ATF Alternate Universe
Family, It's What You Make It
by Mary Ann

Beta - Melissa

Universe - ATF Little Bits (Ezra, JD, Vin are youngsters)

Chapter 1

Rain slashed the leaded windows making them rattle in their casings. The sky had darkened and traffic slowed on the road in front of the large stone house. Inside few lights dispelled some of the gloomy interior. The low mummer of voices echoed from some of the upper rooms, other rooms were silent. Some adults checked the young boys in the lower rooms, making sure there was no fighting or other problems with any of the children. The hour before dinner was study time. The older boys were on the honor system while the younger ones needed to be checked. If the child had a question, the adult would help them.

Two little boys watched in silence as the man left the room. When the man continued down the hall the smaller boy turned to the other and whispered, "Want to go see if Ezra is done studying?"

The long haired boy's bright blue eyes studied the black haired boy for several moments. Then with a sigh, he nodded his head and stuck out his hand. The small boy grinned and took his hand and together they left the room. In the hallway, they headed for the stairs. Tip toeing, they hurried up the steps. At the top, they walked down the hall to one of the rooms and knocked. The sound had them cringing. They were anxious to get out of the hall before someone caught them on the upper floor.

Silently the door opened. They hurried inside before it shut behind them.

"What are you doing here Mr. Dunne, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra Standish asked. He moved to the tiny table beside his narrow bed and shut the book he was reading.

The boys moved to the bed and sat down. JD Dunne grinned at the chestnut haired teen in spotless clothes. "We got's nothing to do. So come here ta visit you."

Vin Tanner, pushed his long light brown hair out of his face, and nodded in agreement.

Ezra sighed and sat down on the sole bench under the window. "I just finished my studies. But it is almost dinner time. What did you want to talk about?" He asked with a little smile at the two younger boys.

"Well, I don't know." JD said, then whispered. "Do you's think we can leaves soon?"

"I don't really know. We will have to play it by ear. At the moment, it is not a good time to depart. There is a torrential rain storm happening."

"I'm hungry. Vin is too, he didn't get lunch." JD stated.

Ezra frowned and looked at the silent seven year old. "No lunch?"

Vin's blue eyed gaze turned to the floor, and he nodded his head.

"Why this time?"

Blue eyes turned to JD and JD answered for him. "He was trying to get homework done's and that Eli Joe took all his papers and tore them up. Vin couldn't tell teacher what happened and he gots sent to the room until after lunch."

"That Eli Joe is a dreadful trouble maker. I will have to think of something to get back at him with," Ezra said.

"He's al'ays bad to Vin, and me sometimes too." JD looked at Vin then back to Ezra, his dark brown eyes shining, he was sure Ezra could do something to Eli Joe for them.

"I will think of something. Now, is all your work done? Is there anything I can help you with Vin?"

Vin shook his head no and looked away.

Ezra sighed again. He wished he could help the two orphans. Well, he had told them he would help them leave this place. It seemed that Vin always got into trouble for one thing or another. The boy didn't talk. Ezra wasn't sure if he'd ever talked. He'd been here for several months and the long haired boy had never said a word. JD did all of the talking for them both.

He glanced across the little room to where he'd hidden the money he took before his mother dumped him in this hell hole. Her cousin in Austin didn't want to take on a thirteen year old and told her about this place on the outskirts of the city, a home for orphans, or, he wasn't quite sure what it was supposed to be. Maude dropped him off and assured him that she would be back. He still hadn't heard from her, though it seemed that the owner, or head master, of this institute was receiving some sort of payment for him. He seemed to be treated better than most of the boys incarcerated here.

Ezra studied Vin again. He could see the bruise on his cheek was almost gone and felt glad. The young boy, as quiet as he was, from what he'd observed, kept to himself and stayed out of trouble. But it seemed that some of the older boys had it in for the youngster. Since he arrived here, Vin had been in several, so called 'fights', punished each time by being locked in a small dark closet and ignored for a night or longer. Eli Joe and his buddies constantly harassed Vin, as often as they could get away with it. The last time, Vin'd been pushed down the stairs, which resulted to the bruising on not only his face, but two cracked ribs and more bruises on his thin body. Because Vin ended up unconscious, the head master had to take the boy to the hospital for treatment. He still was mad over that.

He glazed at Vin who stared out of the small window, leaning against the wall beside it. Ezra wondered what thoughts were going through his head and wished he would, or could, talk. Even though JD talked enough for all three of them. He grinned at that thought. The little boy was a wonder. He could talk your arm off about nothing.

When Ezra arrived, JD and Vin were the only ones who approached him and made him welcome. Well as much as they could in a place like this. Ezra looked over the skinny boy, trying not to stare. He was afraid that the next time, Vin would be hurt worse than he already had been. Ezra knew he was terrified of the closet they locked him in. Vin fought like the devil to stay out of it, but the adults were stronger. They just laughed and shoved him inside the small space, locked the door, and walked away. Every man ignored the boy who pounded in desperation on the door. He stuck up for Vin one time, and suffered the same fate. Shoved into another closet beside the one Vin had been forced into. It wasn't Vin's fault, but the adults didn't care. Vin was the one who always suffered.

They heard a buzzer go off and JD jumped from the bed. "Dinner time! Let's eat!" He yelled and ran for the door.

Vin and Ezra glanced at each other and with smiles followed the smaller boy out the door and down the hall.

After dinner, the fifteen boys were instructed to go into the recreation room and watch TV. Five of the older boys helped in the kitchen every night. The boys were allowed two hours of TV watching an evening, if all their chores and homework were finished. They were allowed to watch Disney and home improvement channels only. There was a large round table in the room where they could put puzzles together or do some sort of craft projects.

Ezra, Vin and JD entered the room and sat together on one of the three couches, trying to ignore the other kids in the room. They stiffened when Eli Joe and his three buddies walked in and claimed the table.

Vin shifted, uncomfortable, he could feel the newcomer's eyes on him. His ribs were still sore and he didn't want to do anything to make them worse. He tried to ignore the older boys and turned his attention to the program on the television. He succeeded, the program for once was interesting, and though he shot glances at the older boys, nothing happened. When the program was over he motioned to JD that he was going to their room.

As Vin headed for the door, one of the older teens jumped up from the table as he passed. Vin danced aside to avoid him. He wasn't fast enough. The teen laughed and pushed him into a taller boy. The second boy shoved him hard. Vin couldn't catch himself and crashed to the floor. The taller boy hopped around on one foot shrieking he was hurt.

Ezra and JD rushed over. It was too late to help Vin. George, one of the attendants, rushed into the room. His gaze took in the scene. He grabbed Vin off the floor, and shook him. The yelling teen said Vin intentionally ran into him and injured his foot. Other boys were all talking at once. Each saying something different.

The noise escalated. George, holding Vin, bellowed for silence.

In anger, Ezra called the teen a liar and told George what happened. Standing by the table, all of Eli Joe's friends started talking at once to George. They all insisted Vin caused the problem. Talking over Ezra and JD.

George commanded Ezra to go to his room and not to interfere. With a final glare he turned and dragged Vin out of the room. Vin's arm was gripped in Georges hand as he went down the hall to the head masters office. Ezra and JD followed, fearing Vin was in for another uncomfortable night in the closet. The rabble rousers, led by Eli Joe, came out of the room laughing and headed for the stairs.

Ezra and JD watched Vin and George disappear into the office, the door slamming behind them. They walked past the door and went to the stairs where they sat down on the bottom steps to wait.

A half hour later, George dragged Vin from the office and toward the stairs. The small figure in the man's grip was almost limp. Tears were streaming down his white face to drip off his chin. His eyes were enormous in his thin face.

JD jumped up, but Ezra grabbed his arm. The look on George's face made Ezra afraid to do or say anything. He held onto the small boy as they watched the man open the closet under the stairs and throw Vin inside.

George locked the door, straightened, and looked at the two boys at the foot of the stairs. "I told you to go to your room. Now get!" He snarled, when the boys started to move, he turned away and went down the hall.

Once the man started to walk away the two boys stopped and watched until he was out of sight. Then they hurried back to the locked door. JD knocked softly on it and called out, "Vin are you alrite?"

"Not so loud JD. Someone might come back. Mr. Tanner are you there?" Ezra asked.

JD was leaning against the door, his ear pressed as hard as he could get it against the wood. He listened, then whispered to Ezra, "He's crying."

"Let me there" Ezra knelt down and pressed his ear to the door. He had a bad feeling something terrible had happened to his young friend. "Mr. Tanner, Vin, are you all right? Use our knock, remember one for everything is all right, two if not. Please Vin, we need to know."

Ezra and JD held their breaths as they waited for a knock. After several long moments, they heard a soft knock, then another one. The two exchanged, wide-eyed, horrified looks before Ezra turned back to the door. Frowning, he clenched his hand into a fist and thought hard for a moment. Then he leaned forward and whispered against the door. "We have to go for now. But we will be back as soon as everyone is in bed. We will get you out of there. Do you understand?"

Again they waited, before a soft knock sounded. Ezra let out his held breath. JD grinned. "We'll be back Vin, promise." He whispered, before he rose and followed Ezra down the hall.

Upstairs, Ezra made sure no one was around and hurried to JD and Vin's room. The other two boys that shared the room were still downstairs. Ezra looked around, and hurried to the bed assigned to Vin. He knew he had to hurry.

"What're we doing Ezra?" JD asked as the teen knelt on the floor and looked under the bed.

"I need Mr. Tanner's backpack. We will be leaving this establishment later tonight." He pulled the grey backpack out from under the bed. "Where are Mr. Tanner's belongings?"

JD stepped to the small dresser and opened the middle drawer, "These is Vin's. Mine are below."

"Get your pack and get your things into it, Ezra ordered as he pulled the few belongings from the drawer and stuffed them into Vin's pack. "Does he have any other belongings?" he asked as he finished. He couldn't believe what he'd packed, a pair of old jeans, two spare shirts, both long sleeved. Two pairs of socks and underwear. He looked around the room for a coat or boots. It was the first part of November and the cold of winter had begun. Though not as cold there in Texas, he didn't know what the weather would be where they were going. It could be worse where they went.

JD paused in packing his dark colored backpack and went to the narrow door in one corner of the room and opened it. Four jackets hung on nails there. He grabbed one and gave it to Ezra before taking the smaller, heavier one and laid by his pack.

"That's the one they gived Vin when we came here. It's all he has. Oh, he's got something under his mat'res that's his, he had it when we got here." JD pointed to the top of Vin's bed.

Ezra stuffed the jacket into the pack and moved to the upper edge of the bed and lifted the thin mattress up. He found a packet wrapped in a cloth with a piece of heavy plastic tightly wrapped over it with and a string holding it all together. With gentle fingers, he took it out from its hiding place. Curious he opened the packet. He stared at a photograph, thinking it must be Vin and his mother. A pretty young woman held a tiny baby. She had large blue eyes like Vin's. A second picture was the woman and a toddler, the third was the woman again and an older Vin. Ezra could tell the little boy was happy, by his wide smile. The woman's smile was gentle as she looked down on her son. Ezra instantly noticed that she looked thinner, she was sick in that picture. Vin's hair was long, over his little shoulders, and greatly streaked with blond, his face and arms tanned. He wondered if he talked then.

With a quick, careful movements Ezra rewrapped and tied the pictures and placed them into the pack. He would find a book to place them in, to keep them flat so they wouldn't bend. JD finished and stood beside him waiting.

"You have everything? Then we're finished. I think you should go to bed. I will come for you when everything quiets down." Ezra told JD.

"Are you sure? I don't want to stay here. Don't forget me, I have to leave too." JD said a little frantically.

"I will not leave you Mr. Dunne. You are packed. I need to pack and get ready to leave also. I need to make sure everyone in the house is asleep so I can get our friend freed. We must pretend everything is unchanged, so they don't suspect us of deception."

JD looked at Ezra in confusion. Ezra shook his head and said, "Go to bed like usual. I will come for you when it is safe for us to leave."

With a nod JD shoved his pack under his bed and crawled onto it, "I'll be waiting. I'll pretend to be asleep."

"Good. I will see you as soon as I can." Ezra said and walked to the door. He looked out before hooking Vin's back pack over his shoulder. He then hurried out of the room.

Safe in his small space, Ezra pulled his own backpack out from the small closet and swiftly packed his belongings. He then packed the few books he had with him, and used one to keep Vin's pictures flat and safe. He checked the hall once more to make sure no one was out there. Shutting the door, he went to the bed and pulled it away from the wall. On the other side of the bed, he bent and found the loose board on the paneled wall. With deft fingers, he moved the board aside a couple of inches and reached in, and pulled out the hidden wallet. He replaced the board and moved the bed back into place. Sitting on his bed, he opened the wallet and counted the money. He folded several bills and stuffed them into a secured coat pocket. Then he took out the set of lock picks he'd stored inside a flap in the back of the wallet.

Placing the wallet in the special place in the backpack, Ezra put the picks in his pocket, he would need them later. He changed his shirt to his pajama shirt and crawled into bed. For awhile he read, listening as the other boys in the building went to their rooms. With his light out, he waited in silence for the building to quiet down. He dozed off, then startled awake. Looking at his watch, he saw it was after midnight and rose. Switching his shirt once more, and packed the pajama top. He left the pack beside his door, next to Vin's and crept out into the hall.

For several minutes Ezra listened, but he could hear nothing except for the rain beating on the roof. In the dark, he made his way down the stairs where he again paused listening. When he was sure no one was about, he slipped to the closet door and knocked on it quietly. He heard an immediate answering knock. Ezra moved closer to the door and whispered, "I am going to free you Mr. Tanner, please be silent." He heard two spaced light knocks on the wood, and he began to work on the lock to free his friend.

Within two minutes the lock clicked and Ezra opened the door. Vin fell into his arms. He grabbed the thin figure and held him for a moment. Vin's arms were wrapped around him in a tight grip.

"It's all right Mr. Tanner. We have to get JD and get out of here." Ezra whispered close to Vin's ear. "Will you be all right while I collect Mr. Dunne?"

Vin finally nodded his head and released Ezra. Vin looked around the dark hallway. His gaze went back and forth, he couldn't go back into the closet. With a shudder, he wondered where he could hide while he waited. He didn't want to go up the stairs, he was in a lot of pain. He'd been beaten with the head masters crop, one the man used to scare the boys with. Ezra led him to the edge of the stairs. Where the steps ended and the railing fastened to the floor, was a darker space and Ezra pointed to it. For a moment Vin paused and looked at the dark spot, then nodded his head.

"Stay there, I will return post haste with Mr. Dunne and our backpacks. Do not fear, I have packed all of your belongings, including the special one under your mattress." Ezra patted the smaller boy's shoulder and silently slipped up the stairs.

Chapter 2

Vin settled into the dark corner, shifting from foot to foot as he waited. He couldn't sit down. He didn't think he could get up if he did. He listened to the silence of the large house. He could hear the rain hitting the front porch over hang. Chewing his lip, he began worrying where they were going to go in this weather.

A noise from the upper floor caught Vin's attention, and he pushed deeper into the dark. He heard light footsteps, two pairs and realized they were from Ezra and JD. Biting his lips, he waited for them.

It took a couple of minutes before the two were on the main floor. Seeing it was Ezra and JD, Vin came out of his hiding place. Ezra handed him his jacket and backpack. He slipped both on and with JD beside him followed Ezra to the large front door. Seconds later Ezra had the door unlocked and they slipped out onto the porch. Ezra made sure the door was locked again. Leaning against the wall he pulled on his shoes. JD did the same thing. Vin watched a moment, then turned his head to the street twenty five feet away from them.

Rain pounded down, bouncing almost a foot off the pavement high enough to soak the boys pant legs. There wasn't a vehicle in sight on the block. Ezra and JD stepped to Vin's side, with a nod of his head to the two, Ezra headed out into the rain. He urged the boys to hurry. Ezra set off at a fast jog through the downpour towards the main intersection three blocks away.

For a few steps, Vin ran but the pain in his back and lower body brought a gasp from him and he slowed. JD saw him slow down and called out to Ezra who stopped and turned around. He saw Vins lips pressed together in pain, and the silted eyes of the white faced boy. He waited for Vin and JD to reach him.

"Can you go faster with some help?" Ezra asked Vin who slowly nodded his wet head. Ezra took Vin's cold hand and tucked it between his side and around his arm, and told him to hang on. They set off again, Vin moving a little faster. When Ezra glanced at him through the dim street light, he saw his teeth were clenched tight, his lips now a tight white line. He thought there were tears mixing with the rain hitting Vins face. He knew they need some sort of transportation and fast, they needed to get out of this area. He slipped his arm around Vin and pulled him tighter to his side and slowed a bit to make sure Vin could keep up. JD trotted on the other side of them, wiping water out of his face now and then.

They reached the main intersection and stopped. Ezra spotted an open gas station mini mart. As they crossed the street, a truck pulled up to the pumps. It was a large van type truck with the words 'WE DELIVER TEXAS' in bright green and yellow print on its side. A small Texas map under the words with painted lines connected many of cities on the map. The way it was parked, Ezra thought it might be heading north.

Thinking fast, Ezra pulled Vin along, "Come on we need a ride out of town, and here it is."

Reaching the van, Ezra scanned the area for the driver. He spotted him going into the bathroom. The cashier's head was turned towards the TV on the back wall. Ezra moved them to the back of the van. His eyes opened wide in surprise. A heavy canvas tarp covered the back and hooks held it down. He unhooked several of the fasteners and urged the two boys to get in quickly.

Ezra lifted JD up to get a grip on the side of the van and he disappeared inside. Vin jumped up, fighting a groan of pain, and rolled inside as Ezra followed him. It took Ezra several moments to get the canvas latched down, then he moved to Vin and JD's side. He whispered to JD to keep quiet.

The three sat in silence as shivers shook them and listened to the rain that pounded the top of the vehicle. Finally, they heard the driver return and the van started, shifted, then drove out of the lot and onto the road. The boys huddled together as the truck lurched and rocked, before it settled down into a smooth ride. Ezra dug a tiny flashlight out of his pack and shined it around the enclosure.

Boxes were carefully stacked and tied to the sides of the van. There was nothing for them to do but huddle together against the boxes and try to get warm. Vin had a hard time sitting on the hard floorboards and finally had to lay down on his side. JD leaned against him, trying to share some of his body heat while Ezra sat behind him with his hip and legs resting against Vin's back.

As it ended up, the vehicle didn't go very far. Barely a half hour later the truck slowed and turned. Alarmed Ezra rushed to the tarp edge and looked out.

"We have to leave and now. He's making a delivery." Ezra turned to help Vin up and get his backpack back on. They moved to the canvas and Ezra peeked out. The driver parked near the back of a building and walked to a door lit by a single light above it. He pressed a buzzer and waited. When the door opened he stepped inside with his clipboard in his hand. The door swung shut.

The boys scrambled out of the van and Ezra latched one of the hooks before they took off as fast as they could get Vin to move. When the man came out of the door with two others, the three boys were gone.

They found they were in a small strip mall, and spotted a Greyhound bus depot sign at the far end of the mall. The stores were all closed. Ezra looked at his watch and saw it was only a little after 2AM. Staying under the overhang they made their way to the bus depot. They found it closed and the sign said hours were 6AM to 12PM. They had over three hours to wait, and needed someplace out of the rain. All three looked around the area. There was nothing.

Vin wandered closer to the corner of the bus station and then motioned to the other two to come. He pointed to a bench against the outer side of the building, facing the wide driveway. An overhanging roof hung over the bench area, extending most of the buildings length. If they sat on the bench and kept their feet, up they would be totally out of the rain. Making their way to the bench, they sat and got as comfortable as they could as they huddled together for warmth.

The rain continued for a couple more hours before it slacked off and stopped at 5:30. The three dozed a little but were still wet and uncomfortable. Vin sneezed when he woke. Ezra looked at the boy and hoped he wasn't coming down with a cold, or something worse. On second thought, he thought they would all probably come down sick. A noise from the front of the building drew him, and Ezra eased himself to the corner to look around.

Several people were standing at the door. He saw someone inside unlocking it. Inside, with the lights now on, he spotted a bathroom. With a grin Ezra turned and waved the younger boys to him. He explained his idea on getting them tickets to somewhere, but they needed to clean up first.

They shouldered their packs and followed an older couple into the building. One by one they slipped into the men's bathroom and took care of pressing business before they used paper towels to clean their faces and hands. Using the air hand dryers they dried their hair as much as they could, and also relished the heat from them.

Ezra slipped into a stall and changed his shirt and coat and took some more money out of his hidden wallet. He hid some money under his belt. He would use it and the money in his coat pocket to get them tickets out of the area.

When they were as presentable as they could be, they went out into the main area. There were two ticket counters with cashiers working, one at each end of the long front counter. Ezra had the younger boys sit in the chairs near the bathrooms. He told them to pretend they were waiting for someone to come out of the ladies room. Once they were seated he got in line behind an older lady, and listened as she told the ticket agent where she needed to go.

When it was Ezra's turn he marched up and asked the ticket agent how far one hundred dollars would take him, as he was suppose to go to meet his mother in Wyoming. After a few questions as to why he was traveling alone, the man told him he could get to Denver, and there was a bus leaving in forty five minutes. Ezra bought a ticket and walked away. With an eye on the busy man he moved to the other line and stayed a little to the side of a couple with two sleepy looking teen's. He told the lady agent that his mother was in the bathroom, he thought something hadn't agreed with her. Then told her 'Mom' asked him to purchase tickets for his cousins as they needed to get back home to Denver as soon as possible. Their father would be waiting for them. He turned away with the tickets in hand and went over to the younger boys. He smiled and motioned for them to move closer to the departure doors as he tucked the tickets away. They were happy about being on the next bus heading north.

A couple of minutes after sitting down near the doors, JD looked around and frowned. Behind them passengers moving about blocked the ticket counters from view.

"I'm hungry."

At that moment, it seemed all three of the boys' stomachs' growled at the same time. Sheepish looks crossed their faces and they glanced around, hoping no one was close enough to have heard. Ezra took off his jacket so he looked different and gave it to Vin to hold.

"We'll go see if we can find some food. Stay here Mr. Tanner, and don't let anyone take our bags. We'll be back as fast as we can." Ezra glanced at the clock over the door, they had almost thirty minutes before they could board the bus. He took JD's hand and they hurried out the main door.

Ezra grinned, wide enough his gold tooth showed. He was overjoyed to see the little cafe, a short ways down the mall, had opened. They hurried towards its door. Inside their stomachs growled again as the smell of breakfast foods hit them. Not wanting to waste time, he hurried JD up to an empty stool along the counter near the cash register. The cashier, a young woman, looked at the boys. "Can I help you?"

"We are on a journey and need some sandwiches to go if possible, Ma'am," Ezra said.

"We have beef, chicken, turkey, and vegetarian ones."

"Three turkey ones and three Pepsi's please, to go."

The woman wrote out the order and gave it to the waitress who promptly gave it to the cook. Within five minutes they were paying for the food, and then left the cafe. They walked quickly back to the bus station and saw Vin still sat where they'd left him. The straps of their backpacks were hooked over his arms with Ezra's jacket held tightly against his chest.

Ezra handed Vin one of the drink containers he carried and JD gave him a sack containing a sandwich. Vin's eyes widened when he looked into the bag. He found not only a large sandwich, but also a small bag of potato chips and two cookies. He grinned at Ezra over the bag.

"WOW! Look Ezra, they's gived us lots of food," JD exclaimed as he looked into his bag.

Ezra checked his sack, smiled and glanced at his companions who watched him. "Eat only half of your sandwich and everything. It might be a long time before we get more food. We have to save some for later."

They saved half of their breakfast/lunch, but finished off their drinks. A few minutes before they were called to load onto the bus, they used the bathroom again. Ezra found a vending machine that sold bottled water and bought each of them one. The call came for their bus and they headed out to load. No one paid any attention to the three boys. After giving their tickets to the driver they entered the bus and quickly found seats together in the back. A couple of minutes later the driver entered, announced they were on their way to Denver. It would take approximately fourteen hours, in Colorado it could be a little longer, depending on the weather.

The boys settled down for the drive. Darkness still shrouded the outskirts of the town. Everything looked quiet. JD watched out the window for a little while before he fell asleep, leaning on Vin. A while later all three boys were sleeping as the bus continued on its trip north.

By afternoon, JD, awake and restless fidgeted in his seat, unable to sit still. Ezra informed him, if he kept moving around someone would realize who they were and have the people from the orphanage come after them. Or the police. The threat stopped the youngster for awhile. But twenty minutes later, JD began to fidget again. In desperation, Ezra dug out one of the books he'd stuck into his pack and handed it to JD. He knew the boy could read, and very well, and figured the history book would keep him quiet for hours. He shot a look at Vin and saw the boy was still staring out the window. He hadn't moved but one time, to use the small bathroom on the other side of the aisle. It hadn't taken Vin long, and Ezra figured the motion of the bus combined with the very small space had driven the boy to rush. He knew Vin had an aversion to small spaces. He hoped being stuck on the bus for so long wouldn't bother him.

Time seemed to drag by for the three as the bus rolled north. They stopped in Amarillo to let off a couple of passengers and collect several other ones. Since they had fifteen minutes, the boys got off and stretched their legs. JD using the time to run back and forth for several minutes before they loaded up. Once underway, the driver announced it would be six hours to Denver, again depending on the weather. Which he said didn't look very good north of Pueblo. It might take longer.

Late in the afternoon the boys finished their food. JD returned to reading the history book and Vin went back to staring out the window. Ezra shuffled the deck of cards he always carried in his pocket. It was well after dark when Vin motioned to Ezra and JD to look outside. Snow was hitting the window.

The driver announced that it was snowing in Colorado Springs, which was about an hour away. The drive would be slowing down, but so far the highway was fine and they should arrive in Denver only a short time late. JD had his face plastered against the window to watch the snow. He and Vin, from southern Texas, had never seen more than an ice storm that froze the city of Austin and the surrounding area for several days. Snow was something new and unusual to them.

Ezra having traveled a lot was called upon to answer JD's questions about snow. He had both Vin and JD laughing about sledding and ending up in a snow bank, and ice skating on a frozen pond. Vin's quiet smiles had Ezra wishing he would talk. He would have liked to hear his voice.

When Vin dozed off for a little while, Ezra asked JD once more if Vin would talk. JD shrugged his shoulders and said, "I guess he will if he has somethin' to say. But he hasn't said a word since after we was taken to that bad place."

Shaking his head, Ezra asked if the head master or one of the other adults did something to Vin to make him stop talking. Again JD shrugged. "Don't know. They were all mean to him and me. Vin all the time tried to protect me but they was always bad to him. Even when he were good."

Ezra knew Vin and JD had been in the orphanage for at the least six months before he'd arrived. He wondered how someone could treat the two boys so badly. They weren't bad at all. He looked out, over the top of Vin's head, and saw the lights of the city they were pulling into.

"Colorado Springs, ladies and gentlemen. We will be here for only ten minutes so if you are getting off please do so quickly. The time here is eight forty five."

Several people started gathering their belongings and when the bus stopped they quickly disembarked. Two men got on and then the bus headed out.

An hour later the glow of Denver lights came into sight through the falling snow. Ezra wondered

what they were going to do in the large city. He knew they needed to disappear in case the orphanage people were looking for them.

The three disembarked and entered the warm bus depot. They made straight for the bathroom. Once they finished they stood in the large station and looked around.

"Where're we going Ezra?" JD asked as he crowded closer to Ezra as people moved around them.

"I don't quite know at this time. We need to find a place to spend the night though," Ezra answered looking all around the room. "Let's see if there is somewhere we can stay outside of this place."

Heading for the doors they pulled their coats closer around them as they approached the opening. Outside it the snow still fell. Vin and JD paused and looked up at the flakes coming down, grins on their faces.

"Look, look! They're pretty. I can't catch them!" JD called out as he ran in a circle around Vin and Ezra, hands out.

Vin shivered even though he was smiling as he held out his arm to let the flakes land on him.

Ezra smiled as he looked around the area. They needed to get out of the snow. They needed someplace warm. And food.

The snow continued to fall silently on them as the three walked down the street, finding most businesses were already closed. It was after hours for many stores in this area. A few bars were open and they passed a motel. Ezra debated if he should try to get a room, but felt positive no one would rent one to three children with no parents. They kept walking. A short time later they were stepping over people, bundled in blankets or clothes and sleeping on the sidewalk against the buildings. JD, holding tightly to Vin's hand as he stepped over someone's legs, whispered loudly, "Maybe they're drunks." Vin shot him a look and JD closed his mouth before he said anything else.

Cold was seeping into their bones when Ezra spotted a boarded up storefront near the end of the block they traversed. The street light in front of the store was out and there didn't seem to be anyone around to see them. The boys stepped into the indented doorway. Working together they managed to remove a board and move another one aside enough that Ezra could reach the locked door. Within minutes his deft fingers unlocked the door and shoved it open. They crawled over the boards and into the dark of the room. Vin and JD pushed the door closed behind them as Ezra dug out his little flashlight and shined it around the small space.

The room was no larger than twelve by twenty four. A layer of dust covered the floor and an old dilapidated couch and chair. A stack of musty smelling newspapers were piled in one corner, a broken counter sat at an angle across another corner and a dark door could be seen in the back wall. Together they moved towards the other door, wondering what it could be. To their surprise it was a minuscule bathroom, a sink no more than eight inches square and a toilet. Vin tried the rusty faucet and a thin stream of water dribbled out.

The boys smiled at each other. They'd found a place to spend the night.

Chapter 3

The three boys huddled on the old couch trying to keep warm. They were out of the freezing cold and snow, but the room was still cold, their breaths misted as they breathed. JD huddled between Ezra and Vin, the two older boys pressed on each side of him. They'd stacked some of the smelly newspapers around them and taken off their coats and positioned them in a pile over them. Vin shivered and sneezed, he'd put on all of his shirts and could still feel the cold. JD, between the two older boys was warm and his body heat kept one side of Vin and Ezra warm.

Vin dozed but couldn't fall into a deep asleep. He was sore from the beating he'd received from the head master's hand. His cracked ribs were painful, and he wondered if they would ever get better. The long bus ride hadn't helped. It made him stiff and his thighs ached. Shivering again he buried his nose in the coat covering him, trying to stop the cough overcoming him. He wished he was back home where it was warmer. It was fun to see snow, but he didn't care for being this cold.

Ezra could tell Vin was awake. He felt him shaking even from where he sat on the other side of JD, who snored softly. He knew Vin tried to conceal his coughing, but as close as they were, he heard every time the younger boy tried to fight through one. He felt responsible for the two youngsters, he was the oldest. He needed to find a better, warmer place for them to stay. And food. He shifted to cover the growl of his stomach. He wished he'd of tried to get tickets to somewhere in the south instead of this cold country.

When the first light of dawn began to come through the dirty glass of the partly covered window, the boys woke from their fitful sleep. Two were still tired. The smallest though, had slept like a log and was raring to go. They took turns using the small bathroom, and waiting for enough cold water to seep into the sink to wash up a little, and enough to flush the toilet. A short time later they were bundled up and ready to leave. After making sure there was no one around, the three snuck out of the door. They replaced the boards and adjusted the lock, to make it look like nothing had been disturbed. The replaced boards still covered the locked door.

The wind started to blow and the snow began to swirl. It seemed to them the tall buildings pulled it down to the street level. Vin sneezed then coughed and put his hand in front of his mouth as he limped through the snow covered walk. He was cold, and the wind began to cut through him. His sneakers were soaked through after walking a block in the inch or more snow. Vin pull his coat closer around him and shifted his backpack around so it didn't rest against the sore places on his lower back. 'At least my back is warmer' he thought as they trudged through the snow looking for some place open. Blinking his eyes against the snow swirling around them, he noted where they were and thought he could find the way back to the little cold room if they needed to go back.

They walked past a Goodwill store where a man was just unlocking a door. Ezra stopped and looked at his companions. "We should go see if we can get some better clothes."

"I'm really hungry. I need food. We can come back, can't we?" JD asked looking up at Ezra.

Vin nodded his head, his long hair sprinkled generously with snowflakes.

"All right. We do need to find a place to eat," Ezra gave in. He motioned for them to continue walking. The traffic on the street beside them began to pick up, frozen snow crunching under snow tires. The falling snow swirled around the vehicles.

Vin took JD's hand as they crossed one street and walked along the next one. He was glad for the warm hand in his until JD pulled away and danced several steps ahead of him and Ezra.

JD stretched his arms out and twirled in the snow. "I'm hungry!" he yelled to the snow. With another turn he reached down and grabbed a handful of snow and tasted it.

"Mr. Dunne! Do not do that!"

JD dropped the snow and looked wide-eyed at Ezra. "I only's wanted to taste it." He whined.

"This is a public thoroughfare. People have been walking on this footway, vehicles are throwing fumes onto it. It is dirty, it is not safe to taste."

"Oh. Forgot." JD looked ahead. "Look there's a sandwich sign!" he suddenly exclaimed and pointed ahead of them.

Ezra looked where JD pointed, and tried to ignore the cough coming from Vin. He spotted the sign that was lit up announcing the best sandwiches in the USA and smiled. He wondered if they were really that good.

"Hurry up, I'm hungry," JD grabbed Vin's hand and tried to make him walk faster. Vin jerked him back and glared at the black haired boy. "Oh. I'm sorry Vin. Does your leg hurt bad?"

Vin nodded his head and JD slowed his walk to Vin's slower pace.

They stopped at the next street and waited for the light to change. The snow seemed to suddenly begin to fall in earnest, the wind eased some, but continued to blow the snow around them. Visibility dimmed, and in moments they could barely see the restaurant they were heading to. Vin gripped JD's hand tighter as the cars slipped and slid past them. When the light changed they started across.

"Wait! I have to tie my shoe lace." Ezra called as he stopped after stepping on his shoe lace and almost falling.

Vin slowed and looked back. JD pulled on his hand. "On the other side, we'll wait for you," he yelled back to Ezra and continued to pull at Vin.

"Stay over there, I'll catch up to you both." Ezra ordered as he knelt down on one knee and pulled on his frozen shoe lace.

The two smaller boys continued across. Ezra looked up hearing the noise of a car's motor. It sounded as if the driver was stepping hard on the gas. He watched in horror as it flew around the corner sliding sideways. "Run! Run!" He screamed, unable to do anything else.

Vin and JD were within several feet of the far curb when the car came barreling around the corner, too fast for conditions and sliding dangerously. It tried to make a right turn onto the street they were crossing.

Vin glanced back at Ezra's yell and caught the movement of the oncoming car. He pushed JD ahead of him, trying to jump into a run. JD went flying towards the curb and Vin was a step behind him. But not quite fast enough. The car's bumper struck Vin in his lower back, knocking him into JD. Both boys flew forward. They crashed to the ground. The car continued past the fallen boys, then slammed into the light pole fifteen feet from them. Ezra yelled and started to run across the street.

+ + + + + + +

Moments earlier, a dark grey van slowed as it approached the stop light at the corner. The road was slick with the snow and they didn't want to slide into the intersection. Four tired men observed the traffic as they got close to the light.

One pointed. "Look at those little boys. They look cold, but that little dark haired one is dancing," he laughed.

"They are cute, but how come they're not headed to school?" The large man in the back asked, laughing at the small boy's antics.

"As tired as we are, anything is funny right now guys. Buck, will you turn down the damn heat. Its cooking in here." The blond in the driver's seat commanded.

"Aww Chris, we're just getting warmed up." Buck Wilmington, sitting in the passenger seat, said as he reached for the heater button.

"Wish it would reach back here better. It's chilly in here." Josiah Sanchez, the large man behind the front seats retorted.

"Heck Josiah, you and Nathan can cuddle together," quipped Buck.

A fast moving dark hand connected with the back of Buck's head. "Hey! That's not nice Jackson."

The handsome black man, Nathan Jackson, laughed. "Serves you right. Dirty mouth."

"Settle down ladies. I don't want to make you walk the rest of the way to the office." Chris Larabee, the driver, stated as he eased the van to a stop at the four-way corner's stop light.

"Those kids are careful. Little kid has calmed down. Good for them, waiting for the light." Buck observed as he watched the three boys.

"Ohhh, no!" Nathan called out as a car came speeding along the street from their right.

"The one stopped, the smaller ones are in the street." Buck exclaimed alarmed.

The men watched in horror as the car slid and swerved as it tried to turn the corner. It then slid around turning almost 180 degrees towards the two small boys. They saw the long haired boy at the last instant push the small one as the car came sliding at them. Both boys disappeared. The car skated past them and into the tall metal light pole. It bent over from the impact.

Chris had already reached for the strobe light sitting between Buck and him. The window slid down. He placed it on the top of the van. Josiah, in the back seat, was on his cell phone, requesting an ambulance and police.

They pulled across the intersection. Chris parked to block the street. No vehicles could turn onto the side street. The four men jumped from the van. They rushed to the two small, crumbled figures. Nathan carried a backpack with his medical supplies. The third boy was kneeling beside the other two. His face white, and his green eyes huge.

"They're dead! They're dead!" Ezra exclaimed. He bound to his feet, wildly looking around for help.

Before Ezra could take off running in a panic, Josiah, reached out. He gathered the distressed teen to him. Wrapping him in a warm embrace, Josiah patted the boy's back. He spoke in a calm voice.

"Calm down son. Help is here. Nathan will check them out. We'll see they are cared for. They are in good hands." Josiah said as he held the trembling boy. He hoped to keep the boy from fighting him. He made sure the teen could see what was happening.

Nathan's hands flew over the small boys, checking first one then the other. He nodded his head. "They should be all right. They're banged up, might have a concussion, but they're both breathing," he said. He glanced up at the tear stained, white face of the teen who wiped his face with his sleeve.

"Your brothers will be fine. They'll be checked out at the hospital. They might have to stay a night, but they'll be fine." Nathan tried to reassure the boy, who looked as if he was on the verge of going into shock. Or getting sick. His eyes were wide and had a glazed look in them. Nathan dug in his pack and grabbed a reflector blanked from it. He tossed it to Josiah.

Ezra drew a deep breath hearing the words from the tall black man. He blinked hard as he pulled himself together. His gaze went to the three men still kneeling in the snow around his friends. His agile mind clicked and began working to sort through what would happen. He heard sirens getting close. A blanket dropped around him, and then he felt the warm hands return to his shoulders.

Chris bent over the long haired boy and started to rub the boys arms. He could feel tremors racing up and down the slight body and realized the boy was cold. His light weight jacket wasn't enough for the cold snowy weather. Chris whipped off his coat. He began to wrap it around the child, brushing the snow off his head and face as he did. Nathan once more dug into his bag then tossed a blanket to Chris.

Vin's eyes fluttered, and a moment later Chris was looking down into the bluest eyes he'd ever seen. Eyes that seemed to know his deepest secrets, but they were old, too old for such a young child.

"It's all right son, you will be fine," Chris reassured the boy as he covered him.

Vin gazed at the blond man bending over him and rubbing his arms. He couldn't figure out what happened. It wasn't the head master. He hurt, but felt safe. Warmth raced through him as he gazed at the man. Not understanding what was going on he said, "It hurts Papa. Momma's gone." His low voice raspy with an accent.

Ezra jerked in shocked surprise. He felt the big man's arm tighten a bit before it loosened. He stared down at the long haired boy as the blond man spoke to Vin. For over three months Vin never spoke a word. Ezra didn't think he could, even though JD said he did talk.

"It's all right. You are safe," Chris felt the small hand grab a hand full of his shirt as he moved away. He covered the cold hand and told him. "We'll take care of you. See if we can find your momma and papa too."

"None. They's all gone," Vin said as his eyes slid closed, his hand clenched tightly onto Chris's black shirt. He shivered and Chris picked him up. Wrapping him in the blanket and his arms for warmth. He looked over at Nathan and Buck who were with the dark haired boy.

Buck was holding the child in his arms and rubbing his back. Nathan got to his feet and looked for the ambulance. Chris's gaze went to Josiah, who still spoke to the white faced teen standing several feet away.

"Your brothers will be all right. We need to contact your parents," Chris said from his kneeling position.

Ezra didn't know what to say. His mind spun through one scenario after another. He tried to figure out what he needed to do or say. Vin and JD were going to be all right, but they were orphans. He knew both were totally alone in the world. He couldn't give them up to the authorities. They could not go back to the orphanage, or hell, as he thought of the place. He was also sure JD would spill their real names sooner or later. He needed to come up with a good reason why they were together, if not brothers. His mother, he knew, would not want anything to do with any of them and he'd keep her name out of this.

For several moments Ezra stared at the blond through the falling snow. Ezra opened his mouth to say something as the ambulance pulled up with two police cars behind it. Instantly, paramedics' disembarked and swarmed around them. Ezra decided to postpone his answer. He would get a good plan formed while he waited.

The ambulance driver headed for the wrecked car. It rested with the driver's side door partly open. The bent light pole held the vehicles front tires off the ground. A police officer walked with him. It took only a moment to check the driver, before the EMT turned and came back to help the paramedic's.

Reaching the group around the boys, the EMT reported, "Car's driver is dead. The inside of the vehicle reeks of liquor. I'll call for another ambulance." One of the paramedic's waved him to go on, and he walked to the front of the ambulance to make the call.

The EMT's men were swift, and in minutes both boys were loaded into the ambulance. Chris, his shirt still clutched in Vin's hand was reluctant to let the boy go. He took a seat between the unconscious boys. Nathan rode in the front with the driver and one of the paramedics.

The police knew the ATF agents. They would catch up with them at the hospital for their reports. Josiah, his hand now on the teens shoulder, nudged him toward the van. JD and Vin's backpacks were in Buck's hand. Buck tossed the backpacks onto the back seat and slid behind the wheel. As soon as Josiah and Ezra were seated, he put the van in gear and took off for the hospital.

"I'm Josiah Sanchez and this is Buck Wilmington," Josiah told the teen.

Ezra blinked and looked at the two large men that sat on each side of him. He relished the warmth of the heater blasting heat over him. His bones began to thaw.

"I . . . I'm Ezra Stanton," he muttered. He used one of the names he developed, thanks to his mothers insistence. He hoped he could warn JD and Vin.

"The two boys with you, they are your brothers?" Buck asked as he concentrated on the snowy road and traffic.

"Um . . . Well, we're half brothers. Had different fathers." Ezra lied, his hidden fingers crossed.

"Oh. What are their names?" Josiah asked.

"The long haired boy is Vin, the little one is JD. Umm Tanner and Dunne, is their last names."

"How come you boys aren't in school?" Buck shot a glance at him.

'We just got to town." Ezra stuck close to what the three of them had done, he wasn't sure how much to reveal. He breathed a sigh of relief when they turned into the hospital parking lot, he had some time to come up with something.

"You can leave your pack in here if you'd like, with your brothers backpacks. They're on the back seat where I tossed them," Buck said as he parked as close to the Emergency entrance as he could.

Ezra gripped his backpack tightly.

"The van will be locked. We have things in here, so we lock it up tight. Your belongings will be safe with us. We're ATF agents, by the way." Josiah said as he got out of the van.

Ezra shoved his backpack under the dashboard and walked with the two men to the entrance.

Chapter 4

Ezra walked into the Emergency department between the two tall men. His gaze scanned around the busy room. He looked for his friends and the other two men. Buck moved to the main desk asking about the two little boys who'd arrived minutes earlier. The nurse advised him the boys were with doctors and as soon as the checkups were completed, she would let them know. And yes, they might be able to see the children. Buck gave her their names before she pointed to the waiting room.

The three walked to an empty corner as close to the ER cubicles they could and settled down to wait. People flowed in and out of the area and before long the waiting room was empty.

Ezra looked at the time and saw two hours had passed without any word on the boys. A wide-eyed look of horror crossed his face when his stomach growled. Loud enough that a passing woman glanced his way as his face turn red.

Josiah smiled and patted the teen's shoulder. "I think we all are a bit hungry. We were on a bust most of the night and none of us have eaten this morning." With a sigh, Josiah remembered that they hadn't informed Ezra of their partners names. And they needed to question him for information as to what the three were doing out in a blizzard, and where their parents were. He turned to the youth.

"Chris Larabee is the blond with your brother, Vin. Nathan Jackson is our team medic. He is good and knows his stuff. If he said the boys will be fine, you can believe him. We've been together for over two years. Chris is our leader. He's a good man." Josiah ran a hand through his hair, "Chris will have some questions for you. Don't lie to him. He has a seventh sense and can tell if someone is lying. It never works." Josiah stopped hearing a loud 'humph' coming from his partner. He looked at Buck, one eyebrow raised.

"Yeah, it's true. I told him once I went on a date with this beauty, but I was really at home sick. He just looked at me and asked how I felt." Buck grinned, "I was so sick that night, and he somehow knew. I ended up telling him the truth."

Josiah clapped Buck on his back, "Told all of us that. There's been a few other times Chris has caught someone in a lie. But we, his team, do not lie to him. Ever." He shot a glance at the teen sitting next to him, sensing the young man was mulling over something in his head. The boy's face was devoid of expression. Something about the blank look had made him speak out, about telling lies. He had a feeling the teen already lied, but he couldn't put his finger on what it could have been about.

"Can you tell us where you boys came from?" Buck asked. "Are you meeting someone?"

Ezra felt the two men's eyes on him, he had a feeling they would see through anything he told them. He'd seen the blond and how furious he'd looked when he got out of the van and believed the man would get the truth no matter what he said. He glanced around the waiting room but there was no escape. With a sigh, he looked at Josiah.

"We escaped from a orphanage. Or maybe it's called a social service center for kids. They were beating Vin. We left. Caught the first means of transportation we could out of the locale. And here we are."

"Damn, runaways," Buck exclaimed.

"Sort of. But they were hurting us. Especially Vin, who always got it worse than anyone else incarcerated in that place."

Before Buck or Josiah could say anything else Nathan appeared.

"Buck can you come with me?" He asked. Buck jumped up and hurried after Nathan.

Ezra frowned. Josiah rested his hand on his leg to keep him from jumping up, and Ezra turned his head to the big man.

"We will not go back to that hell hole," he stated flatly.

"Well, we can check into that," Josiah said in a slow quiet voice.

"Mr. Sanchez, we will not return there. No matter what anyone does or says. We will disappear."

Josiah cocked his head and eyed the teen before nodding his head. He could tell by the look in the boy's green eyes and on his face, what he said was true, they would disappear. The two smaller boys would go, especially if they were pushed too far. "I believe you son. We will check it out and see what can be done. In the mean time, we'll find a safe place for you three to stay."

Before Ezra could answer two police officers entered the ER and headed straight to where they were sitting. The taller officer smiled at Josiah and stuck his hand out to the man as he rose. Nathan walked into the room alone.

"Agent Sanchez, Dick told me you'd be here. We have some questions of the accident. Do you have time to answer them?"

"Of course Andy. Not much we can tell you though."

"Hello Agent Jackson. Are the boys all right?" Andy shook Nathan's hand as he glanced at the teen who still sat without moving.

"This is Ezra Stanton, those were his brothers who were hit by the car," Josiah said and watched Ezra stand up.

"Officer." Ezra said as he looked at the two officers. For a moment he wondered where the tall black man had left the other agent, Wilmington.

"Sorry for what happened to your brothers. I hope they will be all right. I'm Officer Andy Cummings, this is Officer Bennet." Andy said, then asked, "Can you tell me what you boys were doing and what you saw?"

Josiah glanced around the room and saw several people who'd recently come in were watching them with interest. "Andy, let's take this to a little more private place."

Andy glanced around and nodded his head. He turned and led the way into the hall. Pausing at the front desk he asked if there was a room they could use to talk in private. The desk nurse led them to the doctor's lounge and indicated they could use it. From there they could still see if anyone came looking for them. Andy looked at Ezra.

"We were going to the little restaurant on the other block for breakfast. My shoe came undone and I stopped to take care of it. My . . . brothers, continued on. They were almost across the street when the car came past. The street was slick and the car was going too fast and sliding. I managed to yell out, but . . . The driver didn't seem to be in control and struck my brothers before crashing into the light pole and stopping. I ran to my brothers side. They were not moving." Ezra stopped talking, his eyes seeing the accident once more and the two small bodies disappearing on the other side of the car. He started to shake, his face going pale.

Nathan gently took the teens arm and guided him to a chair. "Put your head down by your knees, and breath slowly. When did you last eat?" he asked.

Ezra blinked at the kind words and felt his cheeks warming as he followed the tall man's order. "Yesterday afternoon," he answered truthfully in a low voice.

Nathan and Josiah exchanged looks and Nathan motioned to the older man. "I'm going to go get something for him to eat. I'll be right back," he finished as he went out the door.

"Do you need anything else from Ezra, Andy?" Josiah asked.

"No, well, just his brothers names."

Ezra raised his head, feeling better and provided the names. He listened as Josiah told the police what he and the other's had seen. When he finished, Nathan walked into the room carrying a tray with sandwiches piled on it. A bag in his hand held cups of coffee and a couple containers of milk.

"We are finished here Josiah. The driver was drunk. He didn't make it. We'll check back with you to find out how the boys are doing. We might have to talk to the other two boys, so let us know where we can find them."

"Thanks Andy. We'll keep in contact." Josiah shook the men's hands, watched them leave, then turned to get a sandwich and cup of coffee from Nathan.

"What do you plan on doing Ezra, when your brothers are out of here? Where are you going? Honestly please." Josiah asked after swallowing several bites of his sandwich.

With a shrug, Ezra took another bite of his sandwich and thoughtfully chewed before answering. "I really don't know. We were going to look for a place to live. We didn't expect this to happen."

"What kind of place? You three are pretty young to be renting or buying anything," Nathan remarked taking a drink of his coffee.

Ezra stared at Nathan for several moments, then said, "I have some means. We found a place for last night. I am sure we could find something better now that it is daylight."

"Where?" Josiah asked looking at the teen.

"We found an abandoned . . . " Ezra snapped his mouth shut, a look of alarm crossed his face. He hadn't meant to say anything about their accommodations.

Nathan looked at the boy in surprise then raised his eyes to Josiah. Josiah lifted one eyebrow at his friend then nodded.

"Ezra, we'll find a safe place for you and your brothers," Josiah quickly raised a hand stopping the teen from speaking. "I promise, no shelters or anything like that. We'll discuss it with Buck and Chris and see what we can come up with for all of you. The weather is getting worse and you should not be out on the streets."

"Thank you," Ezra whispered.

The noise of hurried footsteps approaching had the three in the room looking towards the door. The man dressed in black, that had been with Vin, walked into the room followed by Buck. Chris stopped and looked at the teen. Dark green eyes blazed with anger and his fists were clenched. Ezra shrank back into the chair, his eyes opened wide and a scared look crossed his face. The blond looked like he wanted to tear someone apart with his bare hands. Ezra gulped and opened his mouth to speak, nothing came out.

"What happened to the long haired boy?" Chris growled, shrugging off the hand Buck placed on his shoulder.

Ezra eased himself out of the chair and took a breath, his eyes wide. "I did not do it. The Head Master beat him and placed him in the little closet. I got him out and Mr. Dunne, Mr. Tanner and I escaped that place." He said as his breath escaped in a rush. "Mr. Tanner is scared of small spaces and they constantly took advantage of it." He added before he clamped his mouth shut, afraid of what might come out next.

"He's got bruises and a broken rib, also a cold," Chris snarled as he glared at Ezra.

Taking another deep breath, Ezra forced himself to stay calm and answered. "Yes sir. The place where we were is not a good domicile. He and JD are two of the youngest, and the older boys treated them despicable. Vin suffered injured ribs when he was knocked down the stairs two weeks ago. The Head Master became affronted when he had to take him to the ER. They found Vin had a couple of cracked ribs and a mild concussion. He was punished for that and forced to spend two days in the closet. They wouldn't listen to me when I tried to inform them he was pushed." He abruptly stopped talking. A horrified look crossed his face as he realized what he'd told the men around him.

The look on the men's faces were enough to tell the teen what he'd said had affected them all. The blonds green eyes were almost shooting sparks.

"Where are those who did this to him?"

Ezra swallowed, he didn't know what to do. He felt that if he named the home, these men would tear it apart. There were some good boys there, but as many bad ones. The men in charge were able to control them, but, at what risk. If he told, what would happen? The sandwich he'd been eating turn into a lump in his stomach. He felt sick as his stomach started to churn. He shook his head, gathering his thoughts tighter in his head.

Swallowing hard, Ezra looked directly at the blond. "If I tell you, will you go off and obliterate them? Or care for the children they have there? Will you jeopardize your employment for miscreants who have the state behind them?"

"Calm down Chris. What the boy says is true. We'd put our jobs on the line if we did something without thinking." Buck counseled, placing his hand on Chris's tense shoulder.

Chris could feel his team, his friends, eyes on him as he stared at the teen. The boy was staring right back at him, his green eyes older than they should be. His face was so pale Chris thought for a moment the boy would pass out. With a deep sigh Chris brought himself under control. He still could see the thin body of the long haired boy laying on the examining table. Bruises of various shades covered half of his body, from shoulders to mid thighs. The broken rib was easy to spot. There were several cracked ones, the colors deep purple and yellow that stood out like a beacon. Dark, painful looking bruises surrounded large areas on his sides and the back of his thighs.

The ER doctor had looked at him as if he was the one who had beaten the boy. Chris quickly pulled his badge and told the man in a clipped voice what happened a short time ago. And the fact that he didn't even know the child's name.

The doctor accepted his words and continued with the examination. Chris had to peel Vin's fingers from his shirt. The boys blue eyes opened for a moment, as Chris worked the small fingers free of his shirt. Chris once more felt like his world tilted as he gazed into the blue orbs. He felt as if he and the boy had known each other forever. When the child's eyes slid closed, he wanted to pick him up and not only hug him, but take him home with him.

"I'm sorry. The doctor found a lot of old bruises and cracked ribs and the broken one. I . . . I." Chris stopped at a loss of what to say. He knew he'd scared the teen and it wasn't the boy's fault.

"That is all right, Mr. Larabee. It has been a stressful morning. How are Vin and JD?" Ezra asked as he pulled himself together. He could tell the blond agent wasn't really upset with him, just the circumstances.

Buck spoke up, giving Chris a few more moments to collect himself. "The little one, JD? He has a concussion, and some bruises. They want to keep him overnight to make sure there is nothing else wrong with him. He was awake and responding to the doctor, and he told me he was hungry."

Ezra smiled sadly. "We were heading to eat breakfast. Mr. Dunne was hungry. Well, he and Mr. Tanner seem to always be hungry." He turned his gaze to Chris who nodded at him before he spoke.

"Vin, the long haired boy? He needs to spend the night too. He hit his head pretty hard, and with the older concussion, and all the bruises, they want to make sure he doesn't get a blood clot or have any other problems. He was awake for a few moments, but fell asleep before I left."

"May I see them?"

Buck glanced at Chris for a second before he looked back to Ezra, "I'll see if we can get you in to see them. JD was being moved to a room in the pediatric department. I'll tell them to make sure that Vin is in with him. I'll ask if their brother can visit them." Buck turned and hurried out the door.

Ezra looked to the other men still standing around. He didn't know what they were going to do with him, but he swore he would not go to some social services home.

"Josiah, can Ezra stay with you until Vin and JD are out of here?" Chris looked at the larger man, "Once they're released, we can figure out what to do with all of them." Chris's gaze went to Ezra. "We won't turn any of you over to SS, but we need to have a safe place for you to stay until we can figure things out. Josiah has a large older home he is working on, with plenty of space, if he'd let you stay there." Chris's eyes went back to Josiah.

A large toothy grin crossed Josiah's face. "I have plenty of room, and more than one room is completed. Ezra, you can have your pick of three rooms if you wish to stay with me."

A little taken aback, Ezra nodded his head, "I would be honored to Mr. Sanchez. Any room is welcome." Ezra managed to keep a sigh of gratitude from escaping his lips. He shivered at the thought of being back out on the street, to stay another night in the hovel they'd found. A heated room, even if it didn't have a bed, would be a great improvement over the previous night.

"Good, that's settled. You'll go home with Josiah after seeing Vin and JD, if you can. We'll keep you informed what is going on with them if you're not allowed in. We'll see what happens tomorrow," the man in black said.

"Thank you," Ezra sighed in relief.

Buck entered the room and smiled at everyone. "You can see your brothers for a few minutes. They have been moved to a room. Vin is asleep but JD is awake and asking for food and you."

"Shall we go?" Buck stepped into the hallway and led them to the elevators. Ezra was on his heels with the other three men following.

Chapter 5

Within minutes, the men and Ezra entered Vin and JD's room. Ezra saw JD instantly. The boy was sitting upright on his bed with his pale face scrunched into a frown, until he spotted the teen.

"Ezra, I'm hungry. My head hurts. Vin won't wake up. I don't wanta stay here. Can we leave? I like my jammies." JD pointed at Vin's bed before he touched the shirt he wore. His words tumbled out in one breath.

Ezra crossed to JD's bed and grabbed his hand. "You have to stay here for now, we will be leaving tomorrow," he promised.

A smile crossed Buck's face as he stepped to Ezra's side. "Hey Little Bit, we'll be sure you are safe and sound. And the nurses are getting you and your brother some food to eat."

"I'm John Daniel Dunne, who are you?" Big brown eyes gazed at Buck.

"Hi John Daniel, I'm Buck Wilmington. That's my boss over there by your brother, Chris Larabee. This is Josiah Sanchez, and this is Nathan Jackson. We brought you to the hospital." Buck told JD, pointing to his partners as he named them.

"I'm JD." JD said then looked wide eyed at Ezra, "I don't wanta stay here, it's scary. Don't hos'pitls take money? We gots no money!" He exclaimed as tears filled his eyes.

"It's all right Mr. Dunne, all will be taken care of. We just need to get you and Mr. Tanner feeling better. Why don't you lay down until your food gets here?"

"'K. I'm hungry." The little boy wiped his eyes and settled back on the pillows. Ezra pulled the blanket up over him.

"Does he always talk that fast?" Buck asked as he settled into the chair beside JD's bed, his eyes on the small figure who gazed back at him.

Ezra grinned, "Most times. He gets excited and can talk a mile a minute, nonstop."

"What about his brother, Vin, is it?" Buck glanced at Chris who'd taken the chair beside the other bed.

"Yes, Vin. Mr. Tanner. In the months I have known him, he hasn't spoken a word. I didn't believe he could speak. Though Mr. Dunne said he would when he had something to say."

"He spoke to Chris out there." Josiah said from the other side of JD's bed.

"Quite right Mr. Sanchez. I was quite amazed after his extended silence for so long a time." Ezra shook his head in wonder.

"What do you mean, hasn't spoken in some time?" Chris asked from beside the other bed.

Ezra looked over at the blond dressed in black who stared at him across the slight bump of Vin's body under the blankets on the bed.

"Mr. Larabee, is that it?" Ezra cocked his head towards Chris. At the man's nod he continued. "I was incarcerated in that home of horror just over three months ago. Mr. Dunne will know more about this problem. But in the time I've been there, I have never heard a word spoken by Mr. Tanner." He suddenly gulped, he'd just said the wrong thing. They would know he wasn't a brother to the boys. He lifted his green eyes to look at the fierce looking blond. He realized the man had already put two and two together, and his glare made Ezra want to disappear.

"I think you better start talking Ezra. You are not either of these boy's brother. Who are they and you, and where did you come from?" Chris said without taking his gaze off him.

Ezra glanced towards the door, but Josiah stood between him and the open doorway. He started to shake and fought the panic down. If the men were going to hurt him, or the others, they would already have done it. He looked at each of the men in the room before letting his gaze fall once more on the blond. He swallowed, then nodded his head.

"I will tell you everything. But, you have to promise, you will not send any of us back to that, that hell hole. We will not stay there no matter what you or they do to us."

Josiah stepped closer and placed his hand on Ezra's shoulder. "We will not send you back, or turn you boys out. We just want the truth."

"I . . . I have to trust you all . . . " Ezra started, before he could continue a nurse entered the room carrying a tray. Everyone fell silent and watched as she placed it on the rolling table and pushed it over JD's bed.

The little boy who'd been half asleep, blinked his eyes open and with a yell of "FOOD!" sat up and reached for the table.

"Slow down Little Bit. Here I'll get that uncovered for you so you can eat." Buck quickly reached out a long arm to get the cover off the tray. With a smile, the nurse left.

"Thanks. I'm really hungry," JD exclaimed and picked up the spoon and dipped it towards the bowl of hot cereal.

"Whoa partner, do you want some milk on that cereal? And sugar?" Buck asked with a wide smile.

JD tasted the cereal and made a face, "Can I have some sugar? If there's any. We neber got sugar on our cereal."

Buck opened one of the little packets of sugar and sprinkled it over the oatmeal then poured a little milk in on top. "Stir it around a bit and see how that tastes."

JD did as ordered and took a bite. A big smile crossed his face. "This is the bestest! It's good."

Buck shook his head and glanced at the others before looking back to Ezra.

"You can trust us Ezra. We will take care of you, JD and Vin. But we need the full story and it better be the truth."

Ezra nodded and began to speak. "I will trust that you have our best interests in your hands. I already told you how Mr. Tanner, Vin, seemed to always be the boy they picked on. I don't know if Mr. Dunne, JD, suffered at their hands before I came or if it was just Vin. The first night I was there, I found Vin had been placed in a dark closet under the stairs. JD was frantic, crying and pleading for help. No one paid any attention to him."

"You's the only one who talked to me Ezra." JD blurted around a mouthful of oatmeal.

"Yes. I found that out JD." Ezra smiled at the small boy. "JD told me Vin had been pushed in the class room and fell, knocking over a desk. The teacher, not seeing what happened, took him out and put him in the closet. He spent that night in there. After that it seemed at least once a week, or more, he ended up in the closet. I never heard him say a word to anyone about anything. We taught him to knock when he ended up incarcerated. Sometimes we could hear him crying. But he never spoke. JD maybe knows why he didn't talk?" Ezra looked at JD.

JD finished eating the pancake on the plate before looking at Ezra then the men around the room. He rubbed his arm for a moment. "Not sposta tell."

"Why's that Little Bit? We are here to help you and Vin and Ezra. We don't like people hurting boys." Buck told him.

Tears filled JD's eyes and he looked over at Vin's bed. Buck rose, pushed the rolling table out of the way and sat down beside the boy. His arm went around the small body and he pulled JD close to his side.

"Can you tell us why you and Vin were in there," he asked, in a gentle voice.

JD looked up at Buck, tears began rolling down his cheeks. "Our momma's went to heaven with the angels. Vin's momma had to go first. He come to live with me and momma. Then momma left too. Bad people took us away and put us there. We was scared. I cried and cried. Vin didn't. He were brave, told me he was a warrior and he didn't cry. The bad boys started to be mean to me and Vin fought them. The master got mad, an beat him an put him in the closet all alone. Vin and me don't like little rooms, they's scary. But they al'ays did that to him. He quit yelling after awhile and didn't talk no more. Even to me. Ezra come and he told us how to talk to Vin when he was being punished. We'd go knock on the door and whisper to him during the nights after everyone was asleep."

JD looked at Ezra. "We told him we'd get him out of the closet an Ezra did. But Vin was hurted. Master beat him a lot. Alla time."

Chris didn't let his anger show, though he could feel it building inside him. His green eyes narrowed and his hands curled into tight, white knuckled fists. How could someone beat a child so bad that they ended up broken, bruised and hurting in more ways than one. Feeling black rage coming over him, he looked down at the boy on the bed beside him. He saw the child watching him through half closed blue eyes.

With an effort, Chris pushed down the building rage as he stared into the boy's eyes that were opening wider. He smiled at Vin when he saw the bright eyes blinking and become aware of his surroundings.

Vin gazed at the man sitting beside him. He'd felt what he thought was anger only moments before but the man now smiled at him. The man bent closer to him, his hand rested on Vin's shoulder.

"Hi Vin. I'm Chris. You're going to be fine. Your brothers are here. Everyone is safe."

"Thanks . . . I . . . I . . . " Vin tried to say something, but his throat felt too dry. He couldn't get the words out.

"It's all right. Here, I'll help you sit up a little, then you can have some ice." True to his words, Chris lifted Vin up and slid two pillows behind him. Pulling the blankets back up, he reached for the cup of ice and spoon and dug an ice chip out. Vin opened his mouth and accepted the cold chip.

"Vin! Vin, you're awake! We're in the hos'pitl. They have lotsa good food too. Bestest there is. I ate all they gived me. So good. Are you hungry? They can get you food. Oh an Ezra some to. He's here wif us and he's okay too. We need to leave before the bad master finds us, so you gots to get better . . . "

Buck caught the little boy when he threw his blankets back and slid to the edge of the bed. "Hey, hey Little Bit. Slow down. Vin will be fed and taken care of, you all will. You are safe with us."

JD stiffened in Buck's arms and Buck settled him back on the bed. "It's all right JD. I won't hurt you."

JD's brown eyes bored into Buck's blue ones then he smiled. "No hurt us. You are nice. I like you and them. You helped us. And Ezra too. He needs help too."

Chris nodded to Vin and looked up at Nathan then Josiah. "Take Ezra to your place Josiah, Nathan would you let Travis know what is happening and tell him we'll be there in a couple of days. See if there is anything more on the case. Pick up anything we need for making our reports. We can send them in by email if he'll allow us. See what he says. We'll take these two out to my ranch, when they're released, and Ezra can come out if he would like to." Chris looked at Ezra standing beside Josiah.

"I would like to see it Mr. Larabee, and my bro... friends." Ezra said.

With a smile, Chris said, "You are welcome anytime. Just hitch a ride with Josiah or Nathan. If you want to be closer to these two, you can stay. We'll discuss better arrangements once we all get home."

Ezra's mouth quirked up. He hadn't heard that word, home, in a long time. He knew his mother would probably be informed of his disappearance. But he didn't know if she would be looking for him. She always told him he was an inconvenience to her and pawned him off as soon as she found a place, or relative to take him. Then a thought crossed his mind, what if the orphanage didn't inform her of him being missing. She'd be wasting a lot of money paying for his keep without him being there. He shrugged. Not his worry, he felt. Right now he had other things to worry about, mainly, if he really trusted these men to do as they said they would.

The teen moved to JD's bed and looked at the dark haired boy. "I will be with Josiah, you be good and keep an eye on Vin for me. I will see you as soon as I can. Will you be all right?"

JD leaned towards Ezra and when he stepped closer JD threw his arms around Ezra's neck, giving him a hug. "I'll be good and watch over Vin. We'll see you later?"

"Yes. You will see me, a lot. Now be good and get better." Ezra backed away and turned to Vin's bed. The long haired boy was staring at him.

"You are safe here Mr . . . Vin. I will be with Mr. Sanchez and safe too. I will see you tomorrow as soon as possible. Rest and get well." Ezra tapped Vin on his covered arm then looked at Josiah.

"I am ready to depart Mr. Sanchez."

Josiah smiled at Ezra and looked towards Chris. "We'll get the van turned in, and bring your truck back so you and Buck will have a vehicle when they kick you out of here. We'll take care of Ezra. See you later." He placed his hand on Ezra's shoulder and guided him out of the room.

Nathan followed them, though he paused in the doorway and looked back. "I'll be in touch to see how the little ones are doing." With those words, he disappeared.

Vin watched the doorway a minute before turning his head to look at the blond beside him. "Ezra safe?" He asked, his voice harsh and raspy.

"He will be safe with my men, Vin. They will take care of him and see that he has something to eat and a warm place to sleep at Josiah's house." Chris answered.

"Can I go too, an JD?"

"You two will go out to my ranch, and Ezra can come too. I have plenty of room."

"Ranch? Horses?"

"Yep, I have five out there. You boys can see them once you are better and get released."

"Fine now. Wan'ta go." Vin rasped.

Chris smiled at the boy. "Well, your doctor won't let you or JD leave until tomorrow. You both need to rest, get well, and get warm too. The doctor needs to be sure your rib has started to heal and you don't have any problems from the bruises."

"I'm hungry, can I have somethin' ta eat?"

The words barely left Vin's mouth when the nurse, who brought JD's breakfast earlier, walked in with another tray. She smiled at Buck and JD as she stepped to Vin's bed.

Nodding to Chris she said, "Your friends told me we had another young man needing some breakfast." She placed the tray on the rolling table and drew it over Vin's bed.

"Here you go Mr. Tanner. I'm glad to see you awake. I'll return later to pick up your tray." She turned to the other bed, seeing JD had finished everything on his tray she smiled at the now, sleepy looking boy. "You did a good job, Mr. Dunne. Now you need to rest."

The nurse smiled at Buck then Chris, "Can I get you men some coffee? If you want to get breakfast, the cafeteria is two floors down. They serve breakfast until eleven."

"I could use some coffee." Chris replied as he moved Vin's bed so he could sit up to eat. He glanced at the clock and was surprised to see it was ten thirty.

"I'll be right back."

Chris turned to Buck when he had Vin settled and eating. "Buck, go get something to eat. We haven't had breakfast. It was a long night."

"Had a half sandwich earlier. What about you? You need something to eat." Buck rose and stretched. JD had fallen asleep.

"I'll be fine. I'll go down for lunch when they start serving it." Chris settled back onto his chair.

"I'll see if they have something I can bring back for you. If you're half as hungry as I am, or these two, you need some food too." Buck grinned, winked at Vin and headed for the door. He stepped quickly to the side as the nurse appeared with a large cup of coffee in her hand. "Ma'am," he said as he passed her.

"Thank you," Chris accepted the cup from her before turning back to Vin who was eating very slowly.

"What's wrong Vin? Food not to good?" Chris asked with a smile at the boy.

Vin looked at Chris, his fork halfway to his mouth. "Is okay. Lots of food." He glanced back at the food on the tray. A pancake, an egg, a piece of bacon and a sausage link, a bowl of oatmeal, milk and toast.

"You don't have to eat everything. They don't expect you to finish it all. You just eat what you want."

Tears filled Vin's eyes as he took another bite of the pancake. "We al'ys havta eat everything they give us. If not we get punished."

Chris felt his anger flair, "Son of . . . " He caught himself before he finished the words. Vin's head was bowed and he saw a tear slide over his gaunt cheek. Instant regret raced through him. He took a calming breath and put a hand on the boy's shoulder.

"You are not there Vin. You are here, with us. You can eat as much or as little as you want. It is your choice. No one will force you to eat anything, ever. As long as you are with us, it will be your choice what you want to do or not do, in regards to your meals."

Vin turned his head to Chris. His fathomless blue eyes swam with tears, but a look of hope flashed across his face. "We gots nowhere to go. Can we stay with you?" He asked blinking the tears from his eyes.

"We will see Vin. There are things we need to check out and do before we, or I, can say yes. Questions need to be answered and other stuff has to be checked."

"We's got no momma's or daddy's. No one wanted us. We want to be together," JD sat up in the other bed. "I like Buck, he makes me feel happy all over me. Can I have your sausage Vin?"

Vin looked at JD and nodded his head. He picked up the sausage link then frowned. He realized he couldn't reach JD.

"Here I'll give it to him," Chris said seeing the confusion on Vin's face. Vin bobbed his head as he handed the little sausage to Chris, who passed it to JD.

"These's good Vin. You'd like them. Can we go see your horses? Vin can ride really good. I can't ride good yet. Vin's momma taught him an he had a horse too. He can do everything on a horse. I wanted to learn what he knows. But we can't now. Our momma's are angels. Sometimes I talk to them, Vin too, but they can't come home. Vin told me they live with the stars. Have you seen our momma's with the stars? I look an look but I can't see them." JD stopped for a moment to take a breath and Buck walked in the door carrying a small tray.

He glanced at Chris and raised an eyebrow letting Chris know he'd heard most of what JD said.

"Brought you a breakfast sandwich Chris. And a fresh cup of coffee. You sit down and eat and I'll entertain these two. Hey there Vin, I'm Buck and I see you are making a dent in all that food on your tray. Boy, this place sure feeds good! Doesn't it?" Buck sat down on the edge of JD's bed and ruffled his hair as he met the blue eyes of the older boy.

Vin ducked his head before he shrugged and took another bite of the pancake, before he sent a little grin towards Buck. Buck smiled back at Vin then turned his gaze to JD.

"How are you feeling Little Bit?"

"I'm JD. I'm fine.. Vin shareded his sausage with me. I'm still hungry. Did you bring me something too?"

Buck frowned. "I'm sorry Little . . . Um JD . . . I think you have to wait until lunch. The nurse or someone will bring you a tray in a little while then you can have more."

"He can have some of mine." A raspy voice said from behind Buck.

Buck turned and looked at Vin who was holding the piece of toast out to him. He saw that Vin had eaten all of the pancake and was working on the bowl of oatmeal. "Okay Junior. JD can have your toast but you be sure to eat all you can, so you aren't empty like this little guy is." He smiled widely at Vin so he didn't think he was pushing him to eat what he didn't want or could.

"I will," Vin answered as he took another spoonful of the oatmeal, then wrinkled his nose.

Buck looked over Vin's head to where Chris sat eating his sandwich. They exchanged smiles before Buck looked back at Vin.

"Well Junior, if we can take you home with us, you can have your choice of what you want to eat for breakfast. And we won't force you to eat anything you don't like."

Vin looked at the mustached man, his spoon halfway to his mouth. He took the bite with his gaze still on Buck. "Can we go home with you?" He tore his gaze from Buck to look at Chris.

Buck answered before Chris could. "We have to do some checking. But I believe you will be able to go home with us. We need to know everything though. Your full names, your parents, where you came from, and what happened to you. It might take a little while to get all the information, but we will. We won't let some organization take you while we are working all of this out."

Chris shot a look at Buck. He wondered what the man was doing. Yes, he's fallen for the little blue eyed boy, but to have both boys living with them. He wasn't sure. He'd lost his wife, Sarah, and son Adam, in a car bombing three years ago. He didn't think he was ready for another child in his life. He felt eyes on him and looked at the boy on the bed. The child's bright blue eyes were on him and he felt himself falling into them.

The thought, 'old eyes, young soul,' raced through Chris as his green eyes stayed latched to the boys blue ones. He sensed something run through him, the feeling was like before. As if he'd known the boy forever, for his whole life. A blink over-took Chris, and their locked stares were broken. The pale face of the boy continued to face his way, and Chris didn't want to turn his eyes from the child.

Chapter 6

Buck's voice cut into the stare off Chris had going with Vin, and both of them looked at the other man.

"How do you boys feel? Could you tell us about your parents and where you come from?"

Vin finished his cereal and drank the milk then pushed the table away. "I'm done. I can tell you about some things." He said in his raspy voice as he looked from one man to the other. He believed he could trust these men. He'd felt something when he looked at the blond man in black. Chris Larabee, he corrected himself. It felt right to be here and talk to him. The other man, Buck, had a nice smile. He didn't feel threatened by the man, even though he was very tall. Vin glanced across at JD, who looked at him from where he lay propped up in the other bed, he was wide awake now.

"I can talk too." JD put in, "and Vin hasn't talked in a long time. I talked all the time."

Buck and Chris smiled at the boy. "How about you let Vin talk a little and when he gets tired you can tell us more? Would that work Little Bit?"

With a glance at Vin, JD nodded his head. "Okay. Vin can talks first. I'll listen an be quiet."

"You are a good kid Little Bit. What do you have to say, Vin?" Buck asked as he turned once more to face Vin.

Vin looked at Chris who'd moved to sit on the side of his bed, across from Buck on JD's bed. He rested his head back against the pillow behind him for a moment, then spoke. "My name's Vincent Michael Tanner. Momma's name was Sarah Ann. She told me my daddy's name was Adam Tanner and I was a Tanner and to never forget it."

Chris felt a chill go through him and fought to take a deep breath. His wife's name had been Sarah Annie. Their son's name had been Adam Michael. He turned his pain filled eyes to Buck and saw he felt it too, flabbergasted. Sarah and Adam had been Chris' love for life and when they died he'd become a shell of the man he used to be. Buck pulled him out of his drunken life and back into living.

Buck loved Sarah and Adam as if they were his own family. She'd taken him under her wing and provided a home for him. Making him part of her little family. After their deaths, he'd left. He came back and began to get Chris under control and back to himself. Chris made him move to the ranch. He now lived in an apartment attached to the barn, he and Chris built after he managed to get Chris to accept life again. He tried to give Chris some support as he turned back to Vin, who had stopped talking. He saw Vin was watching them, his head cocked a bit to the side. Buck smiled and nodded for him to continue.

Vin watched the two men for a moment in silence. He could feel sadness roll off the blond and he studied him before he turned his gaze to Buck. The man's eyes were on Chris, as if he was giving the other strength. Something passed between the two men and Vin felt something like peace come over him. He didn't understand the feeling. He looked back and forth at the two men. Then Buck caught his gaze and nodded for him to continue. He decided to go on, maybe someday he would understand what he was feeling from the men.

"I never saw my daddy. Momma said he joined the Marines and got sent overseas. She sometimes cried at night. Told me he'd died over there. We lived with her grandpa, near the reservation. Grandpa taught me how to ride and work with horses. I tamed my own horse, Grandpa caught him out in the brush. Then Grandpa died and we moved in with cousin Melody. I had to leave Snicker with my friend Little Eagle. Cousin Melly lived in town and had a little boy." Vin looked at JD. "JD was kinda little. Momma got sick and then she left. I lived with Melly and JD for awhile, then Melly got sick and she went to join my Mamma. These people came and took us away. Put us in that place. Told us to be good. They weren't nice people." He stopped as his voice gave out. For a moment Vin coughed, and Chris handed him a cup of water.

"Rest your throat Vin. You are getting very hoarse. You don't want to totally lose your voice." Chris said. He took the cup from Vin when he finished drinking.

Vin nodded and looked at JD. The smaller boy's big brown eyes glistened with tears. "I can talk an' Vin can rest," JD stated.

Buck put his hand on the little boys shoulder, "You don't have to Little Bit. We can wait to hear your story. You can rest."

JD looked at Buck and then over to Vin, who nodded and gave him a small smile. JD grinned at him and turned his head to Buck and Chris.

"Momma was Melody Dunne. She said I was her angel from heaven. We lived in a house on Sundown street. When Vin and his momma came to live with us, we had lots'a fun. Vin and me played and played. We had to go to school, but Vin didn't like it. He was suppose to read and he didn't. The teacher made him come in class with me. I helped him sometimes. We didn't like teacher. Vin's momma got skinny and sick, an my momma took her to the doctor. Then she had to go to the hos'pitl, we visiteded her but then she went to be an angel. Vin and I cried and cried a lot." A tear rolled down his cheek.

Buck hugged the small boy to his chest for a moment. "I'll bet she's a beautiful angel."

JD smiled. "She was a lot pretty. We had to go home then to church one day. Everyone was sad. But me and Vin we knew Sara was an angel, we talked to her all the time."

"How long did you all live together?" Chris asked then rephrased the question. "Do you remember how many Christmas' you shared together?"

JD rolled his eyes up and worked the fingers on his one hand. "We did Christmas with Auntie Sara and Vin, and one with momma. Then momma got sick and became a angel, and the bad people came and took us to that place. We don't like it. They were naughty to Vin alla time. Even when Ezra helped us, they didn't like any of us."

"How long were you at that place? Do you know its name? What town you were in" Buck asked as he rubbed JD's back with a gentle movement.

"Before Valentine Day," Vin spoke up.

"Yeah, we had to make cards for some old people's at home. This place, I think it's called home for kids who were bad. But we weren't bad. They didn't listen to me. Vin lost his voice after the bad man beat him after my momma went to be an angel with his. Ezra came and he was nice and he helped us alla time. He is superman smart isn't he Vin?" JD looked towards Vin.

Vin smiled. "Ezra's really smart. He knows all kinds of things."

Chris patted Vin's leg, "We'll ask him. He's sure to know the name of this place. Now I think you two should rest for awhile. You've had a busy morning and pretty soon it will be lunch time." He rose and stretched. Bright blue eyes opened wide and filled with fear as Chris moved.

For a moment Chris didn't notice. Then he glanced at the boy, and thought Vin looked terrified for some reason as he stared into the emotional orbs. The fearful look on Vin's face was turning the boys face whiter. A shock raced through Chris as he felt the fear the child fought to get under control. He couldn't believe he could feel the boys distress so easily.

"It's all right Vin, we aren't leaving. We are here for you. You can rest, and if you sleep, we will be here when you wake up." Chris tried to reassure the boy.

"Are you sure? I don't want you to leave. Please . . . I don't . . . like it here." Vin whispered hoarsely, his eyes fixed on Chris.

Chris moved to the boys side and gently rubbed the bruised shoulder. "Buck and I will be here. We won't let either of you alone. We'll see about taking you home with us when you're released. You two won't be separated. So you rest for now. I promise you we'll be here when you awake."

"'K. I am tired." Vin snuggled down under the blankets when Chris lowered the upper part of the bed. Chris settled into the chair beside Vin's bed and looked across to Buck. Buck was speaking in a quiet tone to a yawning JD. A few moments later Buck turned and smiled at Chris.

"I need to make a few phone calls. Are you okay here with these two rowdy boys?" Buck asked as he stepped away from the sleeping JD.

"Go. Tell Travis and Nathan what we found out about the boys."

"I'm going to contact Josiah too, see if he found out anything from Ezra." He looked back at the small figure in the bed next to him and shook his head. "Tell you what Chris, I don't want to leave this little one. I think he's already crawled into my heart." His hand moved over his heart as he glanced at Chris.

"Yeah, I think you're right. Vin . . . well he's given me some feelings I haven't had in several years. We need to find out if they have any relatives. Where they're from, and see about what we can do to help them. Also, what kind of hoops we'll have to jump through in order to keep them with us."

Buck's grin almost reached from ear to ear. He could tell Chris had fallen as hard as he had. He smiled and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket as he left the room. With a glance around the hallway, Buck moved to the emergency stairs and slipped through the door. He sat on the top step and dialed his phone.

Nathan answered on the second ring.

"Hey Nate, is everything okay at the office?"

Nathan chuckled, "Yeah everything's fine. The office is still standing so all is good here. Travis has given us until day after tomorrow to get our reports in. Josiah and I have finished up ours. Have to turn them in, then we are out of here."

"Good. Chris and I will be in tomorrow to do ours, one at a time unless one of us come in sooner. Is Ezra there with you, or did Josiah take him to his place already?"

"He's here. We got some information from him on the place they came from. Seems like it's a boys home run by, well, under Social Services. It's located in, or near, Austin, Texas. They left in bad weather and hitched a ride on a truck then found a bus station. Ezra bought them tickets to Denver. We have talked to Travis. He has, or is going to, contact the FBI office in the Austin area to go in and investigate the home. If the guy in charge is beating kids like he beat the Tanner boy, the place will be shut down, and whoever's in charge will be arrested. So we got the ball rolling. "

"Good. That's really good." Buck ran his hand over his face in relief. "Now need some more of your expertise," and chuckled at the snort he heard coming from Nathan. "We have the boy's names and their parents, well JD's mother. The long haired boy is Vincent Michael Tanner. His mother's name was Sarah Ann, Tanner we think, but not sure. Adam Tanner was his father and a Marine, killed in action overseas. The smaller boy is John Daniel Dunne, his mom's name was Melody Dunne. He doesn't remember any father. She'd told him he was her angel from heaven. The women were cousins and they are all from Texas."

"Oh my lord! Sarah and Adam! How is Chris taking that? Those names? And you? You were a big part of their lives too." Nathan asked, concerned over what his boss and Buck could be feeling. He hoped it didn't set Chris off.

Buck rubbed his eyes. "We're all right. Vin is the one who's suffering. We were shocked at the names but . . . Maybe this is a sign that these boys need to be part of our lives. Something we need to think about."

"Take it slow Buck. We feel for these three boys, but we need to check everything out before we can make life changing decisions."

"I know Nathan. We know. But . . . there is just something. We'll see. For now we just want to get these two better and out of the hospital. And a safe place for them and Ezra. Have you any information on Ezra?"

Nathan chuckled. "That boy has the tightest mouth I've ever seen on a teenager. But he did admit that his mother dumped him there and some day planned on picking him up again. He thinks she paid them to take good care of him, since he was being treated very well. Or in his word, exemplary. We think this isn't his real last name, but he won't tell us his mother's name, or anything else. Anyway for now."

Buck listened to Nathan then replied, "Don't force him. Once we get these two out of here we'll

get together and see what we can work out. He might not want to talk too much, since he doesn't know us all that well."

"Yeah, that's what we're thinking too. Are you and Chris all right being there, at the hospital I mean?"

"We're fine. It's easy to spend time with JD and Vin. They are likable boys. Oh, Vin is talking a lot more than he did when you were here. Voice is rusty, but he doesn't seem to have any problem with it."

"That's good. Ezra is still surprised he can speak. He did say he'd never heard a peep from him, and he'd been in that place awhile. He hopes Vin will keep talking. We are still wondering why he stopped in the first place."

"I think it was just after they first got there, probably the treatment he got. And feeling a lot of loss, since he'd recently lost not only his mother, but her cousin who he was living with. We might never really know, just a feeling. I better get back to the room. You all take care and if you need us, well, you know where we are."

"Yeah you better get back. Chris' truck is in the parking lot, to the left of the emergency doors. If something comes up we'll give you a call." Nathan said then broke the connection.

Buck stood, slipped his phone into his pocket and returned to the boys room. He found Chris dozing in the uncomfortable plastic chair beside Vin's bed and smiled. He knew Chris would be stiff when he woke. He settled himself in the matching chair by JD's bed and stared out the window on the other side of Vin's bed. His thoughts kept rolling around in his head. He realized he'd fallen for the little brown eyed, dark haired boy in the bed next to him. Then he wondered how he could even think of becoming the boys guardian. He was single, and loved women one and all. How could he give up the one thing that made him happy. His gaze settled on the little boy who'd turned over and was now facing him. Buck shook his head, JD looked like a little dark haired angel, just like his mom called him. The boy tugged at his heart.

At the ATF team's office, Nathan went into their coffee - conference room where Josiah and Ezra were. He smiled at the teen who sat at the table nursing a cup of sugared coffee. Josiah's coffee, he knew would be very strong. He added sugar to his cup if he didn't beat Josiah into making the pot of coffee.

"Just got a call from Buck. Your friends are doing well. They are resting, and he said Vin was talking up a storm. There is a little work to do, but it shouldn't take any time at all. If you'd like to head out with Ezra, Josiah, I can handle it. Rain won't be home for three more hours." Nathan smiled to himself, his wife would be surprised to find him home early for once.

"You sure you don't need my help?" Josiah asked, standing up to put his empty coffee cup into the sink.

"You two head out. I can handle this. Ezra is probably ready to get out of here and get settled in. Am sure you two will pick up lunch on the way home." Nathan smiled down at the teen.

"I could do with some lunch," Ezra said as he rose and dumped the rest of his coffee down the drain. "I do like your office, it seems very well laid out, and from what I have observed, you run it efficiently."

"Why thank you Ezra. We try to do a good job. Sometimes it is a lot of work though." Josiah answered.

"We are the best team. Anyway, that's what everyone in the AFT offices here tells us. We are kind of proud of the job we do," Nathan pointed to a couple of framed awards on the wall. "Chris has a few more in his office. Now you two get out of here." He ushered the two out of the room and when they headed for the door he moved to his desk, sat down and began typing on his keyboard. With the names Buck gave him he would search until he found something.

Two hours later Nathan stretched his long frame and hit the print button. He'd found information on the deaths of Melody Dunne, and a Marine Sergeant Adam Michael Tanner, twenty two, who had been killed in action in Afghanistan eight years ago. In digging deeper he found a Sarah Ann Shepherd, died a year ago in Austin at the age of twenty five. She'd been born in Waco, and at the age of eighteen, had a baby named Vincent Michael Tanner, born in San Marcos, Texas. On the boys birth certificate, Adam M. Tanner was listed as the father. The Grandparents were listed as Running Cloud Christopher Shepherd and Annalee (Moore) Shepherd, both deceased. He couldn't find any living relatives for the Tanner boy. And nothing to indicate Sarah and Adam had ever married.

On Melody Dunne, he'd found she did have a baby, John Daniel Dunne. There was no listing on the birth certificate of a father. He could not find any kind of living family or relatives for Melody. It was as if she came and left without a trace of relatives anywhere. The only other thing he found, was Melody had been born in Boston, her son was born in San Antonio. Her address was listed as Austin, where she lived until she died less than a year ago. She was twenty five. Otherwise there was nothing more about her. He couldn't even prove that Sarah Shepherd/Tanner was related to her.

The two boys were taken by Family Social Services and put into the home in Austin, while they looked for relatives or foster homes for them.

He could find nothing on Ezra and thought he might have been given a different last name. He'd found an Ezra Stanton but the man was over seventy years old and had three children, all girls. The name didn't fit with the family.

Walking over to the printer Nathan picked up the papers, grabbed a folder and placed them in. He'd already sent the information to Travis, and would give this to Chris when he stopped on his way home. Glancing at the clock he grabbed his coat and left, clicking the lights off as he went out the door.

Josiah pulled his Suburban into the driveway beside a large Victorian style house and drove around the back and parked. Ezra stared at the house in surprise, his eyes widened and an eyebrow raised. His mother once left him with an old Aunt who lived in a Victorian house, it was painted dark grey with black and white trim. The house was dark and spooky and he felt scared the whole time he'd been there. He couldn't wait until his mother picked him up again.

This house looked bright and welcoming compared to his Aunt's. Painted a bright yellow with the shutters and gingerbread trim around the porches and over the windows painted white. It appeared welcoming. The snow covered evergreen bushes along the foot of the house complimented the house. It all looked pleasing to the eye.

Josiah smiled at the rapt look on the teens face. "This is my home. I've been remodeling it for several years. I think I am getting close to being done. Come on in, its warmer than out here. And it's lunch time." Josiah got out of the vehicle and helped Ezra with the backpacks he insisted he needed to keep with him.

They walked the along the snow covered sidewalk, climbed the three steps and crossed the spacious back covered porch. Ezra took in the walk and porch, he didn't think the snow could reach the door. Josiah unlocked the heavy multi-colored glass door and pushed it open. He stood back so Ezra could enter.

Ezra entered and looked around the large mud room. There were pegs along one wall with a long boot rack under them. The other wall held a bench seat with several shelves above it. The glass door sent colors throughout the room. A light painted door opened into a large cream colored kitchen with a large sink under a curtained window. The six burner gas stove took up a portion of one wall, with two stacked ovens beside it. There was a large double door refrigerator at an angle to the sink. Ezra noticed the layout made it easy for anyone working in the kitchen to reach everything. A large wood table with eight chairs sat across from the sink. Ezra could see through a curved double wide doorway into a comfortable looking dinning, living room. He slowly walked through the opening and looked at the other room.

Another large oval wood table graced the area a bit to his right, surrounded on one side by large bay windows. The living room was very big. A huge picture window, with the upper foot of it colored glass inlays, looked out into the snow covered yard. Light colored drapes were pulled back so he could see outside. The yard was surrounded by a border of different sized trees, now draped with snow. Ezra couldn't see any other houses nearby. The room held two comfortable looking couches, several arm chairs and recliners. A large flat screen television hung on one wall and was surrounded by book shelves that reached the ceiling. A shorter bookcase under the TV held a recorder, DVD, a stack of movies and a few other accessories.

Ezra spotted a curving staircase reaching to the second floor, he could see a hallway under the stairs.

Josiah pointed to the hall, "There's two bedrooms with their own bathrooms down the hall. The one is my room. Upstairs is a den, well, an office I guess it really is, and three more bedrooms. One has an attached bathroom the other two have a Jack and Jill bathroom. You can choose the room down here or take the one upstairs with the attached bathroom. The other rooms aren't finished yet. I'm still working on the connected rooms. There's another larger room up there that I haven't started on. You're welcome to look around and decide. I'll go start us some lunch. Do you like toasted cheese sandwiches and soup?"

"Yes sir. I like both. Would it be all right to look at the room upstairs?"

"Sure, up the steps, the second door on the right. It faces towards the front."

Chapter 7

Pulling his backpack higher on his shoulder Ezra started up the stairs. He wanted a room separate from the others, and hoped the room would be what he liked. He walked down the hall, at the first door he peeked in. It contained a large mahogany desk, shelves of books and two file cabinets. A computer and monitor stood on a table behind the desk. Several windows, their curtains pulled back, lit the room. He moved to the next door that stood open and entered the large bedroom. A dark grey carpet covered the floor. The room held a queen sized bed with a dresser, easy chair, small desk and chair, and a cabinet. He opened one door, and found a large walk in closet with a full length mirror on the back wall. The other door opened into the bathroom and he was happy to see it contained a shower separate from the tub along with an alcove with the toilet. A long cabinet with two sinks were along the wall across from the bathtub. Over the sink instead of a mirror a window looked out on the yard below. Several shelves held towels and other bathroom items.

Ezra walked back into the bedroom and crossed to the closet where he stored his backpack, for now. He looked at the bedroom, content with the furnishings and the three windows. One window resided by the bathroom door, the other two were on each side of the bed. The room felt light and cozy, the bed and easy chair were comfortable he found after testing each one out. It was the best room he'd ever seen, now it would be his. Taking off his jacket he hung it in the closet then crossed to the bathroom and cleaned up before he headed back down the stairs. A smile curved his lips, he was thrilled with the room.

Downstairs, the house seemed warm and comfortable and Ezra suddenly felt as if he'd come home. He shook his head as he walked towards the kitchen, he could see Josiah at the stove. He wondered how much of the work on the house the man did himself.

"Find the room all right?" Josiah asked as he turned down the soup and flipped another cheese sandwich onto the plate already holding three.

"Yes sir. It is an excellent room. If you don't mind it, I would like to have that room." Ezra answered as he sat down at the table when Josiah pointed.

"It's yours for as long as you wish to stay here. If you need more blankets or towels or anything, there is a large linen closet across the hall from your room. Help yourself. I do have another TV we will put in there for you. I just haven't had time to do it yet. You are welcome to any of the books in the living room if you like to read." Josiah placed a toasted cheese sandwich on the plate in front of Ezra then poured him a bowl of soup. "Dig in. There's plenty. Would you like some milk?"

"Do you mind if I have coffee?"

"I make it pretty strong, you might want sugar or milk in it. But it's fresh and just finished perking." Josiah grabbed another coffee cup from the cup tree beside the coffee pot. Pouring two cups full he returned to the table and sat down, passing Ezra one cup.

Ezra took a swallow and grimaced. "It is pretty strong, but not too bad." Josiah handed him the container of milk. Once he stirred some into his coffee, he took another drink then bit into his sandwich.

When they finished eating Ezra helped Josiah clean up the kitchen before they went into the living room and sat down.

Josiah looked at Ezra. The teen looked tired. He wondered if the boy would talk to him about how he ended up in the home with the other young boys. He got the impression he didn't really belong there. Taking the bull by the horns he began .

"Ezra, can you tell me how you came to be in that home. If it is confidential I will keep it to myself. But you seem to be a person who did not belong there."

For several minutes Ezra sat and thought hard. He felt since the man, and his close friends helped him, Vin and JD, he should tell the truth. He didn't have to reveal his mother's name, but he could give them some information. Besides, his mother had married a few times and he didn't know what name she would be going by now.

"I guess I can tell you. My name is really Ezra Standish. My mother dumped me there when she needed to go out of town unexpectedly, and couldn't find a relative to leave me with. I believe she is sending them compensation for my care as I am, well I was, being treated better than the other boys in the establishment."

"She just left you there? Why didn't she take you with her?" Josiah exclaimed, his eyebrows rose in surprise.

Ezra sighed. "My mother is not the motherly type. She has her own agenda. She travels all over the country or overseas when the whim strikes her. I am a burden to her. She leaves me with any relative she can find in the vicinity. On this case, she couldn't find one in Texas, so I ended up there."

"How long does she leave you with these people?"

With a shrug Ezra rubbed his hands together. "Usually it's a month or two. Though this time it's been longer. I'd thought she would have picked me up before now."

"Do you know where she is?" Josiah watched the teen's face but saw only a blank look on the fine features.

"She never tells me until she is back. Though sometimes she just picks me up and doesn't say a thing about where she'd been. I never hear from her either. Two years ago, she went to Paris, and when she came back she said she'd fallen in love with this gentleman and they were taking off for a couple of months. After dropping me at a cousins, they left. When she came back and picked me up, she was divorced from him. We went to California for a while, then headed back east."

Josiah shook his head, trying to get his thoughts around a mother who would abandoned her child for her own pleasure, or whatever she was doing. He thought there might be more to the story, but didn't want to push Ezra to hard. All in good time. He changed the subject.

"Would you like to see what I am working on here, in the house?"

"Did you do all the work yourself Mr. Sanchez?"

"Well, I've had help from the team some times, mostly with electric and tearing out walls or flooring. They've helped me frame rooms in. Mostly I've done all the wood work, floors and walls myself." He rose and led the way to the stairs with Ezra behind him.

"I fell in love with this place the first time I saw it. Yep, it needed a lot of work to get it this far. I am hopeful I will soon be finished. I have some plans to build furniture for myself and the team. I like working with my hands, it calms me and helps me get through a bad day. I have been working on this place for three years."

"You have done an exceptional job. I can tell you care a lot for this house." Ezra commented.

"Thank you Ezra," Josiah said as he gave the teen a tour of the upstairs rooms he was working

on. The other two bedrooms were large and both overlooked the back yard. The floors were finished, and the most of the walls were up. Though they still needed some work and a lot of paint.

Ezra could see the potential of the rooms and the craftsmanship of the wood work . The room at the end of the hall was huge. It looked as if Josiah had been working on the floor. Several boards were new and a few more needed to be replaced. The walls were partly tore down and insulation covered the exposed areas. A stack of plywood sat in the middle of the room and several rolls of insulation, ready to be installed.

"I'm not sure what I want to do with this room. It does have good lighting and it would make a great place to have a pool table. Well, I guess it could be a 'man cave' as they are calling a room for men to play in these days." Josiah grinned as he looked around the room.

Ezra studied the space and though it would be a nice place for a man cave. Or broke down into a couple more bedrooms, but what home needed more than what this house already had?

"There is a basement under the main part of the house also. It's about half the size of the house. It has plenty of storage room, shelves are along three walls and there's a room for a walk in freezer. There's all kinds of room down there for food items, bins for fruit and fresh vegetables, and anything extra you have. The pantry off the kitchen is large enough to hold a double sized freezer and large fridge. There's shelves for canned goods and bins for flour, sugar and possibly oatmeal." Josiah smiled seeing the crinkled nose look that crossed Ezra's face.

"You don't care for oatmeal?" Josiah lead the way back downstairs and into the kitchen. "There is a large laundry room. I only have a washer and dryer in there but its large enough for two sets, plus having a deep sink. There's an area for house cleaning items and supplies there too. If you wish to wash some of your clothes, it's in here. You can just put your items in that basket." Josiah pointed at the basket beside the washing machine, "I'll wash them later. Do you have any questions?"

"Not really," Ezra smiled. He liked this house very much and was happy that Josiah showed him what he was doing with it. He felt totally at home in it and hoped that Vin and JD would be able to see it soon. "Is there an outside fireplace?" He asked with a cocky smile.

+ + + + + + +

The next day Josiah and Ezra met Nathan at the hospital and went up to Vin and JD's room together. They found their teammates laughing at a silly joke JD was telling them. Buck told them the two boys were to be released in the early afternoon.

"We'll take them to the ranch and they can finish healing there," Chris said as he moved to the door. "I need to call Travis and fill him in. I'll be right back."

For a moment the room was silent. Buck turned back to JD and tickled him. JD burst out laughing and rolled around on his bed. Vin watched from his bed a little smile on his face.

"Ezra, Ezra, get Buck . . . Tickle him too . . . " JD pleaded between gasps of laughter.

Ezra shook his head and stayed away. "Mr. Dunne, you are on your own there. He is larger than me."

Buck turned to Ezra and held his hands up like claws, "I can tickle you too Ezra."

Ezra backed a couple of steps and bumped into Josiah. "I'll protect you Ezra, he won't get close enough to tickle you," Josiah said placing a large hand on his shoulder.

Smiling Ezra relished the warm hand. His mother never touched him that way. A slap or a shove, or grabbing his arm to drag him away before she released him was the only times he received a touch from her. He didn't count the peck on his cheek a motherly kiss when she left him somewhere, it didn't count as anything.

"I'll get Chris to take him on," Vin's raspy soft voice came from the other bed.

Buck swung around toward Vin's bed, but before he could take a step, JD threw back his blankets. Jumped up and launched himself at Buck's back and grabbed him around the neck.

"I'll save you, Ezra an Vin," the little boy yelled as he clung to Buck like a leach. His short legs were wrapped around Buck as far as they could reach. His short arms were wrapped in a choke hold on Buck's neck.

Laughing Buck grabbed the short legs around him and turned in a circle several times. He loved the laughter coming from the small body clinging to him. He backed to JD's bed and sat down releasing JD and unhooking the little hands from around his throat. He swiveled around and tickled the boy a moment before he rose and sent a wink at Ezra.

"Think you better calm down Little Bit, or the doctor won't let you and Junior leave today."

"Okay. Me an Vin want to see the horses. Can Ezra come too? He likes horses, don'tca Ezra? Are they pretty? Do you have black and white and red an brown an purple an blue an' green an yello ones? I like all kinda colored horses. Can they run an run all over the place? An jump high? Can we ride and ride far far away too?"

"JD that's enough." Vin's voice cut through JD's nonstop speech. When JD's mouth snapped shut Vin added, "You know horses don't come in some of those colors."

"I know. But they'd be pretty, wouldn't they Ezra? Wouldn't you like to see a blue or purple horse?"

"Mr. Dunne, colored horses are for carousel horses, not live ones."

"Though we do have a yellow one, it's color is called palomino," Josiah said as Nathan came back into the room. No one had noticed when he left right after Chris. He nodded to the other two men then smiled at the boys in the bed.

"It looks like you boys are going to be released shortly. The hospital needs the beds for some sick children, so they are going to let you go as soon as your doctor checks you both out. Unless you have a problem they want to keep an eye on."

"YEAH!!!" JD jumped up and began jumping up and down on his bed.

Buck's long arm snaked out and grabbed JD before he bounced himself off the bed.

"Settle down Little Bit! If the doctor finds you jumping all over his bed he might think you are a jumping bean and keep you here longer."

Wide brown eyes looked in surprise at Buck. "He would?" JD asked. "I'm not a jumping bean!"

Vin chuckled from the other bed and Ezra smiled. Josiah and Nathan tried to stay serious looking but the look of horror and shock on JD's face brought out smiles.

Seriously Buck told him, trying not to smile, "No you aren't one, but if the doctor or a nurse sees you jumping around like that, no telling what will happen."

JD plopped down on the bed and sat quietly looking up at the three men then over to Vin who still sat in his bed with blankets wrapped around him.

"I'll be good." JD said, "I'll be really good so's I can go home with you."

Josiah cut in before JD could start talking nonstop again. "We brought you two some clothes in hopes you would be getting out of here today. Why don't you both rest a bit before your doctor comes. Once he'd through we can all leave together."

"Okay. Can we still go see the horses?"

"Of course. And Ezra can come too. We'll all be together this evening for dinner." Buck smiled at the little imp.

JD pumped a fist in the air and everyone smiled.

At that moment Chris walked back into the room, and right behind him the doctor and a nurse.

"Hello JD, Vin. Looks like you both are doing good. I'll check you over and see if you are ready to leave." Doctor Holmes said as he stepped to Vin's bed. "Let's get you checked out first Vin. Mr. Larabee said you were feeling well this morning. The tests we did earlier came back showing everything was good too." He checked the boy over, making sure his bruises were changing colors like they were supposed to be doing, then checked the broken rib. He found it was in place and doing as well as it should be at this stage in its healing. After a full exam he nodded, stepped back and smiled at the boy.

"Well Vin everything is looking good. No fever, bruises are changing, your rib is knitting, your lungs are clear, and I can hear your stomach growl," the doctor smiled at Vin. "Do you have a headache? Does your throat hurt, or are you coughing a lot?"

"No sir." Vin, a blush on his face, looked him in the eyes.

The doctor knew Vin told the truth. "Well then you are ready to go home. You will have some medication for your cold, and I want you to take it easy for a few days. You need to get those bruises healed. Your rib's will take longer, you will have to be careful not to reinjure them again. Now let me check out the little fireball, though I think he is doing fine." With a wink at Vin Dr. Holmes turned towards JD.

Holmes stepped over to JD's bed. A couple of minutes later, he declared JD was good and could leave.

As the doctor and nurse left the room with Nathan, JD looked at Josiah and Ezra. "Clothes, clothes, gotta have my clothes," he began to sing and bob around.

Josiah handed the little bundle of clothes to Buck who placed a hand on the bobbing boy's shoulder, then helped JD change. Ezra gave Chris Vin's meager clothes and stepped away as Chris helped Vin pull off the hospital gown.

Within a half hour, the men and boys were on the way to the ranch. Vin's prescriptions were filled, and JD grinned from ear to ear with joy. Chris explained to the two boys that he and Buck were their guardians for now. Josiah was Ezra's guardian for the time being. JD then Vin stated they wanted to always stay with Buck and Chris. But the men weren't sure what all was needed to be done to make it happen and were sure it would take time. They would check into everything when they returned to work.

+ + + + + + +

Several weeks later, the team and three boys gathered at the ranch. AD Orin Travis asked for the meeting and arrived at the time he'd requested. He had paperwork stuffed into the two files he carried. Entering the room he smiled at the three youngsters he'd come to know well over the last weeks. He was thrilled that the two younger boys called him Uncle Travis, though he couldn't get Ezra to call him anything but Mr. Travis.

He smiled at everyone as he placed the folders on the large dining room table. He accepted the cup of coffee Buck offered to him. Twinkling lights hung all around the rooms, close to the ceiling and draped over pictures and the top of the bookshelf and across the mantle, making the decorations stand out. A tall Christmas tree stood in one corner of the large open living room. It's branches were loaded with lights, ornaments and handmade items the boys had made.

Travis knew Buck and Chris employed a woman, Nettie Wells, to come in daily. She taught the boys and was housekeeper and nanny to them. Both JD and Vin were happy and thriving in the home. The boys seemed to be happy too, giggling over a silly joke, laughing and singing. Both had healed though Vin still had to be careful of his rib, the two were thriving. Both helped as much as they could with the horses in Chris's stable. Travis knew Vin was having a hard time staying off a horse, he knew soon the child would be riding. He kept Chris' secret, of the two child's saddles the boys were going to get for Christmas.

Christmas was less than a week away, he'd given the team time off, until after New Year's. He felt the team deserved this time together. They'd had a long, busy, hard year, he hoped the new year wouldn't be as busy.

"I've heard back from the state inspectors and the Texas Social Service investigator. The home in Austin has been shut down. They found a lot of the children being mistreated and records of incidents that were never turned in to the social service office. The men who were in charge have been arrested. They are in jail and will go to trial for what they have done. The reports are there." He pointed to one folder and pushed it towards Chris. "I won't go into details but there is a lot of evidence against all the men there. The children have been sent to other facilities and are being cared for."

"I have talked to our social services system and they agree with me that the boys, JD and Vin, will stay in your custody."

"Sir we want to adopt JD and Vin," Buck said.

Travis smiled. "I know that too. They are willing to have the hearing and home inspection the day after tomorrow. The inspection will be in the morning, and you will appear in court at two PM." The men exchanged surprised looks, and Travis grinned at them, "I know some people. In high places." The men smiled and didn't say anything. They knew their boss, for twenty three years he'd been a federal judge before he took over the Denver AFT organization. Travis pointed at the second folder then nodded and turned to Ezra.

"For you Ezra. The home only had a little information on your mother. Social Service send her some messages at the contact address they had on file. So far there has been nothing from her. So you are still under the guardianship of Josiah. If you wish to change that, go to a relatives or someone else, we will have to let Social Services know." Travis knew the teen looked to be happy with Josiah. He'd thrown himself into helping Josiah with the remolding of his house and spending time at the ranch. Josiah had enrolled him in the school near his place and the boy already impressed his teachers with his grades. He thought the teen might be skipping a grade if he continued to excel at the school. But Travis had to give Ezra the option and let him decide what he wanted. He'd been badly treated by his mother and now he seemed to be settling in and thriving under Josiah's and the others care. He hoped the teen would stay with Josiah.

Ezra looked at the AFT chief. He admitted to himself that he was happy where he was and he enjoyed working with Josiah. The school was better than any he'd been forced to attend before, and he liked the teachers there. He wanted to stay here, in Denver, with Josiah and the other men who were becoming a family to him. JD and Vin were as close to brothers he'd ever have, he knew his mother didn't want more kids. She'd told him enough times that he cramped her style. He looked at the older man, Travis raised an eyebrow, waiting to hear anything from him.

With a nod of his head, Ezra said, "I like it here. I want to stay as long as Josiah wants me." He could almost hear the sigh of relief that passed over Josiah's lips, even though he sat across the table from him. He smiled at the man who smiled back at him.

"Then its settled. Ezra will stay with you, Josiah, and the adoption of JD and Vin will proceed. Read those papers Buck and Chris. I'll see you in court day after tomorrow. And by Valentine's everything should be settled. Merry Christmas." Travis shook hands with Chris and Buck, with a pat on Josiah and Nathan's backs and a wave at the three boys, he left.

Chris and Buck stared at each other thunderstruck. They knew Travis had pull in many high up places. But never even dreamed he might have pull with Social Services and anything to do with adoptions.

Nathan looked back and forth at his teammates and grinned at Josiah then looked back at the two silent men. "You two white boys have forgotten who AD Orin Travis was before he became ATF. Remember he was a big named judge for many years and I wouldn't be surprised if he keeps up with different court regulations, and other judges. This is just one of many things he did. Don't be so surprised. Now read those papers and let's get this process taken care of."

Josiah chuckled over the first few words Nathan spoke. He couldn't help himself, the looks on the other two men's faces were priceless.

JD and Vin glanced at each other before looking back at the adults. Vin leaned on the table, his elbows on it with his chin resting in his hands. He wasn't sure he understood what the men were talking about though he could see Ezra looked happy. He turned his gaze back to Chris who stared back at him a moment before he winked and smiled before his eyes dropped to the papers in front of him. From the corner of his eye he noticed that Buck was also reading papers.

With a sigh Vin looked to Nathan and Josiah and saw they were watching the other two men. He shook his head, 'what was going on?' he thought.

"Unca Nathan, what's you all talking about?" JD asked looking from one man to the other, a confused look on his face, his arms crossed across his chest.

"Well I . . . " Nathan started to be cut off by Bucks whoop of joy. All eyes turned to him as he dropped the papers and jumped up. He moved to JD and grabbed the little boy up into his arms..

"JD, would you like me to be your daddy forever and ever?"

With a screamed, "YES!" JD wrapped his arms around Bucks' neck as he was whirled around in a circle.

Chris had risen and he moved to Vin's side. The boy glanced up at the blond and jumped up. Chris took him into his arms and hugged him. He wasn't as wild as Buck and JD were, he knew the slight boy wouldn't want to be tossed around like his cousin. "Would you like me to be your daddy Vin?"

Vin's blue eyes widened then he rested his hands on Chris's cheeks and looked deep into the green eyes. For a long moment he held the eyes with his, then with a smile Vin nodded his head. "I would like that. Forever?"

"Forever and ever. I will be here for you always." Chris swore.

"OK I want you to be my daddy." Vin wrapped his arms around Chris's neck and hugged him tight. Tear filled green eyes took in the happy smiles from Josiah and Nathan. When Chris looked at Ezra, the teen nodded his head and lifted a finger to his head above his left eye in a salute.

The smile Chris received from the teen made his heart swell larger. He loved all three boys. In a few short weeks they'd become family. Chris knew they'd always be, no matter what happened. He sent a smile to Ezra over the back of Vin who still clung to his neck.

Everything in his and the boy's world seemed to have just righted itself. They would always be a family. Chris hugged Vin tight for a moment longer and gazed at the men and boys, 'Yep. Family is what you make it.'


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