the stand beside Ezra's bed and left the light on so Ezra would see them.

After crawling back into bed Vin laid awake until he heard the shower turn off and the faint sounds of Ezra dragging himself into his own bed. It was past 2:30am the last time Vin glanced at the display on his clock.

Vin was up later than usual, but still early enough by Buck's standards. They had just sat down for breakfast – pancakes and bacon – when Ezra stumbled into the kitchen still managing to look very well dressed despite his bleary eyes. "Morning Ezra."

"Why is everyone up so early?"

"This far out the bus comes early," Vin replied and watched Ezra nod his head in acknowledgement.

"You don't have to go to school Ezra. You had a long day yesterday and – "

Buck was unable to finish his sentence because Ezra's head shot up, his eyes going wide. "You've got to be kidding me! I do not miss school, especially not for something as minor as this." Ezra's expression darkened as he dropped into one of the kitchen chairs. "Besides, I can't miss practice and I can't go to practice if I miss school."

A look that Chris and Buck shared was one of confusion. "Practice for what?"

"Baseball." Ezra tried to stifle a yawn, but failed.

"You could miss one practice, Ezra."

Ezra's jaw set and he shook his head. "I am the pitcher. I do not miss."

There was something bordering on curious respect in Chris's eyes as he took another look at Ezra. "I'm sure there are other people on your team that can pitch."

"Well, yes, but Tyler has never pitched for a whole practice let alone a whole game and Alex is more likely to injure someone than anything else. Besides there's only a few games left in the season and we cannot miss even one practice."

Buck smiled. "What time's practice over?"

"Five thirty." It was agreed that Buck would pick Ezra up after practice before they were urged out of the door. On the walk down the drive to the bus stop Ezra asked, "Is one of them your dad or what?"

Vin shook his head. "I was a foster kid, but now they're adopting me."

"Oh." Ezra paused, studying the skyline. "Do you like it here?"

"Yeah." Ezra didn't ask any more questions and Vin wondered if it was because Ezra didn't want to have to give him information he didn't want to. They sat together in Vin's regular seat, which wasn't a problem until JD's stop came up and JD froze to see someone in his usual seat. JD was forced to take the seat behind them and his head immediately popped over the side.

"What's going on?" It was unspoken that JD knew what was going on, at least in part, but he wanted details.

"Ezra's staying with us for a while." Ezra didn't visibly react to that statement.

"Oh? Why?"

Vin shook his head. "None of your business, JD." And it wasn't. It wasn't any of Vin's business either, but that wasn't going to stop either one of them from being curious.

As they were parting to go to their classes – JD and Ezra going to the more advanced classes – Ezra suddenly asked, "Which truck is Buck's? The red or black one?"

Vin understood wanting to know the details, to know what was expected or coming next. "The red one."

"Okay, thanks." Then Ezra was headed down the hall his friends calling out to him and Ezra greeted them woodenly, but not unkindly. Vin wondered if he was still in shock and when it would finally sink in. Sometimes it took a few days. Sometimes it was hours. Sometimes it took weeks or months. Even so, Vin couldn't help but be pleased that it was Ezra staying with them now.